Tag Archives: Bajau

The Vibrant Tamu Market of Kota Belud

Tamu of Kota Belud

To know the culture and lifetstyle of locals, the best way is to visit their market. Tamu (means “Meeting”) is a traditional open-air market of Sabah. In the old days, there was no supermarket and shopping malls, so farmers, fishermen and hawkers would gather weekly at tamu to exchange their goods by bartering. Tamu is also a social gathering place where villagers exchange news and gossip. The tamu of Kota Belud town is the biggest and the most famous native market among tourists.

Mount Kinabalu in Kota Belud
Kota Belud is 75 KM north of Kota Kinabalu city. To go to Tamu of Kota Belud, which is open on every Sunday from 6am to 2pm, you only need to drive about 1 hour on the sealed road. Along the way, you would see lush paddy fields and Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain of Malaysia and Borneo.

entrance to Tamu Market of Kota Belud
Pic: the entrance of Kota Belud Tamu (See Location Map)

The tamu becomes the busiest spot of Kota Belud in Sunday morning, so it is a bit hard to find parking space. Tamu trade is carried out under the tree shade, so you will see some big trees around.

vegetables for sale in pasar tamu
Once you walk into tamu, you will smell a mixture of different scents like wet market. I love to experience the atmosphere here. Though it is a busy market, everyone is really relax. You can mingle with the friendly locals, and soon you will feel that you are part of tamu. That’s why my late grandmother always hanged around in tamu every week. The people here are very used to tourists.

tropical fruits for sale

The Tamu is more than an open market, besides local produces such as fruits & vegetables and fishes, you can find all sorts of local and imported goods, from clothing, handbags, baskets, handicraft, tobacco, traditional herb, food, snacks, wild honey, electronics, toy, and more. I saw many interesting and weird stuffs for sale too.

Food & Snacks

If you plan to tour around Tamu, I advise you not to take heavy breakfast. There are rich variety of local food and snacks for you to shop and try.

Tapai rice attracts honey bees
Pic: this wrapped food attracts a lot of honey bees. Out of curiosity, I bought one for only RM0.50 (≈USD0.16).

Tapai rice
Pic: It is Tapai Rice, a sweet rice with strong aroma of local rice wine.

Pic: Pinjaram (a.k.a. UFO Cake), a local sweet dessert with chewy texture, best served with hot coffee. Pinjaram comes with two flavors, i.e., Palm Sugar (brown) and Pandan spice (green).

Kuih Cincin
Pic: this is Kuih Cincin (means “Ring Biscuit”), a famous snack that has crunchy coating, with soft and sweet content inside (taste like chocolate). Only RM2.00 (≈USD0.67) per pack.

Kuih Cincin
Pic: you can wear the biscuit if you don’t want to eat it LOL.

huge cracker
Pic: Check out this huge Tapioca Cracker (Keropok Ubi Kayu)! A pack of two costs RM2.50 (≈USD0.83). It has 2 flavors, the dark one is spicy.

eating cracker
This big cracker is too fragile to bring home overseas, so you have to try it in Sabah.

Bajau food and snacks
There are 20 or 30 more food items and I can’t introduce them all here. But you can see them in my 4-min video below:

Colorful Handicraft

Bajau people of Kota Belud are famous for their colorful culture. They love bright colors such as red, yellow and green, and this is reflected in their handicraft.

colorful handicraft
You will be impressed by a lot of big and small handicraft items in Tamu. I saw most tourists were not empty-handed after a visit to Tamu. Shopping for traditional handicraft in this traditional market is more fun than buying it from souvenir shops in city. Don’t forget to bargain though.

handmade baskets of Bajau
Pic: colorful handmade baskets of Bajau

machetes of Bajau
Another great item to check out is hand-crafted Bajau machete (Parang in local language), which is created by traditional method.

parang in Tamu
Good parang can cost over RM100 (≈USD33) each. Anyway, you can negotiate for lower price with the sellers. They expect you to ask for discount too.

magic sticks
Then I saw a booth selling “magic sticks” (Kayu Thas and Petunduk). The seller claimed that these sticks have spiritual power, just to list a few:

  • Chase away aggressive animals and bad spirit.
  • Prevent thief to break into your house.
  • Turning naughty kid into nice kid.
  • Bring prosperity to your business.
  • Cure various sickness.
  • Keep a small piece in your bag and the snatch thief won’t target you.

Wow, it can do almost everything. For only RM7 (≈USD2.33), this “magic wand” is really cheap, haha. He said you couldn’t use it as a fishing rod, or you would catch no fish.


There are plenty of fresh and dried seafood too. This tamu is quite well-organized, as stalls that sell similar items are grouped together.

fresh seafood

horse shoe crabs
Pic: Horse shoe crab, yes, it’s edible.

seaweed in tamu
Pic: seaweed from clean sea water. It’s rich in collagen. You can add some lime juice and eat it raw.

dried seafood
Pic: Dried seafood (anchovy fish and shrimp) and salty fishes are popular buy of Asian tourists.

fishes seasoned with Buah Keluak fruit paste
Pic: At first I thought these fishes were covered in soil. Actually they are seasoned with a fruit paste made of Buah Keluak (note the fruit at bottom).

Bajau and Tamu Besar Festival

Majority of population in Kota Belud is Bajau, who is also known as Cowboy of the East, due to their excellent horse-riding skill. The best time to appreciate their rich culture is in annual Tamu Besar (Big Tamu Festival).

Bajau, Cowboy of the East
Bajau is also good at riding buffalo, which is more challenging.

traditional costumes of Bajau girls
Pic: Bajau girls in traditional costumes

During the festival, you will see Bajau people dressed in bright-colored costumes. Some interesting activities in Tamu Besar include Beauty Pageant, Buffalo & Horse Racing, Cultural Performance and the highlight is Bajau Horsemen Parade.

Bajau Horsemen
They even dress up their horses and ponies in this yearly event. Tourists can take a short ride on these ponies for a fee (about RM10≈USD3.33).

The Tamu Besar will be tentatively held on 26 and 27 October this year (2013). You may check out the calendar of Sabah Tourism website for latest update.

More Photos of Tamu

Created with flickr badge.

Photos taken in Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

Lepa Fun Ride with Queens

Lepa Queen

Even though the Annual Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna is over many months ago, I want to add more info to this most colorful cultural event of Sea Bajau people in Sabah’s east coast. Lepa means “boat” in Sea Bajau dialect. I have blogged about lepa a few times, you may read my previous articles about regatta lepa festival 2005 and 2008.

Regatta Lepa
Lepa Water Festival in Semporna
During the festival, Sea Bajau, also known as Sea Gypsies, will decorate their traditional lepa boats with colorful canvas and flags. And thousands of locals and tourists will flow into this small town, it is always so crowded that all hotels are fully booked.

Hundred years ago, Sea Bajau spent most of their lives on lepa boats. They cooked, ate, slept, traveled and gave birth on-board. They only came to the shore to bury the dead, as they believe that they were cursed and not allowed to walk on dry land. Of course, thing is different today. Most Sea Bajau lives along the coast and work mainly as fishermen.

Lepa Boat
Hearing about their history, aren’t you curious to take a look inside the lepa boat? The Sea Bajau people were using lepa to travel between Sabah, Philippines and Indonesia by sea.

Traditional Lepa
Still not interested to check it out? Hey, see what is waiting for you on the boat. It’s a Sea Bajau dancer in beautiful traditional costumes.

Sea Bajau lady
Besides long line of traditional lepa boats on display, one of the highlights of Regatta Lepa is that each boat has someone dancing on it and accompanied by loud music from drum, gong and kulintangan (idiophones). The dancer(s) can be a pretty girl, a child, a couple or even a family.

Sea Bajau dancer
Though I have visited Regatta Lepa the 4th time, the scene is always eye-catching and I can’t stop clicking shutter button.

Igal-Igal dance
Lepa Queen

The dancers move and shake their fingers, hands, shoulder, wrist and feet gracefully, as they dance Igal-Igal. The dance is mesmerizing and it can be seductive (if the dancer intends to).

Colorful Sea Bajau costumes
You will definitely notice the dancers wearing long metal fingernails, which is known as Janggay, a nail extension to emphasize the graceful movement of fingers. Janggay can be a simple cut-out from aluminum Milo tin. But I notice over the years the nails are getting more fashionable by having more colorful ornaments and shiny accessories on them.

Lepa Queen Beauty Pageant
Every year this festival also holds Lepa Queen Beauty Pageant in Semporna town field (padang) at night. Usually I skipped this show because the field was so packed with people that I could hardly moved. Anyway, I paid a visit this year and got some photos. The contestants are judged based on their beauty, traditional costumes, dancing skill and IQ. Just click the link below to view the photos:

Tourists trying Lepa fun ride
Don’t forget to take a fun ride on lepa boat if you come to Regatta Lepa (usually in April of every year). It is something new and cost only MYR20 per person per trip.

Tourist on Lepa boat
The best time to take the ride is in the morning, when the day is not too warm and everyone is full of energy. If you go in late afternoon, the lepa dancers may be taking a rest or leave earlier to prepare for beauty pageant.

Lepa ride
Lepa joy ride

The lepa boat will take you for a 20-minutes trip on the sea. Every tourists come back with happy smile, a nice way to wrap up the whole lepa experience I guess. Do take a few photos for your album.

You may watch the following 30-sec video of Lepa fun ride:

Click Here for bigger video

More Photos

You may check out the photo album of Lepa fun ride for more nice pictures:
Photos of Lepa ride

Related Posts:
Regatta Lepa 2005
Regatta Lepa 2006
Regatta Lepa 2008

Photos taken in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo