From Penang, I flew to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on Borneo. It’s still part of Malaysia, but because it’s semi autonomous, you get a little “entered Sabah on…” stamp. Initially, I was thinking of spending a couple of days here, one of which I would go to Mount Kinabalu National Park – not to climb the mountain, just to do some trails around the park itself and then head back. I though from there I’d then head down to Sandakan for a couple of nights as this is near one of four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world! After this, I was planning on Semporna, which is apparently home to some of the best dive spots in the world.
However! Things have changed slightly since that plan…I’m writing this from a different country. I was in two different countries today, yet I had my passport stamped eight times. I’m now in Brunei. If that means nothing to you, Brunei is a tiny country on the top of Borneo and it looks a little like this:
This means that when you go on a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan, this happens:
Now, let’s add something else to the perfectly to scale diagram, Malaysian Borneo is split into Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are semi autonomous:
So altogether the journey involves going in and out of two different countries, and two different states of one of those countries, a grand total of eight times! My passport now looks a little like this:
At border control number five (or four, they all became a bit of a blur), I had a brief chat with one of the drivers who told me that he has to get a new passport every two months because he racks up seven stamps each day! I checked, his work pays for the passports!
I was quite looking forward to the journey, well, as much as you can be looking forward to an eight hour bus journey. Within minutes of me sitting down and whipping out Sons and Lovers, Justin Bieber Never Say Never The Movie was on! Well, Sons and Lovers could wait. Plus reading on a moving vehicle makes me feel a bit sick, whereas watching Justin Bieber on a moving vehicle? That just makes me laugh. Unfortunately, we went over a speed bump after 15 minutes and “The Beebs” was gone. However, my personal favourite quote from what I saw was his vocal coach’s response when “JB” asked for a razor – “Really? A razor?”
The DVD player was off until we stopped at the first border and the drivers had a chance to play with the wires. Only to put on AWFUL karaoke tracks. The lyrics were rolling across the bottom of the screen in front of cheesy images edited on Windows Movie Maker. URGH. I whipped out the iPod. But the karaoke was loud, and it was about to get a whole lot louder…
On the seat opposite me was an adorably bizarre old woman, wearing a batik dress held on with a bumbag, thrown over pyjama bottoms with little wintery bears dotted on them. She had a pink quilted jacket and green thing that was on and off her head more times than I thought about Rick Astley during the bus ride. She must not like karaoke, because not long after the karaoke started, she whipped out her own entertainment device, presumably to block out the noise. She had a little portable DVD player and a carrier bag full of DVDs. Only problem was, she didn’t appear to have any headphones. I wouldn’t have minded too much if she was watching something I could sneak a peek at. However, when the films started, it soon became clear that she was watching home videos of herself. Mainly of herself singing. To a duck. Seeing as she clearly didn’t seem to care about her volume, I put mine up to block out the crooning “lay lay lays” to the duck. At times, I was literally clutching my ear to block out the sound. Especially when KL Gangster came on after the drivers got bored of the karaoke DVD. It started with a man getting a beating on the road outside the entrance arch to Petaling Street, yards from where we stayed in Kuala Lumpur! They also threw in lots of night shots of the Petronas Towers for good measure. I wouldn’t recommend they add it to the in-flight movie list, people would be landing and going straight back out.
As for Brunei now I’ve finally arrived, well! It’s a fascinating little place.
I set out to stay at the “Youth Centre” for B$10 a night (5GBP) as opposed to B$30 (15GBP), which was the next lowest price I’d managed to find. I found the Youth Centre no problem; Bandar Seri Begawan is very small. There was a man stood at the entrance to what I assumed to be the Youth Centre.
“Pusat Belia?” I asked.
“Yes, but the manager has now gone. I am also wait here and he say he come back soon. You come in, come sit. He is here soon. You can have bed.” replied the man, ushering me to sit down. I hadn’t fully understood what he was trying to tell me, mind you.
“Well, I think..so, what? Do you work here? Can you give me a bed? Or do I go in and wait for him?”
“You can wait here. I am customer also. I do not work here. I am here on business but I ring him and he say to me that he is here soon.”
“Right, err, ok.” I sit down.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“England. And you?”
“Oh England. I have been three times to London on business.”
“Right. What did you think? Did you see Big Ben? Buckingham Palace?” I was struggling to think of monuments for a few seconds after that. Isn’t that awful?!
“Yes yes. I see all these things. It is very nice. You are very nice. You travel alone?”
“And where is your husband?”
I’d decided at this point it was best to go with the fact that yes, I do have a husband. I don’t.
“He is working. In England. But he will come and meet me soon.”
“And does he work or do business?
“Does he work or do business? Business is better. You can get lots of money and then not a lot of money. But with work always the same amount each month.” Surely, he’s just talked up the benefits of work as opposed to ‘business’?
“Right. Yeah. He works. And does business too. So where are you from?”
“Bangladesh. Have you been?”
“No, not yet!” And I probably never will! But I didn’t tell him that bit.
“You must come. You can stay at my house. I live 20 minutes from the airport. I will give you my address. And you can stay in my bed. In my house.”
“Right. Maybe one day!” A very polite way of saying never.
“And next time I come to England, I can stay at your house. You give me your address and I will come.”
“Hmm. I live a long way from London!” I don’t. “Way up north!”
Thankfully, someone arrived at the Youth Centre. He headed towards the swimming pool. I went to ask if he knew any more than we did. He was very nice and from Sudan. And he did know more than us. Apparently they are closed for a few days after Hari Raya (the end of Ramadhan). B$30 a night it was then. I started to head back into town.
“My friend! Wait! Where do you go? I ring him now! And he says he comes! He will be here very soon! My friend!” Mr Bangladesh did not want me to leave. Even if the Sudanese man had only meant that the swimming pool was closed after Hari Raya, I wasn’t waiting any longer with this guy to find out.
I arrived at my 15GBP a night room (the most expensive so far!), showered and headed out for food. Thankfully, I found a hawker market very close to where I’m staying as shown on the map in Lonely Planet. Only, it was very quiet. Once I finished my chicken and rice, I discovered the rest of Brunei was also very quiet. This is the capital city! And it feels deserted! It is remarkably clean though and it does feel very safe. I took myself on a little stroll around the main hub of the city, passing Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and the call to prayer on the way. One of the better “singers” for the call to prayer I’ve heard.
This morning I set off nice and early, thinking I could make the 3km walk to the Palace and another mosque before it got too hot. I think I got about half way and was sweltering! So I gave up on that idea and instead went straight to the Royal Regalia Museum, which is full of gifts given to the Sultan by presidents, prime ministers and other royal families from across the world. Personally, I couldn’t help but think it led me to understand a little further as to why we’re having a global economic crisis.
“What shall I send the dear old Sultan of Brunei for his birthday, Phillip? Ooo, I know, a big glass vase with my initials on it. That’ll come in handy for him.”
No it won’t Lizzie, it’ll end up in a museum. I’d feel slightly insulted if I spent that much money on a gift and it wasn’t even in his house. Especially when his palace is three times bigger than Buckingham Palace!!Even if he put it in one of the 257 bathrooms I’d be happy.
I’ve only been here less than 24 hours, but I’m mesmerized by the place. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and if you come to Borneo, it’s definitely worth adding a day or two here to your itinerary. The wealth is evident but not in the sense of skyscrapers or amazing monuments, the money has been put into religion, royalty and roads. I’m also quite fond of the fact that for the first time in over a month, zebra crossings mean something.
My only negative of Brunei is that I can’t send text messages – so apologies if you’ve text me over the past couple of days and I haven’t replied! I’m still alive! I suppose this is good practice though because tomorrow I’m heading back into Sarawak to a town called Miri. This is the base for flights to Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kelabit Highlands. I’m hoping to spend a couple of nights at Mulu exploring the caves and a couple of nights in the Kelabit Highlands, perhaps doing a longhouse visit if it can be arranged! If I get to Mulu and the Kelabit Highlands, I’ll also be phone (and Internet) free, but I’ll report back as soon as I can!