Tawau is a town in the southeast corner of the east Malaysian state of Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It is the third largest town in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. In 2010, the population of Tawau was estimated at around 113,000 people in the town itself, and almost 400,000 people in the entire municipality. Tawau is a multicultural town with a relaxed pace of living, friendly locals and developed fishing and agriculture sector. Chinese in this town are mainly of the Hakka dialect branch. The main languages spoken here are Malay, English, Chinese and the various dialects of Chinese including Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainan, Sze Yap, Foochow and Hokkien.

Tawau is not in itself a major tourist destination. However, it is a popular transit point for tourists headed for the beaches and coral reefs located off the coast of the neighbouring district of Semporna. It is also the nearest major town to Maliau Basin, an untouched tract of forest sometimes touted as "The Lost World". Tawau itself also has several modest tourist attractions for tourists who find themselves in the area. Some of Borneo's best islands are Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, Sibuan, Pom-Pom, Selingan and Lankayan

Sipadan Island, the only oceanic island in Malaysia lies off the east coast of?Borneo?in?Sabah. The island is known for some of the best?scuba diving?in the world. Sipadan was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. It is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 400 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem.

在The waters around Sipadan is home to thousands of green and hawksbill turtles (which mate and nest here), enormous barracuda swirling as well as large schools of big-eye trevally, and bumphead parrotfish. Pelagic species such as manta rays, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks also visit Sipadan. Also known for its coral walls dropping more than 2,000ft straight down to the sea floor. Permits are issued daily to only 120 persons. So, it is important to get your Sipadan diving permit in advance by booking a diving or non-diving package with a dive centre to Sipadan Island

The Island of Mabul started as humble beginning with it being only a fisherman village. Now, it is a famous spot for divers located only about 15 minutes by speedboat from the exclusive Sipadan Island. Mabul Island is covered in palm trees and small beaches. It is well known as the macro diving paradise. It has a overpopulated village so do expect some pollution in the water/beach and make sure to plan accordingly for the restricted electricity hours during the daytime.

Sipadan dive map
Photo credit: Benjamin Hollis (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dalangalma/11560073234/)

Tawau is the third biggest city of Sabah, after Kota Kinabalu in the west and Sandakan in the east. The city plays an important role within Malaysia because of its three major products; tobacco, cocoa and palm oil. As the city is located along the Celebes Sea, it is also known for its great seafood restaurants. Tawau is one of the biggest producers of oil palm and cocoa in the world. Due to Tawau's strategic location it has become a major transit point for both passenger and cargo traffic between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Timber from the mainland of Borneo is shipped out of Sabah via Tawau’s port. Tawau is located in the southeastern region of Sabah, nearby the eastern border with Kalimantan, Indonesia.

An aerial view of Tawau town in 1947.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

In 1933, Pulau Sipadan is declared by the British as a bird sanctuary, being an important stopover for migratory birds like the greater sand plover, common sandpiper and wood sandpiper.

The island was at the centre of a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. The matter was brought for adjudication before the International Court of Justice and, at the end of 2002, the Court awarded the island along with the island of Ligitan to Malaysia. The Philippines had applied to intervene in the proceedings on the basis of their claim to Northern Borneo, but their request was turned down by the Court early in 2001.

In 2000, 21 people were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf's Filipino terrorist group. All victims were eventually released safely. Divers stayed away in the aftermath of this event but slowly regaining confidence that they are becoming increasingly well protected by a reassuring Malaysian army and navy presence.

At the end of 2004, the government of Malaysia orders all Sipadan resorts and all on-site dive operators to close or relocate in order to help protect and preserve the marine and land ecosystems. And since April 2008, Sabah Parks Sipadan Permit system allows only 120 divers per day.

Regatta lepa festival
Photo credit: udeyismail (https://www.flickr.com/photos/udeyismail/6052522332/)

Tawau Hills Park, a 2-hectare lowland gardens is home to numerous flora and animal species. The most spectacular plant is the Elephant's Ear Orchid. The park serves as a vital water catchment area for the major rivers in this part of Sabah, the Tawau , Merotai, Kinabatangan, Mantri and Balung rivers. This park is also a popular spot for families and friends to enjoy a picnic or, for the more adventurous, spend a night camping under a blanket of stars. Many people visit Tawau Hills Park during the school holidays or at weekends. To avoid crowds, weekdays are the best time to explore the park.

When accommodation facilities closed down on Sipadan, many divers started using Mabul as their base to explore Sipadan’s underwater paradise. Mabul offers an entirely different experience and is equally famous for it. Muck diving is a term used for diving in shallow, sandy areas with limited visibility. The abundance of exotic macro life makes this island attractive. Diving around Mabul will have you encounter species like multicoloured nudibranches, pipefish, ribbon and snake eels, devil scorpionfish, stonefish, mantis shrimps, mandarin fish, frogfish, seahorses and crocodile fish.

The main attraction of Sipadan Island is the none other than the underwater beauty, a home to more than 3000 species of marine life and hundreds of species of coral. Sipadan is accessible to divers of all levels; fresh open-water divers to the seasoned divers. Visibility rages from 10 – 30 meters depending on the weather. Temperatures range from 26 to 30 C. Sipadan is surrounded by very rich reef life consisting of both hard and soft coral as well as reef fish. Sea turtles and white tip reef sharks can be seen on almost every dive and hammerhead and leopard sharks can also be seen. Huge schools of jackfish, barracudas and bumphead parrotfish are also highlights especially around Barracuda Point - if you are lucky you may be able to see a barracuda tornado as they change direction.

A school of jack fish
Photo credit: Benjamin Hollis(https://www.flickr.com/photos/dalangalma/11560045663/)

Barracuda Point
Photo credit: Bernard DUPONT (https://www.flickr.com/photos/berniedup/6129973989/)


Scuba diving is one of the must things to do in the surrounding islands in Tawau, particularly in Sipadan Island. Sipadan is known, for its perfect spot for scuba diving and is ranked amongst the highest in the world. Diving in Sipadan is a dream come true for a scuba diver. You will come across endless species of fishes and marine life and rich reef underwater with both soft and hard coral that looks extremely beautiful. There are also tons of Leopard Sharks and Hammerheads along with a variety of Sea Turtles. If you are very lucky you will be able to witness Jackfish or Barracuda swirling as they keep changing directions.

If you are not a fan of scuba diving, an alternative for non-divers is snorkeling in the deep sea of Sipadan Island, which is equally as thrilling as scuba diving. Best place to do snorkelling is at the jetty drop-off. Just swim out in the shallow water for about 5 meters before you reach the drop-off. You get to observe numerous corals, reef fishes and turtles are everywhere.

Not only is the island renowned for its deep sea life, but also for its exotic tropical bird views. You can opt to view the colorful birds here which include starlings, Wood Pigeons, Kingfishers, Sunbirds, Sea Eagles and many more. This island has been declared the sanctuary for birds, late in the year 1933 by the foreign government of North Borneo, which was published after 30 years by the Malaysian government. These birds are an additional beauty to the island.

Sipadan Liveaboard offers a wonderful experience of exploring the fascinating island in a yacht. This is an interesting and unique experience that you should not miss when travelling to Sipadan.

Diving with turtle
Photo Credit: Paul Lim (https://www.flickr.com/photos/fudj/5165674787/)

Tawau Airport is one of two international airports in Sabah. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate daily flights to Kota Kinabalu (45 minutes) and Kuala Lumpur (2 hours 45 minutes). The airport is located in Balung, 33km east of downtown Tawau along the Tawau-Semporna road.

Sipadan Island is situated in the southern part of Sabah in the town of Semporna and is quite a remote place therefore, getting in requires some effort. Most visitors fly to Tawau from either Kuala Lumpur or from Kota Kinabalu which are available daily through Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia. The journey to the island is continued by taking a minivan or taxi for about 1.5 hours journey to the port town of Semporna. Semporna town is a fishing village that mainly serves as a gateway to islands of Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Pom Pom Island, Mataking, etc From here, it takes another hour to reach the island by speedboat depending on the tide. To be able to transfer on the same day to the island, make sure that your flight lands latest at 14:00 PM as last boats depart at 16:00PM. There will not be any boat transfers available after that and you may have to spend a night in Tawau city or in Semporna town. So, we advise you to plan your trip ahead. Note that some resorts are fully booked 6 months in advance.

If you were to fly to Kota Kinabalu before making your way south to Semporna. You may want to also visit the orangutan sanctuary, take a river trip, climb Mount Kinabalu, or just see the rest of?Malaysian Borneo?before diving.

Sipadan Island
Photo credit: William Warby (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwarby/1479709062/)

Currency and Exchange

The local currency of Malaysia is the ringgit. Notes come in RM1, RM5, RM10, RM20, RM50, and RM100; and coins are 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents.


Hotels and restaurants generally charge an extra 5%–10%.


Tipping is not part of Malaysian culture.

Passports and Visas

Visitor passports must contain a minimum of six months validity beyond the period of intended stay. Parents traveling with children should carry birth certificates to avoid trouble.


The standard voltage used in Malaysia is 240 volts, and most modern hotels use UK style 3 pin plugs, but you may also often find 2 pin sockets and plugs.

Time Zone

GMT+8, Standard Malaysian Time

Best Time to Visit

Diving at Sipadan and nearby Islands can be done throughout the year as there is no real low season and there are no monsoon season or typhoons. During the months of January to March weather can sometimes be a bit unsettled so divers can expect more currents during their dives. The best time is between April and June where you can enjoy visibility up to 30 to 50 metres. Between May and August turtles often lay their eggs on the beaches of Sipadan.


The climate of Sipadan and nearby islands can broadly be described as hot and sunny all year round. The Sipadan area is blessed with a cooling ocean breeze and scattered rains. The average temperature ranges from 30-32°C and the water temperature is about 27-30°C.

Sabah is a multi-cultural and multi-racial society. The total population of Sabah consists of more than thirty different ethnicities and races and the number of languages and dialects goes over eighty. these groups live together and form a homogenous community, with each retains its own culture, custom, tradition, art, and festivals. The largest indigenous ethnic group is Kadazan-Dusun, followed by Bajau, and Murut.

Islam is the official religion in Malaysia. Proper dress and manners should be adhered at all times. Nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed and is very frowned upon.

It’s customary to remove shoes before entering a mosque as well as homes. In places of worship, visitors should remove their shoes and women should ensure that their head, knees and arms are covered.

Avoid pointing your index finger at others, or to beckon someone with fingers and palm facing upwards as this is considered rude in the local custom.

Apart from the Sabahans’ very own diverse mother tongues, Malay which is Malaysia’s national language and English is widely spoken. Mandarin and some Chinese dialects are also widely spoken. You will often be greeted with “selamat datang” which means welcome and “terima kasih” means thank you in Malay.

Due to religious reasons, some may prefer not to have physical contact with others. However, a handshake is generally acceptable as a way of introducing oneself.

Bring a hat, sun block and mosquito repellent.

You can buy Malaysia SIM cards just about anywhere for your mobile phone.

You can save by bringing some diving/snorkeling gears and wetsuits though there can be rented in most dive centres. To be safe, do check with your dive centres prior to your trip.

Dive computers and dive torches are also available for rent.

If you are planning to take your Scuba Dive Course you will need to fill a medical declaration prior to the start of the course.

Dive centres requires the prove of your dive certification. Remember to bring your diving certification cards and logbook.

Please arrange for your personal diving and health insurance prior to your arrival.

Do listen carefully to all dive briefings to ensure that you have a safe dive holiday.

Providing that you dive within the limits it is extremely unlikely that you will need any treatment for decompression injuries.

View More

Popular Activities