Back in my pre-RTW days, I would scroll through Pinterest’s travel pins and always stop when I came across anything related to Borneo. The trees. The misty jungle. The unusual animals. This made Borneo one of my top destinations to see on our RTW. However, due to the extremely high cost of lodging, we almost gave up on visiting this beautiful area of the world. After many hours of research, we had difficulty finding mid-range accommodation options. It was either sleep on mats in jungle huts or stay at luxury jungle lodges. Neither option was going to work for us.
I contacted about 6 different travel agencies and Borneo holiday planners explaining our budget and inquiring about alternative options. I read endless forums about how others visited Borneo on the cheap. We even considered staying at the scientific research centers, such as Deramakot and Danum Valley Field Center.
Although it sounded awesome to hang out with jungle scientists and researchers, it is very difficult to get in contact with these centers, ratings on Trip Advisor were hit or miss (think finding a cobra under your bed), and securing a reservation meant that we were still responsible for logistics such as food, transfers, and hiring local guides. I almost threw in the towel, until Harry finally found the answer to my Borneo prayers.
Here is how we did Borneo on a budget, with our overall goal to see the Big 5.
🏢 We flew from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu. We overnighted in Kota Kinabalu at the Oceania Hotel ($35.00 USD per night) which had an airport shuttle and was a 15 minute walk to the marina which had many restaurants and bars to choose from for dinner.
Then, we flew to Sandakan which served as the base for our Borneo adventure. Many travelers begin their Borneo tours in Sandakan as it is home to many sanctuaries and conservation centers that provide visitors with an up close and personal viewing experience of some of Borneo’s unique wildlife. To be honest, at first I wasn’t really excited to visit these centers as I didn’t want to go to Borneo to feel like we went to a zoo. However, we had a great afternoon with the primates and I didn’t regret our visit. We visited two of the sanctuaries, the Orangutan Sanctuary and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
When we arrived at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, there was a small group of people gathered around the main entrance. We walked over to find a young orangutan who had escaped the reserve and was putting on a great show for the tourists. He stole a can of Pringles from one of the tourists and the staff was trying to take it away. He, however, was not having it! Unfortunately, the show was not supposed to be part of the visit. Although you pay $8 USD per person (plus a $3 USD fee if you want to use any recording equipment such as cameras, GoPros, phones), there is no guarantee to see orangutans.
Visitors schedule their visits around feeding times to increase their odds of catching a view of the wild orangutans. However, we were in luck because we got an up close and personal experience with this beautiful animal. And when I mean up close, this little guy came up to me and grabbed onto my leg. I probably would have scooped him right up, but the staff was urging me to back away. They were trying to get him away from the parking lot as they were worried about the safety of the animal and the visitors. Needless to say, our experience felt so personalized that we never ended up entering the rehabilitation centre and paying for admission.
💰 BS Tip -Negotiate costs with your taxi driver! We cut a deal with the taxi driver for the additional cost of going to the Proboscis Sanctuary. He originally requested $70 USD for the afternoon, but we talked him down to $42 USD.
We made our way to our next stop, the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. When we arrived, we paid $20 USD for 2 admissions and one camera fee. (We used multiple cameras while on the platforms.) We then walked along a wooden plank path that took us to the feeding site. The feeding takes about an hour and the staff is available for questions. It was an intimate, quiet experience with only one other couple there. We observed both Silver Leaf and Proboscis monkeys, posed for pictures, and enjoyed watching the behaviors of this peculiar animal. We would have stayed for the next feeding and stayed to watch a movie which provides more information, but we were worried about the taxi charging us more. As we departed, we caught our first glimpse of a group of common Hornbill birds.
It is important to note that the sanctuary is owned by a palm oil plantation owner who dedicated a small bit of space for these animals to be remain in their natural habitat. In theory, it sounds like a great conservation effort, until you realize that the palm plantation owners are the ones that are destroying their natural habitat in the first place.
🚗 There is a local bus, #14, that takes visitors to the Orangutan Sanctuary and the Sun Bear Conservatory Center for only a few dollars. From the Sheraton, it is a short ten minute walk to get the bus terminal. Here’s the problem…we couldn’t find anyone to tell us the bus schedule. (Information online said it leaves hourly from the terminal.) We walked around the chaotic bus terminal, looking for a ticket agent or information center, and there was no one to help us. When a local finally asked if we needed help, he told us the next #14 bus wouldn’t be back until 2 hours later! Also, some reports online indicate depending on what local #14 bus you take they may or may not drop you off at the sanctuary entrance. If the driver doesn’t, it causes you to walk 1.5 kilometers from the drop off point. In addition, when we inquired about using local transport to our concierge, he advised us to take a taxi. So we took a taxi for the day, costing us $40 USD after Harry negotiated the price down. This was our only option as the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary was not on the local bus route anyway.
🏢 We stayed in the Sheraton Four Points Sandakan for 3 nights. The hotel had a promotion – buy two nights get one free. So we were able to treat ourselves to a pretty nice hotel stay for ~$54.00 USD per night.
💰 BS Tip – We had trouble finding good, local places to eat in Sandakan. The Sheraton was connected to a local mall in which we ate a lot of McDonald’s chicken sandwiches and there was a Kenny Rodger’s Roasted Chicken (random, right?) that we visited. We bought breakfast at a grocery store such as fruit and cup-o-noodles, and enjoyed yummy bakery items from some local bakeries.
Many of the local restaurants near our hotel had a lot of their cooked food laid out and to us didn’t look 100% safe or appetizing. In addition, we never told our mothers this, but an armed gunman (a.k.a. pirate) raided one of the oceanfront restaurants taking two people hostage two weeks prior to our visit. So we weren’t so keen on hanging out near the waterfront where lots of people dine. <Article here>
Our second morning in Sandakan, imagine our surprise when we awoke from the rattling and swaying from one of Malaysia’s biggest earthquakes ever recorded. The 6.0 quake sadly caused the deaths of 18 hikers and forever changed the iconic “donkey ear formations” on Mt. Kinabalu. We considered hiking his mountain as it is not a technical, difficult climb, but opted out because it was a little too costly for accommodations at the base and it would have been a little rough on the knees. Strange to think what the circumstances would have been had we been on that mountain that day.
After chilling at the pool and enjoying the Sheraton’s comfy bed for a few nights, it was time to get into the jungle!
🏢 We booked a 3 night package at the Kinabatagan Jungle Camp on the Kinabatagan River. Upon arrival, guests are required to pay for their stay in cash. Our package included transfers, all meals, and activities (6 boat cruises, one night cruise, and one jungle walk) and cost us 1590 RM, or $429 USD.
Mornings started at 6:30 a.m., when we would board our boat in search for Borneo’s Big 5. We had luck on our side because on our first morning, after about 2 minutes on the river, we came across a mother orangutan and young child high on tree near our lodge. Sighting orangutans in the wild is supposed to be very rare! (Hence, why many decide to visit the Orangutan Sanctuary.)
Morning River cruises last from 6:30-8:30 am. Then you come back to the lodge for breakfast. Afternoons are can be long as the next river cruise doesn’t begin until 4:30. Often after our 1:00 pm lunch, we’d sit over a cup of coffee and watch all the wildlife right from our table. One afternoon, I completed the jungle walk with our guide Romzi. Although we didn’t see much in the heat of the day, he made it more interesting by deciding to create some new trails with his machete through the thick Malaysian jungle. Then at 4:30, it’s time to get back out on the river where you explore for another two hours until it’s time to head back for dinner at 7:30.
Overall, we believed Kinabatagan Jungle Camp was a great value for what we paid. If interested, our very detailed review of the camp can be found on this link on <TripAdvisor> or feel free to contact us with questions. Note! We completed our reservations by email. You can contact the camp at firstname.lastname@example.org
🏢 We overnighted in Kota Kinabalu at the Soluxe Hotel. We paid $67.00 USD for one night with a late 6 pm checkout the next day as we had an evening flight out.
For me, Malaysia was one of the countries where I feel like I didn’t have enough time to explore. Being in the Borneo jungle, was a highlight for me on my RTW. Not only is the wildlife amazing, but the local people were always smiling and happy. Harry and I also loved getting off the beaten path where some locals didn’t even know where Chicago was and immigration was taken back to see an American passport. For 8 nights in Borneo, we spent in total $1,300 USD, or $169 USD per day, which also includes transportation from Thailand.
Below is a slideshow of some of our favorite moments in Malaysia. For additional travel tips, and in depth discussion, we invite you to watch our Borneo travel vlog <here>.