Guide to Semporna, Sabah


That’s literally the Malay translation for Semporna. With the plethora of things to do here, ranging from world-class dive sites to farmstays overrun with cute lil bunnies, it’s not hard to see how this small town on the southeastern tip of Sabah got its name. Here’s a guide to Semporna, so you’ll know what to look forward to for that perfect getaway.

How to get to Semporna from Singapore?

AirAsia flies to JB’s Senai Airport 4 times a week.
Image credit: @keathoau88 via Instagram

Despite Changi Airport having extensive connections to over 500 destinations, unfortunately, Semporna doesn’t count among them. To get there, you’ll have to hop over to JB’s Senai Airport, where AirAsia operates a 2-hour 35-minute flight to Tawau Airport in Sabah that departs every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

Alternatively, those preferring to depart from Changi will have to first catch a flight to Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur first, before transferring on a domestic flight to Tawau Airport. It’s not too expensive too, especially if you book 3-6 months in advance. We found that August was the cheapest month to go, with flight prices as low as $204.

From Tawau Airport, it’s a 1-hour 15-minute cab ride to Semporna, which will set you back anywhere from RM100-RM150 (~S$28.42-S$42.63). Alternatively, many resorts do include airport transfers, so it might be helpful to check with the respective resorts when you book.

– Things to do in Semporna –

1. Mataking, Sipadan, Mabul & Kapalai Island

Dive sites including underwater postbox

Image credit: @roznee via Instagram

Blessed with azure blue waters and an abundance of marine life, it’s no surprise that Semporna is known as one of the best dive sites in Malaysia. Besides swimming alongside schools of sea creatures like eagle rays, pygmy seahorses, and giant whale sharks, you can also post letters at Mataking Island’s underwater post box.

Nailed to the wheelhouse of a sunken cargo ship, the letters from here feature a special stamp to commemorate your visit.

Kapalai Island.
Image credit: @jesxpacito via Instagram

Otherwise, consider popping by Kapalai Island. Home to 23 different coral reefs, opportunities to swim along marine life can be found here too. Head up to the Cleaning Station to watch parrotfish feasting on the algae found on the shells of Hawksbill Turtles, or swim up to the Gurnard Ground to catch the unique flying gurnards “fly” in the water.

Those without dive certifications will be glad to know that snorkelling is available here too. Available in the shallower depths of Sipadan and Mabul Island, these are conducted by tour operators such as Scuba Junkie, and cost RM160 (~S$45.33), inclusive of lunch and equipment.

Scuba Junkie
Block B, Lot 36, Semporna Seafront, Taman Bandar Semporna, 91308 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 07:30 a.m - 06:00 p.m  Show More Timings 

2. Sebangkat Island

Take a walk on the seabed

Image credit: Semporna Seawalking via Facebook

Alternatively, a sea walk is another way to explore the ocean floor, particularly if you’d like to see schools of trevallies frolic amongst the colourful coral reefs of Sebangkat Island.

Organised by Semporna Seawalking, the 30-minute experience is quite literally a walk in the park. The only differences that you’ll notice here are the oxygen supply piped directly to your helmet, the feel of the rough seafloor as you walk along and your wallet feeling $60 lighter.

Book a seawalking tour on Pulau Sebangkat

3. Bohey Dulang Island

Take in the view from atop an extinct volcano

Image credit: @sarkahruskova via Instagram

Derived from the local vernacular for water bowl, it’s not hard to see how Bohey Dulang Island got its name, since its round lagoon is actually the crater of an extinct volcano. Bird watchers will be thrilled at the many birdwatching opportunities present, since birds like babblers and metallic pigeons are known to roost here.

Otherwise, take in the sights of the many rare plants while you scale the 353m-tall hill. These include the likes of the flowering green dragon and the Trichoglottis Geminata, which only grow on volcanic rocks like those found here.

Image credit: @micee1925 via Instagram

The hike is pretty straightforward, with a 700m path heading up to the peak and a 600m one heading back down. That said, covered shoes are a must for this trail, since the sharp volcanic rocks found here make it particularly treacherous.

Book a day trip to Bohey Dulang Island

Boheydulang Island on Google Maps.

4. Tawau Hills Park

Hike up 3 volcanoes, soak in hot springs & swim under waterfalls

Bohey Dulang isn’t the only volcano around these parts, with 3 more found in Tawau Hills Park. Towering more than 1,000m above sea level, the fertile soil of these volcanoes means that some of the world’s tallest trees can be found here.

Tawau Hills Park hot springs.
Image credit: @mokabahh via Instagram

Given the volcanic activity in the area, it’s unsurprising that the park is also home to a number of hot springs. While the water here might be slightly cooler than Sembawang Hot Springs, the views here are hard to beat, with azure blue waters and bleached rocks that’ll make for wanderlusty shots.

Bukit Gelas Waterfall.
Image credit: @adhanizmi via Instagram

The Bukit Gelas and Table Waterfalls make for good stopovers too, whether for a photo op or to splash around. The former’s located a 3.2km hike away from the hot springs, while the latter’s located at the base of the mountain along the main road, making it the more viable option if legs day ain’t today.

Image credit: @obe_yogalove via Instagram

Those looking for a quick hike near Semporna can also consider Bukit Tengkorak, an archaeological heritage site. A short 20-minute drive away, the hill offers a panoramic view of Semporna down below, while its lush green fields are perfect for those looking to channel their inner Julie Andrews.

Tawau Hills Park
Tawau Hills Park, 91000 Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 08:00 a.m - 04:00 p.m  Show More Timings 
Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Site
Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 09:00 a.m - 05:00 p.m  Show More Timings 

5. Secawan Cafe

Munch on local scran like turnips

Image credit: @nnewsnaps_ via Instagram

Whether you’re looking for a cool respite from the heat or just want somewhere to recharge before heading out on your next adventure, Secawan Cafe makes for a great choice.

While it might not have the sea views that other cafes have, the cafe more than makes up for it with its unique food offerings. These include the likes of Sengkuang (RM8.80, ~S$2.50), or turnip, served with rojak sauce, as well as Golden Mini Sweet Buns (RM11.80, ~S$3.34).

Secawan Cafe
FJH5+HV, Pekan Semporna, 91308 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 09:30 a.m - 07:00 p.m  Show More Timings 

6. Timba-Timba Island

Chill out on pristine white beaches

Image credit: @aeropixel via Instagram

If sun, sand, and sea is more your kinda vibe, you’ll want to pop by Timba-Timba Island. Usually included in island-hopping tours from Semporna, the island is located an hour away by boat from the mainland and is famed for its pristine white beaches. A variety of lounging options exist here, ranging from hammocks to gazebos for those wanting to enjoy island life.

Image credit: @xmilxedyy via Instagram

Alternatively, you can consider popping by Mataking Island as well. Home to a beach swing, it oozes Tegalalang Rice Terrace vibes, but has views of the ocean instead of rice terraces. The island’s also home to a turtle hatchery, where you can watch baby turtles hatch from their shells before making a mad frenzy for the sea.

Book an island-hopping tour around Semporna

Mataking Island on Google Maps | Timba-Timba Island on Google Maps

7. Bum Bum & Pom Pom Island

See fish glide below your transparent canoe

Image credit: @lucameglioli via Instagram

Available on various islands, ocean kayaking is yet another activity for those who wanna take it slow. On top of the typically red or yellow resin boats found everywhere, Sipadan Pom Pom Resort & Tours and Semporna SeaSports & Tours both have transparent kayaks for rent too. Available from RM30 (~$8.40) for an hour, they’re made from bulletproof glass, perfect for watching marine animals glide in the clear waters underneath as you paddle along.

Sipadan Pom Pom Resort & Tours Sdn Bhd
Lorong Kapital, A-2-1, Karamunsing Capital, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 09:00 a.m - 05:00 p.m  Show More Timings 
Semporna Sea Sports& Tours Hostel
Lot C2 (Tingkat 1, Jalan Bubul, Bandar Utama, 91308 Semporna, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 08:00 a.m - 05:00 p.m  Show More Timings 

8. 001 Mini-Retreat

Glamp under the stars & play with cute bunnies

Image credit: 001 Mini-Retreat via Facebook

Those drawn more to dry land can pop by 001 Mini-Retreat. Located in the middle of a palm oil plantation, it’s about a 25-minute drive along the only road leading out of Semporna. But if you’re worried about a lack of activities here, given its remote location, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

Adrenaline junkies will be glad to know that ATVs can be rented here for RM50 (~S$14.17), while a go on the flying fox will set you back RM30 (~S$8.52). Otherwise, head over to the lake for a chill pedal boating session, or just feed the horde of rabbits which freely roam around the park. The latter 2 activities are included in the RM15 (~S$4.25) entrance fee.

Image credit: 001 Mini-Retreat via Facebook

Camping here’s also an option too, for those wanting to spend more time on the retreat. Available from RM100 (~S$35.30) per night, you can choose from 2 sites. One is conveniently located right next to the cafe, which also houses a toilet. The other is situated along the river and offers scenic views of the volcanoes in Tawau Hills Park to the west.

001 Mini-Retreat
Jln Tawau, 91308 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday 09:00 a.m - 05:00 p.m  Show More Timings 

9. Terowong Street Pasar Malam

Munch on cheap grub while chilling to live music

Image credit: @ashruffsabudin via Instagram

Now, while most activities on this list are primarily done during the day, that’s not to say that Semporna becomes a ghost town once dusk rolls around. Should a night out on the town be in order, consider popping by the Terowong Street Pasar Malam.

Besides having absurdly cheap lok lok at RM1 (~$0.28)/stick, live bands have been known to make an appearance every weekend, so you can bop along to some tunes while chowing down on pork belly and grilled vegetables. Heartier meals such soto ayam (RM7.10, ~S$2.01) and chicken chop (RM15, ~S$4.25) are available here too, making this a viable dinner spot.

Address: Terowong Street Kampong Cina Pekan, 91300 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 3pm-12am | Sun 12am-12pm, 3pm-12am
Contact: +60 17-846 3096 | Terowong Street Pasar Malam Facebook

10. Teck Guan Cocoa Village

Play outdoor activities & learn about cocoa production

Image credit: @aemstagram_ via Instagram

Perched atop Quoin Hill, one of the many hills surrounding Tawau Hill Park, lies Teck Guan Cocoa Village. A 30-minute drive from Tawau Airport, it’s primarily geared towards more outdoorsy folks, with activities here including the likes of abseiling and zip lining (RM30, ~S$8.52/ride). They also offer short 2km treks to the nearby 75m-high Majesty Waterfall, which will set you back RM70 (~S$19.88).

Teck Guan Cocoa Museum’s cocoa processing facilities.
Image credit: Go-Borneo

Whether you’re looking for a way to beat the heat or just want some sweet chocolatey goodness, the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum is also a good place to pop by. Not only will you get to see the entire chocolate-making process, you’ll also learn more about how cocoa was essential to the area’s development.

In fact, the cocoa here is of such good quality that Cadbury and Godiva use it to make their chocolate bars.

Teck Guan Cocoa Village & Tawau Cocoa Cafe
Quion Hill Miles 15 Balung Apas, 91000 Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Sunday 10:00 a.m - 05:00 p.m  Show More Timings 
Teck Guan Cocoa Museum
TB6853, Batu 2, Jalan Tanjung Batu Laut, 91000 Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia

11. Tawau Tanjung Market

Snag souvenirs at Malaysia’s largest market with 6,000 stalls

Image credit: @isa_bahh via Instagram

Considered Malaysia’s largest market, Tawau Tanjung Market is home to 6,000 stores that sell everything from local snacks like amplang, or fish crackers, to powerbanks. While stores on the 1st and 2nd floors stock the regular stuff like dried seafood, vegetables and kitchenware, the 3rd floor’s home to artisanal stores peddling wares like wooden carvings and hand-woven baskets. Perfect for snagging some memorabilia to commemorate that perfect getaway.

Address: Bandar Tawau, 91000 Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening hours: 6am-6pm, Daily
Contact: +60 14-912 2036 | Tawau Tanjung Market Facebook

– Where to stay in Semporna? –

The Wharf

Live out your budget loft dreams from $23/night

Image credit: TripAdvisor

Travellers on a budget can head over to The Wharf, a small inn located on a finger pier projecting out to sea. But before you equate its affordable S$23/night rate with Hotel 81 standards, we’ll have you know that each loft room here features a balcony with a bathtub, so you can take in the sea breeze while soaking in your bubble bath. The rooms have enclosed showers too, if you prefer a little more privacy while soaping off.

1, Jln Kastam, Pekan Semporna, 91308 Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia
Opening Hours: Saturday Open 24 Hours  Show More Timings 

Mataking Reef Resorts

Offshore island resorts

Image credit: Mataking Reef Resort

Alternatively, the many dive resorts located on the offshore islands make a great choice too. Resembling kelongs, packages here often include boat transfers between the islands as well as to and from Semporna.

For example, a 3D2N package for Mataking Reef Resort starts from RM3,600 (~S$1,025.56) and includes 3 complimentary meals per day and an airport transfer, in addition to the water shuttle to and from the mainland.

Book a stay at the Mataking Reef Resort.

How to get around Semporna?

Thanks to Semporna’s relatively compact size, the town itself is pretty walkable. That said, intrepid island hoppers or those living on offshore resorts will have to take a boat transfer out from the many jetties dotting the waterfront. Otherwise, Tawau Airport is also home to more than a few car rental services, making inland destinations a breeze to get to.

Book a boat transfer between the islands.

Plan a trip to Semporna in Sabah

With must visits like Mataking Island’s underwater post office, the hot springs at Tawau Hills Park, and the incredible views from atop Bohey Dulang Island, it’s hard to disprove Semporna’s name.

What’s more, with the 4 weekly flights linking Semporna to JB, having that perfect holiday just got a whole lot easier.

For more things to do in East Malaysia:

Cover image adapted from: TravelwithSyaz via, @lucameglioli, @roznee via Instagram

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