Photo: Good morning Tawau.


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Sabah’s largest town in the east, Tawau is distinctively non-touristy and most travellers hightail it out on their way to the islands around Semporna or hop, skip and jump to Kalimantan in Indonesia.

Tucked into Cowie Bay on the southeastern corner of Sabah, Tawau looks south across the inlet to Kalimantan. To Tawau’s north, underrated Tawau Hills Park is home of what was until recently the world’s tallest rainforest tree—it’s worth spending time in Tawau to visit here. A new decent road (still not on some maps as of 2016) connects Kota Kinabalu, 450 kilometres away, and also makes “Sabah’s Lost World” of Maliau Basin Conservation Area and Batu Punggul more accessible. You could also stop in the Crocker Range on the way through to Kota Kinabalu.

Tawau town in a quiet moment. Photo taken in or around Tawau, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Tawau town in a quiet moment. Photo: Sally Arnold

The town has had a rough history. It was fought over by the Dutch and the British, the Japanese, and Indonesia. It was razed to the ground in 1944, then rebuilt as a timber town. In the early 1960s, Tawau was a major flashpoint during the “Konfrontasi” between Malaysia and Indonesia; you can see a memorial in town. Today it’s the administrative centre and commercial hub for a swathe of eastern Sabah, and though timber is still important, palm oil and cocoa are major industries. Tourists can visit the Tech Guan Chocolate factory, and tour the cocoa plantations.

Most visitors are businesspeople or foreign workers heading for the plantations; Tawau’s population has more foreigners than Malaysians. Tawau feels more prosperous than many other towns in Sabah, and the wide and relatively clean streets are pleasant to wander. Head down to the seafront for picturesque sunsets and have a wave at Indonesia across the strait.

Wave to Kalimantan. Photo taken in or around Tawau, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Wave to Kalimantan. Photo: Sally Arnold

The hotels in town cater to wheelers-and-dealers and labourers, many comfortable enough for the passing tourist. Good eating options abound, and thanks to its cultural mix, Indonesian, Filipino and Chinese food is offered alongside the usual Malay favourites, and of course being coastal, it’s famous for seafood. Dried fish is a popular local souvenir, and Pasar Tanjung, the multi-storey market near the port, is the dried fish capital of Sabah—hold your nose!

Buses depart to Semporna, Lahad Datu, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. The latter traverses the new road to Kota Kinabalu, making it possible to travel overland in a complete loop around Sabah. The airport connects to Kota Kinabalu, and Kalimantan in Indonesia. Ferries will take you to Nunukan and Tarakan in Indonesia. See our travel section for visa details.

Take a deeeeep breath. Or not! Photo taken in or around Tawau, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Take a deeeeep breath. Or not! Photo: Sally Arnold

The Tech Guan chocolate tour visits the Tech Guan Cocoa Museum and factory at Mile 2, Tanjung Batu Laut, 10 minutes drive from the city centre). Tours run daily at 10:00 and 14:00, and cost 26.50 ringgit per person with a minimum of four. Book in advance with Jenny Leong (T: (0128) 175 192; or contact the office in Tawau (318 Jalan St. Patrick, Tawau; T: (0897) 79 955, (0168) 269 579;

To organise a visit to the pristine wilderness of Maliau Basin Conservation Area, drop into the Yayasan Sabah office in Tawau. You could do a short trip here, staying at the Maliau Basin Studies Centre, but a four- to five-day loop trekking to the satellite camps is recommended to make the trip worthwhile. This is a remote area; you’ll need to be relatively fit and be prepared to rough it, but you’ll be rewarded with remarkable waterfalls and formidable landscapes. The conservation fee is 50 ringgit, while accommodation at the studies centre is in a dorm for 97 ringgit or resthouse 304 ringgit. Food is offered a la carte or buffet style (210 ringgit for three meals). A number of short treks around the centre are possible, but you’ll need a ranger to escort you at 21.20 ringgit per hour (per group), or 42.40 ringgit per hour for night treks. A four-wheel-drive night safari is 170 ringgit per car. For longer full-day treks, trekking fees are 159 ringgit and rangers are 159 ringgit per day. Camping in huts is 83 ringgit per person (BYO sleeping bag). If you bring your own food, use of the kitchens at the camps is 53 ringgit or meals can be supplied for 414 ringgit per person per day, including the cost of a porter.

Coco-cabanas? Photo taken in or around Tawau, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Coco-cabanas? Photo: Sally Arnold

To get to Maliau Basin Conservation Area from Tawau, buses to Keningau (or Kota Kinabalu) pass the turnoff and take three hours (30 ringgit). From the turnoff it’s another one-hour drive—prebook transport with Yayasan Sabah (297 ringgit return). Bookings can also be made at Yayasan Sabah for the slightly more accessible Danum Valley Conservation Area near Lahad Datu.

Yayasan Sabah: 2nd floor, Umno Building, Jalan Dunlop, Tawau (near Milmewa Superstore); open Mon-Thurs 08:00-13:00, 14:00-17:00; Fri 08:00-11:00, 14:00-17:00; T: (0163) 435 044 (Fenny); (0897) 59 214;;

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Watch out for the crowds. Photo taken in or around Tawau, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Watch out for the crowds. Photo: Sally Arnold

ATMs are dotted around town, with a cluster at the eastern side along Jalan Perbandaran. Clean Pro Express, a 24-hour self-service laundry, is found on the north end of Jalan Perbandaran. The post office is on Jalan Tun Hamdan, near the large mosque, Masjid Al-Khauthar. Tawau Hospital is on the western side of town (T: (089) 773 533; (089) 773 534). The police station is not far from the hospital on Jalan Tanjung Batu.


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Tawau.
 Read up on where to eat on Tawau.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Tawau.
 Read up on how to get to Tawau.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Tawau? Please read this.
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