Switching the concrete jungle for the real thing on a shoe-string


Are you tempted by the lures of South East Asia’s pristine and people-free beaches, but sceptical if this is possible for a student on a budget? If you are tired of strategically placing your towel between cigarette butts on a beach as you try to sleep off the hangover from hell, then a trip to Borneo could be for you. I travelled to its northern region, Sabah, last September for three and a half weeks and had the time of my life; but there were ways I could have spent less and maximised my budget. Here are my top 10 tips to consider Borneo on a shoe-string.

  1. Flights: the prices seem scary, but it’s really not as expensive as you think. Book early and fly into a hub such as Kuala Lumpur or Singapore then get cheap Air Asia connection to keep costs down. Really search around for flights, a stopover in Dubai will reduce the price, but make sure it’s a short change over as trust me, you’ll quickly get sick of hanging around in airports. Even duty free shopping loses its charm as you’ll have to carry whatever you buy on your back.
  2. Travelling around when you’re there: internal flights can be as little as £11 as long as you follow the golden rule of booking early. However, don’t just take the easy option of taxis to and from the airport or to tourist destinations. There are public buses and air conditioned coaches available, and often just as convenient.
  3. Accommodation and food: this is where the savings begin to even out the cost of fights. Accommodation will be around £5 and a main meal £1. If you are travelling in July and August its sensible to book in advance, but by September there is plenty of choice. Moreover, socializing at the hostels and with the locals is part of the experience and a great way to find out the best places to eat.
  4. Equipment: Having practical equipment that saves space in your bag is one of the best investments you can make. Firstly, get a bag in the sales, no bigger than 80 litres with enough inner compartments to help keep your stuff organised and make sure it is suitable for your height. Mine had a bottom section where I could keep a mosquito net and shoes, and an attachable day bag which proved very useful. Other space savers are a travel towel, and a travel neck pillow to make long bus journeys or flights more enjoyable. I’d also recommend investing in a silk sleeping bag liner, which you can pick up for £15 on the internet as it ensures peaceful nights sleep when the sheets are questionable and keeps you cool on humid nights.
  5. Medicine: Think carefully about the injections you need and optional ones by visiting a travel nurse. Secondly, do your research on the Malaria tablets you need, they are drastically different in price and some you cannot scuba dive with.  Long sleeved tops and thin trousers in the evening are another way to protect yourself from the little blighters, and be generous with insect repellent – especially around your ankles. Don’t forget to take anti-bacterial hand gel, rehydration sachets and paracetamol – there are no chemists in the jungle.
  6. Clothes: Less is definitely more, especially with a trusty bottle of travel wash; I learnt the lesson the hard way.  Take comfy clothes (not white) that are not too short or low cut. A lightweight fleece is a god-send for the air conditioned planes and if you decide to climb the mountain it is essential for the 2am trek to the summit.
  7. Keeping experiences within your price range:  repeat after me – ‘do not book package tours!’ Certain activities such as reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu at 4,095m is an absolute must, but that’s no excuse to be ripped off.  Like the flights, book early as they have a limited number of permits per day and there is only one place to stay on the mountain, Laban Rata. E-mail directly, be firm that you want to stay only ONE night at Laban Rata, and on the day choose to go in a group because the price of the guide is then divided. Leave it late and the only option will be to go with a package tour seeing you pay at least double for exactly the same experience. The same goes with conservation on Turtle Island where you get to collect endangered turtle eggs, as well as releasing ones a few weeks old into the sea. Limited permits cause competitive pricing for tourists desperate to partake in this amazing experience, and we met people who had paid three times more than us because they did not book in advance.
  8. Orangutans: you have two options to see orangutans in Sabah and would be crazy not to, as they only can be found in Borneo or Sumatra. The first is to see them in the wild; I went with ‘Uncle Tan’s 3 day jungle camp’ which included several boat safaris. Don’t expect luxuries such as a bed, a hut with windows, or running water, but be prepared for an ‘authentic’ jungle experience. The second, more commercial, option is to visit the world famous Sepilok Orangutan Orphanage at feeding time where you get to see the affectionate little balls of orange in close proximity. The entrance money helps the worthwhile project of rehabilitating orphans so that they can be released back in to the wild.
  9. Snorkelling and scuba diving at Sipidan: this for me was the ‘wow’ factor of the trip. As one of the top ten dive sites in the world, permits are limited to protect the beauty of the coral and this does affect the prices. However, the deals you can get by bargaining with the dive schools vary, so don’t just go with the first one! I’d suggest snorkelling on some of the surrounding islands, taking time to relax on the beaches first and save the diving for Sipidan. You are likely to see schools of barracuda, hammer head and reef sharks, manta rays, turtles and a wealth of tropical fish.
  10. Still not tempted to try something different this summer? Then remember you get roughly four months off for summer and you will never have this luxury again. So before you step out of the university bubble and into the reality of employment, do something special with your freedom – or regret it later.



Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar

    Well my flight to KL was £500 and then depends how many inter-flights you do (go for airasia) around £20 -£50 for one way. However, i’d recommend flying into Singapore (as i also visited there) and it was far better. There are two airports in KL, with the low cost airport a coach ride/taxi away and can be stressful!
    Then activities is really down to you – i’d budget £10 a day max – then select what ‘extras’ you want. Hope this helps!


    Do you have the details on the companies you booked with for both the trek and the turtles? Thank you

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