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.
Due to Tawau's strategic location near Malaysia's borders with the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan and the Sulu islands of the Philippines, it has become a major transit point for both passenger and cargo traffic between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Tawau is also a major contributor to Sabah's agricultural sector as the district is home to large oil palm and cocoa plantations.
In terms of tourism, 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.
Tawau Airport (IATA: TWU, ICAO: WBKW) 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). Additionally, Malaysia Airlines' regional subsidiary, MASWings [www.maswings.com.my], operates flights to Sandakan and the Indonesian city of Tarakan.
The airport is located in Balung, 33km east of downtown Tawau along the Tawau-Semporna road. While the airport has ATMs and a money changer, note that the money changer closes relatively early and the ATMs do not always work properly. Therefore, if you are arriving late and intending to take a taxi or bus, do ensure that you have at least enough Malaysian Ringgit to pay your fare.
Getting there/away: Airport taxis charge RM45 for a one-way trip to downtown Tawau. To take an airport taxi, go to the airport taxi counter and inform the staff of your destination. Once you have paid the fare, you will be given a coupon to show the taxi driver.
Kasah Transport (Tel: +6089-950208) operates buses to downtown Tawau at RM10 per passenger. These buses depart Tawau Airport at 5:40am, 8:00am, 8:30am, 10:30am, 1pm, 2:30pm and 5pm. However, as these times are subject to change without notice, you are advised to check directly with Kasah Transport when planning your journey.
Cars may also be rented at the airport.
There are daily buses from Kota Kinabalu's North City Bus Station, but it's a long nine-hour journey. There are half a dozen companies and the fare is RM55.50. (Tel: +6013 879 7779)
There are also bus from Lahad Datu, 2.5 hours away. Departure at 3:30PM, RM15.
Leaving Tawau all buses leave from close to the port a 10 minute walk from central down town (next to a very cheap local clothes market). There are lots of vendors, all 50rm to KK.
The bus will also drop you at Lahad Datu, Sandakan or Kinabulu national park (45rm). Buses leave between 7am and 2pm.
NB Some buses make no stops on the long journey so it's wise to bring plenty of water and something for lunch (toilet inside).
As an alternative route, you can take a bus from Keningau along the southern highway all the way to Tawau. Busses leave at 10am. This is a good way to get to the Maliau Basin.
All long distance buses now depart and arrive at the new Terminal Bus Sri Indah 17km away from town. You can use Grab to get to town or walk 2 min to the main road and wait for any minivan that passes. Fare is RM 4-5 to get to town.
Instead of buying your tickets at the counter, you can also use an app/website called EasyBook.
Update April 2018: Ferries leave to Nunukan at 1130, 1230 and 1600. Not clear if there is an earlier ferry. Price 90RM for adults, 45RM for children, tax included. One way.
Baggage allowance - 10kg / adult, 5kg/ child. Excess baggage charged at 1.30RM/ kg.
To/from Nunukan: Two departures daily from Tawau, Tawindo Express, Labuan Express, at 10 AM and 3 PM. From Nunukan, departures are at 9AM and 2PM. Tickets cost RM41 one-way and journey time is 1 hour.
To/from Tarakan: One departure daily except on Sunday from Tawau. Tawindo Express sails every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11.30am, while Indomaya Express departs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11:00am. Tickets cost RM140 one-way and travelling time is 4 hours. Note that before mentioned baggage allowance applies to this too and the fee will be charged at the arrival pier in Tawau.
Taxi - Taxi fares around town would cost around RM5, and to housing area at RM7 at most.
Bus - RM 2 to travel within town areas. And about RM2 to the rural areas like Balung and Merotai.
As in other parts of Sabah, the lingua franca in Tawau is Bahasa Malaysia, albeit spoken with a distinct Sabahan accent. Within the local Chinese minority, Hakka and Mandarin are the most commonly-spoken dialects.
Tawau's large community of foreigners is comprised mainly of Indonesians. In addition to Bahasa Malaysia, they also speak the languages of their respective ethnic subgroups, particularly Bugis and Timorese.
Most people in Tawau (with the exception of non-Malaysians, who generally speak little to no English) can understand and speak at least basic English.
Within the region of Tawau, tourists can also dive from the islands of Roach Reefs or take an hour drive to Semporna to dive at popular destinations like Mataking, Mabul, Pompong, Kapalai and the Great Sipadan - The only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising about 5000 feet above seabed. Popular dive shops and agents in Tawau includes:
- Tawau Bazaar opposite to Marco Polo Hotel is the best place to buy goods such as Batik sarongs, merchandises, Sabah T-Shirts, handicrafts, branded cosmetics with cheaper price.
There are many hotels in Tawau, a few of which you can book online, but often there are promotions available when you walk up. There are apparently no hostels in Tawau. Also, be aware that in many of the hotels the internet connection is sporadic, only available in the lobby, or not available at all. There is one gaming internet location in the hotel area called Command open til midnight.
Economy Hostel- As basic as the name suggests, but cracking value if you're easily sated. Two 2nd floor hostels next two each other around the corner from down town KFC. Look for the banner on the back of the building. Double fan room with fast wifi,(NOTE, September 2019, this Hostel would not allow foreigners to use the wifi). hot outside shower, 25rm. Next door has no wifi but is only 20rm a night.
Tawau Specialist Polyclinics (TSPC) is a walk-in clinic located at Taman Hilltop and is open 8:30am-9pm Monday-Friday and 8:30am-2pm Saturday-Sunday. TSPC has an on-site medical laboratory and radiology department with x-ray, CT-scanner and MRI-scanner. To book an appointment at TSPC call +6089 755222.
Klinik Famili has courteous doctors throughout the 5 branches around Tawau and its branch at Kompleks Tanjung. Hours of operation are 8:00am-10:00pm everyday including weekends and public holidays.
Sabindo and Sabindo Square are open from 9:00am-8:00pm respectively.
Fajar and Jalan Paya are open until 5 pm. In case of emergency, please contact 089-767878 during office hours or 089-760817 if you need help after office hours.
General Hospital Tawau has 24x7 ER department open to all who need it.