Backpacking in Borneo-7: Expenses & tips to keep it low

“How much  did the Borneo trip cost you?”

“How did you keep your expenses low?”

These are two questions many of my friends had asked me. This post is an attempt to answer these questions. I hope you find it useful too.

The 11 day trip (from Aug 27 evening flight to Sept 6 evening flight) cost me INR 52018.5 including the visa application, insurance and other expenses that I incurred even before starting the trip. You can download an excel sheet containing the entire list of expenses here.

Most of the planning was done by Adarsh Raju, my good friend. It was indeed his effort that really helped in keeping costs low at the same time not skipping on the good things that Borneo has to offer. So, all credit to him!

At first thought, it might appear not so cheap, but considering the number of things that we did, I think we did fairly well to keep things tight.

  • 8 flights, 2 of which were international
  • Kuala Lumpur (transit), Sandakan, Kota Kinabalu, Miri (transit) and Mulu covered
  • Food, accommodation for all days including stay at places like Sutera lodge atop Mt Kinabalu,  Gunung Mulu national park,  Unce Tan adventures, etc
  • climbing Mt Kinabalu, guide fee, permit
  • 4 boat safaris
  • 3 forest treks
  • 4 cave explorations
  • 1 canopy walk
  • connecting travel (taxi, boat and bus rides)
  • visa, travel insurance, trip related purchases

The flight expenses were INR 23992 and non-flight expenses were INR 28026.

The average cost of acquisition of a Malaysian Ringitt to me was 15.3 INR. Every MYR expense was converted to INR by multiplying by 15.3.

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Lens rental in Bangalore

Given below are a few reports that indicate the expenditure trend. Since the flight expenses are much higher than anything else and skew the report (one bar will be much higher than all of the rest), I have excluded the flight expenses.

All data is in INR.

Few pointers

  • the packages at Uncle Tan‘s and Mt Kinabalu (for the climb) were the most expensive items – but included food, stay, activities, etc
  • pretrip expense includes the insurance cost, visa application, etc
  • spent a night in KL airport during arrival and departure for transit. Miri was the other transit, which we spent in a dorm
  • clearly, the climb (Mt Kinabalu) was the most expensive activity
  • Uncle Tan’s, though it appears expensive covered a lot of activities, food, accommodation and in my opinion, well worth the cost

Tips to keep Borneo trip cost low

A. Air travel

  1. Air Asia is the cheapest carrier. Book atleast a month in advance. Look for promotions.
  2. Malaysian airlines is not cheap, but has interesting promotions involving multiple countries. See if it works for you.
  3. Avoid flying on weekends / peak season to get better rates.
  4. Book your Air Asia flight food while buying ticket. You get a discount.
  5. Do not buy the comfort kit from Air Asia. Not worth 350 bucks.
  6. If you are carrying more than 7 Kgs, make sure you buy additional luggage capacity from Air Asia. 15Kg should suffice. They are pretty stringent about luggage.
  7. 7 Kg is what you can carry as cabin baggage. Perhaps, sling your camera across neck along with a heavy lens. That should shave a couple of Kgs off your baggage allowance.
  8. Malaysian airport guys are stamping-happy dudes. Even domestic flight across states – you get stamped on the passport.

B. Calling India

  1. For phone, buy Tune talk online from Air Asia while booking air ticket. For 95 INR, you get 5MYR worth talk time. A call to India costs 14 cents per minute. That’s a talk time of 35 mins.
  2. Tune top-up’s are not easily available at stores, but can be done online. Perhaps top it up for the 30MYR as soon as you get your SIM. (And there was a campaign that gave you a free domestic ticket for topping for 30MYR. Conditions apply though.)

C. Accommodation

  1. Backpacker’s dens / hostels / bed & breakfast places are available in plenty in cities. Use them. ~25-30MYR per day.
  2. Uncle Tan, Kinabalu national park, Sutera… all these get filled up much in advance depending on season. So, book in advance before going there.
  3. Sleep in the Kuala Lumpur airport to save on transit cost. KL is expensive.
  4. If you are in Miri airport for transit, you cannot stay overnight as it closes at 11pm or so. Stay at the 30MYR backpackers place in front of the airport there if you have an early morning flight. Also will help avoid taxi costs.

D. Local travel

  1. Try to take a share-taxi / bus wherever possible and avoid taxi’s if possible. (I once walked 4Km with a 20Kg backpack to avoid taking a taxi. Saved 28 MYR by taking a 2MYR bus to airport. If you think its not worth the effort, by all means, take the taxi. I did it because I enjoyed it too.)
  2. If you have a heavy backpack, you can leave it with the airport luggage service if you are just staying there for a day. This will ensure that you can travel light and hence be able to take buses and not taxis.
  3. Do not feel shy to ask fellow travelers if they are going to the same destination and if they are willing to share the taxi cost.
  4. 3-4 member team is the best optimized I believe, to share costs, to ensure accommodation and arrangements in same safari’s, etc.
  5. Do prior research about places to stay. Book in advance. More importantly, ask them for local mode of transport to reach them.

E. Food & beverages

  1. Carry a water bottle and fill it wherever possible. 1ltr water bottles cost 3MYR at most places.
  2. Nasi lemak and Nasi goreng are safe bets as far as cheap food is concerned. At some places like the Kinabalu bus terminal, Nasi lemak plus coffee costs only 5 MYR.
  3. Carry tea bags with you if you are a frequent tea drinker with a few sugar packs. Some hotels have hot water jugs. Make your own tea and save 3MYR (45INR).
  4. It pays to be a non-smoker, teetotaler. Beer can costs around 8MYR+ at most places.

F. Other

  1. Visa application cost me 1400 INR. I believe that’s about the cheapest from reliable tour operators.
  2. Insurance cost me 675 INR from ICICI Lombard. If you want a cheaper one, take the Air Asia insurance when you buy the ticket.
  3. Carry a wifi phone to access free internet at airports / Starbucks.
  4. Carry enough MYR from India. USD works in Malaysia, but not everywhere. Also, conversion rates may not be great.
  5. Shoes: instead of spoiling your expensive Adidas / Nike shoe, would suggest that you buy a 50MYR Adidas Kampung shoe for those trips that you have to do in rain in the forest. Made of rubber, it doesn’t get wet and is pretty decent in grip. (or you could carry a pair of cheap rubber shoes from India). Of course, you cannot use it everywhere.
  6. Not all activities cost you money. The birding I did at DeVilla (Mt Kinabalu) was truly memorable for the multiple sightings and it cost me nothing.

The entire Borneo backpacking series is listed below.

Backpacking in Borneo-6: Photography gear to carry

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