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: 

Do you dream of tropical beaches? Don't go and spend your holidays in Tawau! The people here are nice, but this Malaysian city in northeast Borneo is very ugly. Its only attraction is that it is 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 was therefore 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 boarding, 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 turned up yesterday morning at 9.30am, shortly after the opening when there were lots of people coming to get their papers done, as part of a government immigration programme. And I came out at 10.30am sharp, with my visa in good order. Great welcome, 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 all day in front of me to discover the charms of Tawau ... it was done quickly. 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 asking me for a photo, delighted to pose with their fish...

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

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

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

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

This is where couples of sweethearts meet, quietly sitting side by side. With the sea breeze, the weather is better here than on the clammy pavements 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 the one hand the modest veil of the Muslim women, on the other hand the casualness of the young Chinese women who go bareheaded and wear shorts, miniskirts or tight jeans.

But when night falls, the city is downright creepy. The streets and car parks are dark and poorly lit. Packs of stray dogs can be seen prowling around in a chorus of barking.

Arrival in Tarakan

In Tawau, I didn't 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 bumped into Bobby when the ferry arrived in Tarakan. An Indonesian from Sulawesi, who drives a taxi and plays the middleman for the tourists.

He carried my diving bag along the endless jetty, and drove us to our respective hotels.

Cheap guesthouse with shared bathroom for the kids, nice middle-range hotel with hot shower, air-conditioning and free wifi for me, who's starting to become a little 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 according to plan and weather permitting (it's raining like crazy tonight and the wind is blowing), Bobby will have got us the promised chartered boat to make the Tarakan-Derawan trip in one go, which will save us long hours on the road. 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's a computer with internet access. At worst, I'll give short news by SMS via Twitter. At worst, I'll give up and use my French 3G roaming stick, which will cost me an arm and a leg.

Soon a manta ray on Twitter? Who knows?


Tawau-Tarakan-Derawan : practical information

Some information that may be useful for those who would be tempted to make the same journey ... Be careful to inform you anyway: this is news from July 2009, and everything changes very quickly in Indonesia.

  • In Tawau, the cost of a tourist visa for Indonesia at the time was 170RM (34€). The consulate is located Jalan Sinn On, it opened at 9am. Cost of the taxi 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 noon and arrives around 4pm. Ticket price: 130RM + 5RM tax at the terminal. You have to arrive around 10am to buy your ticket. We pass the immigration around 11am. Cost of the short taxi ride from the center to the pier (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. After, 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 look like nothing, I think they have a charm in themselves because precisely, they are not tourist. It's not pretty, but we really feel like we're seeing "in real life" how people live.
    Finally, I also like the fine sandy beaches with coconut trees! 😀

  2. Semporna, in the genre, it's pretty ugly ... With a Swiss friend whom I found several times during my trip to Asia, we said "See semporna, and die ..." is 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 from all this ❗

  4. Poor Corinne, gentrification is proportional to age. You'll see it can only get worse 🙂 When I was a PhD student, I lived with 700 CAD per month (that's a long time anyway!) and I managed to get 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 big mistake about the alleged difficulties to connect Tawau to Derawan via Tarakan while it is "fingers in the nose"
    We see clearly that you are journalist Dame Corinne and that you have no sense of realities
    On the other hand I do not appreciate your criticism of this beautiful city of Tawau which is the pride of all Sabah with its waterfront that rivals the "Promenade des Anglais", its streets of irreproachable cleanliness worthy of a Swiss account and its typical buildings of the economic boom of the 80s soon to be classified as World Heritage by UNESCO ...

  7. I imagine the slimy, shiny hand grabbing your camera... which must have smelled like fish by now. How wonderful. 😡 You see, in ugly towns, you find lots of things to do. The Hairy Troll doesn't give a damn about reporters far from reality, if I read it right... Is that humour? 👿

  8. @RolK: Oh, I too, there are many "ugly" cities that I like a lot, for the same reasons. But Tawau is not only ugly, but grim and gloomy at night. Tarakan, by comparison, is very ugly too, but alive and warm at dusk. No, really, Tawau is not worth the detour.

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

    @Laurence: Yes, when we spend only one night in this kind of city, it's ok ... Otherwise, for the attacks in Jakarta, I was aware the same day. The Indonesians told us all about it in Tarakan and Derawan. But in Borneo, people feel far from the problems of Jakarta. For my part, the Indonesian capital was not in my steps, so no particular concern for my trip. On the other hand, it does not joke with the flu A: forms to be filled and temperature taken by masked people at all border posts.

    @Max: Hmm. Would you be trying to tell me that I OLD ???

    Coco: Oh, you know, ugly cities are legion in the corner. One day I should have to read a special article on the ugliness of urban Asian concreting.

    @The Furry Troll: We can see that you are a fine esthete, Sieur Alimata ... Next time, make me think of sending you a postcard of this romantic beach promenade in Tawau. No doubt I did not appreciate the true value of the indescribable charm emanating from this delightful concrete city. I'm going back tomorrow, by the ferry Indomayah at 10am (crazy atmosphere you know, way "The cruise has fun") and I hope to have a little more sense of reality during this second visit (incidentally you will be dismayed to learn that even today, I managed to avoid wearing my dive bag along the interminable pier of Tarakan).
    😆 😆 😆

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

    @Nono: My camera has survived, phew! As for the comment of Mr. Le Troll Velu, aka a diver who is also rife under the name of Alimata, yes, it's humor, of course ... An endless "private joke", which we pursue from post to post, because in fact he is jealous not to be able to take advantage at this moment of the stunning charms of Tawau (which he enjoyed before me during previous trips, to also go to Derawan).

  9. Oh, I was reading your impressions of Tawau, city of mornitude as the other 😉 ... yes, maybe ...

    Tawau is ugly but I am eternally grateful to an old chinese Chinese guy who in his stall, had a stroke of genius last February to repair the mirror of the 5D that was suddenly to be the trunk, just after being surprised by the appearance as abrupt as expected of a flaming cuttlefish, in front of the stilts of Mandarin Valley.

    Abandoned and cursed by the gods of the photos, furious like a cat dipped in a bowl, this Sunday of 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 about the PHOTO SHOP with air conditioning and the soft carpet and the muzik jungle muted, the PHOTO STORE where you are told "but no pb, we fix you this inconvenience in the 10 minutes, the time that one of our 40 technicians is free of the repair of the objo of Yann Arthus-Bertrand ", in short this PHOTO STORE that does not exist ...

    You think well ... Tawau side photo, it is the maximum of the Sony who also mobile phone, rice mill electric worst case. I am told that the man-who-could-perhaps-has a shop called "Jadi", which I find miraculously: there is 43 ° near the fan and about 98% humidity while a young Malaysian puts under sweet pink frame some wedding photos 20 * 30.

    For men, the haloed wife-girl is de rigueur, I see one wiggling behind a ... machine ❓ ... I bother him from behind his sewing machine 8O... or something similar 😕 ... He looks at my reflex with a caprine look, I tell myself that while we're at it, let's have fun with the death of my reflex, -which is of course of no use to me for the week of diving that I'm going to spend in Moalboal-. 😡

    Suddenly, marcel comes out of its torpor and declares as a pythie tao: "double side tape" ...
    😯 💡

    😕 😮 😀 😆 ❗ …

    It 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 gives a smile... 🙄

    Me, I like the Chinese old pair of Tawau marcel. 8)

    .. otherwise you're right: not many "long noses" in the corner.

  10. @ Wet & Sea Oh, I'm loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Thank you for delivering it here. I savored properly. In the background, it's worth doing a detour by Tawau!

  11. Hello,

    First of all your blog is super nice. Finally a place where you can glean information quietly without too many answers that pollute in the image of forums.

    I have a quick question: Have you accidentally kept Bobby's coordinates? Because its price for the speed boat seems indeed very good and this option saves time!

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

    On Derawan, are there things to do for non divers? Pretty 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 do not think I have the coordinates of Bobby (I will check anyway when I returned to France). That said, I think any hotel on site, or local agency, can find you a guy ready to rent his boat and make the crossing. On our return, we had paid less, I think I remember, with another guy from the island, in the 1.4 million rupees.

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

    Derawan is a tiny island, which is visited in minutes. The main activities are: do nothing, visit the neighboring islands, swim with turtles, learn Bahasa Indonesia with locals ... The beaches are white sand, rather pretty, but I think in a week we must start s to bore a little.

    Be careful though, diving in Derawan is not really "framed". Better to be able to take charge underwater. The small center attached to the losmen Danakan is very "roots" and the material, if you do not have yours, 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 did not visit the bungalows, I do not know how it is inside. But I think they only take pre-booked packages in the form of a diving package. I mention it at the end of this post:
    The best is to contact them by email, to see what they will answer you ... Their site:
    Finally, Tawau-Derawan, yes, it's two days away.

  15. Thank you for all this information on the trip to Derawan, it has been a week that I prepare our trip to Borneo for a month in August and I had nothing clear on the subject! I hope we will have the chance to "charter" a speed boat! I hesitated to take the dive equipment but considering your post I think we will take it!