Before dawn could shift her crack off my face we were at the border that separates Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) from Malaysian Borneo (in this case, Sarawak).
Malaysian Borneo made up of two states: Sarawak (the old kingdom of a potty Englishman who called himself Rajah Brookes – read ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad for more details) and the north-eastern state of Sabah. The road between these two states are broken (twice!) by the two bits of the Kingdom of Brunei that bite their way down in the middle of the north coast.
After blurrily getting myself stamped out of Indonesia and into Malaysia I returned to sleep, waking upon our arrival in the remarkably pleasant town of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state. Sadly, there was no time on this trip to chill out eating street food down by the river as the bus to my next destination – Miri, a town on the border with Brunei, was living within the hour and I had to sort out getting my visa for getting back into Indonesia sorted. When I did this trip in reverse eight years ago, I could get a visa for Indonesia on the border, but according to the Yellow Bible, those days are long gone and now you have to get a visa in advance.
Yup, ignore that bit of disinformation boys and girls. I called the consulate in Kuching and asked – you can definitely get a visa on that border, no prior meffing about required. And HOORAY for that. So then I just needed to get on the bus. Irritatingly there was no ATM anywhere near the bus station, but luckily I found a bus company that took my Visa Debit card. Unluckily, the bus company had obviously not taught its drivers not to drive like wild animals. Yeah, I know we’re in the jungle an’ all, but ple-ease: you’ve got precious cargo on board matey: namely ME.
I asked the driver to slow down. Then I told him to slow down. Then I screamed at him to slow down: we’re in a bloody big bus, not a rally car. It didn’t really do much good, but it made me feel better. I sat on the back row bracing for the impact that thankfully didn’t (but will someday) come.
As I got off the bus in Miri I gave the driver the filthiest look. What a dick. I looked at my watch – it was 1am. Guessing the border with Brunei would be closed for the night, I checked into the Miri Backpackers and treated myself to a much-needed western toilet and shower.
It was 2am before I silently crawled into my dorm bed. I had set my alarm for seven.
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…
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.
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??
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. 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?”