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Backpacker's Guide to Semporna and Tawau

Travelling and going on a holiday can be a luxury because it takes time and money to be done. However, that did not stop many people to fulfil their wanderlust and travel the world. If you are one of them, you are in luck because Tawau and Semporna can be a budget-travel destination that is perfect for you.

So, if you have a limited travelling budget, but you still want to get a taste of everything in Semporna and Tawau, read on.

Go on an island getaway at Tun Sakaran Marine Park

Once you arrived in Semporna, you will realise that there are many island day trips that you can hop on to. One of them is the Tun Sakaran Marine Park day trip. The marine park consists of several islands including Bohey Dulang Island, Mantabuan Island, and Sibuan Island—all of which you will visit on this trip. The trip starts with a short 1-hour hike up Bohey Dulang to see the panoramic view of the whole marine park. After lunch, you will then proceed to Mantabuan and Sibuan for your snorkelling or scuba diving sessions.

Visit the popular Mataking, Timba-Timba, Mabul and Kapalai islands

Some other day trip packages that you can go on are the Mataking and Timba-Timba package, and Mabul and Kapalai package. You really cannot go wrong with picking either of the packages. For example, if you are a muck diving enthusiast, Mabul is the place to go. But if you want to experience sending a postcard underwater, you are in luck since Mataking is home to Malaysia’s first-ever underwater post office!

Dive in Sipadan Island

If you are wondering about snorkelling or diving in Sipadan, there are also day trip packages available. However, the slots are limited and it can get quite pricey, so do a little bit of research and book your slot in advance! If you are a seasoned diver, you should know that it is dangerous for you to take your flight within 24-hours after your last diving session.

Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage Site

If you are short on time and has no way to go for island getaway, there is no better time for you to spend your day than around mainland Semporna!

The first place that you can visit is Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage Site. During the Neolithic period, it is said that Bukit Tengkorak (literally means Skull Hill) is the largest pottery-making site in Southeast Asia. In fact, you can still find shards of pots as you climb the hill. The hike to the top is not that strenuous at all—there are proper stairs provided for guests and they can stop and take a breather in one of their many rest houses along the way.

Tanjung Parapat

If you prefer to go hike on a more off-beaten path, Tanjung Parapat is the place to go. The place is not really a tourist hotspot, so it is a perfect place if you want to experience a bit of quietness away from the busy city life. There is a long jetty for you to wind down and relax while watching the sunset. And if you feel like wanting to work out your sweat for a bit, hiking the nearby hill should give you what you want. Just like in Bukit Tengkorak, you will be rewarded with a view of the sweeping panorama of the whole area, as well as the surrounding islands. 

Fresh (and cheap!) seafood galore

When you are in Semporna, seafood is just something that you cannot miss out on. Fresh seafood is sold cheaply here and you can just buy it from the market and then go to any restaurants and ask the chef to cook it for you. But if you do not feel like picking your own fish, you can just go to one of their many seafood restaurants and eat to your heart’s content. One such restaurant is the aptly named Ikan Bakar Semporna (literally means Semporna’s Grilled Fish).

Exploring Tawau’s charms

If you think that there is nothing much you can do in Tawau, you cannot be more wrong. From its bountiful flora and fauna to its people and culture, there is no shortage of exciting things to be done here!

Giram Nek Legek

One of the places that you should not miss is Giram Nek Legek at Kampung Balung Cocos and its columnar basalt. Columnar basalt is a natural rock formation where they appear as polygonal columns due to rapid cooling of lava. One special thing about this particular columnar basalt is it is one of the few places in the world where you can actually stand on the hexagonal-shaped rocks. Aside from that, the ones in Giram Nek Legek one of the few columnar basalt formations located close to freshwater as many of them can be found near saltwater.

Teck Guan Cocoa Museum

Besides that, you can also visit the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum to learn more about cocoa and chocolate. Tawau is the biggest cocoa producer in the whole of Sabah, so it is not a surprise to have a museum dedicated to educating the public about the wonders of cocoa. When you are there, look forward to eating some of their delicious cocoa-derived snacks, such as chocolate popcorn and chocolate batang buruk. Before coming to Teck Guan Museum, make sure you have make a reservation in advance as walk-in availability is subject to waiting time.

Tawau Tanjung Market

You could also visit Tawau Tanjung Market, which is one of the biggest indoor markets in the whole of Malaysia. It houses 6,000 stalls, which sell various things, such as dried fish, hand-woven baskets, and the ever-popular keropok amplang (a local fish cracker snack), which people often buy as a souvenir.

Gemok Hill

If you are a fitness junkie, a hiking session at Tawau’s Gemok Hill is something that you do not want to miss. The hill is a part of the Gemok Hill Forest Reserve and you will need to pay a small to enter. The trek is 1170 metres long and at the peak, you will be able to see a panoramic view of Tawau township from the Titian Selara canopy walkway. With a length of 231 metres, Titian Selara is one of the longest walkways in Malaysia.