In a nutshell
Tawau isn’t necessarily the most inspiring destination in Borneo, but it is a useful link through to Malaysia from both the Philippines and Indonesia, and also boasts some great diving for those who are visiting the region for that reason.
Why go to Tawau
It’s the largest town located in the East of Sabah and there are a few points of interests for travellers that you may want to stick around and see on your way through. These include Tawau Hills Park, where you can find the tallest rainforest tree, as well as Crocker Range – a beautiful mountain range which includes the famous Kinabalu Mountain.
Tawai has had a history fraught with difficulty, and has been variously colonised and fought over by countries including Japan, Indonesia, Holland and Great Britain over the years, before ending up as a small industrial town with various agricultural pursuits. Travellers can visit a chocolate factory, tour cocoa plantations and, sadly, there are also many oil palm plantations which are the main source of wealth for the area.
As mentioned there are also several decent dive spots to make the most of. These include dives that take place from the Roach Reefs Islands, and destinations like Kapalai, Mabul, Pompong and Mataking - accessible from Semporna. The Great Sipadan is another famous spot, and whilst you can’t stay on the island anymore, it’s still known as one of the best scuba dive locations in the world. Only 120 divers are allowed at the site daily, and all resorts have been closed to try and protect the incredible marine life in the area. At many dive sites, only experienced divers and those with at least Advanced Open Water certifications are able to dive so be sure to check this before travelling.
When to go to Tawau
With a tropical wet climate, there’s no time of year where Tawau shouldn’t be visited as rainfall is distributed fairly evenly over the year and temperatures are warm year round.
Where to stay in Tawau
Despite it not being a hugely popular tourist location, there are plenty of accommodation options in Tawau. Whilst some are available for booking online, it can be worth just hedging your bets and turning up on the off chance that you may be able to find a much better deal by negotiating on the spot. The standard of the accommodation is generally pretty good given the prices, although do be aware that given your remote location the internet connection can be fairly patchy wherever you stay.
There are budget accommodations but few, if any, actual hostels to stay in, as well as numerous mid range and more luxurious places to stay. Some may look a little old fashioned from the outside, but they often surprise once inside and many also offer great views of the surrounding coastline.
Where to eat in Tawau
Like so many locations in Malaysia, and Borneo in particular, Tawau is known as a bit of a cultural melting pot and as such there are some great food options available to explore on your visit. Regardless of what cuisine you’re looking for, you’re sure to be spoilt for choice and there are many budget friendly options to choose from. From the Indonesian and Malaysian food that you may be expecting, through to delicious Filipino and Chinese eateries, you can eat your way round town without too many problems!
As a result of the coastal location, there are also some fantastic options for seafood in Tawau and indeed, you shouldn’t leave without sampling some of the tasty, fresh seafood that’s on offer.
How to get around Tawau
The town itself is fairly easy to walk around as it really isn’t all that large.
Although it’s also worth bearing in mind that many choose to get their own transport to make their travels round Sabah a little easier. For a tourist destination, sometimes transport links can be a little tricky to navigate and some do find it easier to travel around independently. Roads are in reasonable condition although driving standards can vary significantly from Western standards, so only take this option if you’re sure you feel confident navigating different driving styles. Both car hire and motorbike hire are available across the tourist spots in Sabah.
Taxi fares are fairly cheap in Tawau and whilst you should always agree a price up front (and check with your accommodation how much you ought to be paying if possible), generally you’re less likely to be ripped off here than in other places. Usual fares should be in the region of MYR5 to travel by taxi around the town itself and upwards if you’re looking to head to more rural areas. Most hotels will be happy to book taxis on your behalf if needed.
There are also bus routes within central Tawau as well as areas outside of the city, with fares typically costing around MYR2 and upwards.
How to get to and from Tawau
The reason most people reach Tawau is due to its popularity as a transit point between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – both for people and for cargo traffic.
Many buses leave from the station near to the port, including to and from Kota Kinabalu, Ladah Datu, Sandakan and Kinabalu National Park. There are also a number of ferries operating from Tawau to Nunukan and Tarakan.
Is Tawau a safe place to visit?
Generally speaking the area is safe, with under developed health care likely to be the largest threat.
For divers, the nearest hyperbaric chamber is located at a military base between Tawau and Simporna, so not too accessible but available in case of emergencies.
There are several hospitals in the region, including a specialist clinic with CT scans and X-Ray machines, as well as some smaller institutions dotted around.