This is a summary (with some details) of all our travel expenses for the 9 nights / 10 days we spent in Malaysian Borneo (Sabah only) during September / October 2019. We actually spent a full month in Borneo, however, 3 weeks of that time was spent volunteering at a Jungle Camp at the Northernmost Tip of Borneo, so we have excluded this time from the budget report and are only reporting on the 9 nights / 10 days that we spent exploring Borneo. You should keep in mind that if one travels at a slower pace it's easier to make savings as especially transportation can eat into your budget quickly. In this case, we moved around a lot over the 10 days which resulted in much higher transportation costs. We also found that even though we managed to contain our accommodation costs and avoid specialised or fine-dine restaurants, “sightseeing” activities in Borneo are relatively expensive. There were many other activities that we would have liked to do, but we also wanted to limit overall spending.
Travelling full-time changes the way one travels and it becomes less of a quest to tick off the 'popular' sights than it becomes a way of experiencing your surrounds in a slower, relaxed fashion. Many further cost savings are indeed possible, but one should also not completely deprive oneself of uniquely local experiences that ultimately add value to your visit to a foreign country. However, more often than not, the events, encounters and connections with people that stand out, are those that you do not foresee or could even have planned for. Like most things in life, a balance between being frugal and making use of opportunities should be sought.
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(Note that the following spending does not include flights to and from Borneo, but does include local flights within Borneo.)
Kota Kinabalu, 2 nights - Halo Hostel
(1 Bedroom en-suite including breakfast)
Very basic and small en-suite hostel room. The bathroom has a wet room style shower. Simple breakfast was included. Location was not in a great area, but was convenient for being able to walk around Kota Kinabalu and to the informal transportation hub (where we needed to catch a bus from).
Northern Tip of Borneo, 21 nights - Tampat-Do-Aman
We were in one of the 10 very basic “Longhouse” style rooms all adjacent to each other in the main Longhouse. Each room contains a bed with overhead mosquito net and a fan. The room construction is of timber and bamboo, with natural ventilation through the slatted windows (which do not close). Ablutions are in the form of outside, open-air, cold water showers and individual composting toilet cubicles located interspersed in the jungle. Especially considering the heat and humidity, this type of accommodation is no doubt more suited to a short term “jungle stay” experience than for long term stays! It's well located to explore the northern tip of Borneo.
Sepilok, 2 nights - Sepilok B&B
The en-suite room was very spacious and comfortable with a working desk space and two relaxing chairs on the balcony. The bathroom has a separate shower, basin and toilet. Breakfast was a limited buffet style, mostly Asian, but eggs could also be ordered. Location was perfectly suited to us just 500m from the entrance to the Rainforest Discovery Centre and also just 1.6km from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Read more about What To See and Do In SEPILOK.
Sandakan, 1 nights - Sandakan Backpackers Hostel
We were a little surprised to find that the room was only “partly” en-suite, with an en-suite shower room (shower head and basin) but no toilet! There were only shared toilets on each floor. The room itself was fairly spacious and wonderfully light as it was a corner room with big windows and a lovely view out over the sea. Location was great as it was right in the centre and we could easily do the standard “Sandakan Heritage Walk” from there. Also close to many eateries, the Sandakan Harbour Square and Central Market. Read more about What To See and Do In SANDAKAN.
Kota Kinabalu, 4 nights - AirBnB AsiaCityStudioBunkSofaBed
(AirBnB Loft Style Apartment)
The loft-style apartment was both compact and spacious! There was a very comfortable couch area, a fully equipped kitchen and a lovely modern and spacious bathroom. The bedroom loft is a great use of space, but for taller people (such as Andre) that means often bumping your head when both above and below the loft platform! For Lisa, this was the perfect sized “tiny house”! The kitchen was well equipped with a full-size fridge, microwave, single plate induction stove, kettle and laundry machine. Overall the apartment was very comfortable and stylishly decorated. The location was great, with numerous malls in walking distance as well as in close proximity to the Waterfront area and various Markets. Overall this apartment was great value for money. Read more about What To See and Do In KOTA KINABALU.
We generally try to eat like and with the locals. In Borneo, this is very easy with the exception of breakfast. We prefer a western-style breakfast and although this can easily be found in Borneo, it is not the local custom and is thus relatively expensive and more difficult to find. The most traditional local breakfast dish would be nasi lemak (rice cooked with coconut milk) with various accompaniments. For this reason, having breakfast included in our accommodation was convenient when we were not able to prepare our own breakfast at our accommodation.
Traditional cuisine in Borneo is somewhat more limited in comparison with the greater Malaysia. If you are prepared to eat from local street-side stalls, as we did, then you can find tasty and very cheap meals. There is no shortage of cheap food options in places like Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. You can also find western food available but at a significant price premium.
We make use of local transportation as much as possible and only resort to taxis if there's a good reason or no alternative. Public transportation in Borneo can be somewhat challenging though. There are set routes and “pubic transportation departure points”, however, most are in the form of mini-vans which depart only once they are full. The vans are generally in poor condition and the roads are bumpy, making for long and uncomfortable rides. Private taxis can be arranged by most accommodations and are by far a better alternative if you are more than 2 people or limited for time. Grab is only practically available in larger cities such as Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan as their availability in the smaller villages is understandably limited.
MASWings operates in Sabah offering extremely good value short internal flights which we recommend you consider, not only as a practical and efficient way to get around but also for the wonderful experience of flying in one of their Twin Otter Aircraft!
The cities of Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan are fairly pedestrian-friendly, and if you can bear the humidity, you can explore a large area by foot.
We ended up making use of a wide variety of transportation options in Borneo which included the following:
Local shared mini-van from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat (4 hours)
Private taxi from Sepilok to Sandakan
MASwing flight from Kudat to Sandakan
Air Asia flight from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu
Grab to and from airports
For more practical advice on how to get around in Borneo, read our article How To Get To KUDAT & SANDAKAN.
CELLPHONE & DATA
Being very dependent on data for getting around and rather heavy data user generally, this is one of the first things we investigate when staying in a country for a period of time. We found the best option for us was purchasing a local prepaid Tune Talk SIM Card (MYR 10 each) which included some slow-speed data. We then each purchased 1GB of high-speed data and unlimited calls between same network valid for a period of 30 days for an additional MYR 10 each time. There are not many free wifi spots around Borneo although most accommodations will have some form of free wifi included.
Our "General" category includes everyday expenses like toiletries, medical, laundry & small shopping items.
We generally try to stay away from very touristy places and prefer to explore independently. In Borneo however, there are so many “tourist activities” which one simply needs to do! Most entrance fees and activities are fairly expensive and can quickly add up. For this reason, we chose to select only a few places to visit and see all the places we wanted to see there rather than going to more places but not being able to do all the “touristy” things. It is also costly to reach most popular areas of Borneo and for that reason, in our opinion, it’s only really worth going somewhere if you can spend sufficient time there experiencing the place and all that it has to offer. We would definitely like to return with more time to explore further!
Our sightseeing expenses include visiting the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre as well as doing a Night Walk at the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre. Public toilet facilities are available at most tourist attractions although toilet paper may not be provided.