At the fish market in Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

From Tawau to Tarakan: easy!

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

Dreaming of tropical beaches? Don't go to Tawau for your vacations! The people here are nice, but this Malaysian city in the north-east of Borneo is very small. Its only attraction is to be the entry point to Indonesia.

Tawau and its concrete streets

This is what Tawau looks like ... No comment.

Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

At the Indonesian Consulate in Tawau

It is thus in Tawau (Malaysia) that I took the ferry to Tarakan (Indonesia). After four hours of crossing, I am tonight on the other side of the border.

Before embarking, I had to go and get a visa for Indonesia. I was afraid it would be long and complicated... but no! I still can't believe how efficient the Indonesian consulate in Tawau is.

In front of the Indonesian Consulate of Tawau Consulate (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

I showed up yesterday morning at 9:30 am, shortly after the opening when there were lots of people coming to get their papers done, as part of a government immigration program. And I came out at 10:30 am sharp, with my visa in due form. Great reception, they do everything to help you.

(See end of post, practical details, for the Malaysian-Indonesian border crossing at this location.)

Market and fish market

So, I had the whole day to discover the charms of Tawau... it was quickly done. Excursion to the big market near the pier (but I had found Kota Bahru's one, three years ago, more spectacular), then to the nearby fish market.

The big market of Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

At the fish market in Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

There, I was the attraction of the day. I started by photographing some stalls, then the fishmongers, with their permission. As a result, they all started to ask me for a picture, delighted to pose with their fish...

I shuddered with horror for a moment, when a nice lady, who wanted me to take the pose next to her husband, took my little camera in her hand, glistening with bloody fish juice... It was well worth it, the photo is a failure. And I didn't offer her to take another one!

At the fish market in Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

There were some balloon fish on the stalls and it made me a little uncomfortable to see them there, all flaccid, with a dull eye, when I had taken so much pleasure in photographing them, alive and well, a few days earlier...

I treated myself to a comforting snack at a nice little bakery just behind the market, and finished my walk by walking along the waterfront, also ugly, but romantic.

This is where couples of lovers meet, sitting quietly side by side. With the wind from the sea, the weather is better than on the clammy sidewalks of the concrete streets.

Tawau Beachfront, Lovers' Meeting (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

Tawau (Borneo, Malaysia, July 2009).

For the rest, Tawau offers a good choice of restaurants and comfortable hotels at low prices. There are many Chinese traders here, and quite a few Christians. The contrast between the women is always a bit surprising: on one side the modest veil of the Muslim women, on the other side the casualness of the young Chinese women who go bareheaded and wear shorts, miniskirt or tight jeans.

But at nightfall, the city is downright sinister. The streets and the parking lots are gloomy, badly lit. You can see packs of stray dogs roaming around in a concert of barking.

Arrival in Tarakan

In Tawau, I did not meet a single pale face before taking the ferry. And then I saw a young couple of backpackers disembarking at the entrance of the terminal, too happy to finally find another tourist!

Paul and Becky are English, students at Cambridge, and like me, they are going to Derawan. Being three should make it easier for us to complete the journey and share transport.

We met Bobby, at the arrival of the ferry in Tarakan. An Indonesian from Sulawesi, who drives a cab and acts as an intermediary for tourists.

He carried my dive bag along the endless pier (special dedication to Alimata), and drove us to our respective hotels.

Guesthouse "cheap" with common bathroom for the young people, nice hotel "middle-range" with hot shower, air conditioning and free wifi for me who starts to become more middle-class.

Great barbecued fish in a local tavern to end the evening... Too easy, this arrival in Tarakan!

Bobby, Paul and Becky. Grilled fish in a Tarakan boui-boui (Borneo, Indonesia, July 2009).

Tomorrow morning, if everything goes as planned and if the weather allows it (it's raining like crazy tonight and the wind is blowing), Bobby will have obtained the promised "chartered boat" to make the Tarakan-Derawan trip in one go, which will save us long hours of driving. Because otherwise, going to Derawan is quite an expedition!

Announced price for the speed-boat: 1.8 million Indonesian rupiahs, divided by three. That is 600.000 IDR per head (40€), it's worth it. Normally, we will be leaving very early, at 7am. So we should be able to step on the sand of Derawan around 10.30am, 11am at the latest!!!!

I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to reconnect from the island, not sure if there is a computer connected to the internet. At worst, I'll give little news by SMS via Twitter. At the worst, I'll give up and use my French 3G roaming key, which will cost me a lot.

Soon a manta ray on Twitter? Who knows?


Tawau-Tarakan-Derawan : practical information

Some information that can be useful to those who would be tempted to accomplish the same journey... Be careful to inform you anyway: these are information from July 2009, and everything changes very quickly in Indonesia.

  • In Tawau, the cost of the tourist visa for Indonesia was at the time 170RM (34€). The consulate is located in Jalan Sinn On, it opened at 9am. Cost of the cab ride to get there from the center when I was there: 8RM. Otherwise, there is a bus.
  • The Tawau-Tarakan ferry leaves every day except Sunday at 12:00 and arrives around 16:00. Fare: 130RM + 5RM tax at the terminal. It is necessary to show up around 10 am to buy the ticket. We pass the immigration around 11 am. Cost of the short cab ride from the center to the pier (right next to the big market and the fish market): 5RM.
  • Finally, to reach Derawan, a third alternative is possible, by plane. According to Bobby, there is an air link between Tarakan and Berau (Tanjung Redep) for less than 400.000Rp. Then, kijang to Tanjung Batu + boat.
Travel map of Tawau to Derawan.
Travel map of Tawau to Derawan.

See all articles on this trip:

→ Trip Borneo [Malaysia+Indonesia] : July 2009

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

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  1. I love this kind of cities that don't look like anything, I find that they have a charm in themselves because they are not touristy. It's not pretty but you really get the impression to see "in real" how people live.
    Finally, I also like the sandy beaches with coconut trees 😀

  2. Semporna, in the genre, it's pretty ugly... With a Swiss friend that I met several times during my trip in Asia, we used to say "See semporna, and die..." that's to say!

  3. it's true that the cities are not always very pretty but despite everything there is a nice atmosphere, you just have to pass by 😉
    🙁 Otherwise the radio and the net announce a double attack in Indonesia, tourists targeted in 2 big hotels in Jakarta I hope you are far away from all this ❗

  4. Poor Corinne, gentrification is proportional to age. You'll see that it can only get worse 🙂 When I was a PhD student, I lived on 700 CAD per month (that's a long time!) and I managed to take a vacation every year...

  5. The naiad,

    Finally an ugly city, it changes us! But facades in color, what are you complaining about? Watch out for stray dogs ...


  6. Well, there was no need to make a fuss about the alleged difficulties to connect Tawau to Derawan via Tarakan when it is done "fingers in the nose".
    It is clear that you are a journalist Dame Corinne and that you have no sense of reality
    On the other hand, I don't appreciate your criticisms concerning this superb city of Tawau which is the pride of the whole Sabah with its sea front which rivals the "Promenade des Anglais", its streets of an irreproachable cleanliness worthy of a Swiss account and its typical buildings of the economic boom of the 80's soon to be classified as a world heritage site by the UNESCO...

  7. I can imagine the slimy, glistening hand grabbing your camera... which must smell like peanuts by now. What a joy! 😡 See, in cities that are too ugly, you find plenty of stuff to do. The Hairy Troll doesn't give a damn about journalists far from reality, if I read it right... Is that humor? 👿

  8. @RolK: Oh, me too, there are many "ugly" cities that I really like, for the same reasons. But Tawau is not only ugly, but sinister and gloomy at night. Tarakan, in comparison, is very ugly too, but lively and warm at nightfall. No, really, Tawau is not worth a visit.

    @ Marie-net: Oh yes, I forgot the awful Semporna... Well, now there will also be "See Tawau and die..."

    @Laurence: Yes, when you only spend one night in this kind of city, it's ok... Otherwise, for the bombings in Jakarta, I knew about it the same day. The Indonesians told us all about it, in Tarakan and Derawan. But in Borneo, people feel very far from the problems of Jakarta. For my part, the Indonesian capital was not in my stages, so no particular concern for my trip. On the other hand, there is a lot of trouble with the influenza A: forms to fill in and temperature taking by masked people at all the border posts.

    @Max: Hmm. Are you trying to tell me that I'm AGING?

    Coco: Oh, you know, ugly cities are legion around here. I'll have to write a special article about the ugliness of Asian urban concreting one day.

    @The Furry Troll: We can see that you are a fine aesthete, Mr. Alimata... Next time, let me think of sending you a postcard of this so romantic Promenade of the sea front of Tawau. I probably didn't appreciate the unspeakable charm that emanates from this delightful concrete city. I'm currently going back tomorrow, by the 10am Indomayah ferry (crazy atmosphere you know, like "The Love Boat") and I hope to have a little more sense of reality during this second visit (by the way, you'll be dismayed to learn that I managed not to have to carry my duffel bag along the endless Tarakan pier again today).
    😆 😆 😆

    @Laurence: Ayé, the mantas are online !!!

    @Nono: My camera survived, phew! As for the comment of Mr. Le Troll Velu, aka a diver who also goes by the name of Alimata, yes, it's humor, of course... An endless "private joke", that we continue from post to post, because in fact he's jealous of not being able to enjoy the amazing charms of Tawau right now (which he enjoyed before me on previous trips, to go to Derawan too).

  9. Ah, I was rereading your impressions of Tawau, city of mornitude as the other would say 😉 ... yes, maybe...

    Tawau is ugly but I am eternally grateful to an old Chinese man in a wifebeater who, in his shop, had a stroke of genius last February to fix the mirror of the 5D which had suddenly gone haywire, just after being surprised by the abrupt and expected appearance of a flaming cuttlefish, in front of the pilings of Mandarin Valley.

    Abandoned and cursed by the gods of photography, angry as a cat soaked in a basin, on this Sunday in February I searched for a long time, under the architectural abominations worthy of PyongYang that we must call "arcades" in Tawau, a PHOTO SHOP.
    You know the kind of PHOTO SHOP with air conditioning and soft carpet and muffled muzik jungle, the PHOTO SHOP where they tell you "but no problem, we'll fix it within 10 minutes, the time it takes for one of our 40 technicians to repair Yann Arthus-Bertrand's camera", in short, the PHOTO SHOP that doesn't exist...

    You think well... Tawau on the photo side, it's at most a Sony which is also a cell phone, electric rizeuse at worst. I'm told that the man-who-could-be has a store called "Jadi", which I find by miracle: it's 43° near the fan and about 98% degree of humidity while a young Malaysian woman puts some 20*30 wedding pictures under a candy pink frame.

    For the male gender, the haloed wifebeater is de rigueur, I see one stirring behind a ...machine ❓ ... I disturb him from behind his sewing machine 8O.. or something that looks like it 😕 ... He looks at my SLR with a caprine air, I tell myself that while we're at it, let's have fun with the death of my SLR, -which is of course of no use to me for the week of diving I'll be spending in Moalboal-. 😡

    Suddenly, Marcel comes out of his torpor and declares like a Tao pythia : "double side tape" ...
    😯 💡

    😕 😮 😀 😆 ❗ …

    He will take 20 minutes to put the broken mirror back together piece by piece. When I insist on paying him, royal, he says it made him happy... he sketches a smile... 🙄

    I like the old Chinese men with glasses from Tawau in a wifebeater. 8)

    ... otherwise you are right : not many "long noses" around here.

  10. @ Wet & Sea Oh, I love your old Chinese man in a Tawau tank top... I love that kind of story. Thanks for delivering it here. I enjoyed it as it should be. In the end, it's worth the detour to Tawau!!!

  11. Hello,

    First of all, your blog is very nice. Finally a place where we can glean information quietly without too many answers that pollute like forums.

    I have a small question: Have you by any chance kept Bobby's contact information? Because his price for the speed boat seems very good and this option allows a real time saving !

    Is there a way to reach KL or Singapore "easily" from one of the nearby airports?

    On Derawan, is there anything to do for non divers ? Nice beaches, for example?

    With my wife we will plow for 3 weeks trays, mountains and cities of Sarawak and Sabah. I would like to finish with 4/5 days of diving, and sipadan does not seem ideal and very expensive if my wife does not dive.

    Thank you in advance,


  12. @ Yeti67: Sorry, no, I don't think I have Bobby's contact information (I'll check when I get back to France). That said, I think that any hotel or local agency will be able to find a guy willing to rent his boat and make the crossing. On the way back, we paid less, I think I remember, with another guy from the island, around 1.4 million rupees.

    To join KL, there is an Air Asia flight from Tawau or Balikpapan.

    Derawan is a tiny island, which can be circled in a few minutes. The main activities are: doing nothing, visiting the nearby islands, swimming with turtles, learning Bahasa Indonesia with the locals... The beaches are white sand, quite nice, but I think that in one week you should start to get a little bored.

    Be careful though, diving in Derawan is not really "supervised". It is better to be able to take care of yourself underwater. The small center attached to the Danakan losmen is very "roots" and the equipment, if you don't have your own, leaves something to be desired...

    Another option, if you do not want to go to Sipadan or (there are nevertheless some solutions not too expensive, like Billabong or Scuba Junkie, there are the islands near Kota Kinabalu ...

    Good preparations!

  13. Hello,

    I thank you for your information. What do you think of the spring next to the Losmen? A little comfort could be a good compromise for my wife who does not dive (I already impose 2 weeks of hiking mainly in the jungles of Borneo).

    But basically, to sum up, it takes two days to travel from Tawau to Derawan and two days to go back there?


  14. @ Yeti67: Yes, the resort in question is probably the most comfortable on Derawan. I didn't visit the bungalows, I don't know how it is inside. But I think they only take advance bookings, as a diving package. I talk about it at the end of this post:
    The best is to contact them by email, to see what they will answer you... Their site :
    Well, Tawau-Derawan, yes, it's two days of travel.

  15. Thank you for all this information about the trip to Derawan, it's been a week that I'm preparing our one month trip to Borneo for August and I had nothing clear on the subject! I hope we will have as much luck to "charter" a speed boat! I hesitated to take the diving equipment but seeing your post I think we will take it!