Living in Malaysia on a Budget: Week 14 (Sandakan)

Most of this week was spent in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo. We actually spent two nights in Sukau, on the Kinabatangan River, scoping out the Bornean jungle wildlife! Sukau is about 2-3 hours drive away from Sandakan, and provides a totally different Borneo experience. After paying for all of our adventures and tightening our belts to account for next week's expensive flight, we managed to visit the Keith house, see lots of wild animals, and go on a river cruise for about $36 per day for two people.

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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): Sandakan, Malaysia
  • Splurges: transportation and jungle adventures
  • Avg. spending per day: $35.92
  • Avg. spending per day incl. bills back home: $39.27
  • Avg. spending per day overall in Asia: $44.67

Gecko still-life in the jungle

So what are our living expenses in Sandakan and Sukau this week?
  • Conversion rate: 1 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) = US$0.24 (about 4 MYR to $1 US)
  • Accommodation: $116.30
    • We spent another five nights at the Sandakan Backpackers Hostel which is very homey and comfortable. The staff are great, we have a 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.
Nice place to work!

Sulu Sea view
    • We are paying $16.86 per night after taxes and tourism fees. The cost if you walk in is ~75myr for the same room ($18). We got a deal by booking through which I highly recommend for ANY hostel, homestay, or hotel booking in Southeast Asia. They have the best deals around, if you're staying away from AirBnB (which in Borneo ain't that cheap):

    • In Sukau we stayed at the Sukau Backpackers B&B on the Kinabatangan River. The price is 75myr per night ($18) but we haggled the total deal a little (barely) so I'll take the total savings off the nightly stay, and call it $16 per night. They offer lots of packages which including transportation, housing, food, and activities. We sort of made up a package for ourselves to relax the trip. Check out more in my spotlight on the Kinabatangan river.
Our cabin (we had half). Those clothes never dried.
  • Transportation: $24
    • We walked around Sandakan and Sukau this week, but we did charter a private car for our trip to Sukau, with our package booked through the Sukau Backpackers B&B. This cost 50myr per person each way ($12) for the 2-3 hour journey. So, $12 per person to get to Sukau this week, and next week's budget will include the trip back to Sandakan.
  • Food and drinks: $55.92
    • We had free breakfast at the hostel and B&B and usually had some variety of canned fish (tuna, mackerel, sardines) on crackers as a lunch snack. For dinner in Sandakan we usually hit up My Harbour Restaurant which was super close and good. I agree with TripAdvisor on 4/5 -- about half of our meals were phenomenal and half were OK.
    • A few times we grabbed a bottle of local "liquor" that is either watered down whisky-flavored local spirits, or watered down gin-flavored local spirits. Basically, they're about wine strength, slightly smaller than a wine bottle, and around 10myr ($2.40).
  • Entertainment and misc.: $55.20
    • My iPhone charger cord broke AGAIN so I bought another for 20myr ($4.80).
    • We checked out the Sandakan Heritage Museum, which wasn't that great but was free, so if you've got an hour to kill and are looking for air conditioning and pictures, check it out! It did have some cool native houses, baskets, tools, etc. but we had already seen them in Kota Kinabalu so it wasn't as interesting. Judging by photos on TripAdvisor, about half of the museum was under renovation while we were there, so we may have just had a bland experience.
    • For 15myr a piece (30myr total or $7.20; it's 2myr for Malaysians) we visited the hilltop Agnes Keith House, which was super cool for me because I just read Land Below the Wind and really loved it. I very much highly recommend this book! I plan to read other Agnes Keith books now, like those about her experiences in the Philippines, in Japanese internment during WWII, and in Libya.
Sandakan city view near the Keith's hilltop home

Nice photobomb, lady. Keith bedroom.

Love this mid-century furniture!
    • Kinabatangan River cruises and walks were part of a package deal in Sukau -- read more in my spotlight look -- and ran us 180myr or $43.20 (60/person river cruise, 30/person morning jungle trek). We did another river cruise and a night time jungle trek (50/person) on Saturday -- on next week's budget!
Not a bad way to spend your afternoon

Travel budget saving tips:

  • Eat when you're hungry, not just when it's meal time. You'd be surprised how much you eat out of habit or boredom.
  • Reusable water bottles! Even with spending 20myr on it this week, it'll definitely save me money. You can even refill in most airports and save tons.

Curious about Malaysia? Find out more below:

Malaysian tourism ads have coined the phrase "Malaysia, truly Asia" and our trip to Borneo has proven it. Sabah has all different religions, a complex history, beautiful and rich jungles, and amazing unique wildlife. Sandakan is a sleepy but friendly town, in close proximity to wildlife centres and jungle adventures. It's an easy place to live comfortably under $50 per day for two people.


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