The Culture of Tawau

Sabah is a very unique home that houses over 30 different ethnic races with over 80 local dialects. With a diverse mix of races, the Kadazan, Bajau, and Murut form up the main indigenous groups are called ‘Bumiputera’ or ‘Sons of the Soil’. There are, of course, sizable populations of Chinese, Malays, and Indians who form the majority of Malaysia’s social landscape in Sabah as well.

Sea Bajau

The Bajau Laut (translated to Sea Bajau) remains the last of the ‘Sea Gypsies’ that can be found in Sabah. Since two centuries ago, they have wandered the sea, accepted it as their home, and have spent their lifetimes at sea from young to old. Also known as the only sea nomads in the world, they inhabit the ‘Coral Golden Triangle’ of Southeast Asia. They happen to be a group of friendly, calm and peaceful people. They continue to carry the activities that have been passed down through their ancestral line and therefore still maintain in conducting activities related to fishing.


Where the Bajaus can be found at sea, the Muruts, on one hand, means they are people of the Hill. They can be found further into the islands up in Northern and Southeastern parts of Borneo. A skill of theirs is their hunting abilities, particularly using hand made weapons such as blowpipes with poisoned darts and spears. Nowadays, many turn to paddy cultivations, a big difference to their terrifying history of being headhunters. They also switch between paddy and tapioca with hunting and fishing when they can. Muruts are incredible as they can speak 15 languages along with 21 dialects. It is said their language is related to the Kadazan-Dusun.

Buginese People (Bugis)

Bugis are ethnic tribes often found in Tawau and they also own rich history and culture. Originating from the South of Sulawesi (Celebes Sea), they are dynamically and highly mobile human beings that possess skills of excellent navigators, fighters as well as traders. Leaving their homes three centuries ago, they searched for a place to call their new home and came here. Through a period of time and some intermarriages, they have adopted the Malay-Muslim customs and secured their bloodline.

Ida’an people are found in the Lahad Datu region. This ethnic group’s economic focus is their exportations of bird’s nest and they have carried the exclusive rights when it comes to collecting edible bird’s nests from the limestone caves. The most famous is the Madai caves which often takes the attention of the collectors. A lot of Ida’an have taken up religions such as Islam, Christianity but some numbers remain as animists.

Cocos Malay
Cocos Island’s community (Keeling-currently part of Australia) have integrated themselves with the local Malay culture and therefore are referred to as Cocos Malay. They take up villages and plantations. Similar to Ida’an, they also live around Lahad Datu because they were brought in by the British in the 1950s, and later settled in and expanded their community. Now they hold the ‘sons of the soil’ status by the government and are considered as followers under the Sunni branch within Islam.


Kaamatan festival is a Kadazan-Dusun celebrating the meaning of ‘harvest’. The celebration of Kaamatan can last a whole month, in May, and it is to signify the ending of the harvesting season of paddy by the end of the month. There is a myth behind the significance of the celebration. It is believed that the spirit of Huminodun is embodied in the rice and therefore known as Bambarayon or Bambazon. The celebration of the harvest festival usually lasts for three days and on the last day, there will be an Unduk Ngadau (beauty pageant) contest.

Regatta Lepa Semporna

Focusing towards the Sea Gypsies’ annual event, the Regatta Lepa is a celebration allowing these indigenous people to pay respects or tribute to their one traditional single-mast sailing boat, a symbol of their pride said to have come from the Bum Bum Island. Being more than a water festival, they (the Bajau) will decorate the town of Semporna with a colourful atmosphere not to be missed as various performances, concerts, and stalls are set up in accordance to selling their tourism products.

Location: Regatta Lepa Square, Semporna, Sabah
Held: Every April

Mabul World Turtle Day

Mabul World Turtle Day takes place again, ever since its start back in the 2000s, where each celebration is to create awareness to the public and at the same time, allow enhancement of education, research and to ignite the interests of the visitors to do their part to conserve the sea turtle’s population around Mabul Island. We can make a better environment for us and for marine life. Give the turtles a chance to strive and survive!

Location: Borneo Divers Mabul Resort, Semporna, Sabah

Semporna Marine Day

Annually, on June, Marine Day is celebrated at many diving centre management in an effort to increase awareness of the divers towards the coral reefs and the rest of marine life. They will provide presentations which are shown to the guests regarding recent researches about relocating corals and the environment as well as the efforts already proceeded. Some activities planned during that even includes coral planting, underwater clean-ups, talks on conservations as well as getting more interactions regarding their turtle adoption programme at Mataking Island. The main focus of Semporna Marine Day is always to spread awareness on marine conservation to as many people as possible.

Held: Every June

Borneo Divers' Celebration of Sea Turtle

Borneo Divers’ Crew wants to celebrate and spread awareness on the beauty of sea turtles and invites everyone to join them on this journey and experience how it feels to save the creatures. Collaborating with Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), their activities that will take place are going to revolve on CARE - Conservation & Awareness, Research & Education

Location: Borneo Divers Mabul Resort, Mabul Island

Tawau International Culture Festival

During the culture festival, be ready to see the colours of Tawau come to life as the indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah are showcased for everyone to see. Not only that, the groups that are performing would be seen proudly showing off their ancestral cultures, clothes, equipment and materials and last but not least, their music and instruments. The event celebrates the cultural wealth that Borneo has while helping to grow the tourism sector in Borneo.

Location: Dataran Majlis Perbandaran Tawau