The Vibrant Tamu Market of Kota Belud

Tamu of Kota Belud
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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.

Pinjaram
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.

Seafood

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
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

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By Murphy Ng
  • LHS

    Excellent article with so much details! It will be funny if Harry Porter is holding the Magic Stick or Gollum is wearing the Ring Biscuit…. :)

  • http://www.mysabah.com/ Murphy

    Thank you. :-) Harry Porter and Gollum would visit Tamu if they see this blog.

  • jipp

    wah, I’m so ketinggalan. I’ve never been there yet. I’m especially fascinated by the parangs. They look very beautifully crafted. Will go there one of these days.

  • http://www.mysabah.com/ Murphy

    It’s ok bah Jipp. Tamu has existed hundreds of years and they won’t go away, so you can visit anytime. :-) 27 Oct 2013 would be the best time when they have Tamu Besar Fest.

  • Kelly Yin

    Oh tamu!!! I love tamus!
    Tamu Inanam is the nearest to my home :) eheh

  • Kelly Yin

    Sorry – can share the road direction please? :)

  • http://www.mysabah.com/ Murphy

    Hi Kelly, no problem. :-) When you reach Kota Belud town, just drive pass the road in front of Dewan Masyarakat (Big hall next to Padang) to an uphill road, you will see the sign of Tamu shortly. Here is the location map: https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=203684570006474549034.0004b9c518c8e63e24f45&msa=0&ll=6.351682,116.434908&spn=0.031434,0.045447&iwloc=0004d35e7b5a1959ac794

  • matthew

    Hello Tadpole! I am planning a visit to Sabah in April and I found your blog. Great job! It is very detailed with great pictures and information and most of all I love your funny comments. Just wanted to let you know.

  • Kathy

    Well Done, Murphy. Very informative.

  • http://www.mysabah.com/ Murphy

    Thank you Kathy. Hope I convince you to visit Kota Belud Tamu soon :-)

  • http://www.mysabah.com/ Murphy

    Thank you Matthew :-)