Tawau has always been side-lined by travellers who usually head straight away to Semporna, a gateway to the beautiful islands on Celebes Sea that promises world class dive sites such as Sipadan, Kapalai, Mabul, and Mataking. Most of the time, travellers – especially divers and snorkelers – would just take a shuttle from Tawau International Airport and head straight away to Semporna.
Gaya Travel in a collaboration with Sabah Tourism, took several bloggers and social media influencers to explore Tawau and Semporna through a familiarisation trip called #SeaYouInSabah (Instagram | Twitter).
Tawau is Sabah’s third largest city. It is a sea port for trading between Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Although Tawau town itself looks nondescript, its surrounding areas are famous for booming eco-tourism attractions. But most importantly, Tawau offers unique intermingling of multi-ethnic cultures and warm hospitality.
Travellers visiting Tawau should not miss the opportunity to visit Pasar Tanjung, which offers the chance for travellers to shop like locals. Pasar Tanjung is the largest indoor market to date. This is where locals and travellers come to find the best dried food products in Tawau. With good bargaining skill, high quality dried shrimps and fishes can be bought in bulk.
One of Tawau’s booming eco-tourism icon, Teck Guan Cocoa Museum, is also a very important place to visit. This museum offers detailed information and exhibition on cocoa production. There are various types of cocoa products that can be purchased here. We recommend travellers to consider the cocoa glutinous balls and instant cocoa powder.
While in town, travellers should also try nasi kuning and mee tauhu. The best place to try this delicacy is at Haji Thamrin Restaurant. Nasi kuning and mee tauhu are usually enjoyed in the morning for breakfast. Seafood lovers should also have lunch at Ocean Seafood Restaurant or dinner at Sri Titingan Seafood Restaurant. These restaurants offer wide variety of fresh seafood cooked in several local dishes.
Tawau Hills Park
Originally gazetted as Tawau’s and Semporna’s water catchment area, the park has now become the most important contributor to eco-tourism in Tawau. It is home to the world’s tallest tropical tree. Most of the rivers surrounding the area originate from the park. It is also the source of the famous Table Waterfall in Tawau.
It can be quite crowded with locals having family time during weekends. With fresh air, waterfalls, hot spring and mud volcano, Tawau Hills Park is ideal for picnic, swimming, camping and jungle trekking.
There are several trails for trekking in this park. Take a walk into the park to see long-tailed macaques, giant tree squirrels, civets, red-leaf monkeys and white monkeys.
Giram Nek Legek, Kampung Balung Cocos
Though the journey to Balung River from Tawau town is difficult, the journey is worth it because it is the only place in Malaysia that has the formation of columnar basalt. This formation happened more than 13,000 years ago as a result of contraction during the cooling of thick lava flow from volcanic mountain. Interestingly, most of the islands surrounding Semporna and Tawau were formed from volcanic eruption. Although not identical, it is the similar to formation of the basalt at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Bohey Dulang Island
Tun Sakaran Marine Park (or Semporna Islands Park) consists of eight islands: Bohey Dulang, Bodgaya, Tetagan, Sebangkat, Selakan, Maiga, Sibuan and Mantabuan. Most of these islands are actually the remainders of volcanic eruptions – the biggest crater that can be seen today is the lagoon in front of Bodgaya Island, Tetagan Island and Bohey Dulang Island.
Although most of these islands are uninhabited, there is a settlement of sea nomads called Bajau Laut, located along the outside rim of the crater on Bodgaya Island, close to the steep passageway towards Tetagan Island. Travellers intending to hike to the peak of Bohey Dulang are also brought to see the Bajau Laut in close proximity.
The best way to enjoy the view of the park is from the peak of Bohey Dulang Island. The 600-metre hiking trail to the top is considered easy and a normal person with average fitness level can reach the top in 40 minutes. Some parts of the trail are equipped with boarded steps. It is advised to wear proper hiking outfit and bring along sunblock, drinking water and good camera to capture the jaw-dropping panorama.
Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort
This is a resort that offers the ultimate experience not just for divers but snorkellers and literally everyone who loves the idea of staying on a floating haven surrounded by idyllic view and crystal-clear water in the middle of the Celebes Sea. Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort is an island in itself although it is literally built over a mile-long sand bank of Ligitan Reefs, about 20 minutes away from Mabul Island.
This luxury resort prides itself for being environmentally friendly. Fresh water is shipped from the mainland to the resort for consumption, cleansing and tending the plants grown throughout the resort. No salt water is used at the resort and it takes pride in its waste management. Due to this rigorous and well maintained upkeep, it is no wonder that the resort’s surrounding waters encourage the healthy growth of corals that are often visited by turtles, stingrays, cuttlefish and various types of marine life.
The resort provides 40 guestrooms, all come in the form of twin-sharing with attached bathroom, hot and cold shower, bathtub, and private balcony. The rooms are big, elegant and spacious. They are also separated from each other; not even one shares the same wall with another. Guests are not allowed to jump into the sea from their own rooms, but instead through designated points for snorkelling and swimming. There’s even an erected sand bank that can transform into a beach during low tide, allowing guests can access to swim or to lay down for sunbathing.
For divers, packages are available for them to dive in the surrounding spots. Diving in Sipadan can be arranged but dependent upon permit availability – best to check with the resort way in advance before arriving.
Also read: Mabul’s 52 Shades of Blue
Islands off-coast Semporna
Most of the islands surrounding Semporna are remnants of volcanic eruptions and seismic activities, becoming ideal for planktons and corals to grow and become underwater gardens great for snorkelling and diving. These attributes put Semporna on the international divers’ map because there are several dive sites that are considered world class.
Although secluded, Mataking Island has always been the choice for avid divers and snorkellers from all over the world to enjoy the breathtaking underwater beauty. The various types of big fishes swimming along the protected corals include schools of barracuda, trevally, moray eels, ribbon eels, giant frogfish and pygmy seahorse, among others. Mataking is famous for its underwater post office.
Next to Mataking is Timba-Timba Island. Although nobody is allowed to land on the island, divers and snorkelers still allowed enjoy the island’s underwater beauty, which is comparable to Mataking.
Planning to acquire a diving license? This is definitely the great place to do so.
Gaya Travel Magazine team members extend our greatest pleasure and heartfelt gratitude to Sabah Tourism Board and all participating media and influencers for making the #SeaYouInSabah programme a success.
This article is featured in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue No. 12.4.