…and back into Malaysia again

I stopped out to watch us batter Manchester United and really scupper the start of their season. And then updated the Ubuntu installation on my laptop. And talked to one of the café staff for half an hour. As a result, I got to bed around 2:30am with a 6:00 rise. Whoops.

As ever, though, I did wake before my alarm went off and gathered my things. All I had to pack was my toothbrush and toothpaste. I’d done everythign else the night before to ensure I didn’t wake my roomies. I’m nice like that.

It was only a quick walk to the bus stop where Mel and John were already waiting. Our bus was delayed slightly, but took off like a rally car once we were on board. The “you are going too fast” beeper in the driver’s cabin must have needed new batteries by the time we got to the ferry terminal.

The ticket was $15 and there’s also a $1 departure tax you pay a few metres further on so do be prepared with that extra buck for when you’re leaving the country!

The boat we got onto, the Seri Anna, was nice enough and spacious with TV screens – like a more comfortable ocean-going version of the river boats. With only 45 minutes or so of travel, it’s surprising they bothered putting a film on but they did anyway. Not that it mattered. I conke dout and awoke as we were approaching the ferry terminal at Pulau Labuan.

Our ferry back to the mainland and Kota Kinabalu wasn’t until 13:00 so we had some time to kill. My travel buddies headed for the war cemetery – from the photos, very similar to the one in Kanchanaburi – and I walked to the museum. Quite small and quite nice. They’ve even changed some of the signs, correcting inaccuracies. It’s predominantly about the history, geology and geography of the island. It’s had quite a history, being owned and run by various different parties before becoming the second Federal State of Malaysia – the status it currently holds.

I still had a little time, so walked out to the Marine Sports complex. This isn’t too hard to find – continue past the museum till you reach a sports field. Cross or walk round this and you’ll join another road with a huge bright red “fire water tank”. Go down this road about 100m and it’s on the right.

My reason for walking here was predominantly to see the marine museum it holds. Again, quite a small one but very nice with plenty of tanks with some interesting sea creatures inside. There’s a ton of information and more details on the four wrecks off the coasts, all of which are diveable. However, I don’t believe anyone runs trips to them at present, though this might have changed.

As the sun beat down, I walked back towards the ferry terminal only pausing for a large Pepsi at KFC (new landmass, new KFC…) where I couldn’t get the free wifi to work. If I had, you’d be reading this minutes after I typed it! Instead, I’m just about to pack up and walk over the road to the ferry terminal and collect my rucksack from left luggage.

More later…

OK, now it’s later (that was quick, wasn’t it?). The ferry journey from the island to the mainland was almost three hours, but fairly smooth. We were inflicted with the first Fantastic Four film and the second recent Zorro one. I’m rather glad I was tired as I just slept with the sounds of Disturbed and Dragonforce ringing in my ears.

Arriving in Kota Kinabalu meant that I was in another state of Malaysia – Sabah. This is the touristy one, and by all reports is busy at the moment. We did see a fair few tourists (obvious Europeans) kicking about, but it didn’t seem that hectic, in all honesty.

A short walk brought us to the Tropicana Lodge where I’d made a booking. Vincent, the owner/landlord/whatever was in a bit of a state as he’d been out on a night boat and had barely slept since returning. Regardless, he answered all my questions and started on sorting me out a dive class while I ditched my kit and met J & M for a beer downstairs.

From there we made our way over to Little Italy for a pizza/pasta fest. Expensive, but great food. A point to note in KK (and possibly all of Sabah) is the incredibly irritating “all prices subject to 10% service charge and 5% government tax” notice, usually dropped on a sign somewhere, or the bottom of one page of a menu. If all prices are subject to it, then why not just list it as part of the published price the way we do VAT in the UK? America, also take note with your flipping sales tax. If I see a price sticker saying “Snickers 40c” I expect to pay 40c at the check-out. Not 40c plus whatever your state’s sales tax is. Get it together, people.

Anyhoo, the meal was good if expensive. Melissa was tired, so John and I had one more beer before heading back (they’re travelling elsewhere in the morning) and I latched onto a German couple who were walking to the night market. We prowled the identikit stalls (wallets, sunglasses, cheap jewellery… repeat ad infinitum) then gave up and walked to an open air bar for a beer. Two large bottles of Tiger for MR21… plus the aforementioned tax and service. Good grief.

It seems I’ll be doing all my diving from Semporna. Apparently it’s cheaper and I can get a Rescue Diver package any time I want. So that means cutting my stay here short and doing the climb of Kinabalu in a couple of weeks, perhaps after I’ve achieved Dive Master. Plans are fluid as always, but I’ll keep you up to date!

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Around BSB

Last night I found a 24 hour café with free wi-fi. Needless to say, I staggered away at a silly time (1:30) after the first half of the Sunderland v Liverpool game. As alcohol sales are illegal here, I had a nice pot of lemon tea while I surfed and shouted at the telly.

I didn’t sleep in this morning, though. My roomies were quiet, but I tend to wake at 8:00-ish anyway, so got up and ran a few errands. A nearby supermarket provided a nice healthy fruit breakfast for a little over a pound and I picked up some blank CDs to ship backups of my photos home. The nice man in the shop threw in some keyrings as a present when I told him I was in Brunei on holiday!

After eating, I walked to the bus station where I bumped into John and Mel, the Aus/NZ couple. Again. I swear they’re following me around. We all waited for the number 39 bus to the museum together. When it arrived, minor chaos ensued.

Bizarrely, Bruneian people wait patiently for things like buses. And when they arrive, they all dive at the door at once. A rather burly man forced his way in front of us, blocking us with his arm. But I’ll let him off as he pushed people back so two older men could get on first. He then nodded at us three tourists to board after them. There’s obviously some system we’re not aware of. The other rule seems to be that every passenger must be seated as nobody else was allowed on board once the seats were filled.

A dollar got us to the museum – remember to shout or bang on the ceiling to announce that you want off as there are no bells on these buses. As with most everything in Brunei, the museum’s free to get in and it’s pretty good. There are sections on natural history, Islamic art, oil & gas, ASEAN, culture, Brunei’s history and the recovery of a wreck found a few years ago. All the displays are informative, though the English can be slightly ropey. For instance, “i.e.” instead of “e.g.” when giving a platypus as an example of a monotreme. I mean, *tut*. There are two monotremes (OK, so five of you class each of the four echidna species as separate), so it’s definitely “for example” not “that is”. Alright, that was a very anal example of the “bad” English – most of the signs are perfectly fine.

We spent maybe ninety minutes checking out the exhibits… and the really smelly loo which isn’t anywhere near the standard of the rest of the building. Apparently there’s another museum nearby, but we were somewhat museum’d out and opted to walk up the road to the bus stop.

Before we could get there, a car horn beeped and a local pulled over. “BSB? Hop in!”. Mind, when your fuel is 17.5p per litre, you can afford to give people a lift. Reportedly, this kind of behaviour is very common in Brunei. People just want to help out and they do like to meet tourists. Despite their best efforts, they don’t seem to get too many (although we also bumped into the French couple who arrived at the bus station as we were waiting for the 39!). I guess most people come to Borneo for diving in the well-known areas such as Sipadan.

Our chauffeur turned out to be a security guard, an especially easy job in Brunei as there’s virtually no crime. As he put it, he locks the door then goes to sleep for the night. And he doesn’t pay tax on his income as there is none in Brunei. No income tax, no sales tax, no… whatever insane taxes we’re dreaming up at home now.

I separated from my colonial buds when we got back, though I’ll likely catch them on the early bus to the ferry tomorrow morning. I chose to go local for lunch and picked out Jollibee, a Bruneian (I think) fast food place. Well, I’ve never seen one outside of Brunei so I guess it’s local food. The chicken pita wrap I had was passable, though a little small. On a whim, I popped into an amusement arcade for half an hour as well. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but will someone please tell me when combat games started to require four or six buttons as well as the joystick? Crime Fighter and Yie Ar Kung Fu were always fine with just the three.

And once again I show my age.

Postcards have been written and will be posted shortly. Tonight’s plan is to chill out then head back to the same café to watch us getting embarassed by ManUre. Just because I’m on the opposite side of the world is no excuse to miss watching us taking a drubbing.

So my brief visit to Brunei comes to an end. It’s been cool, but the one thing that needs improved here is the public transport. It’s often easy to get somewhere, but as the buses all stop at 6pm getting back again can be a problem. Alternatively, give free cars to tourists! BSB itself is a nice enough city, but it’s quite small and everything apart from a handful of a handful of attractions are too far out to walk to.

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Miri to Brunei

Another day, another country… This time, Brunei – a small country split in two courtesy of us (that’s the Brits, who used to pretty much run it) giving parts away until oil was discovered and the Sultan decided it would make more sense for his family to make the most. Sensible chap.

Brunei’s no Oman, or Qatar, or Dubai. Some silly money has been spent, but there seems to be little forethought as to what will happen when the oil runs out. Current thinking is they’ll start destroying their otherwise pristine rainforests to create a timber trade. A horrific, but possible outcome.

My journey started early in the morning. As usual when I have some form of transport to catch, I kept waking up before my alarm until I only had two minutes to go before 6am. The advantage of this is it means I rarely wake anyone else in the dorm. Unlike some selfish *cough* “people”, I pack as much as I can the night/day before and don’t shove all my stuff into crinkly plastic bags at 5am, putting on all the lights and chatting to my mates.

I snuck out, saying a last “good bye” to the cute kittens and their parents, and walked to the nearby bus station to get the 7am coach. For those doing the journey, it’s easier than Lonely Planet makes out (and simpler than the edition prior to mine details).

Get to the local terminus. Purchase your first *two* tickets – they sell these as a bundle for RM13. Hop on the 7am bus and it will take you first of all to the Malaysian border where you stamp out. Our bus driver was really chirpy and made sure we got to the front of the queue. Back on the same bus, you’re then ferried to Brunei immigration where you descend with all your luggage. Passports are stamped quickly, and then you must wait for the next bus “under the shaded place”.

We waited around fifteen minutes… oh, yes, “we”. I got talking to a Kiwi and his English girlfriend (Al and Toni). I’ve got personal issues with Kiwi men dating English women (anyone who knows me well enough will understand this), but they were both great to chat to and nattering made the journey go faster.

Yes, well, we waited around fifteen minutes and a purple bus pulled up. The driver beckoned us on board and we set off into Brunei for just over five minutes. We then hit a river so we got out and took our luggage out with us again, hopped onto a small motor boat and were taken over the water to the other side. There, another bus drove us to Kuala Belait. All of this up till now was included in the fare we’d paid in Miri.

I’d picked up some Brunei dollars in Miri the day before, but in case you don’t get a chance, there is an HSBC with an ATM (well, three, but only one worked apparently) visibly opposite this bus station. The driver kindly waited while A&T ran over to get some cash and we set off for Seria (pronounced similarly to “Syria” not “ser-EYE-ah”) after paying our $1 fare.

At Seria, there’s another HSBC around the back of the bus station as well as a handful of small shops. I grabbed a nice ice lolly for 70c while we sat and waited for the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) bus to depart around half an hour later. When you arrive at the small station, there’s a wipe-clean board by a doorway telling you when the next one is due. From here it’s around 100km to BSB, so the journey’s roughly 90 minutes.

We set off from Miri at 7am and arrived in BSB at approximately 12:30. Not too bad, to be fair. And the prices were good, as were the bus drivers.

We’d all settled on the $10-per-bunk Pusat Belia youth hostel as the residence of choice and walked along the riverside to it. It looked very nice indeed, all newly-painted with a gym and a swimming pool available. Top notch!

And close to foreigners from the 16th to the 22nd for some reason. Arse. The staff recommended KH Soon… right by the bus station. So back we plodded to where we’d set off from, just as cloud came in and the wind picked up. We got to KH Soon Resthouse just as the rain started and clambered up two floors.

The staff were friendly enough and we haggled a little on the price as I don’t think at this point they realised that the hostel was closed. They even gave us a free bottle of water each.

Toni and Al, bless them, let me share a room with them so I’d not be stuck with a $35 room tab for two nights. Guys, if you read this, a huge “thank you”. Instead, we got a room for three with a bathroom (small wet room with a new-looking shower and a loo with no seat) for $56 between us – just over £6 a night each. Still twice what I’d been planning on, but less than I could have been stuck with.

We ditched our stuff and headed out in the now-relenting rain. A&T found an Indian place to grab some lunch but I’d spotted adverts for a KFC. I know I’d had two in the previous two days, but this was “new country” time so I had to have one. And I found it, not far from the main mosque.

Appetite and rules sated, I crossed the road to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, an impressive building currently part-covered in scaffolding. I’d checked to ensure it wasn’t prayer time so I could wander in.

Inside the door, an old Muslim asked me to fill in the visitor’s book and don a black robe that covered my arms and legs. I could only walk on the brown-carpeted areas and I gently ambled into the centre of the building.

Well, I’ve been in a few mosques in my time but I really liked this one. Bright white with gold relief, lovely stained glass windows (made in England!) and a decorated dome above. Pretty, stylish and not overbearingly gaudy. There’s not a lot to it, but what there is is very nice indeed.

I chatted to the doorman for a few minutes and he enthused over the work being done. The scaffolding was due to the stonework being cleaned. The main dome had already had its entire gold covering removed and replaced (“new gold – from Italy”) in preparation for the mosque’s 50th anniversary celebrations in September. Sadly, the ongoing work meant I couldn’t climb the minaret and see over the town. Ah, well.

Thanking him, I handed back my robe and walked around the side of the building to see a stone boat “floating” in a man-made lagoon. The mosaic decoration on this structure is superb, though I’ve no idea of its relevance to the mosque.

Next, I headed for the post office to get some stamps in preparation for the usual postcard run. I was surprised to find a stamp exhibition on, and spent a good half hour gazing at the historical stuff they had to show. Most of the descriptions were in both English and (I think) Malay. The first stamps used after the British marched in were interesting as they’d taken older ones with the “wrong” names and values on, and altered them.

I did pick up some current stamps, then walked around the corner and up the road to the Royal Regalia Museum. The core of this collection is gifts presented to the Sultan, though there are also sections on the Sultan himself and on the history of Brunei, predominantly over the last 150-or-so years. Lonely Planet passes it off as a gaudy showpiece, but I found it quite interesting. Yes, some of the gifts are a bit… ostentatious (solid silver scale model of Angkor Wat? Pretty cool, actually) but there’s a lot of variety. The chariots used in the coronation and silver jubilee processions are amazing.

Considering it’s completely free entry, well-signed, and has such a variety of stuff, I’d definitely say it’s worth an hour or so of your time. I enjoyed it, anyway, even taking time to read through some of the old documents signed by one of the older Sultans and the British representatives in the late 19th century.

Oh, the opening hours have changed slightly from those in the recent Lonely Planet. They’re now Sun-Thu 09:00-17:30; Fri 09:45-11:30 and 14:30-17:00; Sat 09:45-17:00.

I’d hoped to catch a film here, but it seems both local cinemas are shut. One’s definitely gone and buried (the M Vision Borneo theatre) while the other looks like it’s being refurbed (Hassanal Bolkiah cinema). Other than these, it’s a bus ride out to a mall… and a taxi back as the buses stop at 6pm.

There’s a restaurant a block away that says they’ll have the footie on tonight and tomorrow, so I know where I’m eating for the next two days. No beer with the matches, though – it’s illegal to sel alcohol anywhere in Brunei. Can’t have it all, I suppose.

I popped out to get postcards and blank CDs and bumped into the Aussie / Kiwi couple again. Well, it is a small town and it’s very quiet. We chatter for an age and then went for dinner at a hawker mart. Spicy corned beef with rice and an iced corn drink for $3.50 – just over a pound. Can’t say fairer than that.

We made vague arrangements for the next day and I walked the empty, dark streets back to the hostel.

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