The Vibrant Tamu Market 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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).

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Pic: colorful handmade baskets of Bajau

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

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.

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:

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.

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

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

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

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 is also good at riding buffalo, which is more challenging.

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.

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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