I’ve gone back and forth about whether to write a wrap-up post for our time in Borneo—normally I only do these for countries (which Borneo is not, made up as it is of three different countries) and much of what I have to say about Malaysian Borneo is true for Malaysia as a whole. Then again, there were a few things about our time in Malysian Borneo that were rather unique, and I do think that spending patterns are sufficiently different between the two regions that one’s approach to planning and budgeting time in Borneo would be different than spending time in peninsular Malaysia. With that perspective in mind, I decided that it would be worth it to separate out and share our costs for traveling in Malaysian Borneo, but will save a full-blown “Everything You Wanted to Know” style post for when we’re finished discussing our time in Malaysia proper.
I think the main question people have about visiting Borneo is whether it is expensive or not. As you’ll see, the answer to that is a supremely wishy-washy “probably.” And by that we mean that it depends on your frame of reference and what you intend to do while there. Check out our Malaysian Borneo budget breakdown to see what I mean:
Malaysian Borneo By the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Malaysian Borneo: 20
Places Visited: Sabah Province (Kota Kinabalu, Sipadan & Semporna, Sandakan, Sepilok); Sarawak Province (Miri, Mulu, Kuching)
Total Number of Cities Visited: 7
Average Daily Cost, per person: $80.30 US
Projected Daily Budget, per person: Our overall trip budget is $50/person, so we were $30.30 US (per person!) OVER budget!
Cost of transport from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (flight): $67.60 US per person (or $135.21 US total)
Cost of transport from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur (flight): $54.90 US per person (or $109.81 US total)
Cost of 90-day visa: Free! (Although Sabah & Sarawak are part of Malaysia, you will have to go through immigration again when passing into either province, as citizens from peninsular Malaysia are not allowed to freely immigrate to either province.)
Total Malaysian Borneo Costs PER PERSON: $1728.48 US
I’m not going to show the plot of our daily spending because our time at Sipadan skews the scale so much as to make it difficult to really appreciate just how much it varied from day to day. Instead I’ll say that there were days where we spent as little as $9.50US per person, and—even with our Sipadan days removed—there were other days where we spent as much as $86 US per person. So, clearly our spending in Borneo was all over the place, which I think highlights just how difficult it is to anticipate an appropriate budget for traveling here. As a general rule of thumb, I’d say aim high.
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our transport into Borneo. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other like-minded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as buying cough syrup as we did while in BSB. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: Although $9/day per person doesn’t seem too shabby, this value might be a bit on the low side for most travelers, for a few reasons: 1) We CouchSurfed 4 nights while in Kota Kinabalu; 2) When diving at Sipadan all of our costs (food, lodging, diving, transport) were lumped together, so we don’t really have a lodging estimate for those days. Same goes for when we did the Kinabatangan river cruise, when we just paid a package lump sum. On the other hand, we did celebrate my 30th birthday while in Borneo, so we splashed out and spent 2 nights at a fancy resort that cost $40/per person/night so that might balance things out a little bit. To be on the safe side, I’d probably suggest budgeting $15/day per person for lodging.
In general, I’d say that lodging in Borneo is a bit on the pricy side (at least compared to the rest of Malaysia), particularly if you’re a couple who prefers private rooms to dorms. We weren’t really looking for hostels while in Borneo, but I got the impression that there aren’t really that many anyway, and you’re more likely to stay at guesthouses and hotels. Be prepared to be flexible, as we tried out the gamut of lodgings while in Borneo, from dorms, to swank resorts, to places with shared bathrooms… you get the picture. Most of the places we stayed were fine, but quite basic and generally unremarkable.
Food: Have we ever spent so little on food in any destination? Again, this estimate might be slightly lower than others will find due to the aforementioned Sipadan & river cruise lump sum issue, and also because our CouchSurfing host cooked us up several delicious meals for free. That said, food generally was quite reasonably priced in Borneo, as it is throughout Malaysia. I would say that it is not unreasonable to plan on spending about $3-4US per person per meal, but rarely would you ever spend more than that. I will say that although prices were comparable to the mainland, neither Tony nor I were particularly blown away by the food we had in Borneo. On the whole I would say the food is better on the mainland, although the home-cooked meals we had really were fantastic.
Transportation: Our first budget buster appears. Unlike the mainland, it’s a huge pain to get around Borneo, which is perhaps not to be unexpected when you’re dealing with an island that is largely untouched jungle. Considering the distances covered, the buses are not especially expensive, but they are incredibly time-consuming. We had just over three weeks to make our way from Kota Kinabalu to Sarawak, so we wound up taking three domestic flights during our time there (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau (to dive Sipadan), Miri to Mulu, and Mulu to Kuching). At around $45/per person for each of these flights, they definitely inflated our travel costs, though given the time savings (and added comfort) they provided, we are happy we did so; they prevented us from doing a lot of backtracking and they salvaged three days of our trip for us that would have otherwise been lost solely to transport (possibly more, as accessing Mulu overland can take three or four days!).
Ironically, if you are coming from Malaysia, it’s actually not that expensive to reach Borneo. Air Asia runs plenty of flights to Kota Kinabalu and Kuching (as well as various other cities), and it’s rare you’ll pay more than $50US per person (and possibly far less if they have a special promotion, which they usually do). Obviously we didn’t get the greatest deals on our flights, but we bought them less than a month before our visit.
Attractions: Our major outlay and by far the one area that will really destroy your budget while in Borneo. As you can see, we spent nearly 75% of our budget on attractions while in Borneo, probably an all-time record for us. Again, this value might be slightly inflated because we logged our pricey diving and (not-so-pricey) river cruise packages under this category, however, I think it’s accurate to say that attractions are really quite expensive in Borneo and will definitely cost more than you expect. We reasoned that the reason we visited Borneo was to experience the natural attractions it had to offer and we were willing to pay for that privilege. Although there are some cheap activities to be done around Kuching and Sarawak, most of the big-ticket items will cost you a pretty penny. And let’s be honest, you didn’t go all the way to Borneo to hang out in the cities and museums and not see the wildlife.
If you’re a diver, you could probably still shave a little bit off our daily total if you choose to dive with someone other than SeaVentures. If you’re not interested in diving or doing any kind of rainforest trekking deep in the heart of the island, then you could safely cut this in half; just be aware the any kind of adventure or cultural activity will probably cost at least $30US per person.
If We Could Do It All Over Again…
I didn’t fully realize until I started writing this post just how much money we spent during our time in Borneo. I had always known it was pricey compared to the rest of Malaysia, but hadn’t realized exactly how expensive it was. I certainly didn’t anticipate that we were spending the same amount as in JAPAN, but the numbers don’t lie. When you’re spending $80US/day per person and are therefore $30 over budget, it’s hard to gauge whether Borneo is a good value destination, especially when so many nearby countries are so much cheaper. It’s almost redundant to say we had an amazing time in Borneo, because although that’s definitely true, for the price, you’d certainly expect nothing less.
Still, we really did have a lot of unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are hard (but not impossible!) to put a price tag on, the kind of experiences you can’t really have anywhere other than Borneo. Seeing wild orangutans, cruising down rivers and spotting pygmy elephants, visiting some of the best caves in the world, staying on an all inclusive dive rig in the middle of the Celebes Sea and being cocooned by swirling schools of jackfish at one of the world’s best dive destinations… few of those things were cheap, but neither of us would trade any of those moments just to have a bit more money in our travel fund. Indeed, I think we’d argue that those are the very moments that tend to be the highlight of most travelers’ RTW trips. Undoubtedly we could have traveled through Borneo for far less, but that would have meant experiencing far less as a result, and I’m not sure the trade off would have been worth it. We’d both love to dive Sipadan again some day, but we might pursue a more budget-friendly route next time around, which would dramatically reduce our daily costs.
Neither of us has any regrets about the time we spent in Borneo, except we wish we had more of it! It’s probably best for the sake of our travel fund that our time was limited, but when locals laughed at us when we told them only had three weeks and informed us we’d barely have time to explore one province never mind two, they were correct. We wound up spending most of our time in Sabah province, and had to squeeze in Mulu and Kuching in Sarawak within one week. From the little we saw, we personally felt that Sarawak had more of the untamed, untouched vibe going for it and it felt more like the Borneo we had dreamed up in our heads (it’s definitely the more difficult province to travel around). We really enjoyed all of the activities we did in Sabah, but we both wished we had devoted a little more time to explore Sarawak.
The Bottom Line
So, is a trip to Borneo expensive? Probably for most people the answer will be yes; it certainly was for us. I don’t pretend that this is a destination that couldn’t be done for less money than what we spent, but then again, I wonder whether you’d really want to visit it that way.