Day 658: The Battle of Brunei I

20.10.10:

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.

What?

4pm.

WHAT?

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…

Day 665: The Battle of Brunei II

27.10.10:

Urgh, I thought as my mobile blipped my alarm: not again.  Today’s mission – very much like last Wednesday’s, was to make it through bloody great boring Brunei.  By 7.30am I was down at the port for the ferry to Palau Labuan.  By 11.30am it had arrived.  The next boat to Brunei was at 12 noon, so I just had time to rush out, fill my boots with Nasi Goreng (spicy fried rice with chicken and eggs – it’s the best food around these parts).

By 1.30pm I was back in Brunei getting stamped back in.  A taxi driver outside the port told me that the last bus for Miri in Sarawak, Malaysia left at 2.30pm, which gave me an hour to get from port Muara to the capital.

Ha!

The bus to BSB took AGES to get there: it was 2.50pm before I arrived.  But not to worry too much – the taxi driver was lying (presumably to be me into his cab).  This being Brunei, the last bus to Miri left at 1pm.  The fact that the corresponding bus from Miri leaves at 4pm left me completely bewildered.

So let me get this straight: if you want to leave Brunei for the neighbouring state of Sarawak on any given day (the border is TWO HOURS AWAY), and it’s after 1pm and you don’t have a car YOU HAVE TO FLY??

Seriously?

I mean, come on, for Christ’s sake, this is one of the richest countries in the world, and it’s got the transport infrastructure of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Actually: I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge here.  It would explain why public transport in America and the UK is so lousy.  Chart the per capita GDP against the quality of public transportation and something funny happens: you get a bell curve. That makes sense: Liechtenstein’s public transport sucks.  So does Andorra’s.  And San Marino’s.

I staggered into the Tourist Information bureau to ask about buses.  As Brunei was a British Protectorate until it (reluctantly) gained independence in 1984, I kinda expected a) the girl behind the counter to speak English and b) know something about the one or two public transport buses that leave the city each day.

Both assumptions were hopelessly over-optimistic and I was left badgering the surly public bus centre staff to help me out.  There was a bus leaving for Seria in the west of Brunei at 3.05pm: it was going in the right direction, so I go on it.

After another ponderous journey filled with U-turns, diversions, ‘scenic routes’ past the oil refineries etc, I arrived at Seria and changed for a even-more bus to the next town along Kuala Belait (known as KB to its friends).  I just had time to grab a Coke and have a quick chat with the shop keeper (from Kollam in Kerala, as it happens) before the bus pulled out of the station.  It was now 5pm.

I arrived in KB and it was getting dark, the journey had again taken me all around the houses.  Even though the border was just a few miles away, there was no public transport whatsoever.  In a mirror of last weeks shenanigans from Miri to the border, the taxi driver wanted twenty-five quid.  I managed to haggle him down to fifteen, but still, fifteen bloody quid to go less than ten miles in a country where petrol costs 20 pence a litre??

Daylight robbery.  But as the cheapest hotel in KB was fifty quid a night, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We raced towards the setting sun and about fifteen minutes later I was at the border.

And so was a coach.

“Where’s that going?”

“Pontianak.”

“WHAT??!”

“Pontianak.  It leaves Bandar every day at 4pm.”

“There’s a direct bus to Pontianak, the place I need to get to on the Indonesian side of the island, from BSB?”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!!!

This is exactly the moment where, if I had the power, I would rip my Lonely Planet in two and feed it to the dogs.

WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?????????????????

I asked the bus driver how much it would be to climb aboard.  Forty quid.  WHY I JUST PAID FIFTEEN TO GO A COUPLE OF MILES DOWN THE ROAD I’LL NEVER KNOW.

I paid my dues in mixture of Brunei dollars, Malaysian Ringgit and Indonesian Rupiah.

“Get me the hell out of here.”

THE ODYSSEY WORLD VISA GUIDE

One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother.  However, it is a false presumption.  In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.

So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.

I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.

No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.

Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:

Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations.  They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first.  So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.

I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.

Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.

The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell.  Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.

I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?

I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.

Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free.  So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.

But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…

Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:

World Visa Requirement Map
World Visa Requirement Map For British Passport Holders

NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)

AMERICAS
Antigua & Barbuda
Argentina
Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Bolivia
Brazil
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Grenada
Guatemala
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras
Mexico
Nicaragua
Panama
Paraguay
Peru
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
Uruguay
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Venezuela

EUROPE
Albania
Andorra
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Kosovo
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Moldova
Monaco
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
San Marino
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
UK
Ukraine
Vatican City

AFRICA
Botswana
Burkina Faso
Lesotho
Malawi
Mali
Mauritius
Namibia
Rwanda
Senegal
Seychelles
South Africa
Swaziland
The Gambia
Tunisia
Morocco

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Bahrain
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Israel
Japan
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
Kuwait
Oman
Palestine
Qatar
South Korea
Taiwan
The Maldives
UAE
Yemen

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Brunei
Fiji
Kiribati
Malaysia
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
New Zealand
Palau
Samoa
Singapore
Solomon Islands
Thailand
The Philippines
Tonga
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

VISA ON ARRIVAL

AMERICAS
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)

EUROPE
Armenia
Turkey

AFRICA
Benin
Burundi
Cape Verde
Comoros
Egypt
Kenya
Mauritania
Mozambique
Sierra Leone
Tanzania
Togo
Uganda
Zambia
Zimbabwe

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Jordan
Lebanon
Nepal
Sri Lanka
Syria

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Burma (but only valid for border regions)
Cambodia
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
Laos

That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission.  Now here’s the naughty list:

PRIOR VISA REQUIRED

AMERICAS
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)

EUROPE
Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)

AFRICA
Cameroon
Central African Republic
Chad
Congo
Cote D’Ivoire
Democratic Republic of Congo
Djibouti
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Gabon
Ghana
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Liberia
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Niger
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)

ASIA
Afghanistan
Bangladesh
Bhutan
Burma (for travel into interior)
China
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Kyrgyzstan
Mongolia
Tajikistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Australia*
Papua New Guinea
Vietnam*

*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet

LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED

AMERICAS
N/A

EUROPE
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Russia

AFRICA
Algeria*
Angola*
Equatorial Guinea*
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
Nigeria*
Somalia*

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iran
Kazakhstan
North Korea
Pakistan
Saudi Arabia*
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Nauru

*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).

Right.  That’s it.  If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.