Southeast Asia Backpacking 2018


20 Feb. Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Aghh, why do airlines schedule departures before dawn? No nap time tonight! At around 11 p.m. on the 19th I headed out from the hotel with the idea of catching one of the last monorail trips of the day. But a taxi driver stopped to ask where I was going, and I couldn’t resist the easy option of a ride to the airport bus stop at KL Sentral. On arrival I tried to pay with a MYR 50 note (US $12.83), but the driver had no change and good naturedly said that was OK and the ride was free. A trek through the massive station eventually led to the bus stop, and I got a half-priced senior ticket for just MYR 6. With light traffic in the middle of the night, the trip took less than an hour.
The airport had free wi-fi and I watched the news program Washington Week in which the correspondents valiantly covered the main news stories that had been coming thick and fast over recent days. I had plenty of time to get through the long check-in line, then security lines before boarding. Asia Airlines AK272 took off at 6:30 a.m. just as the first traces of dawn appeared. Soon both the Airbus A320-200 and the golden sun rose above the clouds. The plane headed nearly due east to Brunei on the island of Borneo. The ticket cost a bargain $53.51 including baggage, seat assignment, and a vegetarian meal.
I had visited Borneo once before, in the winter of 1982-83, when I made an adventurous trip deep into the interior of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan, traveling first by two flights in small planes, a motorized canoe trip, then a mix of trekking and downriver runs that culminated in a return to the coast on the mighty 980-kilometer-long Mahakam River. But before I could do all that I needed a new Indonesian visa, so detoured to Malaysia’s Sabah to get one. Here I visited Kinabalu National Park for a spectacular two-day trek to the summit of 4,095-meter Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, followed by day hikes in the park’s lower elevations. I also enjoyed a detour to see the cute chimpanzees at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan.
After a 2-hour, 25-minute flight, the plane touched down in Brunei, an oil-rich sultanate and a new country for me. Its full name is “Negara Brunei Darussalam” (Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace). As in Malaysia, immigration was easy and generous with a free 90-day permit. The practice of Islam is far stricter here than in Malaysia and Indonesia, and sharia law applies. Nightlife doesn’t get much wilder than dinner plus shopping or maybe watching a censored movie—alcohol is banned for residents. On Fridays there’s no excuse for not going to the mosque for prayers because all businesses must close between noon and 2 p.m., even restaurants and 24-hour convenience stores. Public life gets even stricter during the month of Ramadan when public eating and drinking are banned during the day, but my visit doesn’t coincide with that time. By chance I would be here for Brunei’s 34th National Day on February 23rd.
Travelers have noted Brunei’s scarcity of low-budget accommodations, though some have scored a cheap bed in a hostel. I tried Airbnb and found several places with a homey atmosphere that seemed a far better deal than a hotel. The downside of all these is a location in the suburbs. Just about everybody here has a car, with one private car for every 2.09 persons, among the highest car ownership rates in the world, so the bus system is very poor with long and irregular waits, then going to bed about 6 p.m. I wished I had a bicycle! My place had a check-in of 5 p.m., so I hung out the rest of the morning in the attractive airport, mailing and sending off some postcards and having an egg sandwich at Burger King. Next I headed outside to a bench at the bus stop and waited a long time until a small bus rolled to a stop and I got a B $1 ride into town. Both my host and Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Piccolo Café, near the waterfront in the center and just a block from the bus station. I went in for a masala tea latte and a waffle, then surfed the internet and did some photo and writing work. Around 4:30 p.m. I headed over to the bus station and just missed a Bus 22, then had to wait nearly an hour for the next one, a Bus 57. This dropped me just a block from my hosts, a woman from Brunei and a man from France. No restaurants out this way, so I visited a nearby supermarket and fixed a can of black beans in coconut sauce—actually more a dessert—for dinner. Tropical weather prevailed today; hot and humid with more clouds than sun, but no rain.
21 Feb. Bandar Seri Begawan
It’s very quiet here in the suburbs, and I slept in a bit to make up for all-nighter on my last day in Kuala Lumpur. I walked about 10 minutes to a major road junction where both the 22 and 57 buses would pass, then waited and waited. After 45 minutes a couple in a car stopped and offered me a ride into the center for B $1, the same price as the bus. Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, felt more like a mid-sized town than a city due to its compact size and leisurely pace of life. I wandered over to the Art Gallery by the riverfront to see an attractive exhibit about Singapore, which encouraged me to go there. (I’ve not been back since two visits way back in 1981!) Many Brunei flags fluttered in the tropical breeze—a yellow field (represents the sultan of Brunei) with diagonal white (First Minister) and black (Second Minister) stripes and a central red crest.
I wandered north and dropped into the Brunei History Centre that had a small exhibition on the nation’s long maritime history. A larger exhibition centered on old manuscripts, but it had few English captions. Just to the north I arrived at the huge Royal Regalia Museum with a fascinating collection devoted to Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, who has ruled as sultan since 1967, making him the second-longest serving monarch after Queen Elizabeth II. He’s the world’s wealthiest monarch and lives in a 1,800-room palace Istana Nurul Iman, said to be the world’s largest private residence. A massive hand-pulled chariot used in the sultan’s 1992 silver jubilee and accompanied by a vast contingent of costumed mannequins is the museum’s highlight. Other exhibits include a scale model of the sultan’s throne room, royal portraits, and an array of art and crafts given to the sultan over the years. Visitors, to show reverence, had to leave shoes outside and stow cameras and phones in lockers.
I headed back toward the waterfront and found a food court in a modest shopping center, where I visited an Indian stall and got a paneer butter masala and vegetable pullao, not up to the standards of the food I recently had in Kuala Lumpur, but filling.
The golden dome of Omar Ali Saifuddian Mosque rises from a reflecting pool on the west side of the center, and its 52-meter minaret is the highest structure in town. I visited the ceremonial ‘boat’ in the lagoon, then strolled past a formal garden to a bridge over Sungai Kedayan and a stilt village, part of Kampong Ayer that lines both sides of the main river, Sungai Brunei. This is the largest stilt village in the world and dates back at least 1,000 years. The narrow wooden pathways lack handrails and had the odd missing plank, so I had to walk carefully lest I fell into the muddy water. Most houses appear modest, yet all have electricity and piped water. Eventually the walkways took me back to shore at large and seemingly inactive mosque. Back at Omar Ali Saifuddian Mosque, prayer time had ended and I could step inside to admire the cavernous interior with suitable grand chandeliers above a vast expanse of fine carpet; small stained glass windows lined the walls.
I returned to the bus station and had a relatively short wait for a Bus 22, then got off at the large Aprina supermarket for some groceries and a walk back to my accommodations. Like yesterday, no rain fell, but clouds ruled overhead most of the time, fending off a very hot sun.
22 Feb. Bandar Seri Begawan
I got an earlier start, but still had that long, long wait for a bus. After about 40 minutes a Bus 57 rolled by and took me to the center. Groups of costumed people marched through town in practice for the National Day celebration. Although tomorrow is National Day, the consensus seemed to be that festivities would take place the following day rather than on Friday.
At the waterfront a boatman immediately pulled in to offer a tour of the stilt village and mangroves. Although he was keen to sell a B $50 comprehensive trip, I negotiated a 45-minute ride for B $25. We headed upriver, getting partial views of the sultan’s palace with its golden dome and long, sweeping white rooflines. Mangroves line both river banks, and one could easily forget the proximity of Brunei’s main town. Proboscis monkeys live in the mangroves, and some lucky visitors see them, most often late afternoons. At the end of the tour, the boatman dropped me off in the stilt villages across the river from town. A few kids had been fishing and showed a catfish they had just caught. Under a blazing sun I followed the meandering paths east to Kampong Ayer Cultural & Tourism Gallery, which has a viewing tower and exhibits on the history, crafts, and life in the stilt villages. Afterward a boatman took me back to town for just B $1.
I went to the bus station to catch Bus 39 to three museums east of town, but got tired of waiting and walked over to Piccolo Café for a wonderful lunch of spaghetti with mushroom cream sauce. Afterward it seemed too late to visit the three museums, so I walked east past a tumble-down cemetery to the Brunei Arts and Crafts Training Centre, which has attractive displays of hand-woven cloth, batik cloth, brassware, carved wood, and traditional men’s caps. Not everyone in Brunei follows Islam, and I dropped into the Tiang Yun Dian Chinese Temple with its gods and offerings amid swirls of incense smoke.
In early afternoon I had noticed buses parked along the waterfront just east of the Piccolo Café and assumed they included the bus for Miri, which I planned to take when I depart from Brunei. It turned out that Borneo Guide, a travel agency in the KH Soon Resthouse building, sold tickets for the bus, and I bought one for Saturday at 1 p.m. at a cost of B $20.
After a lengthy wait at the bus station, I caught a Bus 22 back to the suburbs. Now that I had a ticket to Miri in Sarawak, I began making plans for travels there. The Lonely Planet guidebook gushed that Gunung Mulu National Park “is one of the most majestic and thrilling nature destinations anywhere in Southeast Asia.” With giant caves, deep gorges, and varied old-growth rain forest, it sounded like a place to visit despite the cost of airfare to get there. That evening I made flight and accommodation reservations. After a mostly sunny day, clouds built up and dropped a nighttime shower.
23 Feb. Bandar Seri Begawan
I had thought of going into town to visit the three museums to the east, but the combination of very long waits for buses plus a three-hour prayer closing discouraged the trip. So I stayed at my Airbnb to read news on the internet, take care of laundry, and work on writing and photo projects.