A hop into Brunei

The journey back to Kota Kinabalu was pretty uneventful. There was 9 of us leaving camp that day and heading there – us, the 3 English girls and American guy we had travelled out with, another British guy that had been part of our group while we were there and another couple. The jungle bus dropped us off at the ‘coffee house’ it had picked us up from and the driver gave us the name of the bus company he had arranged to pick us up and told us that the bus would be red and would be there at 10 or shortly after. It was 9:30am, we all crossed the road and sat in the shade of a building. All except the girls that is, who being typical Brits abroad, flung themselves onto the grass in front to get a tan. They didn’t last long in the heat. Having company was great as it made time go quicker. The bus eventually turned up at 11 and was yellow and green. The driver was slower and steadier than the one we had out so it was quite a pleasant trip back and thankfully no one was sick.

Kota Kinabalu isn’t our favourite place and we had to stay somewhere different as we’d asked before we’d left and our previous place had no rooms the night we needed, so we’d booked ourselves in over the road. It had traffic noise and wasn’t as nice but it did the job for the night.

IMG_1343The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn for the 4th morning running. We wanted to take the express ferry to Brunei and hadn’t pre-booked tickets so we arrived early to ensure we could get on. The journey is done in two legs, first to the Malaysian island Pulau Labuan, then onto Bandar Seri Begawan (B.S.B) the capital of Brunei. We needn’t have worried, on the first leg it turned out to only be about a third full. Economy class was downstairs and it stank of fuel or engine oil or something. It couldn’t be healthy to sit in, we were convinced we’d be poisoned in the 3:15 hours it would take to get to the island.

The ferry was not very express, it was actually quite slow. It was good conditions for sailing, very smooth sea except for a mild swell coming from the side. Unfortunately this made us roll constantly from side to side and since Emma gets boat sick very easily so it didn’t take long for her to feel rough and then descend into feeling very rough. She wasn’t very keen on getting on another one… (she made it though).

IMG_1428We had 2 hours in Pulau Labuan. It looked nice and was very clean and tidy and we were almost sorry to be passing through. We completed immigration and boarded the second ferry. It was basically the same as the first but this time it was packed and the air con wasn’t on strong enough so it was too warm. We slept for most of the 1:15hrs though. Emma was still really happy to get off! Immigration in Brunei took forever and when we finally got through we asked if there was a bus into town as a cab was $40. We were told that we’d just missed one and the next would be an hour. There were 4 other backpackers waiting too. We were just preparing ourselves for a long wait when Marie noticed a small bus turned up at the end of the car park. Everyone scrambled to grab their packs and get to it before it left again. It cost $2 each. The first bus took us a short distance, then we were asked to change bus to another that was waiting, no new ticket needed. This bus took ages to get into town to the city bus terminal, but Bruneians are really smiley friendly people. This might be due to their wealth and easy lifestyle; 94% are literate, unemployment is low, healthcare, schools, pensions, leisure centre and sports clubs are all free, short working weeks and no income tax. They were very happy, and very helpful too. The long bus journey took us past many sights includes the Prime Minister’s offices that are under construction, it’s massive will be quite a sight when its finished. We also drove down “Embassy Road” the diplomats clearly have it tough.

IMG_1364When we arrived at the bus station we asked someone which road we were on just to make sure we didn’t go heading in the wrong direction. We had picked a place out of the guidebook to head to, there are very few reasonably priced accommodation options in Brunei, and we’d picked the only one that wasn’t a costly hotel, nor the bargain basement dorms of the youth camp. It turned out to be only a 1 minute walk, which was handy and it was very basic but safe clean and tidy and they let us check in before going to find an ATM to pay for it.

We headed out to have a look around and only got to the end of the street before being struck by the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque. Built in 1958 at a cost of US$5m it is an impressive sight! It has a lagoon and the architecture is simple but stunning. The minaret is 44m high and is the tallest structure in the city (the Bank of Brunei building was going to be higher but they were made to remove the top floor so as not to exceed it). The sun was starting to set and the call to prayer echoing across the city each day was really cool.

IMG_1371The streets are immaculate, the $3,000 fine for littering is probably the reason why, get caught a second time and its a $10,000 fine and up to 3 months in prison – yet strangely there are hardly any litter bins, which was very annoying!

We got ourselves a cheap dinner – noodles and satay cooked over a grill on the street. We saw plenty of places BBQing on the street in Kota Kinabalu but this one had cabinets and things to keep the food in, most in KK were just out in the elements so we hadn’t chanced them. We got a bit of a plan for the next day together over dinner.

Next morning we got up and out comparatively late compared with the previous few days – it was 9am. We had found a good coffee shop down the road, so headed there for breakfast, it was hot and was clearly going to be a scorcher but there was a slight breeze and low humidity so it wasn’t as unpleasant as the humid climates, though when it later reached 34 degrees C it was bit too hot for us.

After breakfast we headed to the bus station and caught a bus to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque, the largest in Brunei. It was only about a 4km ride but it took forever. Built in 1992 to celebrate the Sultan’s 25th year of rein it is known for its stunning interior. After following the shoes off and gowns on protocol we explored the inside and it really is spectacular (sorry no photos allowed), the outside is pretty stunning too with all of its mosaic work and perfect precision building. It was worth the trip out, even though we had to wait about 20 minutes for a bus back. Luckily they stopped without us indicating, as we were told the bus we wanted would be on the other side of the road so hadn’t flagged it. We were going to head out to the museum but it was 3 times the distance of the mosque so we figured by the time we got out there and back it would take all afternoon and we wouldn’t have time to see much else.

IMG_1476Instead we explored along the waterfront and a couple of the plazas. In one we found a computer shop with a few computers for the internet out the back. Trying to back up our photos has been a bit of a pain in the backside, we deliberately brought small memory cards with us but the computers are still too old to be able to handle transferring the file sizes. It took us about 2 hours to back up the East Timor photos (about 4GB) but these computers can handle it like most home computers and we were able to make a full duplicate set in 20 minutes. We also found a great supermarket in the basement, it was massive and had quite a lot of things we recognised, it also had heaps of things to make a great picnic lunch from. Good job as we were starving.

B.S.B is home to Kampong Ayer, which is an area of around 28 water villages, known as the largest water village in the world and as ‘asia’s venice’ but with no real resemblence to Venice at all. There is a whole suburb with shops, schools, a mosque and houses all just a short hop across the river from the city centre. The houses are all on stilts and made of wood with jettys, ladders and small walkways between them. Some of them are brightly painted. We paid 1 dollar to go across.

IMG_1481The boats are narrow nippy things criss-cross the river at speed to take people to the heart of the village on what can only be described as a boat motorway with no lines or speed rules. Yes, Emma did get off and say ‘I’m walking back – I dont want to die’. We climbed up the jetty which were steep slimey steps to the elevated boardwalk (on stilts like the houses) which formed the footpaths between houses. These boardwalks are around 3-4 metres above the water and about 1.5m max wide with no handrails either side, the planks in varying states of decay. The combination of height, water, gaps and creaking nearly freaked Emma out until she nearly froze saying “I’m getting a boat back!”.

It was a slow walk through the village but we made it through with the relief of land the other side. Deciding not to be a chicken Emma agreed to go back the way we came, as childtren left school for the day with shouts of ‘good morning! and you have nice bum sexy lady’ as they bounded carefree across the planks. Emma tried to look cool. The fare back across the water was no more expensive and Emma was the first off of course.

IMG_1488We had clocked an internet place by the hotel and decided that rather than face 2 days of either a long bus and then the ferry or an 18 hour bus journey to Kuching we would look flights as it is basically the same price to fly here as take the bus. We found one from Miri to Kuching for only a little more than the cost of the bus so booked it for 2 days laters. Whilst we had good internet we also finally managed to book the flight from Leh to Delhi for later in our trip. We had a bite to eat and as we checked out where we thought the bus to Miri was going to leave from in the morning we chatted to the local prostitutes.

Observations:

  • Petrol costs 53 NZ cents a litre and diesel 31 cents
  • There are only Shell petrol stations in Brunei
  • Traffic actually stops at crossings; a welcome change
  • The Sultan’s 66th birthday on 15 July is going to be a hell of a bash. Banners up on all the shops, lights being hung everywhere, police and soldiers practicing on the parade ground and marquees being erected everywhere
  • Brunei is known for being expensive but we found it to be no more expensive than Malaysia, in fact some things were cheaper
  • The buildings here are of such a scale that the bus is actually quite a good way to see a lot.

Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through


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