Tawau - Sabah Borneo

Located on the South Eastern coastal lands of Sabah, Tawau or Tawao as it was known in the early 1890’s began as a tiny nucleus of only 200 inhabitants that crossed borders from Kalimantan. These immigrants fled from Bulungan and Tawi-Tawi, away from the oppressive rule of the Dutch ‘masters’. The villagers soon began a small trade with passing ships including Dutch trading boats. Not long after, the community began trading sea and jungle produce such as rattan, birds’ nest and rubber with imports such as dammar, Indian rubber, tortoise shells etc.

The village thrived on its plentiful surroundings and life was peaceful. Only access to these parts was by sea. In 1898, the village expanded into a settlement and not long after, Chinese migrants sailed in. Chinese did as Chinese will do anywhere … set up businesses, cleared land, worked on plantations, traded and made money. Tawau became a source of export for sea produce, jungle produce and plantation produce. The British administration entered the scene for a cut of the profit in the guise of the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company. Tawau’s reputation preceded her. Then in the 1930’s Japanese fishing fleets came by, unloaded japanese workmen and women and sent them to Si-Amil island (east of Sipadan Island) where a fishing & canning station was set up. Others were sent to the rubber plantations also set up by Japanese businessmen, with all produce marked for export. The town enjoyed years of peace, unity and wealth until the 2nd World War.

In 1942, the Japanese navy and army invaded Tawau and for 3 ½ years, the residents were kept under the strict eye and disciplin of their oppressors. On 10th June 1945, several units of North Australian Division liberated Tawau but found the town, like others in Sabah to be devastated ~ ravaged by war, depravation and fear. The town suffered much from bombing and fire and like Sandakan, had to be completely rebuilt. Without boats to go out to sea, no farms, no supplies; the townspeople made do with supplies from the jungle.

Today, Tawau’s sheer existence remains very much connected to its surroundings. Eco-tourism is huge! Rainforest destinations such as Danum Valley, Maliau Basin also known as Sabah’s lost world, Madai Forest Reserve and Tawau Hills Park are mere tiny pockets of forests that once covered the entire island of Borneo. The islands just off the coast are also playgrounds for the privileged. Whilst Malaysia promotes these destinations, the timber companies continue to shave the land clean of such priceless commodity only to be replaced with plantations that unltimately drive the economy. Cocoa, rubber, palm oil plantations stretch for miles spanning all round, changing the islands rich landscape forever.

Tawau's economy, like many other towns in Malaysia Borneo is in many ways controlled by the Chinese community. Although, the population census seem to be at about 370,000, the unaccounted for may double that. Due to it's proximity with Philippines and Indonesia, there are many illegal migrants here. It is always best not to go wondering out alone at night.

Many visitors take Tawau as a transit point. The Tawau airport connects Tawau with Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian destinations. Scuba divers fly into Tawau and are normally whisked off to Semporna and to the islands of Mabul and Sipadan. Those who stay overnight, are usually taken round town to savour the local cuisine.

Food in Tawau

Seafood is great and cheap! The most popular place to go is to

Cowie Bay Seafood Restaurant

About 20-minutes drive from town, this restaurant is semi open-air seating.

Sabindo open-air seafood market (25 Jalan Cheng Fook, Sabindo Sea Side Food Stall)

This place is located in Sabindo shopping complex, lining the seaside. The stalls open at night only, selling all sorts of seafood here. Try “Makanan Laut 101” or more popular would be Kam Ling Seafood (Open every day from 4pm – 11pm. Closed once a month and for 2 weeks at the end of the year)

“Mongolian Chicken Rice”

Located on Jalan Chester, this place offers a good choice for Chicken Rice in town. The small outlet is always crowded.


Other food to look out for in Tawau

• Kuih Pandan (Pandan rice cake)
• Sulawesi Soto Makassar (buffalo soup), a Bugis specialty
• Amplang ~ a deep-fried fish paste which is coated in corn flour

Best Time To Go

For the Regatta Lepa Lepa at Semporna sometime in April. This annual Water Festival - Regatta Lepa is held to commemorate this tradition and it is during this occasion that the community works toward building the most beautiful lepa

The rainy season starts in November till February.

Getting There

By Coach

- Getting to Tawau from Kota Kinabalu takes about 8 hours by express coach, stationed at North City Bus Terminal at Inanam, a township located outside the Kota Kinabalu city centre on Jalan Tuaran

By Air

From KL - both Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have daily flights to Tawau (4hrs flight time)

From Kota Kinabalu - Malaysia Airlines and Mas Wings have daily flights to Tawau (45min flight time)

From Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru - both Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have daily flights to Tawau (2 hours and 30 minutes flight time)

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