Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 10 (Kota Kinabalu)

Kota Kinabalu is a lovely city in Malaysian Borneo (Sabah state). This week we hiked around a park, ate some delicious street chicken, visited the Mari-Mari Cultural Village, and moved into a new AirBnB just south of the airport. Now that we have adjusted to the city, living on a budget is much easier.

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: $47.59
  • Splurges: entertainment
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $50.79
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $44.96

 
Monica taking in the beautiful islands off of a hidden beach in Kota Kinabalu

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: $123.09 
    • In Kota Kinabalu, we spent a few nights staying with two friends in a larger apartment, which was just OK. We were in a giant locals' apartment complex so we got to experience a more normal way of life than living in the middle of the city. Our portion of the rate was $14.10 per night.
    • We moved into a new AirBnB when our friends left Borneo. It's a super cool giant house with a few people living here, and three AirBnB rooms. The regular roommates are awesome and we are excited to be here for three weeks!
Video tour... coming next week because I'm lazy
  • Transportation: $12
    • Whew, I'm glad we didn't fly this week. Transportation expenses were more normal!
    • Note that our friends rented a car for three days, at a cost of 450myr total (US $108). They drove to Sandakan and loved it, so if you're here for a limited time, but want to see Kinabalu and the Orangutan reserve it's worth the time and money!
    • Taxis (Ubers and Grabs) were a regular near-daily cost, but we split them among four of us so it's hard to estimate our share. The ones that I personally booked were 50myr ($12).
  • Food and drinks: $142.80
    • We had a couple of pricey meals, but overall food was a lot cheaper in KK than it was in Kuala Lumpur.
    • We splurged on lots of drinks with old and new friends, but managed to find them at a pretty reasonable cost at local establishments (booze for 35myr a bottle, cans of Tiger beer for 5myr).
 
Local rum made poker nights at home a lot more interesting

  • Entertainment: $55.20
    • FREE: Bukit Padang hiking trails were within an hour walk of our apartment, so we decided to take a quick hike up a million stairs to see the views.
 Entrance to the park and surrounding areas

Beginning of the jogger's loop: take a left when you get in, and start walking on this path to find the hiking trails.

Abandoned water park along the way!

It was probably cool at one point.

Most of the trails are quite lovely.

The stairs were really beautiful and surprisingly steady
View of our beautiful faces to prove that we went to Bukit Padang

Mountain view to the east

City view to the west
 
View to the north

If you're exhausted at the end, buy a coconut from these people.
 
    • OK so we saw Thor Ragnarok in theaters because we're human beings and Thor is amazing. 32myr ($7.68) for two tickets, since we pre-booked online for a busy Saturday night showing.
    • The Mari-Mari cultural village was awesome, and totally worth the 198myr ($47.52) for two people!
We had to pick a "leader" for our 15-person tour group, so the strangers chose Warren because... he's tall? Here he is in traditional dress, with the tribal chief.

 
"Volunteers to dance?" Warren was first. He didn't realize the only other volunteers would be small children.

At the end of the tour, there is a traditional dance and music performance. Here we are, cheesin' with the locals.
 
We both said yes to free henna tattoos because we're nerds.

Travel budget saving tips:

  • Don't be afraid of street food. Eat later than most people and the food will be fresh, and you can always judge a place by how many local people are eating there. Plus, you can see how clean it is/isn't.
  • Stay away from 7-Eleven in Malaysia -- it's more expensive than pretty much any local establishment!
  • Go out if you want to drink. It isn't really cheaper to drink beer at home, so you might as well get some entertainment out of it.

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:



Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah state of Malaysia, was formerly North Borneo. It is a great place to go jungle trekking, scuba diving, snorkeling, and above all, a great place to learn about the amazing native culture that still exists in Borneo.

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