Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 12 (Kota Kinabalu)

Cheap living is much easier with friends. We have been lucky this week to spend time with our new friend, Melissa, who is local to Kota Kinabalu and works in conservation. Melissa has taken us on a beautiful hike and journey exploring the Crocker Range, plus exposed us to excellent local foods like Kadazandusun cuisine.

Kota Kinabalu (KK) is a nice and chilled out city in Sabah, Malaysia (Borneo). We have warmed up to KK and enjoy that it is inexpensive as compared to Kuala Lumpur. Sabahan culture and locals have a relaxed way of life in the cities, but live intensely alongside the wilds of the Borneo jungle. With picturesque mountains and islands ripe with dive sites, it's an excellent family or adventurer's vacation destination.

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): Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
  • Avg. spending per day: $40.12
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $43.32
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $44.60
Welcome to Sabah :)

So what are our living expenses in Kota Kinabalu this week?
  • Conversion rate: 1 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) = US$0.24 (about 4 MYR to $1 US)
  • Accommodation: $155.59 
    • In Kota Kinabalu, our AirBnB is one room in a giant house with a few people living here, and three AirBnB rooms. For lots of pictures and info, check out Week 11
  • Transportation: $11.51
    • Uber got us around this week after a VERY annoying Grab app snafu. Uber, it turns out, can be cheaper if you're traveling during off times (i.e. no traffic).
  • Food and drinks: $97.68
    • In addition to our boring home-grown meals detailed in Week 11, Melissa brought us to a couple of great meals at Restoran Fortuna (where we had an amazing tilapia that was fished out of its tank and perfectly steamed for us) and D'Place Kinabalu where we sampled various Kadazandusun traditional foods. I loved all of the local foods - very acidic and punchy - and Warren thought it was just OK.
Beautifully served in bamboo: salted duck egg, local wild ginger and Borneo mango, salted fish, rice, hinava (my favorite), fern (Warren's favorite), etc. 

Sticky sago in turmeric soup 

  • Entertainment: $16.08
    • On our friend Melissa's recommendation, we visited the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre (twice!) and loved it. Check out my spotlight look for more details. Entry per person is 15myr, and we went back again, making it 60myr total.
    • FREE: Hiking Bukit Bongol Pirasan with Melissa was super fun, although it was completely in the sun. We even caught a glimpse of the top of Mount Kinabalu above the clouds!
    • Warren has never been that sweaty. I am always that sweaty.
The very obvious entry. Perfect for selfies!

Gorgeous view. The mountains are pretty, too ;)
Lovely sunbleached trail

Can you tell where my sports bra is under my shirt? Seriously, I'm always that sweaty.

    • After hiking and eating some chicken soup, we headed to a cool hangout place in Kota Belud, which was 7myr for entry (because we were with a local) and was super cool! It had just rained, so we got to see the crazy rushing river while sipping coffee. Warren took a walk over the hanging bridge to report on the river. Report: it's full of sticks.
Lovely entryway

You pay, then walk over this bridge.
 You can go tubing and swimming... but we didn't, because the water was rushing like crazy, so they weren't allowing people in the water.
Warren for scale.
Sooooo artsy
We were out in the country, only an hour or two from KK, but far enough for the cows and buffaloes to take over.

Out in the country, cows run the show

Silly water buffaloes

Travel budget saving tips:

  • Don't be afraid of local people. I know I've said it before, but people everywhere are usually kind, and want to show you their local way of life. Take the risk, and go along for whatever (legal activities) they have in mind!

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:

Kota Kinabalu is a fun place to experience what Borneo has to offer. You can find classic Malaysian culture (since it is in Sabah, Malaysia) but also older Boreo native cultures are easily accessible. Make friends and go explore the jungle, or stay in the city to enjoy the perfect sunsets. It's a lovely place to travel on a budget!


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