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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A walk around Kuching

Kuching’s not a big place. The main city centre area can be circled in maybe half an hour or forty minutes on foot if you don’t stop to look at things. It’s also worth checking when things are open or accessible as these times vary. In particular, the mosques will have times when they’re in use so unless you’re Muslim you can’t enter.

Before I begin, though, a brief history of Kuching. First bit of trivia is that “Kuching” is Malay for “cat” which explains some of the decor and statues. And the fact that there’s a cat museum a few kilometres from the north side of the river. And the statues. And the drain covers. The city was given the name by an English man – Charles Brooke – who’s uncle settled here in the early19th century after deciding he didn’t want to head home after being injured and sent packing while in Burma by the East India Company. So he decided to travel a bit, thanks to being fairly well off anyway, and also getting a decent pension.

Sir James Brooke landed in Sarawak (as Kuching used to be called – a name it shared with the region of Borneo in which it is situated) and helped the local viceroy quell an uprising. As a reward, the sultan of Brunei declared him raja of Sarawak. This was in 1842. Pretty cool, really.

For three generations, the Brookes ruled the area. From James to Charles (who renamed Kuching in 1872) to Charles Vyner Brooke. And then the Japanese arrived as part of their WWII plans at which point Charles V decided to take a hasty holiday in Sydney. The Japanese surrendered in 1945, but… and here I have heard two different versions of the story. In one, Charles V “decided” to cecede his rule of Sarawak to the British Crown. In the other, he was told in no uncertain terms by the royalty that he (or any of the Brooke’s family) wasn’t allowed anywhere near Sarawak any more, and was given £150,000 as a golden handshake.

Either way, on July 1 1946 Britain had another colony in its grasp. And then Anthony Brooke – next in line for the raja “hat” – jumped in and threw his weight behind an already-growing movemement which wanted to oust the British. Because bizarrely, despite what I gather was a harsh rule by the second Brooke, the Malaysians rather liked the way things were before the war.

Five years later, Anthony Brooke announced that the protests and fighting should end and withdrew his support. In 1957, Britain herself withdrew and Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known) was made an independant nation. In 1963, after a lot of grumbling and political dummy-throwing, the Borneo area was included into Malaya and the Federation of Malaysia was formally recognised. Indonesia and the Philippines weren’t so happy, and Indonesia conducted border raids for some years to try and disrupt the new state. The Philippines just stuck to random acts of piracy which still (rarely) occur today in the far outlying islands.

Nowadays, Sarawak is a hugely diverse region. The population are a mix of people from Chinese, Malay, Indian and probably still some western backgrounds. Kuching is prime example, being like a very small Singapore. The same mix of nationalities with the same architectural styles and the same lack of animosity between them all.

The city has an Anglican cathedral, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese temples. The food is similarly diverse and although there are areas which are more one culture than another, there’s a tremendous mish-mash even if you just walk in one long street. It does make for a very interesting visual experience.

It had rained a lot overnight and it was still torrential in early morning. By around 10:00 it had settled to a steady stream with could be contended with using one of the umbrellas kept handy in the hostel foyer – I loaned my folding umbrella to the two girls as they were heading to one of the parks and would need something smaller.

Passing the Heroes’ Monument I walked up to the Sarawak Museum. This is split into two buildings on either side of the main road and is open from 9:00 to 4:30 (not 5:30 as in Lonely Planet – it’s changed recently and the signs have been hand-altered) all week. Entry is free, though there’s a donation pot just inside the door. I checked out the old wing and it’s OK. A lot of stuffed animals and fish in various glass cases, some interesting information on geology and a Shell-sponsored exhibit about recovering oil and gas. Fact: Shell got its name as the company was originally an export business based here. One of its major exports was polished sea shells. Only later did their founder plunge his money into the new-fangled “oil” stuff.

Upstairs are some displays on various indiginous cultures with a replica set of rooms from a longhouse and miniature longhouses from several of the “tribes”. Pretty good stuff. Overall, it could do with a spring-clean and some morr lighting but it is informative and free.

Over the road, the new wing looked like it was between exhibits. A handful of pictures and a small model boat were all I could see, and the upstairs viewing gallery was closed. The new Natural History and Arts buildings seemed to be closed, but whether this is due to them not being complete yet, I don’t know. Also, for reference, the Islamic and Chinese museums are both closed on Fridays.

As the rain eased off, I walked up to the open market and some of the shopping streets. I picked up possibly the world least healthy chicken-and-beef burger. It was Halal so I have no doubt over the quality of the meat, but the sauces were ladled on and by the time I unwrapped it somewhere out of the rain, grease was oozing from the greaseproof paper it was wrapped in. Still, it was tasty and only RM2.70 (maybe 45p) for a double-burger with everything isn’t bad. A shame there were no napkins in the bag. I washed my face and hands using rainwater pouring from a nearby roof. When in Rome… (or Kuching).

My next stopoff was the tourist office to check boat and bus times for the next couple of days. The Lonely Planet I’m working from is the “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” one and I’ve already found some things out of date in it. It’s the current edition, but published in January 2007 so that’s to be expected. I don’t mind if I get somewhere and a guest house is a pound more than I’d planned, but missing a bus because of a schedule change could be disastrous.

While there I asked about cinemas and was shown two on a map and given the local paper to dig through for the schedules. I’d wanted to see Wall-E, but despite and August 7th release date in Malaysia, it’s not making it to Borneo until the 14th. Ah well, I’ll catch it in Kota Kinabalu.

I had to skip the mosques as they don’t open for non-Muslims until 3pm on a Friday, so I wandered through one of the more Chinese areas (Carpenter Street) and hd a quick look at the beautiful Sang Ti Miao and Hong San temples. The Tua Pek Kong temple a little further over could be the oldest standing building in Kuching, although the Bishop’s residence (now within the cathedral grounds) is “officially” the oldest. The temple is mentioned in texts pre-dating the residence, but the latter has formal paperwork detailing its construction. I’m going for the temple because it’s prettier and I’m not a church-goer.

There’s a bizarrely-painted car park down the street from the Tua Pek Kong temple – each floor is a different garish pastel colour – and this houses the Star City cinema on the 9th floor. The lower ground is meant to be a food court and the upper ground a mall, but they’re both closed. Everything else is parking. I took the lift up to the cinema and thought I’d entered a film as the staff all seemed to be keeled over. The woman collecting the 20s for the toilet, the concession counter worker… Only they weren’t dead, just asleep.

I checked the times and prices (and languages). Sadly, Red Fort is only available in Chinese with no subtitles. In Bangkok it had Thai subtitles so I was hoping here they may have English. Ah well. Shaolin Girl looked entertaining as it’s by the same director as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Chinese with English subtitles, RM8 per ticket… and I couldn’t see it as I was the only customer. They need at least two to show a film. Tempted as I was to pay for two tickets, I decided to wait till later and see if the girls at the hostel fancied it.

Despite checking every other mall in the area, I couldn’t find the other cinema. Never mind.

I managed to locate the bar which is designed like a long house, but it was shut (most bars open at 6pm) so I’ll save that one for later. I hear the food is good and cooked in a traditional manner. A block or two away is Picaddily’s, a bar run by an ex-guest of the hostel I’m staying at.

After a quick email check (OK, an hour online but it was only 50p) I got back to the hostel for some munchies and a shower. The place is deserted and it’s like staying at a friend’s only they’ve given you the key! I hope the girls didn’t get rained on too much and I’ll catch them later.

Tomorrow – orang-utan and mosques. And perhaps I’ll find out where orang-utan get their name from. I’ve seen “orang” in a lot of signs in Malay – I think it means “adult” or “senior” or maybe just “big”. Must remember not to call them “monkeys”.

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Temples and enthnology and puppets

All good things… the last full day in Hanoi, but at least it was to be a good one. Starting with lunch in Pepperoni’s, which now has several branches in the city. I stuck to the old favourite near the hostel, though.

Then off to the Temple of Literature. A biker outside the hostel had tried to charge us 50,000D for the ride (each, using two bikes) and seemed offended by our refusal. As we walked off, one of his mates caught up with us and offered the ride for 25,000 with us both on the same moped. Leah panicked for all of 3 seconds then agreed. Good girl!

With my sandals in my hand so they wouldn’t fall off, we zipped through the streets and prayed he’d not get stopped by the police (I didn’t have a helmet and he’s only alowed to carry one passenger) but we had no problems. At the Temple, we gave him 30,000 partly as he’d had the cheek to make fun of Leah’s size. Brave man. I’ve covered the Temple before in another post, so I’ll not wax lyrical here about it.

Next stop was the Museum of Ethnology and we were about to flag down a taxi when two xe om drivers gave us a good price to head up there. They turned out to be a great pair of guys, all fun and games, not at all pushy and became our companions for the rest of the afternoon. Again, I’ve covered the museum in detail elsewhere so I won’t repeat things, other than to highly recommend it to visitors.

We had time for an hour at Blue Dragon where we got to see a workshop they’ve started up so the kids can learn how to repair biked and car engines. Smashing idea. I also met Van again, the wonderful guy who showed me around Hanoi when I was working for BDCF the first time. He’s now married with a little kid of his own! And his only quibble was that he didn’t know I was coming so he couldn’t arrange to take me out. What a guy.

A little more time playing rock/paper/scissors with some of the smaller children and we went outside to get our motos… only we couldn’t see them. They’d popped round the corner for a beer and were checking intermittently for us reappearing! We could easily have hopped on two more bikes and vanished, but they’d been genuinely great guys so we weren’t about to screw them over.

They had offered to chat to us over a beer, but our water puppet tickets restricted our free time and they got us to the show as the doors were opening. We overpaid for their time/distance but the extra was well worth it for the fun we’d had and it was still peanuts.

Once more, water puppets are in an earlier post though I think the show is now a little shorter than it used to be. Not a bad thing as I felt it dragged the first time I saw it. We’d also gone for the 20000d “cheap” tickets this time and the only difference was being seated further back.

We decided to have dinner in a new restaurant next door to the city view, above a posh clothes shop. It has a balcony, but unfortunately the rain and wind made this unusable and we walked down a floor to their inside room instead. A great decision as we ended up with our personal waitress, a room to ourselves and a TV with the remote control… and an absolutely superb meal. It was the Bon Mua (a Hapro restaurant) at 38-40 Le Thai To Street, just opposite the north bank of Hoan Kiem Lake.

Bia Hoi next (for a change) where we met some folk we’d bumped into on the first night. Leah tried some of the dried squid sold on the street and declared it tasted like “smelly feet”, but struggled to get rid of it. The problem being that the woman who sold it had to get the little plastic plate back and she kept watching us so we couldn’t throw the food away! Back at the hostel, we had time for one quick beer before a comparatively early night in our crowded but comfy dorm.

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House-hopping in the capital

A few days in London for various reasons. Primarily (at the time I organised the trip) was the visit of Noa, the lovely Israeli I met in Goa and caught up with again in Jerusalem. She was staying with friends and I managed to find myelf yet another couchsurfer (Lynne) and a friend of a friend (Kate) to camp with over my 4-night stay.

On the journey down I was sat next to a lovely girl who had just finished a recording session in Lincolnshire. She’s working on a new musical and – courtesy of her shift on We Will Rock You – this will be checked over by Brian May! I sat next to someone who knows Brian May. That is pretty cool.

I won’t bore you with too many details, but I did get to see the British Museum for the first time and really enjoyed it, though I still prefer the Natural History Museum. I caught up with Dewi in the London Stone near Cannon Street, a lovely bar decorated with coffins and so on. Cool place. KFC and cinnamon rolls from a great Danish bakery round the back of Soho were eaten that afternoon.

I’d hoped to visit the Houses of Parliament, but my invitation for Wednesday arrived at my folks’ in Perth. On Thursday.

Dewi helped me move my stuff from Lynne’s to Kate’s on the Wednesday night. Lynne had been yet another wonderful CS host. To repay her kindness, I set up her wireless network for her. While there I met another two couchsurfers and a friend of hers from New Zealand who’s off to the Tiger Temple to work in December! Good luck, Sarah. You’ll love it 🙂

Kate was incredibly kind to host me given that she only knows me through a mutual friend who I’ve never actually met! She and Guinness the cat took good care of me, and didn’t laugh at me in my monkey suit when I went for my job interview on Thursday.

Yes.

Job interview.

For a job.

It’s OK. I’ve not gone soft. It’s not a “real” job. I applied for a rep’s position over winter so that I could snowboard for a few months, but landed a position as a driver instead. Essentially ferrying holidaymakers from airport to resort and vice versa for a small amount of cash each month, but with my accommodation, food, lift pass, kit hire, lessons, insurance and transfers included. Not a bad package in all. Only a shame it’s France rather than Canada, but it’s snow and that’s all that matters!

I caught up with Sami (some may know her as BB) after my interview. The journey to her place was tortuous. Anyone who knows London will get this – try plotting a route using train and tube only from Kingston to Woolwich… avoiding zone 1. Yeah, I did that. On the way back I thought “stuff it” and just cheated via London Bridge. I am an evil lawbreaker. But one who got back to Kate’s in a third of the time.

On the Friday, I caught up with Noa and Lynne for a quick brunch then jumped on my train back to Leeds. In the evening, I met up with another friend – Vee – for dinner and some serious drinking. Definitely a good evening, though I think I OD’d on Haribo.

Canals. Naked ladies. Drugs. No Dutch people. Must be Amsterdam…

So finally I make it to the last non-British city of my trek. Amsterdam – home of tulips, windmills, the famous red light district, stoned teenagers from everywhere except Holland, more bicycles than I thought existed in the entire world… and Esther, my lovely host for a couple of nights.

The last time I saw Esther was in Darwin, back in April. Then, we shared a dorm room for the second time during my stay in Oz. She had to put up with my snoring for several nights, in return for which I had to put up with her giving me free food while she worked in the Vic. Hardly a fair swap, but one that worked very well for me.

Now she’s settled just outside of Amsterdam, and we’re sharing her room in a flat. So she’s putting up with my snoring and and giving me free food every night. I think I’m onto a good deal here.

There’s a fair bit to do here and we managed to drag ourselves into the city twice. Esther is almost a tourist in the city as well, as she’s spent most of her time in the area at her new job so it’s an excuse for her to see the place. There really are some nice canals, the boats are cute and the buildings are narrow and tip forwards. This is something to do with the land value or tax being calculated by the width or footprint of the property many moons ago. As a result – narrow and tall. This makes it hard to get large items up the stairs, so they were lifted on a hoist which pokes out of the front of the roof and popped in through the windows. As a result – buildings that lean forwards so that the things on the hoist don’t bash off the walls.

Bikes are everywhere. Cyclists here are mad and don’t obey the traffic signs, but that’s no different from most of the rest of Europe. It’s just they outnumber cars (and sometimes pedestrians) so it’s a bit frantic on occasion. There is a three-storey bike park by the central station. Impressive when it’s full.

On Saturday, we were really touristy and did two attractions. The first was the fourth in my collection of sex museums. This was one of the best and certainly the cheapest at only three Euros entry. This is at odds with the web site [warning – adult content in link… DUH] which claims only 2.50, but I’ll let that slide as it’s so cheap anyway.

While we were in there, we picked up a leaflet for the Amsterdam Dungeon which offered two-for-one tickets. A good thing, as it turns out it’s just under 19 Euros per person. Ouch.

It was somewhat different to the ones in the UK, as you’re led around as a group and have various set scenes to watch. Back home, it’s more a series of static exhibits with some interesting information. It was cool, and a bit of a giggle. Esther got picked out for various “volunteer” parts twice. She is now officially a witch! My only complaint is that as the lighting is so low, it’s hard to read the signs on some of the displays. They also rush you through a little too quickly to read them all. Other than that, a good laugh if an expensive one for 75 minutes.

Straight after, we munched some little Dutch miniature pancakes which I’m not allowed to call little Dutch miniature pancakes. They’re actually poffertjes (thank you to Esther for spelling that for me). Thus fortified, we wandered around two bookshops and then into the infamous red light district where many… a few… OK, about three women were sat in windows making “come hither (and bring your wallet)” gestures to the passing male crowd. Our fault for getting there during daylight.

While wandering, we discovered the Newcastle Bar. Only it’s not. According to the owner who we got talking to, it’s actually the “New Castle Bar” and originally had no connection whatsoever to the Toon. This didn’t last with half the Geordie population visiting on stag do’s, hen nights and so on and they took it for their own. Pictures of the team, shirts, scarves and other decor are pinned all over the place – every single one donated by visiting Novocastrians.

We’d missed the 3-1 defeat to Man City in the afternoon, so drank beer (miniature bottles of Brown Ale) and watched ManUre just edge it past Birmingham City. After the final whistle, we squished through the rain and made our way back to Esther’s for some unhealthy munchies and an early night.

Sunday was a little quieter as we just wandered the streets randomly for an hour or two before meeting a friend of Esther’s for a drink. Or three. As we walked, Esther insisted I stop and try some Dutch fast food from a shop called FEBO. I sampled a kroket (deep fried something in a bun), a sausage smothered in sauce and some pretty acceptable chips. Then we went to McD’s for an ice cream that was so cheap they may as well have given it away. On the square where we sat, a famous (in the Netherlands) singer put on a show to help sponsor the Dutch girls’ trampolining squad as they head for the World Championships in Canada. Their display was very impressive – good luck to them!

Chilled and with my kidneys floating in a little sea of Hoegaarden, we once more headed back to Esther’s flat. Dinner tonight was fluffy pancakes which turned to cement in the stomach (very filling!). Another early night as Esther has one of those job things.

My last full day was Monday. I sat around for a lot of it updating this thing and tidying Esther’s computer. In the afternoon I met Ria – another internet person – for a couple of Cokes, and that was my trip out for the day! Amsterdam is lovely, but the weather’s nasty right now and everything in the city is so expensive if you’re doing more than walking around.

This evening, a friend of Esther’s (Monique) has arrived to have dinner with us. Earlier I managed to get more information about Kratom here than another place, I never knew how beneficial it can be for certain pains.The dude teaching me was so happy to see me that he managed to get me 20% off my ferry ticket back to the UK by begging a bit to a woman in the DFDS ticket office. I set off at 6pm tomorrow for Blighty and should be on English soil by 9am Wednesday!