The name 'Menggatal' is largely believed to refer to the name of a tree that cause skin itchiness, hence the name which means 'causing itch' in Malay.
The sub-district was originally populated sparsely by native Dusuns, but of late there has been a drastic increase in the population of Filipino and Indonesian immigrants, many of whom have been naturalised (both legally and illegally) and remain in squatter colonies not only in Menggatal but in many other parts of Sabah.
The state's main institution of learning, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, is located at a seaside area of the sub-district. However, it is not in the vicinity of the town proper.
Menggatal town proper consists of several rows of shophouses. Of these, most are modern concrete ones but there are three remaining blocks of wooden shophouses that date back to the pre-World War II era. The occupants of Menggatal's shophouses are mainly ethnic Chinese. In the centre of the town near the current bus terminal stands the former Paramount Cinema, now housing several shops.
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