Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 13 ft. Salt Trail, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Kota Kinabalu --> Sandakan)

So many pictures this week! We have really enjoyed Kota Kinabalu and found it to be a reasonable place to live on a budget. You can enjoy some classic Borneo jungle trekking, phenomenal sunsets, ultra-cheap booze and exceptionally friendly locals. I spent a day hiking on the Salt Trail and highly recommend it! If you're into diving, there's great diving and snorkeling and beautiful islands. Of course, you can climb Mount Kinabalu, or you can take the cheap alternative like me and climb at one of the many nearby parks!

After leaving Kota Kinabalu we flew on a very cheap AirAsia flight to Sandakan, on the other side of Sabah (the Malaysian state we are visiting in Borneo). Sandakan is an even sleepier town with a strong colonial heritage and tragic WWII history. It is most famous for being a landing point for river wildlife safaris on the Kinabatangan, where you can see pygmy elephants, crocodiles, and many birds and primates; nearby Turtle Island where you can see baby sea turtles; sun bear, proboscis monkey, and orangutan sanctuaries; and nearby diving and general Borneo experiences.

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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 and Sandakan, Malaysia
  • Splurges: transportation, tattoo expo, refillable water bottle
  • Avg. spending per day: $47.69
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $50.89
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $45.08

Loved this guy at Santavana Forest Hermitage

So what are our living expenses in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan this week?
  • Conversion rate: 1 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) = US$0.24 (about 4 MYR to $1 US)
  • Accommodation: $144.86
    • We spent five nights this week in Kota Kinabalu, in our room at the giant house I have previously detailed. For lots of pictures and info, check out Week 11
    • Upon arriving in Sandakan we moved into Sandakan Backpackers Hostel. Our private room with A/C and a shared bathroom (plus access to free breakfast and a pretty legit kitchen, living room, and rooftop sea view patio) runs us $16.86 per night after taxes and tourism fees. The cost when you arrive is ~75myr for the same room ($18). We got a deal by booking through which I highly recommend. If you're looking for something fancier, they still have the best deals I've found:
  • Transportation: $51.90
    • Uber was our main mode of transportation, and we used it a lot this week between trips to the city and airports. 69.41myr.
    • Flights for two people from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan cost $35.24 with AirAsia. Yep, that's under $18 per person. Score!
  • Food and drinks: $114.96
    • We didn't go too crazy this week -- just a couple of cheap gin nights, some tasty local cuisine, instant noodles, and one sushi night.
    • We did have dinner with Melissa at King Hu restaurant in Tanjung Aru, and tried ALLTHE DUCK and tasty dumplings. Also, try the fried bread! I think the meal for all three of us was 115myr.
  • Entertainment and misc.: $22.08
    • I bought a refillable water bottle because mine had started to leak, for 26myr ($6.24).
    • In hopes of getting a sweet cheap tattoo, we spent an afternoon at the Sabah Tattoo Expo (30myr per person).

It was in a shopping mall!

Artists tattooing

    • Unfortunately the tattoo did not happen, but we DID witness a body suspension (where someone is pierced through their back, and then hung up in the air by the piercing)! I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, so if you want to see body suspension pictures, click here:
    • Jungle trekking at Crocker Range Park should have cost 10myr for non-Malaysians but because I was with Melissa it was only 3myr a piece (so 6myr for both). The GPS thinks that we went 8km, my iPhone thinks we went 15km, and my butt muscles think we went 50km. We walked the beginning of the Salt Trail from Inobong Substation. You can walk the trail with a number of tours which take three days to complete the 34km trek. I think we did about half of day 1, then turned back. Note that you can call Sabah Parks and arrange for a guide, and it may be cheaper than tour companies!
Spying Mount Kinabalu at 6:20am before the clouds cover it. The park was about 1 hr drive from Kota Kinabalu.

Made it by 7:00am!

Mount Kinabalu still in sight at the park just after 7.

View from Inobong Substation over Kota Kinabalu.

Salt Trail map, and where we started.

Melissa looking adorable with wacky hanging vines and bamboo

Luckily we had GPS -- a few times the trail was completely obstructed by fallen trees, winding vines, and spiky bushes. We "monkeyed through" as Melissa called it!

We really loved it out there. Loud and chaotic yet serene and full of gorgeous butterflies.

Taking a break and advertising my Jansport Ultrabreak backpack.

The trail!

Melissa got something like 8 leeches? You don't feel them so it's pretty dramatic when you take off your shoes and find them. I diligently flicked them off my shoes so I didn't get any (although it was mostly just luck).

Much needed coconut after our 8hr day of climbing (and falling, and flicking leeches off my shoes).

    • We saw THREE stunning sunsets this week at the waterfront and Tanjung Aru beach (don't miss it). Both locations are free, with places to sit and observe the beauty!

Lovely sunset view of a fishing boat and Gaya Island, as seen from the Kota Kinabalu waterfront.

Locals and tourists gather together on the abundant riverfront seating to enjoy this stunner. During a nice sunset, basically everyone nearby stops and sits to watch.

Cotton candy over Gaya island and a speedboat.

A fiery sky over a local fishing boat.

The famous Tanjung Aru beach sunset. Do not miss it!

Tanjung Aru is always busy, but the southern side is a bit more spread out. Once the sunset is over, everyone clusters together -- it's not this densely packed everywhere!

    • One of our Buddhist AirBnB hosts took us one day to the Santavana Forest Hermitage in Tuaran. It is a lovely Buddhist temple near the city, with immaculate grounds and very friendly monks who live on-site. They also do lots of work with the community, so they are very respected in Tuaran.

Peaceful Buddhist prayer area

Amazing view from the prayer area shown above

Warren exploring the beautiful grounds

Clever retaining wall planters

A black bee looking hesitantly at a beetle who has invaded his perfect flower

I loved this plant! Just look at those colors!

A normal elephant

The first Buddha, when he had given up everything, before he learned a lesson in balance

I loved this room. It was a reminder of the cycle of life and death and rebirth -- you are not your physical body. It also contained a casket and a skeleton.

Travel budget saving tips:

  • If you're just grabbing some food, skip the rice/simple noodles and get the main dish in a larger size (usually twice the food for 50% more money) and ask for it takeaway (just say "tapau"). Make the accompanying carbs at home and save about 25% on your meal.
  • The Suria Sabah has free Wi-Fi and bathrooms with toilet paper in downtown Kota Kinabalu. That's almost unheard-of, so check it out!
  • I know we say it a lot but never underestimate the joys of exploring on foot. You'll find street art and weird arcades, just as an example -- things you won't find on a map but will show you a lot about your temporary home.

Kota Kinabalu street art

REALLY old school arcades in a Sabah shopping mall!

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:

Malaysia is a welcoming place, although it's not as cheap as other Southeast Asian destinations. Kota Kinabalu is a fun place to explore Mount Kinabalu, but there are other more affordable entertainment options as well, like the Salt Trail in the Crocker Range. With free Buddhist temples and gorgeous beach sunsets, Kota Kinabalu is a really nice cheap travel destination for people who want to explore Borneo.


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