Travellers usually only visit the chaotic, traffic-clogged town of SEMPORNA because they plan to scuba dive and snorkel off nearby islands such as Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai. While some divers base themselves on the islands, particularly Mabul, a backpacker scene has developed in Semporna since staying inexpensively can release funds for an extra dive or two. It also gives access to the more northerly islands, not usually visited from Mabul.
Semporna broadly consists of three sections: downtown, the commercial centre where buses and minivans stop; Semporna Seafront, home to dive operators (there are yet more out in the resorts themselves) and most tourist accommodation (plus an ATM in front of the Giant supermarket); and the jetty-lined Jalan Kastam, which holds more dive kiosks, a few cafés and the business-oriented Seafest Hotel.
The sea gypsies
The sea gypsies
Generations of Muslim Bajau and Suluk peoples have farmed the Celebes and Sulu seas for fish, sea cucumbers, shells and other marine products. Often dubbed sea gypsies, these people were originally nomads who lived aboard intricately carved wooden boats called lepa-lepa. Most are now settled in Semporna or on the islands around it, but their love of (and dependence upon) the sea remains strong, and the traditional red and yellow sails of the Bajau boats can sometimes still be seen billowing in the breeze. Every April, the Regatta Lepa Semporna (wetawau.com/Semporna/LEPA/LEPA.htm) sees the boats converge on the town for two days. Amid traditional singing and dancing, as well as sea sports and competitions, awards are given for the best lepa-lepa.