Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 9 (Kuala Lumpur --> Kota Kinabalu)

Speedboats! Tropical fish! Chinese food! Giant shopping malls! Rainforest! This week, we left Kuala Lumpur and flew to Kota Kinabalu, in the Sabah state of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Living on a budget has been tough, but it's been an interesting week.

Budget living in Kuala Lumpur is not that easy, compared to other Southeast Asian destinations. KL on a budget means mostly street food, slow buses, and watching wealthy people spend tons of money in fancy malls. That said, Kuala Lumpur has a diverse population, and with that comes delicious Chinese, Thai, and other Asian food; interesting neighborhoods and cultural interactions; and lots of other people living on a budget.

We knew KL was kind of expensive, so we only stayed eight days. Then, we made our way to Kota Kinabalu (KK), in Malaysian Borneo. KK is much smaller, at just under half a million people, and it shows: traffic is lighter, downtown is smaller, locals are friendlier, and most things are cheaper. It's a tourist spot, so there are lots of beautiful outdoor activities. So far, we have checked out the city and taken a speedboat to a couple of beautiful islands.

Our goal: $50 per day total, including transportation, accommodation, visas, and bills back home. For two people.

In every budget update I will add a prorated estimate of our bills back home (loans, phone plan, etc. which may vary slightly by month), to include in our $50/day travel budget. I am not including travel insurance -- this would add about $5.75 per day to our total.

  • Days: 7
  • Location(s): Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
  • Avg. spending per day: $78.06
  • Splurges: transportation, expensive drinks, speedboat trip
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $88.08
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $44.32

Obligatory PETRONAS Towers picture in KL

So what are our living expenses in Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu this week?
  • Conversion rate: 1 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) = US$0.24 (about 4 MYR to $1 US)
  • Accommodation: $166.89
    • Our apartment in the south part of Kuala Lumpur has been pretty lux (video in week 8), although we really should have spent a couple bucks and been closer to the city. Budget accommodation in KL is readily available, and we had the options, we just misplayed this round. We could have upgraded from our $25 per night place and been in a better location.
    • Grabs or Ubers into/out of town can be as cheap as 8myr ($1.92) but oftentimes are closer to 12-15myr, because you are further away in the city or you are trying to travel in one of the ~6 hours per day when there's a peak surcharge. At 12myr each way, you're looking at around 24myr or $5.76 per day on taxis. Doesn't sound like a lot, but $5 is 10% of our daily budget!  
Menara Tower view from rooftop cocktails
    • In Kota Kinabalu, we are staying with two friends in a larger apartment, which is just OK. We are outside the city (8myr grabs each way again) and the apartment is an interesting interpretation of its advertisement, but we're doing fine! 
  • Transportation: $82.37
    • Oh boy! Budget travel in KL adds up!
    • Taxis (Ubers and Grabs) quickly summed up to 46myr for a few trips to/from Kuala Lumpur, plus our split of the taxis to/from the airports (38myr; Grab car from KL city to KLIA is about 70myr). Our share of taxis into/out of Kota Kinabalu was 16myr. Total: 100myr ($24)
Sometimes the best stuff is free, like our quick hike up to the Signal Hill Observatory Tower
 Thanks to Andy for the lovely pictures
Mags didn't get the memo.
    • The Batu caves are readily accessible via train from the city for 2.60myr (about $0.62) but we were not near Sentral station, so it was more reasonable for three people to take a ~15myr each way Grab car. We split this with one friend. Entrance is free!

Big man in charge
 View of Kuala Lumpur from the Batu Caves stairway
Cave monkey!

The giant cave!
    • Flights for two people from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu cost $53.57 on AirAsia.
  • Food and drinks: $265.44 (1106myr)
    • Yeesh, drinks are expensive in KL. We really should have been teetotalers all week, but booze proves necessary when you have traveling with friends :)
    • We primarily only ate out for dinner, but combine a couple of rooftop beers (30 myr each! $7.20!) with daily water (around $4 a day) and a couple of up-market meals, and we went well over budget.
    • You can eat street food and it is much cheaper, and I recommend it, but unfortunately due to our location, it wasn't really available around us at dinner time. Next time we are in KL we will stay near Jalan Alor and live on food-on-sticks!
  • Misc: $31.68
    • We had to re-up on some basics (toothpaste, toothbrushes, anti-inflammatory medicine) which came out to 32myr. 
    • Entertainment: We took a speedboat (100myr for two people, to Sapi and Manukan islands) to TARP for swimming and looking around. The boat ride itself was quite the experience... it's sort of like a rollercoaster. You love it and question your sanity at the same time. The islands, however, were amazing, and we even saw a giant monitor lizard (about a meter long)!
"Enjoying" the speed boat ride
Giant lizard!

This fish wouldn't get out of the picture.

Andy's artistic beach photo.

Travel budget saving tips:

  • Skip the booze!
  • Travel with other people on a strict budget, or just meet out for defined plans. It's hard to stick to a budget when everyone else is spending 4x as much as you are. It's not their fault, and it's OK to stretch your budget to see your friends, but it must be kept to exceptional circumstances (like a week in Borneo)!
  • Take a walk! A $2 cab ride seems so menial that you'll find yourself spending all your fun money on taxis. If it's under 30 minutes, you can absolutely walk it.
KLCC park is a great place for a walk. There's a waterpark for kids, too.

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:

Malaysia is one of the more expensive Southeast Asian destinations, and Kuala Lumpur is probably its most expensive city. Alcohol is expensive, so budget travelers should keep their drinks to a minimum. Grab and Uber are cheap, but so are your feet, so take advantage of the good infrastructure in the cities and walk around. Stick to your budget by finding cheap street food. Borneo can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be, so take advantage of its natural beauty and keep you luxuries to a minimum!


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