Travel Features > Budget Travel

Budget travel in Sarawak

Wayne Tarman Attempts to Debunk the Myth that
Sarawak is an Expensive Place for Budget Travellers


Despite its size and its range of nature-based attractions, Sarawak is the least visited State in Malaysia. With its excellent national parks and scope for upriver journeys, you'd think Sarawak would attract a sizeable number of budget travellers. It doesn't. Sarawak is not on the well-worn backpacker trail of Southeast Asia, perhaps because it is often perceived as an expensive side trip away from the much trampled (and cheap) Bangkok to Singapore backpacker route.

Being off the beaten track certainly has its advantages. Sarawak doesn't have any travellers' ghettos where banana pancakes and the latest Hollywood flick govern the day, and interaction with the local people is kept to a minimum. Sarawak also tends to attract slightly older, clued-up travellers. They've usually read up on Sarawak and Borneo and often have a particular interest and reason for coming - the rainforest, the culture, or a desire for a mad upriver trip. Another plus is that the two most irritating types of travellers - the `year off' funded by daddies' credit card brigade and the often culturally insensitive `dog on string' crusties - are absent from Sarawak.

Most popular guidebooks on Malaysia mention that the cost of getting to Sarawak is relatively high and travelling costs in Sarawak are higher than in Peninsula Malaysia. The combination of these two factors essentially means that if you are travelling on a budget, a trip to Sarawak can appear quite costly, and maybe less attractive that moving on to the Philippines or Indonesia. However, visiting Sarawak need not prove too expensive - there are ways of keeping the costs down. And its also worth bearing in mind that Sarawak offers a very different travel experience to other destinations in Southeast Asia. If you are into a cheap beach experience, Sarawak is not for you, you would be wasting your time coming here. However, if you are into national parks and other cultures, the additional expense of a trip to Sarawak is more than justified by what's on offer. You won't find such an accessible network of national parks anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and although an upriver longhouse experience may cost a more than a few days on a beach in Thailand, it is a unique travel experience.

The following sections offer a brief guide to budget travel in Sarawak. They do not contain extensive listings but provide a general overview of the best places to visit and a rough idea of budget travelling costs within Sarawak. For more details on the attractions of individual places go back to the main Travel Features menu of SarawakAlive!

Where to Go

Kuching, one of the most pleasant towns in SE Asia, is a good base for budget travellers and serves as the jumping off point for three national parks and a number of longhouse trips. There is a wide selection of budget accommodation and an abundance of cheap hawker style food. B&B Inn on Tabuan Road is the cheapest accommodation option at RM 15 per night (dorm) including a light breakfast. The Anglican Guest House in the grounds of the St Thomas Cathedral is another popular budget option with rooms from RM 18. Jalan Green Hill is conveniently located and offers a range of budget hotels and lodging houses where rooms cost RM 25-45.

Bako National Park is Sarawak at its best and offers the ultimate rainforest and wildlife experience. Although Bako can be done as a day trip it's best to stay for a few days. A bed in the hostel block costs RM 10.50 and the canteen serves simple rice and noodle dishes for RM 2-4. Petra Jaya Bus No. 6 (RM 2.10) takes you to Kampung Bako jetty where a boat to the park HQ costs RM 30 (per boat). If you are not in hurry, wait around at the jetty until other travellers arrive and share the boat fare. The larger boats can take up to 10 people but most boatman prefer to take 4-6 passengers.

Kubah National Park is only a 45 minute drive from Kuching (Matang Transport Bus No. 11). The park now has some excellent budget accommodation but receives very few visitors. The hostel unit is actually a sub-dividend chalet with three rooms, a lounge area, shared bathroom and a well equipped kitchen. Its a great place to chill out as you're likely to have the whole chalet to yourself. Room rates are RM 20 (2 beds), RM 40 (4 beds) and RM 60 (6 beds). Single travellers have to pay the per-room price but the 2-bed hostel room is usually available so costs can still be kept low. There is no canteen at Kubah so stock up on provisions before you go. Ting & Ting Supermarket near the B & B Inn is a good place for buying provisions.

Gunung Gading is two hours from Kuching (STC bus No. 2B, RM 7.80). The park spans a number of rugged rainforest peaks and is home to the Rafflesia, the world's largest flower. Most visitors only stay in the park a few hours, view a Rafflesia and then return to Kuching the same day. But Gunung Gading is worth a few days as there are some excellent jungle treks. Cheap accommodation is available at the park's hostel (RM 10.50 per night). Lundu town, a 15 minute walk from the park HQ, has a number of coffee shops and hawker stalls selling cheap food.

An organised longhouse trip to the Skrang River with one with of Kuching's tour operators costs RM 250-400. To save costs try and link up with other travellers and go as a small group. Although the longhouses on the Skrang have played host to small groups of visitors since the 1960's the area is not over-commercialised. Trips can also be arranged to Batang Ai, which only started to receive visitors in the late 1980's. A trip to Batang Ai may cost a bit more but the upriver scenery is some of the best in Sarawak and you may even see a wild orang utan. Many budget travellers do opt for an organised tour but others prefer to travel independently up the Rejang River. This trip is undoubtedly a unique river journey and offers the opportunity of a longhouse visit. However, a trip up the Rejang is bit of a hit or miss affair. Some travellers are lucky and get invited to a longhouse and come back waxing lyrical about their experience. In contrast some end up hanging around and maybe don't get the opportunity to visit a longhouse and have to be content with the river journey itself. Sibu serves as the jumping off point for the Rejang. Express boats from Sibu to Kapit cost RM 15 whilst the fare from Kapit to Belaga is RM 20. Budget hotels in Kapit and Belaga offer rooms for RM 20-40. The Baram River also offers an interesting river and longhouse experience. If you have the time, patience, an ability to drink huge volumes of rice wine, and the desire for a mad one, the Baram could be for you.

Miri serves as the jumping off point for Mulu, Niah and Lambir National Parks. Most budget travellers only spend a night or so in Miri before heading to a national park, usually Mulu. There is some debate amongst travellers as to whether its cheaper to go to Mulu on a packaged tour or independently. If there is only 1 or 2 of you a tour package may work out more expensive. However, the larger the group the cheaper it becomes. For a group of four or more an organised tour to Mulu starts to look like good value. Flights to Mulu are RM 140 (return). Packages cost from RM 300-500 per person depending on length of stay and what attractions you take in (Show Caves, Pinnacles, adventure caving, etc.). There is now a trail leading from the Park HQ to Clearwater. This is good news for budget travellers as it means you can now walk to Clearwater Cave & Wind Cave, you don't have to pay for a longboat to transport you there. Deer & Lang's Caves are also accessible by plankwalk. If you opt for a Mulu package you can either stay at a tour operator's lodge or the Royal Mulu Resort. Naturally most budget travellers opt for the lodge, however, it is worth asking your tour operator how much more it costs to stay at the Resort. Some tour operators are able to get very low rates at the Resort and you may find out that for an extra RM 50 or so you can stay in the resort hotel rather than a budget lodge. Now, some die-hard "I ain't spending more than tuppence ha'penny a day" backpackers will baulk at that extra 50 bucks. For others, a bargain two nights in a luxury hotel after months on the road may hold appeal. And think of all the toilet rolls you can acquire!

Niah Caves is worth a visit, although some travellers give it a miss if they have been to Mulu. There is an excellent hostel at Niah Park HQ. A dorm bed costs RM 10.50 per person per night. Lambir Hills National Park is just out of Miri town and has a good trail system. You won't see much wildlife at Lambir but it is one of the most species-rich areas of rainforest in the world. There is no hostel at Lambir, only 2-room chalets. These can accommodate up to four people and cost RM 40 per night.

Bario and the Kelabit Highlands offer some great treks, stunning mountain scenery and the chance to sample some legendary Kelabit hospitality. The Kelabit live in large longhouses scattered over the highlands. Most treks go from longhouse to longhouse on well-trodden walking trails, some of which pass through dense rainforest. Access to Bario is by MAS Twin Otter flights from Miri (RM 70). Tarawe's Lodge in Bario is popular with travellers. Rooms cost RM 20-45 and they can also assist with treks around the Kelabit Highlands.

Ideal Length of Stay

To get the most out of Sarawak you'll need to stay for 3-4 weeks. That way you'll be able to take in most of the national parks and go on at least one upriver journey and not have to worry about cutting your journey short if, for example, you stumble onto something unusual, or get invited to a longhouse deep in the interior. If you don't have the luxury of time you can still fit a fair bit into a two week stay although an extended upriver journey would be difficult. If you only have a week or so then stick to the attractions around Kuching. In a week you should be able to fit in Bako & Gunung Gading national parks and go on a short longhouse visit, although this would have to be a organised trip with one of the tour operators in Kuching.

Extending Your Visa

If you are planning some serious trips into the interior then you may well need a visa extension. Although part of Malaysia, Sarawak has its own immigration rules and most visitors receive a one month visa upon arrival. Some major guidebooks state that it is difficult to extend a tourist visa in Sarawak. This is not true. Tourists can extend their visa by up to a month quite easily, especially in the Kuching immigration office - one of the most polite and efficient immigration offices in Malaysia. You pay RM 1 for a form, fill it out, wait 45 minutes or so and then you'll get a one month extension. The usual `traveller dealing with officialdom' rules apply - dress reasonably smart (leave the shorts and singlet in the hostel), be polite and be prepared to wait a while.

Getting There - Keeping the Cost down

Getting to Sarawak from West Malaysia or Singapore is often regarded as expensive. The standard Kuala Lumpur-Kuching one way fare with Malaysian Airlines (MAS) is RM 262. If you don't mind travelling late at night or early in the morning MAS offer a "night tourist fare" for RM 187 (one way). Also look into MAS's advance purchase tickets and 50% group discounts. The latter can bring significant savings if you club together with other travellers. Another potential bargain is MAS's "Discover Malaysia Pass". These offer travel to 5 destinations in East & West Malaysia for US$ 199. If you are planing to visit Sarawak and Sabah this deal offers savings over the standard sector fares as you can fly from West Malaysia to Sarawak, from Sarawak to Sabah and from Sabah back to KL. If you plan things carefully you can also fit another flight in whilst you are in Sabah or Sarawak. The cheapest way of flying from KL to Kuching is to fly with Transmile Airlines. A KL-Kuching is RM 190 (one way) or RM 350 (return). Transmile flights are charters so some restrictions apply.

If you are in Singapore remember that exchange rate differences between Malaysia and Singapore can result in significant savings for those who have the time and don't mind taking a bus across the causeway. When you buy a Singapore-Kuching ticket at a travel agent in Singapore you pay in Singaporean Dollars. It works out a lot cheaper to nip over the border to Johor and take a Johor-Kuching flight on MAS for RM 169 (one way).

Getting Around

Travelling around Sarawak can be expensive due to the distances involved. Internal flights are sometimes useful and save time but you obviously pay for this privilege. MAS Rural Air Service flights offer excellent value and are often the only realistic way of getting to some places (e.g. Bario). The cheapest way of getting around is by bus. For example, the bus fare from Kuching to Miri (a 12-14 hour journey) is RM 70. To fly from Kuching to Miri costs RM 164 and takes just over an hour. The coastal express boat service from Kuching to Sibu is cheap (RM 33) and relatively fast (4 hours). By contrast the Kuching-Sibu bus fare is RM 32 and takes 7 hours.
On the rivers, the express boats are also relatively cheap (RM 15-30) and convenient. Most upriver towns are served by express boats. On the Rejang River, express boats can get you to most places. Only when you want to go beyond Belaga, or travel on some of the smaller tributaries, will you need to look at other options. Renting a longboat when upriver is not cheap. It can cost RM 50-100, a few hundred Ringgit, or maybe run into thousands of Ringgit if you go on an extended two week trip upriver. These boat trips are only viable if you are travelling in a group of at least four. When you charter a longboat the price you pay will be calculated on a daily fee for your boat & the services of the boatman plus the cost of petrol. The further upriver you go the more expensive petrol becomes. Sometimes it is possible to hitch a ride when going upriver. If this is the case a small donation to cover a proportion of the fuel costs will be appreciated.

Budget Accommodation

Although accommodation costs are slightly higher than in Peninsula Malaysia, budget accommodation is widely available. Sarawak doesn't have a network of guest houses, hostels and bungalow operations like Thailand and Indonesia or even the East Coast of Malaysia. The only town that has hostel-style accommodation is Kuching. The centrally located B&B Inn on Tabuan Road is the best bet. A dorm bed and a simple breakfast costs RM 15. Discounts are sometimes available for long stays. Sarawak has an abundance of small lodging houses where rooms with a fan generally go for RM 20 a night and an air-con room with attached bathroom costs RM 30-40. In addition most of the national parks have hostel blocks or budget lodges. A bed in a dorm in one of Sarawak's national parks costs RM 10.50 a night. Some national parks (e.g. Bako) have campsites where a RM 4 charge is levied. However, camping at Bako is not advisable as your tent is likely to be raided by a troop of macaque monkeys.

Eating Out

Hearty meals of mixed rice (rice served with meat and/or fish and vegetables) cost RM 3-5. The cheapest meals on offer are from the noodle stalls that are dotted all over the place. A bowl of noodles costs RM 2, or RM 4 for something special like a bowl of Foochow noodles in a herbal soup with chunks of chicken. A chicken biryani rice meal in an Indian restaurant will set you back RM 5. If you fancy splashing out on a meal, seafood is a lot cheaper in Sarawak than in West Malaysia. Count on RM 20-25 per head for substantial meal that includes fish, prawns and some vegetables. All-you-can-eat buffets in major hotels are also worth checking out.

Canned drinks cost around RM 1.20-1.50 in coffee shops and RM 0.90 in a supermarket. Mineral water is around RM 1-1.50 for a 500 ml bottle and RM 2-3 for 1.5 litre bottle in most sundry shops and coffee shops, less in supermarkets. Beer is relatively expensive in Malaysia, and a night on the town can start to look expensive when you think about it on a hung over morning. Cans of Tiger, Carlsberg or Anchor beer cost RM 3-4.50 in the shops. A large bottle of beer in a coffee shop costs around RM 10. A glass of beer in a pub costs around RM 6-8. This rises to RM 10-14 in a hotel, karaoke joint or trendy bar/cafe.

A budget of RM 15-20 per day should be more than adequate for food and drinks for most people if you prepared to eat local food.

Total Daily Expenditure

Although its difficult to put an exact figure on daily expenditure for backpacking around Sarawak, a budget of RM 50 (around US$ 13) per day seems a reasonable bench mark figure. Of course you can get by on less, and you can most definitely spend more. This daily budget of RM 50 would include the cost of basic `A to B' travelling on public buses or express boats but would not include the cost of any organised tours such as a short longhouse trip to the Skrang or the costs of flights to Mulu, Bario. Etc. If you confine yourself to the Kuching area you should be able to get by on RM 40 a day.

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