Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 11 (Kota Kinabalu)

Food festival and new friends! Car accident! Lizard poop! Homemade Louisiana gumbo and Sabahan raw fish and Korean stew! Rock climbing! Kentucky bourbon! This week in Kota Kinabalu had some ups and downs... but overall I'll call it a success!
Kota Kinabalu (KK) is a relaxed city in Sabah, Malaysia (Borneo) that many people use as the home base for climbing Mount Kinabalu. The climb is expensive (and we don't really have the right gear for it) so our trip has been mainly checking out the city. It's hot, close to mountains and right on the beach, and a great place for diving, snorkeling, visiting cultural sites, and generally seeing how Sabahans live.

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: $38.93
  • Splurges: family dinner
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $42.13
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $44.71
Skulls collected by indigenous headhunters at the Sabah Museum
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. With a small weekly discount this comes out to around $22.23 per night, which includes basic breakfast, private bathroom with hot water and A/C, and cool people to keep you company. We have access to a great kitchen, dining table, and living room with cable and a huge TV. There's a climbing wall and pool table outside.
    • I felt weird taking a video of someone's home when they are literally living in it at the same time, so here are some pictures of cool stuff around the house:
Living room and giant TV

Beautiful ship

This little guy is an instrument -- drag the stick along the frog's back and it sounds like a bullfrog.
Mcqueen (homeowner) collects Monopoly games
Dining area
Legit kitchen

Massage chair and guitars
Outdoor pool and darts area

The other side has a bar

 Figa is my favorite little old lady who snores loudly

Very accurate house rules 

 Harleys, skulls, and Buddhist shrines.

Traditional bow and instrument

 Buddhist shrine
  • Transportation: $10.56
    • Yet again we used Grab cars when we needed to, but walked as much as possible. I'm not going to lie, when you're stuck in the rain at a restaurant, it's amazing to pay someone 4myr (yes, $0.96) to bring you home! Total: 44myr
    • Even paying someone to drive can be dangerous! I was in a minor car accident coming back from the city. Long story short, my safe local driver was using a roundabout correctly, while about 3 cars coming into the roundabout were not. They cut him off and he stopped so we didn't hit them, and while we waited for these dummies to figure it out, we were rear-ended by someone else who wasn't paying attention in the roundabout. Moral of the story? Always wear your seatbelt, even in taxis or Grab cars! I was fine and it was no big deal... but it could have been worse, and I'm glad I had a seatbelt on.
  • Food and drinks: $102.72
    • Occasionally we go out for lunch but it's mostly brunch at home consisting of eggs and toast, sardines on crackers, apples, ramen noodles, etc.
    • We had three excellent home cooked meals this week. One of the benefits of a shared house with a real kitchen is that you can cook each other your own local food, and there are enough people that it's fun for everyone!
    • Warren showed off his skills by making chicken and shrimp gumbo for everyone using only Malaysian ingredients. Luckily our hosts have Tabasco! It came out great and tasted like home! I would estimate that the ingredients put us back about 60myr ($14.40) and made about 10 large meals. 
Gumbo about halfway through
Everyone had seconds, and some had thirds! Success!

    • After this, Mcqueen (who owns the house) showed up with some Bookers bourbon and really peaty scotch... things got a bit messy.
Happy Warren
Mcqueen and Warren a couple of hours later... 

    • One night, a few of the local housemates grilled some chicken and lamb chops, and fried big pieces of tuna. YUM.
    • Another visiting guest is from Korea so she made a kimchi and pork stew which was amazing. Mcqueen also made a local soup, and steamed grouper, and let us try out a local dish of raw fish with bitter gourd. That last one left us a bit conflicted... bitter gourd is weird! Overall, it was super fun and really nice to try new things.
Steamed grouper, YUM
    • Finally, we went to the Sabah Food Festival which is happening until Sunday 12th so if you are in Kota Kinabalu, check it out! Lots of Borneo cuisine.
Standing in so many lines, with so many people
Long potato Step 1: squirt potato paste into a tray. Step two is to deep fry it.
Step 3: adding what we think was mustard, mayo, wasabi, and fish roe

Lovely finished product. This was probably too much for the two of us but we ate it all!

It's basically like a French fry, except instead of being fried out the outside only, this is fried the whole way through. Amazing.
  • Entertainment: $3.60
    • FREE: I have gotten a lot better at the climbing wall at our AirBnB- as in I've gotten 2/3 of the way up. Warren, on the other hand, with his stupid go-go-Gadget arms can just throw himself up that thing... I'M NOT BITTER YOU'RE BITTER.

    • I went to the Sabah Museum and really enjoyed it. If you're Malaysian it's either cheap or free, but if you're a foreigner it's 15myr (about $3.60). I was there for about two hours; check out my spotlight on the museum for my highlights.

    • The only downside to the museum was when I was strolling through the cultural village and got epically pooped on by what I think was a giant lizard. Hair, shoulder, and ground. I think it was a huge monitor lizard based on its consistency and color and epic size.
I saw this little guy and about 30 seconds later I got pooped on. Could have been one of his full-grown friends, or...
I think it was one of these local monitor lizards. This one lives on our block and was just crossing the road, bothering no one, probably pooping on the ground like he should. That doesn't mean his friends don't climb trees and seek out the clean hair of unsuspecting tourists.

Travel budget saving tips:

  • Just like in Bali, sometimes it's good to spend a bit more on the right accommodation if it will keep you entertained. Being bored means you'll go out a lot more and end up spending that money anyway!
  • Try out the local knock-offs. In Malaysia for example, they have fake Red Bull, fake Tim-Tams, etc. Sometimes it's awesome and sometimes it's horrifying but you never know until you try.
Do you want real Red Bull, or do you want to fulfill your dreams?

  • Check out a local or gathering. It's a fun way to meet local people and other budget travelers which means you can split travel costs or find out about about local hidden gems. Plus, you're traveling for experiences right? Go make some friends!

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:

Malaysia may be pricey for Southeast Asia, but visiting Borneo is certainly on a lot of bucket lists! Sabah state is a great place to visit because there is less deforestation than Sarawak, more development than Indonesian Borneo, and less Shariah law than Brunei. Kota Kinabalu is friendly, fun, has a great couchsurfing culture, and offers amazing diving, snorkeling, and trekking.


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