May 30-31, 2018: Just a few days after our arrival in Kota Kinabalu, we learned that the big harvest festival, Pesta Ka’amatan, was on. I got on the google, but I couldn’t find much information, other than where it was. But we decided we needed a break from our post-cruise cleaning and maintenance of MOKEN, so we booked a Grab and off we went. We didn’t know what to expect.
Our driver didn’t take us on the most direct route. Instead, he wound through a bunch of obscure back roads, all in an attempt to avoid a multitude of traffic jams. It seemed like we were heading off to nowhere, but soon we started to see some evidence of a festival in the making as we approached the entrance.
We bypassed the ticket office after the gate. Nobody else seemed to be heading there either and we’d been told it was a free event. Suddenly we were in a throng of people. We followed along in the direction everyone seemed to be going and found ourselves in an area with all sorts of different styled longhouses. We learned later that these are examples of the various tribal longhouses from the many ethnic groups in Sabah.
We’d arrived late in the afternoon and not much seemed to be going on in the longhouses anymore, so we doubled back and wandered through the market tents. Here, we could have bought local handicrafts, some traditional, some not so much, but we didn’t. Instead, we continued on, past the big hall and on to an area where there were hundreds of tents set up, each one selling a wide variety of food or beverages. We certainly didn’t expect to see so many places selling pork. Or beer for that matter. Malaysia is, after all, a predominantly Muslim nation.
We looked around at the various food vendors and then stopped when we spotted one place selling pan fried black pepper lamb. Lamb! We love lamb, but it wasn’t something we expected to find. We were sold. We got some lamb and sat down at a small table nearby and ordered a set of beers. Heaven.
Just across the way we discovered another tent roasting a whole lamb on a spit over a wood fire. It wasn’t quite ready yet, so we continued our wandering and checked out the other food choices. The crowds kept building as the evening approached, so we ducked into the beer tent behind the roast lamb place and that’s where we stayed. Beer and roast lamb. Roast lamb and beer. After a few rounds, and a few drinks of some unknown local beverage (presumably rice wine or the harder rice alcohol) with our new friends at the table next to us, we managed to get a Grab and make our way back to the marina.
The next day, we decided to go again. Why not? There was a lot we’d missed the first time around. We went earlier in the afternoon and managed to see some dancers and musical performances at the longhouses. Then it was straight back to our favourite beer tent. When we got there, it was full. So the guy in charge seated us at his table with his friends.
It turned out that both Glen (the tent boss) and his friend Willy work in aviation. Glen, like Chris, does avionics. Willy, like Chris, works on helicopters. What are the odds that we would stumble into the one beer tent run by an avionics tech? Glen’s parents, Ronnie and Levity, were there too, and we were soon joined by his aunt and uncle as well.
That’s about the time when the rain started in earnest. It poured buckets outside as we sat under the tent, learned about Sabah from our new friends, watched the finals of the beauty pageant on the TV overhead as it was running live in the big hall down the way, ate heaps more roasted lamb and washed it all down with Tiger beer. What more could we ask for as an introduction to life in Sabah?
What is Pesta Ka’amatan?
Even after our time at Pesta Ka’amatan, we still weren’t all that sure about its significance. So I turned back to the google for some help.
The harvest festival is celebrated during the entire month of May in the state of Sabah. But the Pesta Ka’amatan is the grand celebration wrap up held on the last two days of the month. Apparently it is Sabah’s biggest party of the year and attracts thousands of people, mostly locals with a few visitors like us tossed into the mix. It is also a state holiday.
Held at Hongkod Koisaan (the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Centre in Penampang) near Kota Kinabalu, the festival revolves around rice farming and gives thanks to Bambaazon for the abundance of the rice harvest. Bambaazon is, incidentally, the spirit found in every grain of rice. But there is more to the festival than that.
The association which operates the cultural centre represents about 40 indigenous ethnic communities in Sabah who were, traditionally, rice farmers and the harvest festival is an opportunity for each of these communities to showcase their unique culture.
There are lots of cultural demonstrations and competitions. There are traditional sports like buffalo racing, bamboo stilt races and arm wrestling. There is traditional music and dancing in traditional dress. You can try the local rice wines and rice alcohol. In addition to cultural displays, the festival also includes a singing competition called Sungdoi (Kadazan Idol) and culminates in a beauty pageant known as Unduk Ngadau (Harvest Beauty Queen). The pageant commemorates the spirit of Huminodun, a matchless beauty said to have sacrificed her life in exchange for a bountiful harvest for her community.
Sources: Wikipedia, Kadazan Homeland, Kadazandusun Cultural Association Sabah