Malaysia – Truly Asia: Round One

Kuala Lumpur Airport is a big airport, but that’s mostly due to its attempts to fit a shopping mall into each terminal, as if you might decide to buy yourself a new wardrobe and television before heading through security. This in line with standard operating procedure it seems, for KL (the cool kids’ term for Kuala Lumpur) seems to try and fit a mall in anywhere they think people might congregate; the central train station; the metro station for the Petronas Towers, both exits; heading to the party street Bukit Bintang will most likely have you heading past the Gucci and Luis Vuitton shops in one of the larger shopping centres. If you like shopping, KL doesn’t seem like a bad place to go.

I exchanged the 1000 Yuan I had accidentally taken out the day previous for approximately 600 Ringgit, and used some of it to buy myself a bus ticket to my hostel. For future reference £1 is approximately 5 Ringgit, which is quite a nice number to work with. My bus ticket cost 10 Ringgit, but for a 50km journey that wasn’t too bad. I slept for most of it.

My hostel was called the Explorer’s Guesthouse, found just on the edge of Chinatown, near the old market known as Pasar Seni. It was a pretty nice hostel, as hostels go; decent downstairs social area, good facilities, free peanut butter and jam toast for breakfast. There was also a TV with a premium film channel on 24/7, so there were always people downstairs on the hard benches that were there in lieu of sofas. Of course, those people might not be talking, but at least you got to feel like you were part of a gang.

I dumped all my stuff, showered, and then headed out for a quick sight-seeing jaunt; on the bus I had met a Dutch girl who was in KL for a ten hour layover and was hoping to see as much of the city as she could. I’d agreed to join her, mainly because I knew that if I didn’t then I would go for a nap and wake up at around 2am.

Sightseeing ended up being a trip to the Petronas Towers, a landmark in KL that I would end up visiting on a dozen different occasions during my time in the city. They don’t look that remarkable in the day time, and it costs 88 Ringgit to go up them, so we bailed on that and got a pizza and a shockingly expensive beer. I’d heard stories that South East Asia was a cheap place to visit for alcohol, but obviously Malaysia hadn’t got the memo. A pint cost a fiver at best.

That evening I met some more people at the hostel, and started getting some ideas for what to do with my time in Malaysia. As may have become clear, I don’t tend to make real plans for anywhere, preferring just to turn up and find out what’s worth doing when I arrive. I knew that I had to get out of the city though; a friend of mine from Bristol, Joss, was going to be visiting Kuala Lumpur on 10th January, and I said I’d be around to meet her. There was no chance I was going to hang around in the city for a week, so I needed to get out sooner rather than later, to make as much as possible time I had in between. Lewis, a guy from my dorm had been telling me about a town called Kuching, on Malaysian Borneo, an island just to the east. It sounded fun; orangutan, monkeys, cats, beaches, cake. A flight on the 5th would cost me £15. I bought the ticket.

I went out for dinner with some of the hostel residents that night, and we decided that the next day we would visit the Batu Caves. These are one of the most famous sites to visit in Kuala Lumpur; a set of caves that had been discovered by a devout Hindu who had instantly felt a connection between the caves and the Hindu God of War. I think. Anyway, a shrine was quickly built inside, and it became a bit of a pilgrimage spot. There’s a huge statue outside, there are monkeys all over the place, and there are a few shops in the inside. There’s also a Dark Cave next door to it, so called because it is both dark and cavernous. For a mere 30 Ringgit you can get a guided tour around the cave, receiving information on the history and formation of the cave, whilst having some creepy crawlies pointed out to you. If you’re lucky – or unlucky, depending on your point of view – you’ll see some trapdoor spiders, supposedly one of the trickiest to find in the world.

A shaft of light shoots down into a dark dark cave

This is called a Jackfruit. I bought it because I was feeling adventurous after my cavern exploration. It was alright

These monkeys like coconuts almost as much as they like stealing bottles from tourists while attempting to give them rabies

The temple in Batu Cave

A cool panorama of the cave ceiling that allows you absolutely no idea of what the cave looks like at all

We had caught an Uber to the caves; in South East Asian cities it turns out that Uber is not only prevalent, but also cheaper than most other methods of transport, especially in groups of three or above. Unfortunately, none of us had mobile data to call one back, so we caught a train back to the hostel. The train system/public transport system in KL is, I have to say, pretty good; it’s clean, reliable, and nicely air conditioned. It also has rules against public obscenities, which I’m normally fully on board with, but in this case it includes kissing, which I thought was a bit over the top. I mean, sure, no one likes massive PDAs, but surely a quick peck is alright?

It turned out to be a theme, for later on in my travels I saw that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was playing on the film channel at the hostel. At 11am in the morning. There were no qualms about showing blood spurting everywhere when someone gets their head caved in with a golf club over breakfast, but about two seconds of film was cut out of a Knight’s Tale when Alan Tudyk had to give Heath Ledger a kiss on the lips.

I imagine Brokeback Mountain would not go down well.

That afternoon I met two American girls who were staying in my dorm; it turned out that they, too, were heading to Kuching, but were leaving this afternoon. I told them that I was going there the following day, so we exchanged numbers in case I got lonely and needed some friends. Still being in the mindset of Central Asia, where travellers were few and far between, I was a big fan of holding on to friends.

That evening I went with Lewis to check out the Petronas towers and to complete some unfinished Kazakh business. The towers look a lot better at night time, as they get lit up like a Christmas tree. There was also an actual Christmas tree just behind it, and it too was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was all very picturesque.

The brightly lit Petronas Towers shoot up into the night sky like large towers on a night when everyone forgot to turn the lights off

Multicoloured fountains celebrate the fact that it is a Wednesday

My flight on the 5th was at 1.15pm, so I took a very relaxed approach to getting to the airport. This led to me still being at my hostel at 10.45am, when the woman at the front desk told me that the bus would probably not get me there on time, and maybe I should get a taxi. I refused to accept this, and got a train to KL Sentral, the train and bus hub where it should be easy to find a bus to the airport. By this point however it was 11.30am, and I remembered my original bus taking 1h30 to get from airport to bus stop. Maybe a bit of a sense of urgency wouldn’t go amiss.

I panicked, and paid the extortionate 55 Ringgit for the train shuttle, which got me to the airport by midday. I was through the domestic security within twenty minutes, and then enjoyed a 1h30 wait due to a delay in the plane arrival. Should have stuck to my guns and caught the bus. Rookie mistake.

I arrived into Kuching at 4pm, to see a city that had recently undergone a monsoon. Thankfully it had just stopped, but puddles filled the road and pavements. I called an Uber and asked it to take me to the Nomad Hostel; a recommendation from the Americans I had met the day previously. The Uber driver was a friendly guy, who taught me a phrase or two in Malay so that I could start conversations I’d be unable to finish. He told me about his sons who were living abroad, and it was a very enjoyable conversation. Considering that my last Uber ride had involved our driver telling us about how Malaysia was being ruined by Muslims, and that Britain couldn’t rest on its laurels (I have to say, if nothing else, I was impressed that he knew that idiom) and let the Muslims take over like they were doing in KL, it was a very pleasant drive.

I arrived outside Nomad Hostel to see the two Americans sitting outside, looking damp and defeated as they finished off a crepe each from the café next door. They had been caught in the recent downpour, it turned out, and had decided to take refuge in pancakes. Pretty understandable. I sat down and said hi, reintroducing myself, as we’d only really met each other briefly, and I’d only properly spoken to Emma. They were both from Mid West US; Moira, having finished her degree recently was on a long trip across South East Asia. Emma, still studying hers, had flown over for a couple of weeks to join Moira on her travels. They both get a proper introduction because they read this blog and would be a bit miffed if I didn’t mention them properly. Hi guys.

None of us really had a great idea of what to do whilst we were on Kuching, so we ended up deciding to share plans for the week. My one constraint was that I needed to be back in KL by the 11th, but Emma needed to be back by the 9th, and Moira by the 12th, so the timeframes worked out pretty well.

I did a bit of research on the island, by which I mean I looked it up on WikiTravel and took the top five suggestions of things to do, then passed them off as my own. Top on the list was Bako National Park, a phenomenally beautiful forested nature reserve, filled with monkeys with strange noses and pigs with strange facial hair. It was a long bus and a boat ride away, so we resolved to get up early and catch the 9am bus. Unable to find anywhere reasonably priced to have more than a single drink, we ended up back at the hostel relatively early, so the 9am shouldn’t be that difficult to make.

We ended up missing the 9am bus, mainly, I believe, due to poor instructions as to the location of the bus stop, though I think Moira and Emma would put it down to my poor navigation skills. It wouldn’t be the last time my ability to lead and direct was called into question on this trip. We finally found the correct bus stop and found that the 10am bus was already parked up outside, ready to go. There was no one on it, including the bus driver. So we climbed on anyway and sat around waiting for it to take us to the park. I think I fell asleep.

Some time passed and we found ourselves at the pier that was the entrance to Baku National Park. 20 Ringgit each got us a boat ticket to the island, and moments later we were off, skimming across the sea towards what looked to be some sort of tropical paradise.

The boat ride to the park

Now, the main draw of Bako National Park is the Proboscis Monkeys, who are famous for having long, floppy noses that make them look absolutely ridiculous. They supposedly inhabit the island in great number, and can be found over many of the trails, and sometimes even on the beach of the park. None showed up for us however. We did see a bearded pig wander through the camp, but he had a pretty standard nose for a pig, and was therefore of little interest to us.

There are several treks that you can take through the forest, and so we picked a 45 minute walk that should lead us through some monkey-dense areas. Alas, during our exploration of the trail the only thing we saw were some ants and a slight shaking of a tree, that might have been a monkey, or may have been the wind. The trail itself led us to the beach, and then along the beach, with rocks that were waist deep in water still showing the white and blue flag marking that defined the path on them. We decided to turn back rather than start swimming.

Making our way back to base camp turned out to be harder than planned, and at some point we took a wrong turning. This wasn’t a huge problem, although it took us from being thirty minutes from the camp and put us on a path estimated at taking nearly 4 hours. But we were tough hikers, and decided to keep going. Maybe there were some monkeys on this one.

There weren’t. I don’t think we saw a single animal during our 4 hours of hiking through forest and jungle. We kept ourselves going by complaining about a lack of water and going through a questionnaire that Emma had found online that was supposed to make you fall in love with the other questionnee. No one had explained how it would work with three people taking the quiz, but fortunately a bizarre love triangle did not form, and we got to know each other quite well in a short space of time.

When we finally made it back to the beach the mood was dangerously low, mostly due to fatigue and dehydration. However there was something on the beach that would raise everyone’s spirits: proboscis monkeys!

They were sat in the trees by the beach, and no matter where I moved they managed to be facing away from me, so the only pictures I have is of their tails. But trust me, they were the real deal, funny noses and all. Because I never got a good photo, here’s one from Wikipedia so you can understand what I was seeing, albeit from far away and through several tree branches

This guy nose what’s up

Purpose achieved, and with the sea looking so inviting, we decided to go for a swim. It was beautifully warm, and felt great on sunburnt skin. While we swam we watched the boats leaving the island, unaware that these were the last ones of the day. When we finally went back to shore, putting back on some disgustingly sweaty clothes – in Moira’s case a t-shirt that had been used as a foot towel – we went to the front desk and asked when the next boat was. Or, at least, I did, while the girls sat at the café and had a drink. The woman at the desk told us that we had missed the last boat, but she would call one especially for us. We were to wait at the beach, and not to move until a boat came for us. A twenty minute wait and a wade into thigh high water had us back on a boat, soggy and on our way home.

Back at the pier there was just enough time to eat an ice-cream before the bus turned up. Sweaty, salty, and knackered, we headed back to the hostel.

A bearded pig stalks moodily across the path. Bearded pigs look similar to normal pigs, but they’re hairier. Who’d have guessed?

Monkeys looked out from the ferns, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. These weren’t proboscis monkeys, just normal grey ones that refused to show its face for a photo

Wandering through the jungle led us to a sandy, tree filled beach

A necessary warning about naughty monkeys

The boat ride back from tropical paradise required much soul searching and deep staring into the distance

That night we decided to wander down to a bar that Emma had read about online called Monkey Bar. Fitting. Apart from an old Malaysian who kept attempting to sit at our table and drink our drinks when we weren’t paying attention, it was a pretty decent place, with drinks that weren’t too horrendously expensive, and a good atmosphere. After an hour or so there we shifted to a club with a group of Nigerians that Moira had made friends with, but being lightweights and lame, we didn’t stay out for much longer. We had a big, cat-themed adventure coming up.

The next day we had decided to go to the Cat Museum, a relaxed and easy going activity that wouldn’t cost us a penny. We had been informed, many times in fact, that Kuching was the old Malay word for Cat, and that this was the reason for the various cat statues in town, and the existence of a museum for them. I can’t claim that visiting a cat museum was ever particularly high on my bucket list, but I can say for certain that after two hours spent in the museum I would recommend that everyone who did have it on their list remove it immediately.

Imagine that you’ve been given a huge building with which to celebrate and inform about cats; hundreds of square metres to fill. And you get some pictures and some news and biological information put in there, maybe some stands showing stuffed cats. And then you panic, because you’re only halfway through, and you’ve run out of things to display.

I know!, you think to yourself. I’ll get people to paint pictures of cats, and we can put them in here! That will surely fill the space.

But it doesn’t; it barely makes a dent. You realise that you need to be a bit canny, a bit sneaky on this one. Maybe there are more to just cats than just the evil-eyed scratchers themselves. You find a picture of some stuffed cats dressed up like The Beatles. That fits. Then you find a comb for cats with fleas, and you realise a whole new world has opened up. You can fill whole stands with cat toys, cat grooming instruments, cat clothes. You’re on a roll now, and you realise that you were horribly limited in your thinking before. A pipe in the shape of a cat? Perfect. A picture of a cat at the vet getting an injection? Why not. In fact, let’s get a collection of cat-at-the-vet photos going; maybe one taking a pill, another getting weighed. People love cats and vets.

This madness culminated in the owner buying a poster of the alphabet on it, with the only link to cats being that C was for Cat on it. At that point the owner of the museum must have recognised that even she was grasping at straws now, and maybe it was time to call it a day. Fortunately, she had filled the whole building, and no more was required of her.

To be fair, this statue isn’t in the museum. But it is of cats

Cat pictures for sale. A must-have in your crazy cat person starter kit

Do you love cats AND want to learn the alphabet? We have just the thing!

Grasping at straws is even easier with this cat-petting-mitt!

The woman in this photo is worried that the photographer will go through with his threat of stabbing her unless the cat is given a proper massage

Normal pipes are for losers and people who aren’t aware that you can get them in cat form

There are even instructions for what to do when you are tired of being a cat owner

This cat has lost its way, and looks more like a weasel-monkey hybrid.

Relative normality

Emma and Moira were quite big fans of cats, so I think they got more out of the museum than I did. As we headed out towards a shopping mall and lunch, we discussed where we were going to go next. Preferably something not cat themed.

At the mall I tried bubble tea for the first time; a strange South East Asian concoction of tea with small balls of jelly at the bottom that get stuck in your straw. The outcome is a drink that you occasionally have to chew through, which didn’t seem to be all that appetising to me. I seemed to be in the minority however.

We decided to get an Uber to the Cultural Village. We weren’t 100% sure what this was, only that it came highly recommended by WikiTravel and our hostel owner. It was also only ten minutes away, so that worked out well.

A picturesque village, in which 8 cultures live in harmony. I am 99% sure it is not representative of real life Borneo

We arrived at the village at 3.45pm, and paid the extortionate 60 Ringgit each for entry. As we were let into the park we were informed that the park would be closing at 4.30pm, and so we better hurry. I went to double check this at the gift shop, only to find that this had already closed. We’d paid £12 for less than an hour at the village, and as were quick to find out, most of the stalls were closed as well. Cheeky buggers.

Nevertheless, we tried to make the most of our 45 minutes.

The cultural village is made up of 8 houses, each one in the style of one of the ethnicities or cultures that inhabit Sarawak/Malaysian Borneo. At each house you could explore the building and partake in some of the activities that the culture was famous for; in the Chinese house you learnt about bird’s nest soup; in the Penan house you learnt to fire darts from a blowpipe. Or at least, that was the intention, for every house except for the Penan building was empty, with everyone we met telling us to get to the ceremonial dance that was starting in the main hall. We carried on trying to do the rounds, getting a stamp on the ‘Passport’ we’d been given at the entrance, but without learning much. In the end, we decided to go and see the show.

An ancient Penan warrior teaches Emma the ways of the blowpipe

Moira normally loves peace, but that polystyrene target is a threat to her and everyone she knows

The show consisted of a very underdressed man with a blowpipe shooting balloons with darts, occasionally with audience participation. This was followed up by some probably cultural dancing, and ended with a jollied-up version of the ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ jingle that used to be on TV. Remember those? Well imagine if a terrible pop band had taken that line as its chorus and then made it into a five-minute song. Then made people dance to it. Some of the lines were fantastically awful. I didn’t take any photos because I was terrified of being dragged up to dance alongside them, as several others were.

The show finished at 4.30pm, so we headed out to look for some kind of bus. There wasn’t one. The Uber app informed us that there were also no cars available in our location. So we wandered off towards the beach, in the hope of finding some way home.

But there was nothing to be found on the beach apart from a hotel resort, with some of the worst karaoke I had ever heard blaring out of it. The hotel staff informed us that they could get us a taxi, but it would most likely cost about 100 Ringgit. £20! As if we were made of money. Didn’t they know we’d just spent 60 Ringgit learning about how Malaysia was truly Asia?

We decided to hitchhike, something that I had done a few times before, but was a first for Emma and Moira. The first car that passed us seemed to misunderstand the meaning of my thumbs up held towards the road, and simply smiled out of the window at us and gave us a thumbs up back. However, the second car stopped immediately, and told us to get in. He was heading back to Kuching and would happily give us a lift.

As coincidence would have it, not only was this friendly driver a fluent English speaker, he was also a graduate of Sheffield University, having left the year before I joined. He had also been working at Cardiff University for two of the years I’d been living in Bristol, and had only returned a year ago in order to look after his parents. We were basically neighbours.

He drove us all the way back to the hostel, then gave us a small tour of the town, and then gave me his number in case I wanted any more information about Kuching. He couldn’t have been more helpful, and we were incredibly grateful. It was a pretty good first time hitchhiking experience for Emma and Moira I think, though maybe not representative of a standard hitch. I’ve been lucky, but I’ve heard tales of hours stood in pouring rain waiting for a trucker to finally give you a lift and proposition you.

That night we took over the lounge and watched a film or two. No more nights out for a little while.

The next day was our last full day before Emma headed off back to the states. Moira and I had decided to travel together for a little longer, and attempt to visit the rich Sultanate of Brunei, which was on the same island as us. It was the closest we were ever likely to be to the country again, and it’s much cheaper to enter by land crossing than it is by flight. So why not?

So on the 8th of January we went to see another must-see of Kuching and Sarawak; the orangutan reserve at Semmengoh. As was becoming standard, we took an Uber taxi there, but getting uncommonly lost as the driver managed to ignore his satnav and drive fifteen kilometres past the nature reserve. I finally got my maps out when I realised that our twenty minute drive had taken us nearly an hour, and managed to direct the driver back to the park.

When I got back to Wifi I found that the cheeky bugger had charged me for a 54km drive, despite the fact that 30km of it had been in the wrong direction. I complained.

We had made it to the orangutan sanctuary, and despite the delay, in decent time; feeding started at 3pm, and it was only 2.30pm. We wandered up a long winding path until finally coming to the reserve itself, which consisted of a shop, a caged in crocodile, and a path that led to the feeding area. We stared at the crocodile for a few minutes, before lying down in some shade to await the opening of the feeding area.

The feeding area opened promptly at 3pm, and a large group of tourists, us included, barrelled along the path to a set of wooden benches upon which we could sit and watch the orangutan. A feeder crossed a barrier to get to the feeding platform and started loudly, dumping fruit onto the floor while making a whooping noise that I assumed was the orangutan equivalent of ‘Dinner’s ready!’.

The orangutan’s orange camouflage makes it difficult to see, but if you focus you can just about identify a huge four legged lump climbing down a rope

Graceful and elegant, like a walrus with one flipper

A natural predator, this orangutan is getting ready to pounce on some unexpecting bananas

After a few minutes a female orangutan turned up. At first I thought she was just abnormally lumpy, but it soon became clear that the large lump on her front was actually a baby orangutan, less than a year old. The female orangutan flipped around on some ropes and tree branches for a little while before swinging down to the viewing platform and unceremoniously chucking food around in search of her favourite pieces. Whenever she found something good it would be shoved into her mouth as she looked around, unconcernedly, at us, the jungle, the feeders, and the world at large. These are creatures that could probably rip you apart with any one of its four gangly limbs, so I guess she didn’t have much to be concerned about.

We stayed there for the full hour, being informed as we left that we had probably missed the last bus back. Unfortunately, we were in a much less populated area of the island than we had been the day previously, so hitchhiking might be a bit tricky. However, at some point during the feeding I’d exchanged pleasantries with two Australian women, probably about the weather, and I had a strong feeling that they were staying in Kuching. I went and asked, following this up with a question about if they had any space for three more in their car.

It turned out that they did indeed come from Kuching, and they had rented an entire minibus for this trip, along with a driver who was just sitting in the bus waiting for them. These women were obviously from a much classier sector of the community than me, who would prefer to take a three-hour cheap bus over a half hour taxi.

After they took us in they didn’t seem to have much interest in talking to us, so I took a nap. Midday napping was starting to become a habit for me; I think it must have been the heat. It certainly made the drive back go quickly, and before we knew it we were parked up outside a snazzy hotel that probably cost five times as much as our hostel per night. We scrambled out of the bus, said our thank yous and goodbyes, and then headed off.

The last thing on our list of things to do in Kuching had been given to us by our lift-giver on the day previously; cross the river and try some of the multi-layered cake from a shop that was famous for it on the other side. With little else planned for the rest of the day we went for it, paying a hefty 1 Ringgit each for the boat across the little river. Then we went off in search of cake, accompanied by karaoke that almost rivalled that of the previous day for ear-shredding quality. It seemed that in Malaysia karaoke wasn’t an event, something you did on a night out after encouragement and a bit of courage building. It was just something you did at lunch, maybe to help you digest your Nasi Goreng.

The cake itself was pretty good, I have to say; imagine long rectangular cakes made up of about 5 layers of varying flavours, from watermelon to Oreo. We bought a few boxes, to see us through the next day or so, then headed back to the hostel for another quiet night in.

On our last day in Kuching we did very little, the main even involving Emma buying a bag with a design of rainbow kittens that may well have come out of an acid trip. I’m proud to say that I chose it. Emma was flying out from Kuching to KL at 9pm, and Moira and I had decided that we might as well fly around the same time; we’d be going to Miri instead however, a town not far from the border of Brunei. We caught a taxi to the airport together, and then sat eating the leftover layercake until it was time for our plane to leave.

I managed to hide the snow camel from Kazakhstan in Emma’s bag. Sorry Togxhul, but I’m sure it’s in better care now, and I really didn’t have the bag space. Forgive me.

Moira and I landed in Miri at about 8pm, and had a driver waiting for us; the owner of our hostel, a Mrs Lee, had organised that Joseph would pick us up. Joseph was a peculiar man, of very strong beliefs. Chief among these was that the Chinese wanted to kill everyone in the world, except the Chinese. They did this using their innate psychic powers.

I had the honour of sitting in the front seat, where a Chinese magazine rested conspicuously. Joseph moved it so that I could sit down, and then handed it back to me.

‘You see what it says there?’ he asked me. I could tell from the excitement in his thickly accented voice that there was something shocking there, but being unable to read Chinese I had to admit that, actually, I didn’t see what it said there.

‘It’s the Chinese, they’re taking over. They want to kill everyone. Kill everyone, with their physics. You know physics? Physics power?’

In the back seat I heard Moira start laughing. She had the benefit of not being visible, and therefore not part of the conversation. I had to join in.

‘Uh, yeah, their physic power?’ I ventured. Joseph nodded enthusiastically. Obviously I agreed.

‘Yeah, they use their physic, always talk to spirits, trying to kill everyone, talking to ghosts, you see them burn things, yeah? Physic stuff.’ At this he did a demonstration of talking to the spirits, rolling his head around in circles whilst making moaning sounds.

‘Yeah, I’ve heard about that.’ I nodded. ‘All the spirits and physics.’

Joseph knew he’d found a good conversationalist in me. He decided to test me further, not hearing, I assume, Moira’s continued giggles in the back.

‘And the Indians. You know Indians?’

‘I know Indians. They use physics too?’

‘Oh yeah. Want to chop all our heads off. Indians and Chinese, want to take over the world, with evil magic.’ said Joseph.

‘Good food though.’ I added. This seemed to nonplus Joseph, so he ignored it.

‘Yeah, when I lived in Bricktown’ – an area in Kuala Lumpur – ‘they tried to use their magic on me but I was too strong! All women there think I am god! No magic works on me! I am too strong for Chinese magic. Lots of women there, think I am god.’

‘Not everyone can stand up to Chinese magic.’ I said, filled with awe.

‘Yes. And let me tell you as well, if you ever hurt yourself, don’t go have x-ray because it makes it worse. My brother had a lump in his arm and he had an x-ray and now he’s in heaven.’

That one threw me for a second, because I was pretty sure he’d just told me that his brother had just died. I gently asked him if that was what he had meant, and he nodded. There was a brief moment of silence, but fortunately conversation quickly returned back to the issue of the Chinese Magical Menace.

As we were pulling up I had one question;

‘Isn’t Mrs Lee Chinese?’ Mrs Lee was the woman who had asked him specifically to pick us up.

‘Oh yes, she Chinese. She’s a very nice lady.’

Well, that was alright then. We climbed out of the car, paid Joseph, and waved him goodbye.

 

Mrs Lee was a very nice lady, and I’m happy to say that, as far as I’m aware, she conducted no magic on either me or Moira, and at no point attempted to kill either of us.

That night was to be our only time in Miri, so we headed out for cheap cocktails at a bar just down the road. Miri seems to do alright for bars, but I don’t think it has that much else going for it as a tourist location. Its main local attraction is an abandoned oil tower, called something along the lines of Old Grandma. Needless to say, I wasn’t that bummed out about missing it.

We had organised with Mrs Lee a minibus that would pick us up at 9am the next day and take us to the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. We would have about 7 hours to explore the city from there, before being picked up by the owner of seemingly the only hostel in the whole of the country. We would then head back to Miri the day after; Moira would spend another day in Miri, whilst I would fly back to KL to meet Joss and the young lad that she’d brought along with her.

A few too many cocktails meant that the 9am minibus ride wasn’t going to be the most fun thing in the world, but we made it onto the bus, and with enough space to get a decent sleep in during the 3 hour ride. Or, at least, that was the intention. It seemed that the road builders who had designed the single carriageway road from Miri and Brunei had had a chronic case of hiccoughs, and there wasn’t a single stretch of road that didn’t have a head-thwackingly large speedbump ever thirty seconds. I don’t think they were even intentional bumps, just a poorly designed road. After nearly being concussed for the fourth time I decided to call it a day on the sleeping, and read instead. I was almost finished with The Great Game, now that I was hundreds of miles away from the countries it discussed.

We arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan at midday, dumped our stuff at a random hotel, and went on a self-guided tour of the city. The first thing we noticed was how quiet it was; midday on a Tuesday obviously wasn’t going to be the city’s busiest time of the week, but this was exceptionally hushed. There was barely anyone walking the streets, practically no one out shopping. Where was everyone?

We headed to the large golden mosque that appears on most pictures of Brunei, and were informed that it was prayer time, and we should come back later. So we wandered down to the river, where there were river-taxis galore, all wanting to take us to the Water Village. So we went.

Suspiciously empty streets in BSB

One of the more modern structures on the river

It doesn’t look too stable, but what’s the worst that could happen? Your house turns into a house-boat I guess

Elderly buildings on groaning concrete stilts, powered by rusty electricity pylons

Brunei is an incredibly rich country, with a particularly high GDP per capita. So, we were surprised to see, so close to a golden mosque, a village that looked on the verge of collapse. This was a town that supported thirty thousand people, that had its own police station and fire department. But it also had houses that looked like they’d just fallen apart. Parts that had burnt down. Even the walkway wasn’t stable; at one point I trod on a plank, only to have it flip up on me, the nails holding it down worked loose long ago.

But people live here, go to school here, work here. Some of the houses are actually quite nice, to be honest. But they all seem to be on the edge of disaster. If you piss someone off, all they need is a saw and suddenly you’re floating downstream out to the sea.

I’m guessing it’s just the visible part of an extreme wealth gap, but due to the lack of people around it wasn’t anything I could really ask about. Moira and I wandered around it for a while, looking into the school, poking our head around for a sight of some people, but I think we saw three in total. Two of them spoke no English whatsoever, while the third welcomed us to Brunei and then told us to take pictures of her uncle’s house. Here it is.

Colourful

After that we got a river taxi back and went to check out the mosque. It was suitably mosque-like, and I’m sure Mohammed would have been proud.

A pretty stunning mosque, with a fake boat on the left that they wouldn’t let us visit

That was where our plans for things to do in BSB fell flat. The only other activity we had left on our list was a water taxi tour down the river, to see the sunset and the monkeys in the tree. But it was still two hours until sunset, so we went wandering off into the town, to see what else there was to see.

We found a museum of Brunei’s history, that seemed mainly aimed at kids, and told some story about Spanish conquistadors that didn’t really seem relevant. Then we found a building dedicated to the Sultan, and all the fancy things he owned and did. This was pretty cool, as it turned out that he owned some pretty glitsy stuff.

By the time we escaped the museum the sun was threatening to set, so we made our way to the river to find ourselves a taxi to show us some monkeys and a sunset. An inability to haggle came over me almost instantly, and we ended up paying $20 Brunei each for a trip down the river.

But it was worth it.

Venturing down the river; crocodiles to the left of me, proboscis monkeys to the right

Venturing into mangrove style forest swamp in the search for monkeys. There weren’t any

The forests that surround Bandar Seri Begawan

There are monkeys in the trees! If you look closely you can see one leaping from one branch to another

The sun setting over the Brunei River. Somewhere. I think

Clouds and sunsets and all that

 

The boat driver took us out for a couple of hours, showing us the local crocodile, the hangout spots for proboscis monkeys, and some picturesque spots to watch the sunset over Brunei. The weather was great, the sights were beautiful, the monkeys  were better behaved than the ones at the National Park, although at one point I did worry I was about to be attacked. It was a great way to end the day, and probably my favourite part of my time in Brunei. If you ever make it there, make it a priority.

We had to ask the boatman to take us back in the end, for it was nearing 7pm, and Bel, our hostel manager, was supposed to be picking us up. We handed over the agreed amount of money and then clambered back onto shore, heading to our meeting point; Burger King.

Bel was a friendly, if slightly eccentric, Italian doctor, who had moved to Brunei for a simpler and easier life. He had opened a hostel, the only one in the country, and had been enjoying running it for the last few years. He told me later that he was able to keep up working as a doctor due to his new understanding of quantum healing, which he had started learning about after a decade or two working in a hospital. No comment.

He took us back to his hostel and asked us when we would be leaving. I told him that I had a 5pm flight to catch; he told me that I would need to catch the 7am bus back to Miri the following day then. He would be happy to drive us to the bus stop.

I am not a morning person, so a 6am start did not sound attractive at all. It had to be done, however, so I thanked Bel for the offer and told him I’d see him bright and early. Moira decided to accompany me, in what I believe must have been a moment of complete madness.

We missed the bus anyway. We were both downstairs and ready to leave the house by 6.40am, but BSB traffic had its way with us, and as we drove along the final road to the bus stop we saw the bus driving down the other way.

But this did not stop Bel.

Pulling a 180 turn around the next roundabout he sped through the traffic until he caught up with the bus, honking his horn until it pulled over. A surprised but friendly bus driver opened the door for us and let us in. We waved goodbye to Bel, and I resolved to leave him and his hostel a top review.

This bus managed to be less bumpy than the one that had taken us into Brunei, but not so much that sleep came easily. We spoke to a couple on the bus who had been in Brunei for three days, and displayed our amazement that they had found things to entertain themselves for that long. Apparently, the trick is having locals that are friends; they’ll show you all the sights, but then show you the community events as well. Apparently Bruneian food is amazing, and they have gatherings and the like that are well worth the visit. But you have to be on the inside, and we weren’t.

We arrived back into Miri at 11am, and with nowhere else to go, headed back to Mrs Lee’s guesthouse. It seemed that the woman had guessed that we were coming back, for she had left a note for Moira and me, notifying us that there were two beds in the dorm room free. Moira was actually staying another night, but I was leaving in two hours, so it didn’t help me much. It was a nice gesture though.

We grabbed some lunch, then said goodbye, with a potential reunion in Kuala Lumpur on the cards. I caught myself a taxi to the airport, and my flight back to KL, messages from Joss already coming through asking where I was. By the time I landed I had my instructions; head to the most expensive street in Kuala Lumpur and get ready to buy some beers.

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