What is Kaamatan Festival? 6 things to experience during the festival in Sabah

Whether you are a first-time or a seasoned visitor, the Kaamatan Festival — the Harvest Festival — is a must-see event in Sabah. The festival is a time to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and to bring the community together over an abundant feast.

Steeped in tradition and history, the Kaamatan Festival is a chance for locals and visitors alike to connect with the Sabahan and the Kadazan-Dusun culture. Throughout the festival, you can experience traditional folk dances, try authentic delicacies (like live sago worms!), and watch Unduk Ngadau, a beauty pageant.

And that’s not all, the real highlight of the Kaamatan Festival is a free flow of homemade rice wine, known locally as tapai. During the festival, tapai is served in large ceramic jars on long communal tables and people go around drinking each through a bamboo straw. 

Ready to pack your bags for an unforgettable adventure in Sabah? But first, read on to learn more about the vibrant Kaamatan Festival!

What is Kaamatan Festival?

Traditional Folk Dance at Kaamatan Festival
Source: Tourism Malaysia

Kaamatan Festival, also known as Tadau Kaamatan, is a harvest festival celebrated by the Kadazan-Dusun, the largest ethnic group in Sabah. “Kaamatan” is derived from a Kadazan-Dusun word, tomot, which means harvest.

The Kadazan-Dusun folklore has it that the Kaamatan Festival originated from the legend of Kinoingan, a deity who took pity on a tribe plagued by a severe drought and famine. The villagers were on the verge of starvation. And so, he sacrificed his daughter, Huminodun, whose body and spirit was sowed into the soil to cultivate paddy. It is believed that Huminodun’s spirit is embodied in each grain of rice, called Bambazon.

Every year, throughout the month of May, the Kadazan-Dusun celebrate the Kaamatan Festival. The celebration ends with two public holidays, observed in Sabah and Labuan, on 30 May and 31 May.

Things to do during the Kaamatan Festival

Planning to visit the Kaamatan Festival? Let us give you an idea. Here’s everything you need to know about the cultural splendour and celebration.

1. Watch the traditional ritual

Traditional Ritual at Kaamatan Festival
Source: Wikiwand

At the heart of the Kaamatan Festival is the Magavau ceremony — led by a Kadazan priestess called Bobohizan — which signifies the beginning of the harvest season. Women dressed in resplendent traditional attires present woven baskets filled with rice and other agricultural products on the land as symbolic offerings to pay homage to a bountiful harvest.

Spiritual chants fill the air, accompanied by traditional music. The locals will then perform jubilant dances with the beats of the gong and kulintangan.

2. Drink homemade rice wine 

Homemade Rice Wine at Kaamatan Festival
Source: Malaysiakini

The major highlight of the Kaamatan Festival is rice wine, locally known as lihing or tapai. The rice wine is made from fermenting glutinous rice (pulut) with yeast, resulting in a sweet and subtly tangy taste. Some villagers also infuse their rice wine with coconut flesh.

Lihing is made from brown rice, while tapai is made from white rice. With rice playing an integral part in the Kaamatan Festival, some villages also hold competitions for the best rice wine. 

3. Watch traditional folk dances

Traditional Folk Dance at Kaamatan Festival
Source: MySabah.com

Not only is watching traditional folk dances among the best things to experience during the Kaamatan Festival, but it’s also an incredibly fun cultural experience.

Watch Sumazau — an iconic traditional folk dance — which was performed to display gratitude for the bountiful harvest of paddy. A pair of male and female dancers stretch their arms to both sides and rhythmically sway them up and down, artfully imitating birds in flight. As the folklore goes, the dance was inspired by farmers who saw eagles flying over the field during the harvest season.

4. Savour the local flavours

Hinava, Sabahan raw fish delicacy
Source: ExpatGo

Your Kaamatan Festival trip would not be complete without exploring the authentic flavours and delicacies that make the Kadazan-Dusun’s cuisines so unique. We’d recommend sampling hinava, a type of raw fish à la the Japanaese sashimi. The locals marinate the fish in lime juice to kill bacteria and infuse it in a tangy taste. The fish is also served with a side of bird’s eye chillies.

If you are feeling braver, try the live sago worms, known locally as butod. Expect a gooey and almost sweet taste with a custard-like texture in your mouth.

5. See Sabah’s beauties

Beauty Pageant at Kaamatan festival
Source: The Vibes

The Kaamatan Festival ends with the highly-anticipated Unduk Ngadau, a beauty pageant on 31 May. Unduk Ngadau honours the legend of Huminodun, whose selfless sacrifice saved the tribe during a severe drought and famine.

Unduk Ngadau attracts young Kadazan-Dusun women from different parts of Sabah to find the girl who most resembles Huminodun — beauty, grace, and intelligence, all that Huminodun embodies. The contestant’s traditional attire, talent performances, and fluency in their native language are showcased, paying homage to the cultural significance of the indigenous community.

“Unduk Ngadau” is derived from a Runduk Tadau word, which means the girl crowned by sunlight.

6. Experience a warm Sabahan hospitality

Wearing traditional clothes during Kaamatan festival
Source: Malaysia.Travel

Apart from the vibrant festival and grandeur celebration, the Kaamatan Festival is a chance to connect with the rich cultural heritage of ethnic tribes in Sabah. The Kadazan-Dusun welcome everyone, especially tourists, to be part of their celebration.

Engage with the warm-hearted Kadazan-Dusun villagers, delve into their customs and culture, and discover the stories behind timeless traditions.

Planning to visit the Kaamatan Festival? Book SOCAR in Sabah

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