Though mainland Malaysia is already considered a budget-friendly destination for many travelers, the cost of traveling to Malaysian Borneo might initially seem like an unnecessary expense if you're trying to see the country on a budget. However, with incredibly affordable round-trip flights now being offered by Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching for as low as 120 ringgit (about $36), there are tons of reasons to add a few more days to your trip and explore this often overlooked island. If you stay away from the higher-end resorts and expensive restaurants, you’ll find that seeing Malaysian Borneo is not only easy on your wallet, but also a phenomenal place with jungles, a cat city, ancient ruins, national parks, and plenty of monkeys. Here are my top five ideas for enjoying the best of Borneo for a lot less than you might expect.
Take a day trip to one of Borneo’s national parks:
While there are plenty of national parks all throughout the island of Borneo, my favorites were Bako National Park (where you can likely catch of a glimpse of the rare long-nosed proboscis monkey) or Niah National Park (where you can see gorgeous cave paintings dating back 1,200 years). The only costs you’ll incur on a day trip like this is getting there and paying your entrance to the park, so there's absolutely no reason not to add a day of nature to your itinerary.
Getting to Bako: Simply take a bus to Bako Bazaar in Kampung Bazaar (1.50 ringgit; $0.45) and then charter a boat to the park (they wait at the dock for customers). If you’re willing to share the boat ride with other passengers, you can cut your cost down from 40 ringgit per person to as low as 8 ringgit ($2.40). Entrance to the national park for foreign visitors is just 20 ringgit ($6).
Total cost: 29.5 ringgit (under $10)
Spend the night at Bako National Park:
Staying the night at Bako is a great choice if a day trip doesn't seem like long enough, or if you’re interested in doing one of the many famed night-walks around the island. According to our guide, the accommodations are minimal yet comfortable, and there’s absolutely nothing quite like waking up with the wild animals at dawn and heading down to the beach for a morning walk. To do an overnight in Bako, you have three options: you can bring your own tent and camp or rent a two-bedroom lodge or a three-bedroom chalet, both of which are scattered throughout the park near the hiking trails and have easy access to nearly everything. If you do decide to pitch a tent, be aware that there have been reports of monkeys tearing through tents if they smell something they’d like to eat. Wild boars have also been known to scavenge in the early hours, so keep your food well-packed!
Total cost: Camping: 5 ringgit ($1.50); lodge: 80 ringgit ($24); chalet: 160 ringgit ($48)
Museum-hop in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital city:
One of the best parts about visiting Kuching is that there are plenty of museums and exhibitions to help teach you about Sarawak's peoples, animals, and local histories. Whether you're interested in learning about traditional Malaysian longhouses, Borneo's famed head-hunting tribes, the local flora and fauna of the rainforest, or even, cats. (Kuching, after all, is Malaysia's "Cat City;" it also proudly houses the first museum completely dedicated to felines). If you're not sure what to see first, The Sarawak Museum is an excellent place to start: built in 1888, the museum is a testament to the many peoples and cultures who have lived in Borneo and now functions as a place to safely house and display local arts, crafts, and artifacts. Other notable museums include the Natural History Museum, the Islamic Heritage Museum, and the Art Museum.
Total cost: free
Take a river taxi and explore Kuching’s boardwalk:
Depending on how tempted you are when you shop, spending the day taking river taxis up and down the river in downtown Kuching to the many boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants, and open-air cafes can be as cheap (or as expensive) as you make it. Kuching, which is the capital city of Sarawak and the closest city to Malaysian Borneo's airport, is a delight to visit. You'll want to spend at least a day here enjoying the riverfront and getting acquainted with the Borneo lifestyle (very laid-back). Not only is Kuching known as Malaysia's "Cat City" (kuching means "cat" in the Malay language), but it's also known for its Main Bazaar, an arts and crafts haven you'll find springing up just a few blocks from the riverfront, between Carpenter Street and India Street.
Total cost for river taxi: one-way .50 ringgit. You can request longer routes for more – around 3 ringgit (under $1)
Visit the orang utans at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre:
This nature reserve, established in 1975 to care for wild animals that had been found injured, orphaned, or kept as illegal pets, has evolved into a living sanctuary and rehabilitation center for dozens of native and rehabilitated orang utans. In fact, the rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild programs were so successful that the forests reached full capacity and the program had to be moved to Kubah National Park. Today, Semenggoh houses dozens of these mammals and provides them with a safe place to live, play, mate, and raise their babies. Banana feeding time is at 3pm, so arrive by 2pm and start hiking in to where the orang utans wait to get their bananas in order to secure a nice viewing spot.
Getting there: The centre is a short ride from Kuching, approximately 24 kilometers (about 15 miles), and while there is a local bus you can take to Semenggoh, hiring a taxi is a nice alternative to figuring out the local bus system, plus it isn’t too expensive. A round-trip fare from Kuching will likely cost around 80 ringgit ($24); entrance to the sanctuary is just 3 ringgit (less than $1).
Total cost (with round-trip taxi): 83 ringgit (about $25)
A special thanks to Tourism Malaysia for graciously sponsoring me on this trip and introducing me to the beauty of Borneo.