Sunday 20 August 2017

Malaysia: Top Things to Do and See in Tawau, Sabah

Tawau, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, is the main transit town for the many beautiful islands just off the southeast coast of Sabah. Many visitors would simply fly into Tawau Airport only to skip this town and head straight to the coastal town of Semporna to start their beach/island holiday. I thought my friends and I would be doing the same thing too when we flew there for our #SeaYouInSabah programme with Sabah Tourism Board a few months back. After all, what’s there in Tawau anyway, right? Bohey Dulang Island, Mataking Island, Sibuan Island and a few other islands were all waiting for us to explore, snorkel, dive and more, spending time in Tawau would seem like a waste of holiday time. Right...?

I should have known better though.

Coming from Kuala Terengganu, a small city on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, I’ve always lamented about the lack tourists in Kuala Terengganu (as compared to other cities in Malaysia) who seem to be only too happy to skip the town and take the boat straight away to get to their holiday island. I’ve previously even written a blog post on Why One Shouldn’t Skip Kuala Terengganu whilst on the way to Redang, Kapas, or Tenggol islands. So this blog post definitely should be read in a similar manner: Why you shouldn’t skip Tawau whilst on the way to Semporna and those beautiful islands. Do spend at least one whole day here. Why? The following are my 7 reasons:

Tawau KM 0 Mural

Street art has been popping up and colouring cities around the world, especially these past few years. Tawau is no different. The most popular, however, and one that can easily represent “Welcome to Tawau” or perhaps say “Hello from Tawau”, would be the colourful mural that is located at KM 0 of Tawau, near Jalan Persatuan. The artwork and the location make this one of the must things to see (and captured on photos) when you’re in Tawau. Is there any better way to say that you’re in Tawau than a photo of you with this mural? I don’t think so. The only question that remains now is how would you pose in front of this mural? 😉

Location Address: Opposite HSBC Bank, Jalan Persatuan, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Pasar Tanjung Tawau (Tanjung Tawau Market) 

You know what people say. If you want to see and learn more about the locals, go visit the local market wherever you travel. It’s the same with Tawau. Pasar Tanjung Tawau, however, is not just popular among the locals, it’s a must destination as well for visitors, especially for those who are looking to get some snacks and dried seafood products at bargain prices.

Location Address: Pasar Tanjung Tawau, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Pasar Gantung (Literally means Hanging Market!)

Pasar Gantung is called as such not because it’s hanging off some structures or something. 😛 It’s because most of the items on sale and on display are hung inside and outside the many stores there. So there’s nothing really unique about it except that it’s the place to go to get some cheap souvenir t-shirts, a hat and perhaps some batik pants for the trip to the islands later.

Note: Pasar Gantung, however, had been damaged in a fire a few months back and is now in the process of being rebuilt (as at Aug 2017). If you’re in the area, however, do check out Masjid Bandar Tawau, the mosque right next to it. I thought the steel (?) dome, which gives off reflections of the surrounding areas, is quite unique.

Location Address: Pasar Gantung, Jalan Klinik, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Teck Guan Cocoa Museum

Here’s a trivia: Did you know that Tawau is the largest producer of cocoa in Malaysia? Well, now you do. And for this reason alone, Teck Guan Cocoa Museum, a heaven for homegrown chocolates, is a must visit. Not only you can get chocolate bars and stuff here, you can also buy chocolate body soap bars or chocolate hand wash (or both!) and even try the chocolate version of one of Malaysia’s favourite desserts, onde-onde (or what some would call “Buah Melaka”).

Location Address: Teck Guan Cocoa Village, Tanjung Batu Laut, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Taman Bukit Tawau (Tawau Hills Park)

Just outside of the town is Taman Bukit Tawau (Tawau Hills Park), home to amazing tropical jungle and trees (some are actually certified the tallest in the world!); and not to forget, at least 3 waterfalls too! It’s perfect for a half-day trip out of Tawau but if you’d like to explore the jungle further, you can also opt to do some trekking and even stay overnight at one of the chalets on site. This option no doubt would offer a perfect contrast in terms of landscape and experience, and adds some interesting variety to your holiday, especially when compared to the trip to islands off Semporna.

Location Address: Taman Bukit Tawau, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Balung River Eco Resort

Okay, so Balung River Eco Resort is a resort but it’s located right in between Tawau and Semporna, making it a perfect pit stop at least for lunch even if you’re not staying here. The restaurant is located on a hill but the Resort’s compound expands to include other areas at different elevations. From the lookout points just outside the restaurant building, you can see the swimming pool and the river running down below, as well as the jungle beyond. It’s just so serene and picturesque, you might just be tempted to check in here instead for one night.

Oh about the lunch? Ask for their specialities – baiduri veggie & peach palm, with white rice.

Location Address: No. 30, Jalan Dr Yamamoto, 91009 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Columnar Basalt at Giram Nek Legek, Kampung Balung Cocos

Probably saving the best for last, here’s a total gem that not many people (including Malaysians!) know about: The waterfalls and columnar basalt at Giram Nek Legek, Kampung Balung Cocos. If you've seen photos of (or have been to) Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or Svartifoss in Iceland, then you’d know what columnar basalt is. The one in Tawau is located by a river and has got waterfalls running through it at some points – perfect for a quick dip in the water on a hot afternoon whilst on the way to Semporna.

To get here is a bit tricky though as it is located on a private property (that is open to the public for now) with access from the main road is through a palm oil plantation. Once you’re here though, you’d know it’s worth the quick detour whilst on the way to Semporna from Tawau. After all, how many places in the world have columnar basalt like this, right? The columnar basalt in Kampung Balung Cocos is the one and only that is found in Malaysia and Borneo.

On a side note, talking about Kampung Balung Cocos might remind one of Cocos Island in Australia. The island is known mostly for its residents, the Cocos Malays, whose forefathers were brought there from the Malay Archipelago generations ago as slaves in early 19th century and yet they still manage to continue to uphold some of the Malay language, traditions and cultures there to this very day. So is there a connection between these two places that are located thousands of kilometres apart? The answer is yes. The majority of the residents in Kampung Balung Cocos are of the Cocos Malay descendants whose parents/grandparents were brought in by the British from the Cocos Islands back in the 1950s. Today, the number of Cocos Malays in Sabah far outnumbers those who have remained in Cocos Island. In fact, the owner of the land where the columnar basalt is found here, Cikgu Kelana Benza, is a Cocos Malay as well. How’s that for some trivia?

Location Address: Kampung Balung Cocos, Tawau-Semporna Highway, Sabah. (Turn left right after crossing Balung River) | Map


Breakfast at Restoran Haji Tamrin

Looking for some local favourites and highly recommended food to try? Just head over to Restoran Haji Tamrin and try the popular nasi kuning (with sambal), mee tauhu and pulut sambal. We tried all these just for breakfast (yes, we’ve got some big appetites when we travel) but if you have to choose and pick one, I’d personally recommend nasi kuning.

Location Address: 4305, Jalan Sim Hua Seng, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Lunch at Ocean Area Seafood Restaurant

The name says it all. You come here for the seafood, seafood and more seafood. They do however have “landfood” 😉 as well, including deer meat. The Restaurant is open for lunch from 11 am to 2 pm only.

Location Address: Jalan St Patrick, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Tea Break at Indo Café

A popular tea time “snack” in Tawau would be sanggar pappek, deep fried mashed bananas. We had ours at Indo Café. The Café serves many other types of banana fritters too, including pisang goreng cheese and pisang goreng coklat (banana fritters with cheese & chocolate). 

Location Address: 542, Jln Bantu, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map

Dinner at Sri Titingan Seafood Restaurant

Still not done with seafood? Then you’re in the right town! Sri Titingan Seafood Restaurant is another popular restaurant in Tawau – it was full with patrons on both floors when we were there, which shouldn’t be a surprise as the Restaurant has the reputation of being one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest in town.

Location Address: 548, Jln Bantu, 91000 Tawau, Sabah | Map


We stayed at the 4-star business class Promenade Hotel Tawau for one night and I'm very happy to recommend it. The room rate is surprisingly affordable for its class. Alternatively, you can check & compare the room rates with that of other Tawau hotels on various sites on Trivago.

Ready to go to Semporna for your dream island holiday? Don't miss the chance to visit Bohey Dulang, probably the most beautiful spot in the whole of Malaysia.


On Pinterest? Use these photos to bookmark and/or share this blog post 😉

Have you been to Tawau? Or have you skipped it to go straight to Semporna? If you've been, what do you think of the town? And if you haven't, which destination(s)/activities would you like to go to/do the most?

A Thank You and Disclosure Note
I was in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia at the invitation of Sabah Tourism Board and Gaya Travel Magazine for the #SeaYouInSabah programme. The sponsorship, however, has in no way affected my review of the places that we went to. It did, however, affect my weight 😝 and of course, increase my love for Sabah. 😍

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Comments and feedback are always appreciated. So do leave one or two if you have the time. Thank you!

  1. Sabah has been on our list for a long time because of the orangutan rehabilitation centre at Sepilok but I can see there is so much more we would love right here at Tawau. Of course I can never go past a local market and those basalt columns are fascinating.

    1. I remember you commenting on my post on Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre before :) Tawau really surprised me because not much has been covered about the town and its surrounding areas. Most visitors simply fly into Tawau and head straight to Semporna for their island vacation, which is such a shame because it sure has some interesting things to see & do over there in Tawau.

  2. I enjoyed my time in Sabah, unluckily I couldn´t spend so many days and I would like. I enjoyed a lot visiting Tawau market

    1. I know the feeling only too well. Every time I go to Sabah, I don't think I have enough time to cover every single thing that I'd love to do. Sabah is fast becoming one of my favourite states in Malaysia now.

  3. I've heard Sabah is great for diving, otherwise I don't know much else about it. I'm really surprised you found deer meat on a menu. I wouldn't think that was be something they eat in Malaysia...or Asia really.

    1. Sabah is indeed great for diving, one of the best in the region, and Tawau is the town where you fly into if you want to go diving at one of the many islands off the coast of Semporna. That's why I think many tourists just skip visiting Tawau and rush ahead for their island/diving vacation - which is such a shame, really.

  4. This looks like a really cool adventure destination. I would love to visit the place and taste the delicious cocoa. I love everything that is made of cocoa.

    1. Ah-ha! You'd love Cocoa Museum! We had a great time trying a variety of chocolates and local desserts fused with chocolates! Even the hand wash soap tasted and smelled of chocolates!

  5. This is actually the part of Malaysia that I have been eyeing to visit. I have been wanting to go and reading this has just made that urge go stronger. I would love the nature and the markets

    1. If you love nature and markets, then Sabah is definitely for you! It's got all that and everything else too - exotic wild life, island/diving, mountains, unique cultures, and so on. It's fast becoming one of my favourite destinations in Malaysia too. ;)

  6. There's an incredible variety of things to do in Sabah. From the cocoa museum to the eco resort, it seems like there's something for everyone. I've just added it to my bucket list!

    1. There are definitely many things one can do in Sabah - it's got so much to offer to everyone, especially those who love adventures, nature and wildlife. One trip would not be enough, I'm afraid.

  7. Would love to go to Sabah one day. The market looks lovely, I bet the food was amazing. I would've never thought of Sabah as serving deer, that's interesting!

    1. The deer dish surprised me too, actually but it's kind of nice. I wouldn't have realised that it's deer though if I wasn't told about it. In any case, I'm glad I tried it, along with other popular local food over there.

  8. We're hoping to take in Sarawak later this year, so will have to extend our itinerary to ensure we visit Tawau as well. I had no idea that they were the largest producer of cocoa in Malaysia - cool fact! We really love nature, so it would be super cool to see the columnar basalt - does remind me of the waterfalls we visited in Iceland, and the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland! Crazy to see this repeat itself on the opposite ends of the world!

    1. Ah-ha! I went to see the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland a few years back and I must say that I was very surprised to find out that there's a columnar basalt too in Sabah! If I had brought with me some spare clothes, I'd have jumped in into the water - something I couldn't do in Northern Ireland :) Anyways, I'm not sure if there's a direct flight between Kuching, Sarawak and Tawau, Sabah but I'm sure you can fly easily via Kota Kinabalu.

  9. I am so happy that you enjoyed your time in Tawau. Do come to Tawau again. :)

    1. Thanks! I really loved my short time in Tawau. Hoping to go back there again one day, soon! :)

  10. Cocoa museum and eco resort are really the nice place which I like.

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