By Lily Riani on October 7, 2019


Me: Regatta Lepa? I get to cover THE Regatta Lepa?
Editor: Yes, would you be free during the said date?
Me: Yes, I would be free

(Read: I stealthily began rescheduling all my confirmed appointments in the background just so that I could attend Regatta Lepa while managing to sound collected and nonchalant…)

Lepa or lipa refers to traditional single-mast sailing houseboats belonging to the Bajau (sea-gypsies who live off-coast Sabah). Since many have moved onto the mainland and left their sea-faring lifestyle, the lepa are now used as fishing boats or to transport goods. Regatta Lepa is an annual regatta festival in Semporna presenting their beautifully decorated lepa. This is the time when the Celebes Sea is filled with flotillas of 5-metre lepas donned in beautiful and vibrant decorations, pimped up to covet the title as ‘Most Beautiful Lepa’. One fascinating activity during this regatta is the reenactment of a rescue mission by Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM).


Regatta Lepa Festival

Around town

This is the time when the sleepy town of Semporna comes to life in full force to celebrate the Regatta Lepa festival, and business owners enjoy brisk business from the abundance of tourist flocking their quiet town. You will be surprised to find that the town is full of activities, from cultural performances to Lepa Beauty Pageant to craft markets to performance by Siti Nurhaliza, and more.

The lepa owners go all out in decorating their boats. They don’t only use streamers and flags; some of them are even dressed in traditional attire to present us with local dance and song.

The rescue mission reenactment staged by Water Rescue Unit under the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia and ESSCOM was impressive. The latter reenacted the hostage crisis in Sipadan, and spectators cheered when ESSCOM boat came and freed the ‘hostages’. It was like watching the Malaysian movie PASKAL in real life, with Sabah’s own superheroes at work.


 Spend at least three days in Semporna as there are activities everywhere and every day.
 Allocate seven to 10 days to cover the outskirts of Semporna. You will never regret it.
 Book your accommodation three to six months prior to the event day as there are not many hotels in Semporna.

Well, since you are already in Semporna, don’t just stop there! Go outside Semporna and discover other destinations in Sabah. The following are some of the worth checking out.


Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage SiteIt has been recognised that Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage Site has existed approximately 3,000 years ago and noted as the largest pottery manufacturing site in Southeast Asia. The Heritage

Gallery at the foot of Bukit Tengkorak exhibits samples of stone tools, polished stone adzes, shells and bone artifacts, including educational materials.

Lahad Datu

Tower of Heaven

The best place to view the town is on Mount Silam, the highest point in Lahad Datu. Tower of Heaven is a structure for you to get the best view of the surrounding mountains and forests, not forgetting the beautiful Darvel Bay, known as the ‘Mouth of Borneo’. Open to the public since 2012, Tower of Heaven or Menara Kayangan stands 33 metres tall on 620 metres above sea level, located within the Sapagaya Forest Reserve (Protection Forest Reserve) boundaries.

Mount Silam is popular among locals for weekend family picnic and hiking trips. Its two most unique flora and fauna are the orange-red crab and Pairin bamboo. The bright and small orange-red crab is believed to be an endemic species only confined to Mount Silam. The Pairin bamboo is tufted bamboo top cum sheath recessed towards the middle with auricles and bristles not present, only to be witnessed in the east coast of Sabah. This species is named after Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Sabah’s former Chief Minister.

 There are seven hiking trails for nature lovers to explore the Kayangan Trail, Kalung-kalungan
Trail, Kubang Badak Trail, Kubu Jepun Trail, Air Terjun Lompat-lompat Trail, Air Mata Air Trail and Syurga
Binatang Trail.
 Entrance fees for Malaysians are MYR5 per adult and MYR 3 per child; for non-Malaysians, the
fees are MYR 15 per adult and MYR7 per child.
 Come early as the operating hours are from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily.


Nasi Kuning (yellow rice)

My first encounter with the famous nasi kuning was at Tawau Hills Park. I first thought the ‘old school’ way of eating this dish was on-the-go, before discovering the full course of nasi kuning later. Generally, one eats nasi kuning with ayam masak merah (casseroled chicken with chillies and tomatoes), but here at Restoran Haji Tamrin in Tawau, I got to sample everything in one plate: ayam masak merah, ayam percik meleleh (roasted marinated chicken), rendang daging (beef slowly cooked in coconut milk and spices), sambal tempe (compacted soy beans cooked with chilli), ikan masak merah (fish cooked with chillies and tomatoes) and telur rebus sambal pedas (hard-boiled eggs smothered in chilli). The dish is so generous that some people might find it overwhelming.

Tawau Hills Park

An excellent place to spot unique wild animals. You stand a chance to see the rare white-crowned hornbill and red leaf monkey, including the albino monkey. Frog- and snake-spotting by the creek at night is also another unique activity you can experience here. On top of that, Tawau Hills Park is home to the second tallest tropical tree called Seraya Kuning Siput, towering at the height of 88.32 metres.

It is highly recommended to stay a night at the Bombalai Jungle Lodge or Magdelena Chalet at Tawau
Hills Park Headquarters, or at the Mountain Lodge located at kilometre 10.55 along the trail to Mount

Lucia, where you get to hear the sounds of cicadas and birds chirping while enjoying the fresh morning

 Restoran Haji Tamrin is located on Jalan Sim Hua Seng, Tawau.
 One should puasa (fast) the day earlier prior to sampling Nasi Kuning.
 Plan to stay at least one night in Tawau, either at the town or at Tawau Hills Park.

Mabul, Bohey Dulang and Tatagan Island

A walk to remember

A walk around Mabul Island is a must. The friendly residents of Kampung Sama Relaut waved and greeted my travelling companions and I, asked us where were we from and whether we would like to sample local delicacies. But then again, it was probably because popular Malaysian celebrity Alif Satar was also in the trip, as I could hear children running ahead of us announcing his arrival. Familiar with Sabah, Alif brought sweets for the children to share, greeted local fans, and even explained to us what to expect when in Sabah. I was every bit captivated by him, just like the locals.

Being the second largest island within the Tun Sakaran Marine Park archipelago, Bohey Dulang Island has more to offer besides its much touted Instagram-worthy views. The island hosts the Giant Clam Hatchery, which educates the public regarding the types of clams and how overfishing endangers the giant clams’ breeding patterns and the surrounding ecosystem.

The Sea Gypsies or Bajau Laut – made famous by National Geographic in 2018 due to their seafaring and nomadic lifestyle – are now part of the beautiful Mabul, Bohey Dulang and Tatagan seascapes. As quoted by National Geographic, the Bajau Laut & takes free diving to the extreme, staying underwater for as long as 13 minutes at depths of around 200 feet’. As a result, travellers near and far would often visit them to catch a glimpse of how the children conduct free diving.

 There are nine species of giant clams in the world and seven of them can be found in Sabah.
 All species of giant clams are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
 Do visit, share and support the Giant Clam Hatchery initiative.

Kota Kinabalu

Nasi Buluh

Another unique local must-try delicacy is nasi buluh (rice cooked in bamboo), a Kadazan-Dusun cuisine. It comes with linopot (red rice and yam steamed in Doringin leaves), soko soup (soup made of bamboo shoots), pinasakan (fried Basong fish), tuhau (wild ginger), hinava (raw marinated fish), bambangan (local wild mango), bosou (pickled or fermented river fish) and pumpkin. This traditional Kadazan-Dusun cuisine is light in flavour since there is no sambal, coconut milk or anything pungent, yet no less tasty.

▪ The D’Place Kinabalu Restaurant is located at Plaza Shell, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in Kota Kinabalu.

▪ Operating hours are from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m.
▪ For the adventurous few, do try the butod (sago grub or sago worm) sushi.

Now that you know there are more to Sabah than meets the eye, come and rediscover Sabah now!

Gaya Travel Magazine extends our heartfelt gratitude to Tourism Malaysia for making the writer’s trip to Sabah possible. Visit for more information regarding Sabah and Malaysia.


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