Although when seven o’clock wheeled around with alarming speed I thought sod it and hit the snooze button. Today I needed to fight my way through Brunei to the other half of Malaysian Borneo and a place known as Kota Kinabalu or KK. I already knew what a frustrating and expensive experience this would be, but the 8am bus to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), would be just as good as the 9am bus and damn I was tired.
By 8.20am I was at the bus station, bright and eager to get the next bus to BSB.
Which wasn’t until 4pm.
Two buses a day. One at 8am and one at 4pm.
For. Heaven’s. Sake.
Taxi it is then. Miri is just a few km from the border, but the taxi driver managed to rip me off to the tune of FIFTY US dollars. This is in a state in which oil is cheaper than water, the rotten bastard. Arriving at the border twenty minutes later my plan was to cross over, hitch a lift to the first city along the coast and take the local bus from there to BSB.
And that’s exactly what happened: I hadn’t even stuck my thumb out when a car stopped and a the guy inside offered me a lift. Brunei, the 181st country of The Odyssey Expedition, is like that. He was Malaysian Chinese guy called Johnny and he worked for a satellite company fixing the transmitters in the jungle here. Sometimes it would take him 12 hours just to get to ‘work’! Now THAT’S a commute.
By the time I got to the capital it was around twelve noon. I headed over to Muara port on a local ‘express’ bus which took half an hour to get there and then pushed everyone out a couple of Ks from the actual port. Annoyingly. Brunei is just NOT set up for independent travel, as anyone who has struggled through this part of the world will happily testify. I waited a good half hour for the ‘connecting’ bus, and then when it arrived the driver walked to the back of the bus and promptly fell asleep. I rubbed my eyes – what the hell was going on? The driver told me that the bus would leave in half-an-hour now would I mind buggering off while he got some shut eye.
Only in Brunei would a ‘connecting’ bus leave an hour after the first one. In fact, only in Brunei would you be dropped five minutes drive from the port on a bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere. But then again only in Brunei would I have to stick my thumb out for 30 seconds in order to get a lift off someone. The someone turned out to be a local guy called Vic, who agreed that the public transport in this country was a joke.
So, Brunei: good for hitch-hiking, awful for public transport. I arrived at the port just in time for the 1pm ferry to Pulau Labuan in the Malaysian state of Sabah (“Pulau” means island, by the way) only to find there was no 1pm ferry – the next would not be until 3.30pm, effectively stranding me in Pulau Labuan for the night.
Why did I need to get a boat in the first place? Good question! The answer is that Brunei is split into two sections which both form irregular ‘bites’ down from the coast. The interior of this area is dense impenetrable rainforest, but there is one road that runs from Sarawak state in Malaysia, through the BSB region of Brunei, into the Limbang area of Sarawak, through the Temburong District of Brunei and then finally into Sabah. There is no public transport along this way and you have to get stamped in or out of the respective countries a ridiculous EIGHT times. Needless to say, taking the one hour ferry ride to Pulau Labuan makes infinitely more sense.
But that’s not to say I wanted to stay there for the night, ’cos I didn’t.
Arriving at 4.30pm, my only hope was that the speedboat to Menumbok was still running, since I knew the last boat to Kota Kinabalu would have long gone. There is a SERIOUS lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to Brunei and I was glad to be shut of the place. That and the fact it is remarkably dull. Yup, it’s up there with Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Andorra as the kind of place where the most interesting thing to happen is that some dull businessmen might indulge in a dull round of golf. No rock n’ roll, no poetry, no spine-tinglingly good films, no amazing books, no mesmerising art, no world-changing inventions, no scientific breakthroughs, no alarms and no surprises, please. Yawn.
In a stroke of luck, the little speedboat to Menumbok (halfway to Kota Kinabalu) was still running – I may well make it to KK yet!! Me and a couple of girls (one from Penn state and the other from Orkney) who also didn’t want to be stuck here for the night bought our tickets and waited the thing to fill up. Soon we were thundering out of the port towards the mainland, as the sun set over Pulau Labuan far behind. I stood out on the deck loving every second of it: the wind in my hair, the little boat skipping over the sea (which was a calm as a lake, by the way) and the last rays from the sun scattering golden upon the water.
At Menumbok we were back in the world of joined-up thinking and there was a shared taxi waiting to whisk us away to Kota Kinabalu. I checked into the Step-In Lodge backpackers and went out for a celebratory drink with the girls. Take THAT! Brunei, I’ve defeated you again. Woohahaha!!
I tried to put out of my mind the fact that this time next week I’ve got to come back the same way…