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 of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, 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.

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→ Trip Borneo [Malaysia+Indonesia] : July 2009

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009