Reflections on Malaysia and Borneo

Given that the first leg of our journey took in both my favourite cuisine in the world, a destination I’d wanted to visit since I was at school and would be our first experience of travelling together for longer than our usual ten day holidays, Malaysia had some pretty heavy expectations to live up to. It managed it with aplomb.

As our first port of call, Borneo was a sensible one. English is widely spoken, it is easy to get around and even the cities are relatively gentile. Malaysia’s relative wealth mean daily necessities are less laborious than other places; prices – although higher – are generally pretty fixed and we didn’t really find there was much need for haggling. There is very little hassle from taxi touts, street sellers and the like. You can walk around semi invisible if you wish although the people were, with few exceptions, utterly delightful. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, which made a lovely start to the trip.

The Malaysian food has long been my favourite cuisine. I love the melting pot of Indian, Malay and Chinese dishes and flavours, sometimes all in one dish. It makes for a delicious and varied eating experience. Food hygiene is also pretty good; we enjoyed eating at some of the hawker stalls and trying delicious satay sticks and random sweet coconut dishes without worrying we’d be spending days locked in a bathroom.

The only downside to Borneo travel is the cost. Although still a cheap destination compared to the UK, it is more expensive than neighbouring countries. A lot of our budget was eaten up by tours, and with destinations such as Mt Kinabalu independent travel seems to be made deliberately difficult, allowing tour companies to keep an expensive monopoly.

Malaysia’s other downside is the environmental issues which are already blighting Borneo and I fear will affect it in the future as a tourist destination. As we made our way across Sabah I was struck by the sheer scale of palm oil plantations. Palm oil – a cheap oil found in scores of our products from make up to peanut butter – is a huge export product but comes at a cost; the clearing of rainforest which is a huge price to pay. The plantations have unarguably been a factor in the decimation of one of Malaysia’s biggest assets – it’s unique wildlife simply has nowhere to live once their home is cleared. Palm oil was something I was fairly unaware of before this trip, but I will be trying to avoid it or switch to sustainable options in the future.

Gosh, that ended up being a bit of a rant didn’t it? Anyway, overall Malaysia is ace. Do go.

Money

We set ourselves a low, but not certainly not shoestring, budget of £30 per person per day. We ended up being 13% over our overall budget but as this included my PADI course we didn’t do too badly; this was a one off expense and far cheaper than learning somewhere like Australia. It’s worth mentioning we prepaid our Mt Kinabalu climb some four months before we left, so that didn’t come out of our travel spending (fiddle the books? Me?). Over 50% of our budget was tours and activities; our day to day living costs were actually fairly cheap. We stayed in cheap hotels or private hostel rooms and ate at street food stalls or budget restaurants. Alcohol is pretty expensive, so we didn’t have any big nights out.

We spent the majority of our time in Borneo; if we get the opportunity later in our trip I’d like to go back and spend some time in Peninsular Malaysia.

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