How Much Did We Spend in Malaysia?
Overall score (Dan) = A
Overall score (Jocelyn) = B
Total days = 15 nights, 16 days
Total cost = $1,580
Cost per day = $98.75/day
Flight costs = $122 for two flights from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
We finally got under $100/day for total spending!! As you’ll read in a little bit, this still included more flying than what we wanted, but we were also helped out with free and cheaper hotels thanks to hotel points.
Our first city to visit was Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia which is best known for the tallest twin towers in the world – the Petronas Towers. The city is very large and advanced, but unlike Singapore, it still contains plenty of green space and culture.
The best part of KL was our city guide – my good friend and coworker who’s from there. He spent two full days taking us on tours and showing us things we never would’ve seen on our own; he was even nice enough to take us to dinner with his family where we sampled local cuisine and perused the local talking points! It’s so awesome to get to truly know a place by delving into the issues from politics to immigration.
After four days in KL, we flew over to the separate island of Borneo, Malaysia. Borneo is one of those places you always hear about through National Geographic or the Discovery Channel, but before the trip I couldn’t have told you where it was even located. Borneo is the third largest island on Earth and is 1/3rd Malaysian, 2/3rd’s Indonesian, and 1/20 Brunei (may contain rounding errors). It’s heavily mountained and forested and was a welcome sanctuary away from vast crowds of people we previously experienced in Indonesia and Singapore.
Most of the adventures in Borneo require advanced booking, but as we were only planning about 2-3 days in advance, we had to get creative to enjoy the natural wonders.
How far does your money go in Malaysia?
Malaysia was more expensive than Indonesia, but still seemed like a bargain when compared to our earlier destinations of Australia and New Zealand. However, when we talked to people who visited Thailand before Malaysia, they were blown away by how expensive everything is in Malaysia! The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysia Ringgit (MR) and $1 US dollar equals 3 Malaysian Ringgit.
The good thing is most prices in MR are about the same amount as things in the US – but 1/3rd the price when you do the conversion. A hotel meal costs around 24 MR ($8 US) while a cheap one can be found for 6 MR ($2 US) and a decent hotel can be found for 120 MR ($40 US).
Here are our per day spending highlights, and I’ll also include how many Starwood hotel points we’re using since I talk about that so much.
Flights = $28 / day
Food = $11.50 / day
Excursion = $20 / day
Lodging = $24.5 / day
Total Starwood hotel points used = (28,000)
Aloft Kuala Lumpur (11,000)
Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu (14,000)
Sheraton 4 Points Sandakan (3,000)
We used quite a few hotel points to supplement our lodging which lowered our spending quite a bit. If we were doing the pure “backpacker” thing, we could’ve found hostels for around the same amount we paid, but thanks to a combination of some paid nights and some “free” nights on hotel points, we had much more luxurious stays. At this point, we’ve pretty much realized we don’t want to the backpackers who are living on $10/day… that definitely comes with sacrifices.
The island of Borneo presented some additional challenges which I’ll talk about later, but the lodging was somewhat cheaper than the main Malaysia Peninsula where Kuala Lumpur is located. We even stayed at a “home stay” at Mt. Kinabalu when we discovered the hotel I previously booked was 40km away from the mountain and it was obstructed by a mud slide which meant no taxis would take us anyway! After a few hours of scrambling around in the rain and talking to every person we could find about transportation, we walked down the road to find the “Bayu” home stay for around $27 per night. It’s about what you’d expect for that amount, and we were one with the rain forest as our windows wouldn’t even shut and our only protection against the mosquitoes was a thin curtain.
Our total spending on food was also way lower than expected because most of the Starwood hotels we stayed in had free breakfast buffets and evening hors de vors which we made into meals – all thanks to my “Platinum” status which got us free entrance into the club level. We also had some exciting meals because my friend in Kuala Lumpur took us to many of his local favorite places. My personal favorite is when he ordered “fish” which turned out to be sting ray! After some initial reservations, we decided to go for it and we actually enjoyed the sting ray quite a bit!
Malaysia has figured out how to get more out of tourists than Indonesia – mostly through more expensive tour and park entrance fees. Their are some really incredible sites in Borneo, but as mentioned earlier, most of them have to be booked in advance.
Our highlight in Borneo was climbing Mt. Kinabalu; mostly on a whim. Our Malaysian friend’s mother-in-law told us how cool it was a few days before at dinner, but also said we probably wouldn’t be able to do more than a simple base hike. After dinner, we went back to do some research and sadly her insight was confirmed – the tour guides and mountain lodges required months of advanced booking. However, we also found a few blogs and posts that said that you could do the climb in one day instead of the two days usually required. Oh boy, when Jocelyn saw this she was ready to go.
Sure enough, we showed up at the National Park office and all we had to do was sign a few forms that said we were “physically capable” of the climb and pay for a tour guide, climb permit, and insurance. If we booked the two day tour, it would’ve cost us over $600, but thanks to our last-minute planning, we paid about $115 total. As I’ll write about in a later post, it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it was also incredible.
Mulu National Park is another must do in Borneo. It’s the largest cave system in the world (depending on who you ask) and has very accessible paths to numerous caves. Once again, the only problem is it must be booked months in advance. However, I emailed the park and said we could be there anytime in the next two weeks, and they were able to find a “bungalow” for us to stay in for two nights. It cost about $85/day, but it was actually quite nice for a national park. You’re also required to hire a guide to go into any caves, so that increased costs as well but we were able book it the day before.
Besides the landscape, Borneo also offers some of the most unique animals in the world. Outside of the town of Sandakan about 20km lies one of the best Orang Utan sanctuaries in Borneo. Around 10 km from the Orang Utans is the Proboscis sanctuary – one of those animals I had heard of before but never knew what it was or where it lived. The Orang Utan sanctuary was only $10 each to enter, but the Proboscis sanctuary was $20 each which is quite a bit for Malaysia. We were glad we saw both of them though.
If it sounds like we got around Malaysia a lot, it’s because we did! First, you have to fly between Kuala Lumpur and Borneo because the land masses are pretty far separated. Borneo is also one of the hardest places to travel around due to inaccessibility and lack of roads. Even the roads they do have are filled with complications such as mud slides and constant construction.
The hardest part was when tried to transfer from Mt. Kinabalu to Sandakan. Most of the time you can wave down a tour bus – a big, nice charter bus – but as we learned after a few hours of waiting on the side the road, Malaysian schools were off for a two week holiday which meant all of the buses were full! We met some Canadians trying to do the same thing, so they became our temporary travel partners. We took a taxi to the next town 15kms away, then had to figure out how to get the next four hours. After running around and talking to everyone again, the Canadians were able to squeeze onto a charter bus, but we ended up taking two more mini buses to finally get to our hotel – this is when we saw the many kilometers of palm tree plantations.
We had five total flights within Malaysia – much more than we expected. Luckily, they were fairly priced flights mostly ranging between $35 and $90 each. We only took one flight that could’ve been replaced by an alternative route – the bus from Sandakan back to Kota Kinabalu – but after our all day mini bus experience, we were glad to fly. After Kota Kinabalu, we headed to Mulu National Park which is pretty much only reached by flight – unless you want to travel 12 hours up the river and switch boats three times. We decided not to do this.
Overall, we loved all of the natural aspects of Malaysia. It didn’t seem to have as strong of a culture as Indonesia, but the natural sites definitely made up for it. You could easily spend 1-2 weeks exploring Malaysia and there are more parts we could’ve visited but never made it to. We’ve definitely learned that we won’t be able to see the whole world in nine months.
To read about more of our adventures in Malaysia, check out Jocelyn’s blog.