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.


bathmate said...

nice posting....i like is really helpful to all...


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this. Sounds amazing! I really hope I'll be able to make the same trip one day. The downpour and croc sighting sound my cup of tea. Great blog! :-) Thanks.