Sunday, August 31, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia / Malaysia Malaysia

Return to the realm of the touts

Fenix Inn, Melaka [Enlarge]

The ferry terminal in Melaka is a small, single storey building just inside the river mouth. Tickets are not sold at the terminal. Instead you have to go to one of a handful of agents nearby. The one we'd bought our ticket from had told us to turn up at 09:30 for the 10:00 sailing, but we were characteristically early, and were glad to be so. When we arrived the covered area in front of the terminal building was already very crowded, and two queues snaked off in opposite directions. In the absence of any instructions we joined what looked like the shorter, quicker moving line and waited. Someone was in control somewhere because the queues kept taking it in turn to move forward as a few people at a time were let through to immigration.

To get onto our ferry we had to go into, across and out of another ferry. Paranoid about getting on the wrong one and ending up at the wrong Indonesian port we checked several times that we were definitely the boat for Dumai. Seats were unallocated so we nabbed the front ones with ample legroom. That also put us near to two exits in case of pirate attack or sudden sinking. For once the in-flight movie wasn't too loud or too bad, and free water and snacks were distributed.

Fifteen minutes or so into the journey, Malaysia was shrinking into the distance behind us, and we were settling into the movie quite nicely when we suddenly slowed down and the engines stopped. We spent a few stationary minutes looking out of the windows to see if there were any fluttering Jolly Rogers, or cutlasses glinting in the sunshine, but boringly it seemed to be some sort of mechanical problem... we started off again a bit slower than before.

The billed one and three quarter hour journey took more than three hours, but it wasn't too bad. As we neared the port we stood up and went over to the door area so we wouldn't have to wait while the mountains of luggage was gathered by our fellow passengers. As we came alongside we wondered just what sort of a country Indonesia was going to be.

The single door to the three-passenger-compartment ferry opened. At once the crowd around us surged forward toward the door in a fluid mass, suitcases flying. And then the mass stopped, as people in their misguided hurry to get out jammed the bags of the people in front of them. This made all forward movement by anyone impossible, and so everyone stopped, unable to make progress.

OK... It's going to be that sort of country.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After we'd elbowed all the old women out of the way and pushed a few children overboard we found ourselves inside the terminal building wondering what to do next. We had no visa, but our research had told us that Dumai is one of the entry points where you can get a visa on arrival. There was an immigration office, but the door said staff only. Luckily a 'friendly local' was on hand to help us out. He sent us through the door and we handed over our passports and USD 50 (25 each). Our passports were returned about fifteen minutes later with a one page visa and a big entry stamp on the facing page—another double page wiped out. The friendly local, our new best friend (here we go again), had spent the intervening time finding out where we wanted to go and telling us not to worry, he'd help us get there. Uh huh.

He told us to come with him in his MPV, he'd take us to the bus station. Free, of course. We were some way out from the town centre with no readily apparent alternative way of getting to the bus station, which we knew was on the other side of town. We decided to go with him and see how he would try to get our money. Along with two Indonesian passengers we all got into the MPV and drove from the port to... the bus station? No, to a travel agent's office in town. Here we were sold what we were told was a transfer to the bus station and a bus ticket to Pekanbaru for significantly more than the price we were expecting, but still a pifflingly small amount for a five hour journey. We weren't in a position to negotiate, and the town didn't seem like one we wanted to linger in. We had some time to kill so our friend suggested we have something to eat at the cafe next door. We weren't hungry, but we were thirsty so in the absence of a menu to point at, we communicated a desire for two drinks.

No matter what we tried, they wouldn't take our money until we'd finished our drinks. Isla went up to pay expecting change from a 10,000 rupiah note, but the lady wanted more. She initially said 14,000, then her friend said something and the price went up to 20,000. Presumably the something was "Charge them more, don't forget we have to pay commission to the friendly local".

The MPV driver had just called us back to start our journey when we were approached by another 'friendly local', but this one turned out to be a bit different. He runs an English school in Dumai and offers native English speakers free accommodation and transfers to the bus station in exchange for coming to talk to his students for an hour or two. Glenn had read about him on Wikitravel, but we didn't expect him to hunt us down so effectively. If we hadn't already bought our bus tickets we'd have loved to take him up on his offer. Mr Teacher-man, if you're reading this, our advice is: try to get to the ferry terminal to intercept people before the scumbag touts do!

We accelerated out of the town centre in the MPV. The GPS told us we were heading for the bus station and everything seemed fine. Then the driver got a phone call. He did a u-turn, stopped at a shophouse, collected a box and sped away again. Just out of the town centre we turned up a narrow road alongside a stream that was so full it threatened to engulf the road at any moment, and finally stopped at a tiny cottage with a garden full of ducks. He delivered the box and we were off again.

Main road from Dumai to Pekanbaru [Enlarge]

After a while it became clear that we weren't going to the bus station at all, we had in fact unwittingly commissioned ourselves an MPV all the way to Pekanbaru. That at least explained the high price tag. To be fair, the journey was much more comfortable and faster than it would have been on the bus, even allowing for the absolutely heart-stoppingly, underpant-soilingly dire standard of driving in Indonesia.

Seven hours later, after many small detours to pick up and drop off packages and small family groups, we were dropped at the door of our hotel in Pekanbaru. We felt like kissing the ground in thanks that we had survived. The driving wasn't as bad as India's, but the problem was that the roads and vehicles were in a better state and so the speeds were much higher. When you're flying round a narrow, blind bend three wide at 100 km/h, there's not much you can do except maybe pray to Allah for safe passage. Unlike in our taxi ride in India we didn't actually see the aftermath of any accidents, apart from a few wrecked cars which had been mounted on posts as a futile warning to drivers.

Pekanbaru was grubby, devoid of footpaths, with muddy puddles everywhere... But unlike in India, at least it was just mud on the ground, and not anything more... biological!

Our hotel of choice was the Ibis, part of a French chain, and much higher-end than we usually go for, but Indonesia is very cheap. We took full advantage of the facilities: restaurant, money changing, travel desk and free wifi. The staff were very helpful, but every time we asked them something it seemed like it was the first time they'd ever been asked. Still, we had survived our first day in Indonesia and the spectacular sights of Sumatra were now tantalisingly close.

Map of Day 645

Day 645
Melaka to Pekanbaru

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, August 29, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Plan B: Melaka

We keep coming back to Korean food... [IMG_4905]
Bibimbap! [Enlarge]

So, we found ourselves in Melaka (Malacca), a place we didn't originally intend to visit. Its name is very funny if you're Greek, too, as it sounds exactly like a Greek curse-word. Anyway, we're glad we came here—it's a wonderful mix of different cultures. Six hundred years as one of the region's most important ports has augmented the native Malays with immigrants from nearby Sumatra, China, and the former colonial occupiers Portugal, Holland and Britain. The blending of these different peoples with their varied cuisines and cultures makes Melaka totally unique. It's a good thing that we didn't go here first or we might never have left. We randomly picked the Fenix Inn from the many budget options on Hostelworld, and it turned out to be spotlessly clean, well located and wired for internet. The best part was that there was a Korean restaurant just up the road. Yum!

There's plenty to do in Melaka—a lot of it for free! We walked up to the hilltop church of St Paul which the Portuguese built ten years after they overthrew the local Muslim Sultans and destroyed their main Mosque. After the Dutch ousted the Portuguese they continued to use the church—there are some massive tomb stones propped against the walls, all inscribed in Dutch (there's a particularly tragic memorial at the bottom of the steps dedicated to five members of one family, mostly children, who all died within a few months of each other). When the British took over, they decided the church tower would make a fine lighthouse, so they turned it into one. Pragmatic to say the least.

You can buy highlighter pink or highlighter yellow at this Melaka night market stall. [IMG_4927]
Dye your hamster [Enlarge]

We also enjoyed walking up Jonker Street, the heart of Chinatown, and the surrounding lanes. A buzzing night market is held here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We discovered that's the place to go if you've run out of pink or yellow dye for your hamster.

If you're willing to fork over a few ringgits we'd recommend the Maritime Museum. It's housed in a replica Portuguese ship—made mainly of concrete, but you (almost) couldn't tell. When you pay your entrance fee you're give a plastic bag to put your shoes in—shoes are forbidden inside the exhibition rooms of the ship. Take our advice and use the bag rather than the shoe racks at the doors otherwise you'll end up having to cross the red-hot deck in bare feet to retrieve your shoes... It's impossible to run fast enough, and we literally burned our feet.

We first entered Malaysia on 13th July. We've had a few days in Singapore and a few more in Brunei, but still, we've been here a lot longer than we ever anticipated. That's simply because we like it so much.

Decorated trishaw [Enlarge]

But we have to move on, as we're still north of the Equator, still west of the date line. We're two years older than we were when we left home. We feel like we've skipped so many places already, but the truth is there's a lot of world left. Tomorrow we're going to catch a ferry across the Strait of Melaka to Sumatra, the western most island of Indonesia. It's one of the most earthquake prone areas on the planet. And just for good measure, the sea crossing we've chosen is pirate territory apparently, although they mainly target container ships going to Singapore or Hong Kong, so we should be okay. We're then going to work our way down through Indonesia before catching as short a flight as possible to Australia (there are no boats—we've checked).

So as we leave Malaysia for the last time, we think back on our time here. Before we came we had expected to have a few difficulties—like it would be hard to find sunscreen, it would be a bit dirty, transport would be unreliable and hard, there wouldn't be many places with internet, there would be an infestation of touts. We're happy to have been completely wrong. What does this mean for the rest of our trip? Should we reassess our expectations for Indonesia? Perhaps it just tells us that we should travel without any expectations at all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 Brunei Brunei Darussalam / Malaysia Malaysia

Golden oil rigs

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque [Enlarge]

Brunei is difficult to describe. In some ways it's like the rest of northern Borneo, in some ways it's like a Middle Eastern oil producing state, and it also has similarities to Singapore—a small, wealthy country surrounded by the 'real' south-east Asia.

We sent an envelope back to the UK containing a postcard… from Singapore! We bought it, wrote it and even stamped it in Singapore but then we forgot to post it until our last morning there. We have a niece who was born just after we left the UK. We've sent her a postcard from every country we've visited (except Serbia—we weren't there long enough). It's harder than you might think. In some places you can't find postcards, in others you can't find stamps. Anyway, in Singapore on the last morning we couldn't find a postbox. There were plenty marked on the map, but they were all in malls and therefore impossible to find. So we carried the postcard all the way to Brunei, where we stuck it in an envelope and mailed it home.

Kampong Ayer (water village) School, Bandar Seri Begawan. [IMG_4879]
Floating school [Enlarge]

One of Bandar Seri Begawan's tourist attractions is the Royal Regalia Museum. It houses the Sultan's huge collection of presents given to him by worldwide leaders and various organisations. We thought we had too much stuff when we sold up to go travelling, and if you think your life is cluttered too, try being a Sultan! He has obviously run out of space in the palace because he's had to donate to the museum his model offshore oil platform (in solid gold); his silver model of Angkor Wat; the beautiful pair of side tables inlaid with tiger mosaics given by the late Benazir Bhutto; and countless thousands of other possessions including the enormous golden batmobile used for the his coronation. As part of the collection we saw a gift from our own queen, which we were pleased to see has a practical use for functions or just brightening up a hallway, being as it is a large (we mean large) crystal vase. The museum was interesting, but we didn't get any christmas list ideas.

This is all you ever see at Brunei intersections. Eventually you have to give up and cross anyway. [IMG_4881]
Don't walk [Enlarge]

It's worth mentioning the difficulty in crossing roads here. Being a highly ordered and developed country, every road junction has a pedestrian crossing, as you would expect. The problem is that they never seem to let the pedestrians cross! You push the button, and wait for the green man to light up, but he never does. Eventually you just give up and cross anyway, wondering if you've committed a crime.

After a quick peer at the Kampong Ayer (water village) and the Sultan Omar Sharif Mosque we really had done all there is to do in BSB besides eating and shopping. Brunei's not cheap compared with the rest of Borneo, so we decided to continue our journey north. We didn't have a fixed plan but we had sort of decided that we would get to Kota Kinabalu (neighbour to the semi-famous Mount Kinabalu) and then decide whether to fly somewhere or cross into the south of the island, part of Indonesia, and continue.

So our next step was to get into Malaysia's other Bornean state, Sabah. The road crossing from Brunei is very fiddly, and involves going to the thin sliver of Malaysia (Sarawak state) which divides Brunei, then back into the eastern part of Brunei, then finally to Sabah. Thankfully there is a much better way, by boat. You do it in two steps. The first is to Pulau Labuan (Labuan Island), which is a Malaysian federal territory, not really part of Sarawak or Sabah. That's just one hour away by express boat. From there you take another boat, three hours to Kota Kinabalu. In line with our new way of doing things we planned to do the journey over two days and spend the night in Labuan.

We caught the local bus to the ferry port from opposite our hotel. No one knew what time it would come because it has no timetable, it just arrives approximately every hour. We sat in the shade at the bus stop and waited. After twenty minutes along came the bus we wanted, a number 38. Walking down the aisle to find a seat we were surprised to be greeted in friendly fashion by French voices. It was one of the couples we shared a four-wheel-drive with from Belaga to Bintulu 17 days ago! After we left them in Bintulu they'd been on a trip to Mulu national park, we'd caught our colds in Miri and then slowly trundled to Brunei when we'd felt better, and here we were, the only four foreigners on a random city bus.

Some time later the bus stopped in Muara, Brunei's port town. We had to change bus in the town centre and get another one to the actual port. The French couple weren't coming to Brunei, they were just taking a day trip to nearby Muara beach before flying back home the following morning, so this was definitely a final goodbye.

For sale on the duty free island of Labuan, Sabah, Malaysia. [IMG_4892]
A fine whisky [Enlarge]

At the port, while waiting for the boat we got into conversation with a Singaporean guy who was delivering a spare part to an oil company in Labuan. We learned from him that Labuan is a major destination for the workers on the many offshore oil platforms in these parts, for two reasons. One reason is that many mobile drilling rigs set out from Labuan, but the main reason is that Pulau Labuan is a duty free territory with plenty of alcohol!

We had expected it to be easy to find a hotel in Labuan, but we were very wrong. Our first choice hotel was full. The receptionist there suggested another place, which luckily had one room left. Labuan was nothing special—just another small Bornean town, albeit one on an island with cheap booze. We planned to leave on the morning boat to Kota Kinabalu, but we suspected we'd have to book accommodation in KK because it's a major tourist destination for a lot of Asians, and August is prime holiday season.

Isla started phoning round KK's hostels, guest houses, lodging houses, budget hotels, mid-range hotels... nowhere had space for us, not a single place in the whole town. We even called the tourist helpline but they couldn't help. OK, we thought, no problem, we'll stay in Labuan for another night then go to KK... But no, Labuan was full the next day too!

Labuan to Brunei boat [Enlarge]

We were out of realistic options and so we had to do a quick but complete change of plan. We decided to go back to Miri (through Brunei again—aaaaggghh!) from where we would catch a cheap flight to Johor Bahru in Peninsular Malaysia. Then we'll do a short road trip to Melacca (Malaka), the famous colonial port on the west coast. Finally we can take a boat across the Malacca Straits to Indonesian Sumatra. We called our old hotel in Brunei and booked a room there.

The next morning, we went back to Labuan ferry terminal and bought a ticket on the first boat back to Brunei. As we sat in the waiting room, the guy from Singapore greeted us. He'd finished his business and was going back to Singapore by way of BSB. He'd had even more trouble than us finding a hotel the previous night. We'd been right to just take the first room we found.

From the ferry terminal we managed to catch an express bus back to BSB (it's pot luck), so we didn't have to change in Muara's town centre. The driver let us out right outside our hotel.

In the hotel's restaurant that evening, while we were eating some wonton soup the day's final prayers interrupted the programme on the big TV in the corner. Without hesitation the waiter picked up the remote and flicked to a non-Bruneian cable channel. Not all the Bruneian residents are happy with all the rules and restrictions, it seems.

Crossing the river in the rain [Enlarge]

The rest of the story is simple. Five buses and a boat took us back to Miri. Achoo, the slow and smiling bus driver, was still smiling. And his funny sign was still there reminding us that he wouldn't hurry.

Two days later another bus took us to Miri airport and an Air Asia plane took us to Senai Airport near Johor Bahru. We stayed the night there, splashing out on the Sofitel Resort because it was cheap, then caught a coach to Melaka. Travelling around Malaysia is easy. This is in part because everyone is so friendly. People who want to sell you something will take no for an answer the first time, and will happily tell you what you need to know. There's no lies or mis-information like the touts in India peddle. Sure, the timetables are patchy or non-existent, but so long as you can slow yourself down to the same, dawdling speed it's pleasant, relaxing and reliable.

Map of Days 636-641

Days 636-641
Bandar Seri Begawan to Labuan to Bandar Seri Begawan to Miri to Johor Bahru to Melaka

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Brunei Brunei Darussalam / Malaysia Malaysia

Some rain, some Koreans and a crocodile

Longboat to Ulu Temburong [Enlarge]

Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan, capital city of Brunei, is a 150 kilometre trip involving five buses and a short boat ride across a river. It sounds complicated, but it turned out to be one of the simplest, least stressful overland border crossings we've done. We bought a combined ticket in Miri which got us from the local bus station in town all the way to Kuala Belait in Brunei (that's three buses and the boat accounted for). Then we caught a minibus from Belait to Seria, and finally another one to the capital. At each interchange our next bus was sitting there waiting for us. There were friendly people hanging around the bus stations who pointed at the right bus and were happy to tell us the departure time, fare, and anything else we wanted to know.

Our first bus driver out of Miri was quite a character. He was probably the least aggressive bus driver we've ever ridden with, and was permanently smiling. We think he believes he has the best job in the world, and that makes him a very lucky man. He took great delight in driving carefully and slowly, and even had a carefully stencilled sign above his head to tell us in three languages not to expect him to hurry:

I'm not a Formula one or sport car driver.
I'm only a normal bus driver.
If you people want to catch a plane on time.
You better take a taxi, Formula one or sport car.

We had just long enough in Seria between buses to buy some delicious toffee with peanuts and sesame seeds, and a couple of iced lemon teas. At all the other change overs the bus was moving almost before we'd sat down.

So, what about Negara Brunei Darussalam, country number twenty-six? There's no doubt that Brunei is more affluent than Sarawak, the neighbouring Malaysian state. This is most obvious in the kind of homes you see in the countryside—large private houses with big gardens, instead of communal longhouses or tiny wooden shacks. Brunei is one of the most observant Islamic nations in the world. You can't buy alcohol anywhere in the country, even if you're not Muslim (which 33% of the population isn't), although you can, we believe, ask for a 'special tea' in certain Chinese restaurants and you might just get a beer served in a teapot. We couldn't possibly comment on the veracity of this. If you're watching any of the Bruneian TV stations, your programme will be interrupted five times a day for prayers—yes, rather than just having the call to prayer ringing out from mosques across the city as happens in the Middle East, it is broadcast on the telly. But, these two differences aside, Brunei feels and looks quite a lot like Sarawak, only a bit more polished. The people are quite a lot like Sarawakians—friendly, smiley, delighted to meet you and happy to help, and not at all pushy.

Bruneian news displays a world map behind its presenter, but can you spot what's missing from western Europe? [IMG_4851]
Something's missing from the map [Enlarge]

Whereas a lot of Malaysians live above their shops, Bruneians seem to reserve the ground floor of their houses for shaded parking space for all their cars. They like their cars here: there are far fewer people on the pavements than in Malaysia.

The Sultanate has a long history of friendship with Britain, and was until as recently as 1984 a British protectorate (never a colony). It became fully independent on friendly terms and remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations... So, we wondered while flicking through the channels, why is Britain completely missing from the map behind the presenter on the national TV news every evening? Has nobody ever noticed this before?

Brunei is a small country—a bit bigger than Norfolk, a bit smaller than Devon. The population is roughly the same as that of Manchester, England or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most of the country is still jungle, and in fact because of the oil boom here, the country hasn't felt the need to destroy its rainforests for timber, and so it is home to some of the most pristine rainforests in South-east Asia. When the oil runs out, the forest is pretty much the only natural resource Brunei will have. The current plan is to exploit it for tourism, not for the timber trade—hopefully they'll be able to stick to this.

One of the most popular bits of jungle to visit is at the Ulu Temburong National Park. A day trip there starts with a swift speedboat ride down the Brunei River delta into Brunei Bay, round a spur of Malaysia which splits Brunei into two separate parts, then up the Temburong River to the small town of Bangar. From Bangar you take a car into the forest, followed by a longboat ride into the National Park and a tree-top walk along an impressive canopy walkway. A nice way to spend a Tuesday.

Down by the river in the early morning we met our trekking companions: a family of five from Hong Kong. As we boarded a speedboat at the Bandar Seri Begawan dock it was raining. Luckily our torpedo-shaped vessel was enclosed and almost watertight. The young speedboat driver was soon accelerating through the maze of streams that make up the Brunei River delta. We popped out into the open ocean and zoomed along a line of poles that marked the deep channel at low tide.

The rain had stopped by the time we docked in Bangar and met our guide, Langi. He is a member of one of Brunei's indigenous tribes. We've noticed that most of the people in Borneo offering services aimed at tourists are non-Muslims. He happily pointed things out and gave us snippets of information as we drove out of Bangar. One thing he told us was that Bangar just means "town", while the Bandar part of Bandar Seri Begawan means "city".

All the big travel companies in Brunei have their own lodge houses on the edge of Ulu Temburong with accommodation, catering facilities and a boat jetty. Freme Travel had laid on tea, coffee, banana fritters and sticky rice when we arrived. Once that was gone, we donned life jackets and took a longboat ride upstream into the national park. As we've mentioned already, Borneo is currently in the dry season. Langi told us that this usually means that the boat gets stuck and the passengers have to hop out and help push it over the rapids and sandbanks. But he said that because it had been raining all night we'd be okay, and we were. The driver had to basically point the boat uphill at each set of rapids, attack them at full throttle and quickly lift the propeller out of the water to coast through. We occasionally scraped the bottom, but Langi managed to punt us over it. Even without getting beached it was quite an exciting ride.

The steps up to the tree top walkway at Ulu Temburong. [IMG_4862]
We have to climb this?! [Enlarge]

At the entrance to the park, we had to get out of the boat to register at the park office. As we were signing the visitor book, Isla felt something sink its jaws into her shoulder. After some arm flapping and frantic t-shirt wafting a large ant fell out. When we say large, we mean bigger than your thumbnail. The wildlife in Borneo is super-sized.

Isla's gaping wound salved, we headed into the jungle. There is a way up to the canopy walkway involving some 1200 wooden steps, but this way is currently closed for maintenance because apparently several tourists have slipped over on the steps. That meant we would be taking the long way round through the jungle, using ropes to help us pull ourselves up, which was much more interesting. It wasn't too hot because there was a slight breeze coming up the river valley. Eventually we reached the base of the canopy walkway's tower, from which a long metal platform well above tree top level was suspended. Assuming you can get up the courage to climb to the top, you have a fantastic view over the top of the jungle. Of our group of seven, we were the only ones to go up.

Sliding back down the hill, we passed a group of Koreans on tour, coming the other way. We said "안녕하세요" (annyeonghaseyo / hello) to them as we passed and they almost rolled down the hill in surprise. We went on to further astound them by explaining in Korean that until June we had been English teachers in Seoul. They loved it.

at Ulu Temburong. [IMG_4865]
Isla on the tree top walkway [Enlarge]

We'd just passed a patch of monkey wee (it smells strong and musty), and a poisonous tree (don't touch!) on the way down the hill when Langi told us that it was going to rain. As soon as he'd said it, we could sense the change in the air, and the stiffening breeze, which we hadn't noticed before. We just made it to the longboats before the downpour came. The boatman magically produced waterproof ponchos for everyone and we had an even more interesting voyage back down to the lodge house. No danger of getting grounded this time! When it rains in Borneo it really rains, even in the dry season. Pity the poor Koreans who had probably just about reached the summit as 비가 왔어요 (bi-ga oasseoyo / it started raining).

On the way back to the city the speed boat took a route closer to the coast than it had before, as it was now high tide. We wondered if we were sticking to Bruneian waters or taking a short cut through Malaysia, so we tagged a few points on the GPS to check out later on Google Earth. True enough, we had sped through little creeks deep in the Malaysian mainland for a lot of the journey!

We were almost back to Bandar Seri Begawan when the boat driver suddenly cut the throttle and we all nearly flew through the windscreen. He excitedly pointed out of the window and we looked just in time to see a huge salt-water crocodile launch itself vertically out of the water, snap its jaws around an unsuspecting fish, and disappear again below the surface. The driver said that he'd never seen a crocodile here before, and he's been navigating the waterways of Brunei for many years. As usual, the highlight of the day turned out to be something unexpected.

Our trekking trip was fab. We're not sure that the Hong Kongers shared our view though. Take out the breathtaking treetop walk, and all you have left is a trudge up and down a hill and a wet boat ride. Life's much more fun when you try stuff. JFDI, we say.

Map of Day 633

Day 633
Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, August 17, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Miri rest stop

Koompassia excelsa. [IMG_4813]
Tapang tree [Enlarge]

On the drive from Belaga to Bintulu Isla began to feel like she was coming down with a cold. We just managed to get checked in at a hotel before it turned into a nasty cold and throat infection, and pretty much wiped her out. But as there was a distinct lack of places to find Western comfort food in Bintulu, she dosed up on paracetamol (Tylenol) and we caught a bus up the coast to Miri hoping for something better.

In Miri we checked into a reasonable hotel with a TV and wi-fi, ate a decent pizza and settled down to watch the Olympics, at which Great Britain are doing quite well!

After a few days' rest Isla's cold had gone except for an annoying cough and we finally felt like doing something different. So we took a guided excursion to Niah National Park (pronounced NEE-a). Sarawak has several national parks, each with a different selling point. Niah's main draw is its caves, once home to the oldest human settlement in Malaysian Borneo—a human skull 40,000 years old was found there in the 1950s.

The caves are fittingly huge. We say fittingly, because it seems that everything in this part of the world is huge: the insects, the trees, the leaves, the rivers, the rainstorms. The Great Cave at Niah is particularly impressive, its roof rising as high as 75 metres. We can't find a figure for the size of the mouth of the cave but we reckon it must be around 100 metres wide by 30 high. As you enter, a long wooden walkway disappears back into the endless blackness, countless steps rising up and away from you. You are hit by the cool and musty air, and the only sound is the clicks of the swifts for which this cave is famous: their nests (or rather the binding cement for their nests, which is made from their saliva), are prized for the curious Chinese delicacy bird's nest soup. Until visiting Niah, we thought it was just called bird's nest soup—we didn't think it was actually made of bird's nests! Maybe we're strange. But anyway, we now know the soup is the real deal. And it's expensive! The nests retail at around USD 2,000 (GBP 1,081) per kilogram.

Great Cave, Niah National Park [Enlarge]

The swifts have an annoying habit of building their nests on the roof of the cave, out of reach of predators, and all but the most determined human collectors. The locals here are licensed to harvest a certain number of nests each year, and they still do it in the traditional way: by climbing up a 75 metre tall bamboo pole and precariously scraping them off the ceiling with a scraper. Slips are usually fatal. As we walked through the darkness by torchlight we could see little points of light in the far distance. Sometimes the points were on the cave floor: they belonged to collectors of bird and bat guano for fertilizer. Mostly they were ascending or descending the ropes and poles, as the day's quota of nests was steadily filled.

Stalactites and stalagmites grow more quickly here than they do back home, but less gracefully. The hot sun evaporates the water on one side faster than the other, which causes the formations to grow out of the cave towards the sun. In the painted cave (named after the ancient cave paintings found there) the ceiling is almost completely level and smooth, apart from the crazy formations growing downward from the cracks. However the floor is rough and undulating, made that way by water flowing across it for millions of years. There's a good vantage point—a natural balcony—against one wall of the cave, about half way between the floor and ceiling, and when you stand here and look across the cave you feel like the world has been turned upside down.

The day after our trip to Niah, Isla was finally feeling near normal but Glenn inevitably came down with the evil cold; and it rained all day. So we were back in the hotel room, but with Olympic sport on the telly and fairly reliable internet we didn't mind too much.

We like Miri. It's got everything we need, it's pedestrian-friendly, the natives are great, the food is too. In a day or so we'll get moving again, continuing our trip north-east up the coast into our 26th country: Brunei.

Map of Day 626

Day 626
Bintulu to Miri

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, August 09, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Leaving the Rejang behind

Main street, Belaga [Enlarge]

We liked Belaga straight away. It's a tiny town consisting of just three or so parallel streets, each one only about a hundred metres long. It has just two or three shops, between them selling absolutely anything you could ever want to buy, as long as you don't want a big choice; a surprising number of cafes offering variations on a theme of nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles); and a smattering of hotels. It has a chilled out atmosphere. The locals smile and greet you on their way to the badminton court or park, but no one pressures you to join their 'special price' excursion or buy their locally produced handicrafts. You can if you like, take it or leave it. It's our kind of place.

Now, about the excursions. The thing to do in this part of Borneo is to go on an organised visit to a longhouse. The state of Sarawak alone is home to more than forty sub-ethnic groups and many of them still live in traditional style in multi-family longhouses, up to 200 metres long and raised up on stilts to avoid floods. Longhouse visiting is big business.

We are genetically predisposed to be sceptical of anything that involves swapping money for an 'authentic experience'. We've been lucky enough to be taken to the homes of people we actually know while on our travels, and these visits were great. But we find organised, money-changing-hands experiences awkward and difficult. We prefer to see what normal family life is like rather than some manufactured idea of what Westerners expect to see. It's one thing to meet a local on a boat or bus, get talking, and end up going back to his place for a cup of tea—that's special and unmissable—but we don't like it when it's commercialised.

With our hotel in the background. [IMG_4798]
Public garden [Enlarge]

We talked to a few Brits in town who'd been on an overnight stay in a longhouse over the previous two days. In addition to the fee, they told us you are required to bring gifts. Also, they didn't say outright, but they strongly implied, that it's quite boring at times. Almost every family unit in the longhouses has satellite TV and the probability is that your hosts will spend the evening watching Malaysian soap operas. If you try to talk to them or play with the children, you'll be sssshhhed. And you have to eat truly weird food (for Westerners) in circumstances of dubious hygiene... Of course, they said good things about the visit too! We may regret it, but on balance, we decided to give the longhouses a miss, for now at least.

(On the subject of food, we can imagine the poor longhouse hosts complaining to each other: "We've got some more weirdo foreigners coming tonight, we'll have to leave the pizza in the fridge and cook them up some bugs!")

Right outside our window. [IMG_4800]
****ing rooster [Enlarge]

We spent two days in Belaga which was enough, especially since we had another rooster with a faulty body clock living outside our window. It's a lovely place, but it's very, very small and you keep bumping into the same people over and over again. It's like when you pass the same colleague in the office corridor three times in the same morning; the first time you say "Hi", the second time you nod, and the third time you awkwardly ignore each other.

Our last day in Belaga was the 8th of August: 08/08/08. In our room we had a tiny television with a very limited choice of channels, so we didn't hold out much hope as we turned it on at 8pm and flicked through the channels hoping that just maybe we'd be able to catch something from the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. We found it! With commentary in Malay, of course. It was good, but not a patch on the Arirang Mass Games in North Korea. It felt like just another identikit Olympic opening ceremony from the shelf marked 'Olympic opening ceremonies'. We really hope that the London 2012 team breaks the mould, throws away the rule book, and does something totally different for our opening ceremony in four years' time.

Clouds in the Borneo hills [Enlarge]

So, how to get out of Belaga? Until recently you had to go 60 kilometres further upstream as far as the Bakun Dam where the only road in the area began. What then? Catch a lift from a friendly logger, or call ahead and arrange for a pick up. It would have been nice to have been able to say that we'd travelled the entire length of the Rejang from ocean to source, all 640/530/564/567/770 kilometres of it. (None of our leaflets or guides can agree on the actual length—the last three numbers came from the same booklet.) But those days are gone. Belaga is now well and truly connected to the outside world by a road that starts out as a gravel and dirt track before getting wider and flatter, until it finally joins up with the Pan Borneo Highway part way between Bintulu and Miri.

There's no public transport out of Belaga, so we teamed up with four more Westerners and commissioned a Toyota Landcruiser four wheel drive to take us from Belaga to Bintulu, back on the coast. It cost us a slightly pricey 60 riggit per person (GBP 9.63 / USD 17.92), but it was a long drive and the vehicle was new and immaculate—and came with a couple of golden Buddhas on the dashboard to assure our safety.

Buddhist dashboard [Enlarge]

The road was bumpy. In places it was a compacted mud track, in places it looked like it had been freshly ploughed. We passed a few roadworking gangs who were using huge yellow earth-movers to flatten out the ruts. On a road without deep foundations or tarmac this must be a full time job. We bounced through beautiful jungle scenery, including looking down on a sea of clouds which the early morning sun hadn't yet burned off. As the road gradually improved, we began to come across occasional longhouses dotted throughout the forest. At one point the jungle suddenly disappeared, as far as we could see in all directions. The hillsides had been cleared and terraced ready to receive a few million oil palm trees.

Finally the road joined a wider, tarmac road and then before too long we were at the junction with the Pan Borneo Highway. Here we parted company with two of our travelling companions who were going east to Miri by bus, while the other four of us turned south west to Bintulu.

The last week in Sarawak has been one of the most memorable of our entire trip so far, and we're still only half way up the coast of Borneo!

Map of Day 624

Day 624
Belaga to Bintulu

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Thursday, August 07, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Rejang roof-riding

Kapit wharf [IMG_4765]
Upriver express boats [Enlarge]

Finding the boat upriver to Belaga was not very easy. Kapit has at least two wharfs, and another huge pier is being built right next to the town's market. So not only did we not know exactly where to catch the boat, we also didn't know what time it sailed. Or even if it sailed! Allow us to explain. All along the Rejang River, people had been a bit vague about the Kapit to Belaga boat. In Kuching they sucked their teeth and told us it was impossible to get further than Kapit in the dry season (i.e. now). In our next stop Sibu they said there was a boat some days, but only if there had been enough rain upstream and the river was high enough. The Sarawak Tourism Board's handy little Sibu and Central Sarawak Visitors' Guide says:

Note: During the dry season (July to September) express boats may not be able to reach Belaga.

While the same organisation's Sibu and the Rejang leaflet says:

Express boats leave Sibu for Belaga (7-9 hrs approx.) at about 6 am (and 9 am during the rainy season), stopping at Kapit.

We were confused and prepared to be told that we would have to either fly out of Kapit or backtrack down the river until we found a road. But when we asked people in Kapit they looked at us like we were daft and said of course, there's one boat a day. They just couldn't agree on the time.

It's not really their fault. The time is variable because it depends when the boat arrives into Kapit (it starts off downriver in Sibu). After loading up and taking on a new set of passengers it continues to Belaga. Some people said it would arrive at 09:00, some said 09:30, some said 10:00. We didn't want to risk missing it, so we went down at 7:45 to find the right place, make sure we had tickets and generally watch the comings and goings in early morning Kapit.

Rejang river [Enlarge]

It turned out that the upriver wharf was signposted as being the right one for Belaga, although only in Malay. Several locals confirmed that we were in the right place for the Belaga boat, and that the place to buy the tickets is on the boat. We sat down on the concrete steps to wait. There was plenty to watch. Although this wharf is of secondary importance to the downstream one, there was still lots of activity. Boats to local villages and long houses were constantly coming and going, and being loaded up with provisions, livestock, goods and people. Every so often an express boat would torpedo in, tie up and quickly unload something or someone and take off again. The boats moor side by side and the only way to reach the most recent arrival is across all the other boats. How they kept track of which string-tied cardboard box should go onto which boat, we couldn't even begin to guess.

Everything imaginable was being taken upriver, from bedsteads and freezers, to pet dogs in wooden crates, local Tiger beer, and jellyfish satay, to live chickens in plastic shopping baskets. It was the Bornean equivalent of an Ikea car park. The people were a fantastic mix too. The teenagers and twenty-somethings were dressed in Levis and logo'd t-shirts, while the older generations, travelling back to their longhouse communities, were distinguishable from the ethnic Chinese and Malays by their hugely elongated earlobes. The practice of piercing and then stretching your ears isn't practised much by younger generations, and will probably die out within another few decades.

The boat came at about 8:50, and there was no shortage of friendly locals telling us that it was the boat we wanted. We sat down inside on one of the cracked chairs, in refrigerated air conditioned coldness. The in-flight movie was already playing. It was something Malaysian that we didn't understand. Then one of the other passengers told us that we shouldn't be inside—the best place to sit was on the roof! It seemed like a great idea so we walked round the side of the boat on the wide metal skirt that acts as both a loading platform and a splash guard, and climbed up onto the roof. The white painted metal wasn't too hot, and was more or less flat, sloping slightly from the middle towards the edges. All around the edge was a rail, about 15 centimetres high, to stop cargo sliding off the top and into the fast-flowing water.

On the Kapit to Belaga express boat. [IMG_4770]
Riding on the roof [Enlarge]

We positioned ourselves behind a bed frame, gas cooker and stack of boxes, which were coming up river with us. At 09:25 we set off. At first we had the roof to ourselves. From time to time someone would pop out of the doors at the front for a smoke. With our UV proof sun hats, sunglasses, ear plugs, SPF 50 shirts and trousers and a lot of sunblock, we were actually very comfortable and quite cool. We had a nice breeze from the movement of the boat, and a fresh ozony smell from the river mingled with the wood smoke of jungle bonfires. And there was no trashy movie!

Two hundred kilometres inland from the sea, the Rejang is still wide, but it's no longer very deep. Our skipper was having to constantly adjust course, throttling back and steering wide arcs around invisible rocks and sandbanks that he knew were there. The scenery was truly stunning. We've done some great journeys by road, rail and waterways, but this might well have been the best.

From the roof of the Kapit to Belaga express boat. [IMG_4775]
Rejang river longhouse [Enlarge]

About an hour upstream we came to the Pelagus Rapids. This is a stretch of water that was practically impassable until the 1960s when British Army engineers and a lot of explosives opened up a navigable channel. But even these days, it's only the shallow bottomed speedboats and express boats like ours, with reinforced hulls, that can make the trip. Fifty years ago, passengers had to disembark and trek through the jungle to reach a second boat on the other side of the rapids. We were expecting a wild ride, and they were an undoubted challenge for the skipper and the boat. There were a couple of points where it really felt as if we were driving up hill, engines revving, but disappointingly they weren't nearly as wild as we thought they'd be. They're probably worse in the wet season.

We stopped at almost every longhouse on the way upstream. People were constantly joining and leaving the boat as every twenty minutes or so we'd slow up and drive, nose first, into the muddy bank to let people on or off. At one point a small group of men carrying construction tools boarded and hopped up onto the roof with us. We exchanged smiles and after a bit one of them wordlessly expressed an interest in the GPS. Glenn ran through its different functions to the guy's obvious delight. Who needs a shared language when you have a shared love of gadgets?

Disembarking [Enlarge]

Three hours into the trip and with at least another hour to go, we were in the full untempered force of the midday equatorial sun, and in spite of the breeze it was becoming too much. We retreated below to where loud Malaysian dance music was playing on the TV screens to drown out the engine noise, and loud tribal women were shouting the latest longhouse gossip to each other to drown out the TV. But at least we were cool.

At first sight Belaga looked homely and very welcoming. Above the narrow jetty a big sign proclaimed "Welcome to Belaga". Mowed grass—you could almost call it a lawn—coated the river banks all the way up to the first line of buildings. It was not what we were expecting!

Our first task as ever was finding somewhere to sleep. It wasn't a big job as there are only a handful of hotels in the town and they are all metres apart. In fact after five minutes in the town we had explored it fully! We chose the Sing Soon Hua Hotel, the town's most expensive, and got a large twin room with private bathroom and air conditioning for 35 ringgit a night (GBP 5.62 / USD 10.45). Excellent value as ever in Malaysia. Can you really ask for more?

All our photos from today are here.

Map of Day 622

Day 622
Kapit to Belaga

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Kapit, in the middle of nowhere

Boat ticket sales desks. Sibu to Song and Kapit. [IMG_4750]
Plenty of choice for boats upriver [Enlarge]

There are no roads to Kapit, and when the only way to a place is by boat there are a lot of boats. When we turned up at the wharf for the 10:45 express (chosen at random), something like seven ferries had already started the journey upriver, and another three or four were scheduled to follow ours. There are no fewer than three classes to choose from on the Kapit Boleh 168 express boat, at 20, 25 or 30 ringgits each (GBP 3.17, 3.96, 4.75 / USD 6.01, 7.52, 9.02). We chose the middle ones at 25 (didn't want to be extravagant!), and when we were handed the tickets they said 'business class'. When we got on board we were able to see what the extra money gets you on these boats: the more you pay, the further from the outrageously noisy engine you are, and the more legroom you get between your plastic leather seat and the one in front. In business class we had just enough legroom for Glenn to sit down and our seats, like everyone else's, had partially come adrift from the floor. They rocked violently when we sat down or moved. If there hadn't been a Malaysian granny behind us we might have shifted the whole seat back for some extra space. We put in our ear plugs (top tip for these boats, by the way) and carefully settled back in our seats.

on the Sibu to Kapit express boat. [IMG_4753]
Business class [Enlarge]

The express boats running upriver from Sibu are like no other boats we've ever encountered. They look like jet planes with the wings cut off, and they go nearly as fast and sound nearly as loud as their airborne cousins. The ride took about two and a half hours. It wasn't particularly interesting, mainly because we couldn't see much through the windows. To keep the sun out and earn a bit of extra cash the boat operators cover the top 90 percent of the windows with vinyl sticker adverts. As with seemingly all Malaysian public transport, there was an in-flight movie, but it was inaudible over the growling engines.

First impressions usually stick and we didn't particularly like Kapit, when we walked up the long flight of steps from the pier. In isolated places there always seems to be a strange atmosphere, and Kapit had it. It's hard to describe exactly, but there's a sort of feeling of being trapped that pervades everything and everyone. Kapit has a small airport with a couple of commercial flights each week, boat connections back down river to Sibu that stop running in the early afternoon, and a few boats each day to various upriver villages, mainly in the morning. Because of the lack of travel options if there was a problem with accommodation, we had decided to book a room by phone the previous afternoon. It was across town from the wharf, but that meant only a few hundred metres away. The woman at the New Rejang Inn was very sorry, but despite our phone call she didn't have a room for us. The line hadn't been good and the receptionist hadn't known what date we'd be arriving. Her hotel was full of a party of Belgians and Germans.

View from the Melagai Hotel, Kapit [Enlarge]

Instead she directed us to the New Rejang Inn's sister hotel, the Rejang Inn back across town near the wharf. She quoted us a price and even phoned to check there was a room ready. The Rejang Inn is old, as the presence of the New Rejang Inn testifies. Although it was undeniably cheap, we thought we could do better. We went round the corner to the Meligai Hotel which was mentioned in a leaflet we'd picked up in Sibu. They had a room. It was twice the price of the 'Old' Rejang but still cheap.

We are in the middle of nowhere, and we have to make one more journey upriver before we can access onward transport back to the coast of Borneo (without flying or backtracking): to the tiny town of Belaga, another five and a half hours upstream. But to go any further than Kapit you need a permit from the local government, to control and protect access to the rainforest and its people. So that was our next task. It was free, but we had to apply for it in a government office, a few minutes' drive out of town.

Eventually we were accommodated, clean, and permitted... we were ready to explore Kapit. Sadly there's not a great deal to see. Kapit appears to be the archetypal one-horse town, except that with no roads in or out, it hasn't got much need for horses. No one tried to sell us anything. We couldn't see any companies offering local trekking trips. Kapit seems to have no idea that it could be a tourist destination. But the weird thing is that the place seems to be booming. On the way out to the permits office, we passed endless rows of huge new villas with private walled gardens. In the centre of town there is a lot of construction going on, and a whole block has been redeveloped as modern apartments. We could smell the drying plaster as we passed. Most of the cars around town are less than three years old (strange considering there are no roads to anywhere further than a few miles out of town!)

A good choice of restaurant in Kapit. [IMG_4759]
Orchard Inn Chinese restaurant [Enlarge]

We walked through Kapit's streets as day became dusk, struggling to find any reasons to like the place. From a couple of satay stalls a delicious smell of barbecuing chicken reminded us that we hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. We stumbled upon the Orchard Inn, a Chinese restaurant serving large portions of delicious food and cold beer, for very reasonable prices. The owner was very welcoming and served us a Chinese portion (i.e. huge) of sweet and sour pork, another of melt-in-the-mouth beef with ginger, and two plates of fried rice that was very similar to the fried rice with dried salted fish that we ate in Macau. Including two beers, it came to 37 ringgits in all (GBP 5.86 / USD 11.12). Remembering that most stuff has to be brought in by plane or boat, we don't know how they do it. Actually, because the number of tourists to this area is still manageably small (our Belaga permit is number 190 so far in 2008!), there are no overpriced eateries catering for foreigners—you eat with the locals and pay the same prices. Fine by us.

We stopped at a local shop to buy water. The owner wanted to know where in England we were from. We told him and of course he didn't know where that was, so he asked which was our local football team (US: soccer). After telling him, he still didn't know where we were from, but he could at least relate to it. Malaysians, like so much of the world, are crazy about the English Premiership. It's a marketing triumph, and it does seem to make us more welcome when people know we're from England.

However one good restaurant and a friendly shopkeeper couldn't make us love Kapit enough to stay. One night is plenty here, and that means catching tomorrow's boat upriver to Belaga, even further into the wilds of Borneo. The difference however is that Belaga has a recently constructed road out of the forest, which is hopefully going to be our eventual way back to the towns on the coast.

Map of Day 621

Day 621
Sibu to Kapit

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Into the Borneo interior

On the cargo deck of the Kuching to Sibu express boat. [IMG_4732]
Bags and chickens [Enlarge]

The current vague plan is to head north-east towards the Sultanate of Brunei, and carry on clockwise around Borneo into Indonesia. We could travel overland to Brunei in two days by air conditioned express bus, straight up the Pan Borneo Highway. Or we could take the interesting option, which is to take much more time over the journey and travel by boat up the Sungai Rejang (Rejang River). The Rejang is Malaysia's longest river, and it passes through places that still aren't connected to anywhere by roads, cutting through rapids and passing indigenous long houses. This decision was a no-brainer.

Step one was the once-a-day express boat from Kuching's port on the Sarawak river, out into the South China Sea, north-east across open water for about 90 kilometers, then into the Rejang estuary, and a further 80 kilometres upriver to Sibu. Though the price recently went up, 45 ringgits (GBP 7.19 / USD 13.53) is still pretty reasonable. For that money you can sit watching "inflight movies" in the air conditioned cabin, or you can sit outside with the chickens (by the boxload, clucking and roostering all the way!), which is what we did. The wooden benches weren't too comfortable, but the view was great. As we entered the mouth of the Rejang River, our progress slowed. The boat's huge engines battled against the vicious current and we began to fight our way inland towards Sibu.

From the Kuching to Sibu express boat. [IMG_4736]
Logging barge [Enlarge]

Starting at several kilometres wide, the chocolatey brown river soon began to narrow until we could clearly see the jungle on both banks. The river was busy with passenger boats and logging barges—tiny but powerful tug boats pulling huge, chained together platforms of logs. There were plumes of smoke rising from the forest in places. Along with oil, logging is Sarawak's main industry and the environmental impact is huge, with estimates claiming that as much as 90 percent of the primary rainforest has given way to oil palms and other plantations. From the river, we didn't see any areas of cleared land or deforestation, but certainly a great deal of tree trunks were making their way downriver on this Tuesday morning.

The journey only took five and a half hours, and Sibu was fairly quiet when we arrived just before 14:00. The only life as we left the landing jetty was a cluster of taxi drivers chatting near the taxi stand and a smiley man raking grass clippings in the town park.

Sibu harbour [IMG_4744]
Rejang river boats [Enlarge]

First stop as ever was the visitor information centre. In spite of having directions, we walked round in circles getting hotter and sweatier than we wanted to be, but we couldn't find it. Eventually we gave up and phoned the centre to ask where it was. It turns out we hadn't seen it because it had moved a few hundred metres last year. When we found it, the information person was friendly, just like all the other Sarawakians we've met, and spoke great English. He suggested some hotels that we might like to stay in. Clustered on the main square, they were all ones that were in the lowest budget section of our low-budget travel guide. We asked if there was anything in a slightly higher price bracket and he circled a mid-range hotel on the map. In Sarawak 'budget' means around GBP 5 (USD 10) a night for the room, whereas 'mid-range' means GBP 10 to 12 (USD 20 to 24). The extra five quid makes a big difference.

Already we're noticing the effect of our new proper backpacks—people are now judging us as wanting the lowest possible price regardless of quality. Also the number of taxis screeching to a halt on the road beside us and winding their windows down has increased markedly. The backpacks act as huge beacons proclaiming:

I'm a western backpacker I'm just like all the other western backpackers I want cheap hotels cheap food cheap beer and but I won't try to bargain your ridiculous price down because I'm hungover and we don't do that in the west so you can charge what you like and anyway I'm not discerning so you can rip me off with all your overpriced tours and taxi rides and souvenirs after all I'll buy anything.


We walked back through town to find our hotel of choice (a fantastic ten quids-worth), showered and went out for some dinner. The choices in Sibu were a lot less inspiring than in Kuching, but we found a place serving chicken and rice and while it wasn't the best meal ever, it was better than doritos. Back at our hotel, we discovered that they have wifi in the lobby, so we checked that the world was still turning and then had an early night. There is still a long way to go up the Rejang.

Map of Day 620

Day 620
Kuching to Sibu

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, August 04, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Kuching festival

Shophouses on Kuching Main Bazaar [Enlarge]

Our arrival into Kuching, Sarawak's largest city, must rank as one of the most bizarre arrivals of our trip so far. To get through the door of the Waterfront Lodge, our home for the next couple of days, we had to duck between groups of locals in colourful costumes, and the endless stalls which had been set up in front of all the buildings. We managed to slip through between the boys brigade and the India society into a haven of relative tranquillity. The Waterfront Lodge is part of the old colonial-era waterfront, but it has only just opened after a complete refurbishment. The beautiful shophouse must be one of the oldest buildings in town. The tastefully restored interior is all terracotta floor tiles, white walls, plants and gorgeous local wood. Despite the lobby not being air conditioned it felt like an oasis from the tropical heat. There was more than a little of the caravanserai ambiance that we'd felt in the souk in Aleppo—the silk road may not have come through here, but the Chinese certainly did.

The manager greeted us with a broad smile and checked us in. As he showed us to our spotless room, he told us that this Friday night parade was the beginning of a weekend of festivities. We'd had no idea. When we were checking in the noise from outside was deafening, but it turned out that Sarawakians like to go to bed early, even when there's a parade. By 10:30pm the city was quiet...

Sarawak regatta [Enlarge]

...Until 7:00am on Saturday when the rowing regatta commentator decided to do an early sound check of the PA system, and we discovered that there was a massive speaker right outside our room. We were awake whether we wanted to be or not. After a bit we got up and went for a look at what was going on. Just across the road, under marquees, a small band was playing. A man in his sixties was up on the little stage, dancing. As we watched, a middle aged guy joined him, grooving to the mellow Bornean music. The people of Malaysian Borneo, we began to realise, are an even more chilled out bunch than their mainland cousins.

We paid a visit to the local tourist information centre to pick up a map of the town and to look at our options for onward travel. Then we spent some time walking around, mingling with the crowds watching the regatta races that had now got under way on the river. The regatta had attracted a big crowd. They lined the river on both sides. We learned later some regional bigwigs had paid a visit at some point, but we didn't see, let alone get to meet, the Sultan of Brunei, or Jason Brooke, great-great-grandson of the second Rajah Brooke of Sarawak. Everyone was having a great time, eating satay from the riverside stalls, drinking iced tea and fluorescent milk drinks, buying helium balloons and generally enjoying a day out with the family.

Sarawak regatta. [IMG_4715]
Buying a cold drink [Enlarge]

We hadn't really known what to expect in Borneo, but we'd somehow expected less civilisation. We certainly hadn't envisioned wifi in our room and an excellent Lebanese restaurant just around the corner. Kuching isn't just modern, it's characterful, cultured, vibrant and welcoming. We had such a nice time just hanging out, eating nice food, we didn't want to leave. But we can't really stay forever.

On our last day we crossed the river and visited Fort Margherita, Rajah Brooke's defence against pirates. Sarawak's history is unusual—it wasn't a colony of another country, but was owned and administered by three generations of the Brooke family for over a century, having been granted to Englishman James Brooke in 1841 by the Sultan of Brunei as thanks for Brooke's brokering a peaceful settlement of the Dayak uprising. Brooke styled himself the first Rajah of Sarawak, but eventually the dynasty was pressured into ceding sovereignty to the British after World War II.

Fort Margherita, Kuching [Enlarge]

With the Rajahs and the pirates long gone (at least from Malaysian Borneo) the fort doesn't have much purpose any more, and it's looking a bit tatty. The Bornean weather is not kind—relentlessly hot with torrential rain for part of the year. Our guidebook uncharitably describes the fort as having "been left to rot under the Borneo sun". This is a huge exaggeration. Inside the fort we found a local still guarding the fort. As we arrived he leaned his broom up and led us inside the main building to write our names in the visitors book and stow our bag before climbing the spiral staircase to the watchtower.

It was close to midday. The sun was beating down on the fort's whitewashed stone and gleaming off the river. Water taxis were shuttling back and forth. A rooster crowded somewhere down the hill, and in the background, noise from the huge construction site next door (the new Sarawak parliament we think) rumbled over to the watchtower. The heat was almost unbearable and our need to find some shade became irresistible, so we had to come down from the tower. It's hard to believe that there was ever any need for forts and defences—In this equatorial heat surely no one has the energy to have wars!

Sarawak river taxi [Enlarge]

We beat our retreat down the hill and back across the river. There's plenty to do in Kuching if you have the stamina. There are a couple of crazily decorated temples and some small museums around the town centre, and lots of shops where you can buy locally made souvenirs. Some of the hardwood furniture was beautiful. If we still had a house we might well have bought one of the amazing boat-shaped seats. Of course it wouldn't have fitted in our backpacks, so it's probably a good thing we don't have anywhere to put it. The city's restaurants are many and varied. Chinese food dominates, with Malay cuisine a close second, but you can find almost anything.

So, Kuching was a wonderful start to our Bornean adventure. We can only hope that after such a great introduction, the rest of Sarawak doesn't bring us crashing back to earth.

Saturday, August 02, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia / Singapore Singapore

Across to Borneo

...full of taxis, not buses! [IMG_4699]
Johor Bahru bus station [Enlarge]

We thought we'd check out Borneo next, to see if we can find some headhunters. There are no ferries between peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, so once again we needed to make a short flight. The main city in Sarawak, the western province of Malaysian Borneo, is Kuching. We could fly there expensively from Singapore with Malaysian Airlines, or cheaply from Johor Bahru (just inside Malaysia on the other side of the causeway) with Air Asia. Obviously, Johor Bahru it was.

We checked out of our clean but rule-obsessed hostel and made our way slowly, with a lunch stop en route, towards Kranji MRT station in the north of the island, from where we could catch a connecting bus to Johor Bahru. While we were on the MRT there was an announcement that people going to Johor Bharu should get off at Woodlands station and use bus number 950. It wasn't what we had planned, but we went with it. We found out later that the 950 is run by SMRT (the MRT company) while the buses from Kranji are run by SBS (not the MRT company), so that's why the MRT company tried, and succeeded, to entice us to leave early. No matter, it was a bus going our way. We stopped at the Singapore end of the causeway and everyone was chucked out to be stamped out of Singapore. Then after passport control, the way it works is that you have to wait for the next number 950 bus to come along—your original bus has taken the previous load of passengers on to the Malaysian side of the causeway. It was here that we discovered why the internet resources recommend Kranji and the 170 bus—there are about four times as many of them as there are 950s. It didn't really matter as we were in no hurry.

The trip across the causeway only took a few minutes and we were turfed off again for Malaysian passport control. As we emerged from the building, passports freshly stamped, it was immediately obvious that we were now in Malaysia rather than Singapore. The polishedness had gone, and there were no signs telling you what you couldn't do. But the downside was that there were also no signs telling you where the bus stop was, and when you found the bus area, no signs telling you where each bus would stop. And horror of horrors, there were no special queueing lanes for each bus. After a bit of mental readjustment we just followed the crowd into a big layby area, where it seemed all the buses stopped.

Eventually a 950 turned up, on which we we were the only passengers all the way to the Kotaraya bus terminal, where we would connect with the Causeway Link Express bus to the airport.

Johor Bahru is Malaysia's third largest city, but its bus station certainly doesn't give away this fact. It was devoid of any activity and curiously uncontaminated by buses. The next bus to the airport was due at 16.10 so we sat down in the waiting lounge to kill the forty-five minute wait. While Glenn went outside for a look around, Isla was approached by the bus station cleaner. He leaned his mop up against the table and struck up a conversation. His English wasn't great (but better than our pathetic attempts at Malay of course) and not knowing how to say what he wanted to, he instead disappeared off and fetched us various leaflets from around the waiting room which he thought would be useful to us. He also brought a great free map of Malaysia, on which he enthusiastically pointed out all the places we could visit. Then another local arrived to join in the conversation. When Glenn came back he found a crowd around Isla's table. The second guy turned out the be a Singaporean, and claimed to be a taxi permit inspector, but his ID said he was a taxi driver. He was very friendly and gave us his wife's business card (we now have a great contact for all our plumbing and project management needs in the Johor Bahru area) and his name and address. Malaysia is just like that—it is the friendliest place we have been by miles and we love it. We feel that Thailand's superficial friendliness is often laced with a mercenary streak, and it can stop abruptly when the person finds out you're not interested in buying anything. But we're discovering that Malaysia's friendliness seems to be completely genuine.

The airport was quiet. We ate some dinner, got our backpacks wrapped in cellophane and checked in. The short Air Asia flight left on time and arrived early at Kuching in Sarawak.

Sarawak is a semi-autonomous state within Malaysia and so although we were on an internal flight, we actually had to pass through border control and get another stamp in our passport. Malays have to do this too, and apparently they even need a permit to come to Borneo and can only stay for a limited time.

As at Kota Bharu airport there were no taxi touts baying for our custom, just a well organised taxi desk where you state your destination, pay your money and get a receipt to give to the driver.

We're big fans of Michael Palin's televised travels. In fact he was the inspiration for us carrying an inflatable globe with us on this trip. Incidentally, we still have the globe, although it's got a bit of a slow puncture somewhere in the Russian Arctic. Anyway, we're sceptical about the way that everywhere Palin goes, he always seems to miraculously turn up in a town just as it's having it's once-in-a-century festival. That would never happen by chance, we've always said... Well, as we got nearer to the centre of town the traffic started to get really bad, and the taxi driver explained that we were going to have to walk the last five minutes to our guest house because the road along the waterfront was closed. We've heard that sort of thing before from taxi drivers who are keen to get their next fare rather than sit in a traffic jam, so we were a bit skeptical. But sure enough, there seemed to be some sort of parade going on. A platoon of Roman soldiers marched past the car window and down the road which lines the waterfront.

We have indeed, completely unknowingly, timed our arrival to coincide with the first night of the annual Kuching festival and rowing regatta!

Map of Day 616

Day 616
Singapore to Kuching

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.