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