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.