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.

Going on a trip and looking for a wide angle lens? Visit
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.

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The misadventures of an unnamed pup

Once upon a time in 2010, there lived an unnamed puppy.

He was playful and naughty. He liked going out on his own to explore the neighborhood. It gave him a chance to spin tales of his heroic adventures to his 4 siblings. Of course, the mother knew he was spinning tales and warned him not to go alone into this big bad world!!!

But our dude would listen to none, let alone Mom! And off he went again exploring the big bad world of J.P Nagar, .. alone!

His bad luck, it rained that day, heavily! Lightening struck! Streets were filled with water! Every little place was wet!

He lost his way, got wet and was almost in tears.

Heroism turned into fear, fear into helplessness!

Am lost! Mom is nowhere to be seen!

His Mom and siblings were nowhere to be seen. He searched and searched and searched… only in vain.

Its raining! I lost my mom! Can you help me find her?

He then fell into a culvert and couldn’t climb out despite all his efforts. All he could do was to wail.

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Backpacking in Borneo-6: Photography gear to carry

What photography equipment should I carry on my visit to Borneo?

Is the humidity there a problem for camera gear? Should I carry a tripod? Do I need to carry my laptop too? Air Asia has a 7 Kg limit for cabin baggage, right?

These are just few of the umpteen questions a traveler to Borneo would have.

Here’s my attempt at answering a few of those questions. I will split my answer into 4 parts.

  1. must carry list
  2. specialized gear for specific places (must carry for certain places and not of much use elsewhere)
  3. optional gear (nice to have, but can do without it)
  4. points to remember

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Backpacking in Borneo-5: Cave & canopy magic

“Wow! What a beautiful place!!!”, I thought looking through the window of the low flying small sized MA Swings plane.

Mulu from the plane
The thought only strengthened when I landed at the Mulu airport – the smallest and the most beautiful of any I had seen!!!

The cute little Mulu airport

Once inside the airport, Adarsh and I looked for the conveyor belt to pick our baggage… only to find a large table on which all our bags had been thrown. No conveyor belt! From that moment on, Mulu was full of pleasant surprises for the next 3 days!

Tucked away in the distant rain forests of Borneo, wrapped by mountains all around with the Pinnacles standing guard, peppered by rivulets, gifted with the World’s biggest caves and canopies that house a wide variety of wildlife and of course, that brilliant canopy walk-way (longest in the world), Mulu is a jaw-dropping place! Easily, one of the most diverse and the most beautiful places on Earth!!!

If you were to celebrate a birthday for the rocks of Mulu, the cake should be large enough to accommodate anywhere between 40-90 million candles!!! No wonder it is a UNESCO heritage site.

At the Gunung Mulu national park office, after a rickety taxi ride from the airport, we claimed our booking. We also enrolled for a few activities – cave exploration, a night trek and a canopy walk! (Unfortunately due to time constraints, we couldn’t do the Pinnacles trek).

At Gunung Mulu national park

The next 3 days were blissful! The itinerary below.

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Backpacking in Borneo-4: The teksi scare!

Sitting helplessly in a shady taxi, plying through dark and shady streets in the night, in an unknown city, in a foreign country… I was scared of being mugged / kidnapped!


Earlier in the day, Adarsh and I had flown into Kota Kinabalu, late by 30 minutes due to flight delay.

We had to reach the Mt Kinabalu national park head quarters before nightfall, as we were supposed to start our ascent of Mt Kinabalu, the highest peak in S.E.Asia (13,400 feet), early in the morning next day. We knew little about the place, let alone transport options.The one thing we knew was that it took 1.5 hours in a taxi to the HQ.

After a few enquiries, we decided to go to the Mosque area and take a shared-taxi from there to the HQ. The time was 5.30pm. The taxi from the airport to the mosque area took us 15 minutes and cost us MYR 30.

Upon reaching the place, we were told that the last shared-taxi to Mt Kinabalu had already left! The other option was to hire a private taxi at a cost of 160MYR, which we didn’t want. Like abandoned puppies, we went in all directions and enquired about cheap options to reach Mt Kinabalu. All in vain! Our English was of no use with many locals and with the few it worked, answers were not forthcoming!

Frustrated and anxious, we checked the time. It read 6.15 pm.

The ‘Teksi

Just then, a white taxi screeched to a halt near us! A middle aged man in a white shirt sprang out and walked towards us. He came straight to me and spoke in Malay, apparently, stammering a lot. Stammer or not, I did not understand a word of it.

He seemed to indicate that he was willing to take us to some place. He also pointed to his watch and seemed to indicate 7, 8, 9..

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Backpacking in Borneo-3: Wild Wild South-East!

Turn the boat’s engine off, lets just drift”, I told Tong, our guide from Uncle Tan’s wildlife adventures.

It had started raining dinosaurs and elephants and the other two boats (carrying European travelers mostly) were returning back. Adarsh and I were in no mood to go back, for we were on the beautiful Kinabatangan river, with no one else to share it with for miles…. in heavy rain!!! What more could you ask for?

On the Kinabatangan river

With the engine turned off, the boat took its own course following the current of the river, drifting like a vagabond with much ado about nothing! We floated and drifted for the next 2 hours! Life was never this beautiful!!!

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Backpacking in Borneo-2: A sneak preview

After 10 days in Borneo, the oldest rainforests of the world, am back!

It was an out-of-the-world and overwhelming experience to say the least and I need to take time to allow things to sink-in. I am bewitched by S.E.Asia! Perhaps, this is just the beginning.

(Please visit my flickr stream to see  the large size version)

A climber going down Mt Kinabalu

I intend to blog in detail about the trip (including how we planned, expenses, cheap travel options, etc). For now, this post is just a sneak preview of what we did.

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Backpacking in Borneo-1: Prologue

Its travel time! In less than 12 hours from now!

Backpacking to Borneo this time!

Oldest rain forests on Earth, largest caves in the world, tall peaks such as Mt Kinabalu, amazing flora and fauna… Borneo has it all!

As I had tweeted earlier, my Leh-Ladakh trip went to the dogs courtesy the rain gods and the unfortunate devastation there. I had to quickly make alternative plans. I was thinking of either of these

  • Dharamshala
  • Valley of flowers
  • cycling in Nilgiris in rain (again.. never get tired of it)
  • Some other place in Western ghats

However, Adarsh had other plans. Borneo! Initially I didn’t give it much thought, especially because I wasn’t interested in an expensive trip. But when he said he had applied for a visa, I started thinking about it seriously. The airfare on Air Asia for both domestic and international was surprisingly cheap. The fact that I could do this 10 day trip in less than 40-45K (INR) was another alluring carrot dangling in front of me. I gave in! Tickets were booked!

Borneo is the old name for the island comprising East Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. We are visiting only the Malaysian portion of it.

View Larger Map

Here is my 10 day trip itinerary:

  • Aug 27: Bangalore – Kuala Lumpur Air Asia flight
  • Aug 28: KL – Sandakan flight early in the morning (Air Asia)
  • Aug 28, 29, 30: Uncle Tan’s wildlife adventures near the Kinabatangan river (2 nights/3 days)
  • Aug 30:  Sandakan ->Kota Kinabalu -> Miri flights. If possible, roam around Kota Kinabalu as the Miri flight is at 9pm. Sleep in Miri for the night
  • Aug 31: Miri to Mulu 9.30am flight  (Malaysian Airlines)
  • Aug 31, Sept 1 and 2  in Gunung Mulu national park exploring caves and rain forests (2 nights / 3 days)
  • Sept 2: Mulu to Kota Kinabalu flight in the noon (Air Asia). Take a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Mt Kinabalu / Kinabalu park and sleep there for the night
  • Sept 3 & 4: Climb Mt Kinabalu
  • Sept 5: Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia)
  • Sept 6: KL – Bangalore (Air Asia)

And just in case if you are interested, a total of 8 flights cost me 23.4K INR! Air Asia prices are awesome! I only hope the service is decent too. I hope to keep the expenses below 40k (backpacking, staying in dorms, sleeping for a night in the airport, eating cheap stuff, .. you get the picture), but at the same time, not compromise on things that could make for a good trip.

My backpack is packed. Almost all of it is camera equipment. The clothes don’t weigh as much as my lenses! I am carrying my 70-300, 10-24 and 105 VR micro lenses. Along with the SB600 flash and Gitzo tripod/Arca swiss ball head. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu with all this weight is going to be fun… will come back and tell you if I made it or not :-).

My internet access in the next few days is limited. Whenever possible, I might upload a picture or two and post an article maybe. For now… please allow me to drift into dreamland!

Wish me a good trip!!!

Update: Want to know how my trip went? Read the posts below.

The entire Borneo backpacking series is listed below.

US diaries-7: Epilogue

Am returning to India on July 11th.

Yes, I am excited to be back home and look forward to playing with my kid. But there is a tinge of sadness too. I had a great time here. Easily, it was one of the best trips of my life. I visited a lot of places and made a few friends too. Will miss them all. I will especially miss the wonderful national parks of US and those mammoth landscapes!

This post is a quick reflection on my trip in Twitter style. Few words. A photo or two, thats it.

My 3 favorite photos of the trip:

1. Tule elk shot at Limantour wilderness area

Tule Elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes)

2. Antelope canyon

Antelope Canyon

3. Tufa’s of Monolake

Tufa's @ Monolake after sunset!

Places visited and a one line description of each

  • Point Reyes (Limantour, Drakes beach, Bear Valley, Tomales point, lighthouse, Muddy hollow): An amazing place with a great diversity and a great place for birders.
  • Bryce canyon: Amazing hoodoos that can inspire your soul and a clear night sky that can transcend you to Neverland.
  • Grand canyon south rim: A geologists dream. Huge. Did I just say huge?
  • Antelope canyon: An awesome awesome awesome place to be in when the crowd is less.
  • Monument valley: An interesting place at the right time of the day.
  • Horseshoe bend: Sitting at its edge can pack you off to eternal bliss’dom.
  • Colarado river gorge: Unnoticed beauty with extremely inspiring rock formations.
  • Marin Headlands: A cyclists dream route.
  • Golden gate: Shot to death several years ago by photographers.
  • Yosemite (Toulemne meadows, Le Vining, etc): Wonderful. A big big bang bang wonderful. Did I say wonderful?
  • Monolake and its Tufa’s: A wonderful and ever-ongoing love story between a certain Mr Calcium and one Miss Carbonate.
  • Convict lake: Be there at 5.45 am.
  • Alcatraz prison: I went to the once most dreaded jail in the world and came back! Alive!

Most memorable moments
– Cycling in Marin in pitch dark of the night. Taking a detour on Conzelman road and photographing Golden Gate in pitch dark from an isolated area.
– Walking up the Sunset point in Bryce Canyon and being wowed by its beauty.
– First morning in Point Reyes HI hostel. Waking up early and seeing through the large window. Chilly morning. Rain drops. Dreamy mood!
– Driving through Toulemne meadows in Yosemite early in the morning.
– Driving through Point Reyes, esp the Pierce point ranch early in the morning.
– Being so close to a bear in Yosemite.

3 most admired things in US
– US national parks
– ownership of assigned tasks

Random thoughts from the trip
– Absolutely love Galen Rowell’s adventure photography and his go-light-on-gear attitude. A huge Galen fan now!
– David duChemin. I knew him before, but got hooked to his photography during this trip.
– Tenting is fun.
– Night photography is way too much fun.
– VR/IS/SR can never kill a tripod.
– US has as many problems as India does.
– US media is worse than Headlines Today in India.
– We Indians respect white folk more than we do our own folk. The spillover effect of a British raj!
– When you are in trouble, do nothing. Just wait until your head is clear. Most likely, the issue would clear by itself.
– Ghana deserved to win the game. Suarez snatched a goal and got away with a penalty. A sure goal != a chance for a goal.

Additions to my equipment during the trip
– Gitzo 3541LS tripod and Arca Swiss Z1 monoball head
– Nikon TC17E II
– Singh Ray 3 stop soft GND filter
– B+W Kaesemann polarizer
– Canon S90 pocket camera
– Eureka Nxt 2 man tent

Books purchased
– Mountain light by Galen Rowell
– Picture this: How pictures work by Molly Bang
– Photography and the art of seeing by Freeman Patterson

Photographing fireworks

Independence day fireworks display

On July 4th, we had gone to see the fireworks display at Pier 39. It was pretty good, but personally, I was disappointed that it lasted only for 30 minutes.

Nevertheless, here are a few things that helped me photograph the event. Hope it is useful to you too.

1. Use a tripod
Since you will be photographing primarily in the night and shutter speeds will drop to several seconds, you just cannot do without a sturdy tripod.

2. Use a low ISO value
Since you have a tripod, and since you need slightly longer shutter speed to capture the firework trails, use a low ISO value.

3. Aperture of f11-16 works best for me
Wider than F11, the light at the middle could be blown out. Narrower than F16, you could have diffusion issues depending on your lens. F11-16 works best for me.

4. Shoot manual
Go to manual mode. With the aperture mentioned above, you should be able to click at 4 seconds or so and get a decent light trail of the bursting cracker. Depending on the firework, you could get a very nice streak of light.

5. Focusing
Focusing in the dark could be an issue. Few like to focus on infinity and shoot. However, I waited for the first firework burst, when it turned bright, focussed on it and then turned auto-focus off. Until I changed my focal length, I used the same focus. However, you need to be careful not to accidentally turn the focus ring to offset it.

6. Compensate for the fluorescent colors of the crackers
You may perhaps like to use a warm flourescent light white balance if the crackers used tend to emit strong flourescent colors.  Of course, shooting in raw will help you play with multiple white balance options.

7. Mirror lock-up mode with remote release
To avoid shutter release vibration, use the mirror lockup mode and trigger the shutter using the remote. You could also use the 2sec timed release option in your camera if you do not have a remote.

8. If light is too blown out even at low ISO and F16ish apertures, use neutral density filters
Use neutral density filters. If the burst happens in the top portion of the frame, perhaps a 2-3 stop gnd could help.

9. Time the burst
Note down how many seconds every burst and its light trail lasts. Try to match the full duration of the burst trail to get proper trail streaks.

10. Try to shoot when the wind is calm
When the wind is strong, clicking a picture could mean that the streak trails could be blown away by wind causing a fading light blur which you may or may not like. If you want a proper trail, try to click when the wind is calmer.

11. Turn off noise reduction in your camera
If your camera has noise reduction feature turned on, you could spend quite a bit of time between shots when the camera is busy working on the noise reduction (this is why clicking a long exposure could take a long time before camera is ready for next click).

Have fun!

Independence day fireworks display