8 mins

Discovering Borneo by boat

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, on the fine line between pleasure and pain on boats in Borneo

A boat in Borneo. (Dreamstime)

A gleaming new coach pulled into the parking area in front of me in the humid Borneo afternoon. The door opened invitingly.

Finally! I was allowed to board the new air-conditioned bus bound from the Malaysian city of Miri to Brunei half an hour before departure time. I’d been waiting for three hours, having flown out of Gunung Mulu National Park this morning.

The bus wasn't even half full. We left promptly and cruised quickly to the border, where all of us passengers were stamped out of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We re-boarded and drove to the other side, where we all got off the bus again for the next set of immigration formalities.

We were all stamped into Brunei, then moved into a smaller, older bus.

An Irish passenger who lived in Sabah groused: "This isn't a 40 ringgit bus."

I had no idea what was or wasn’t a 40 ringgit bus. If it weren’t for an app I’d downloaded onto my phone before I’d left New York seven months ago, there’s no way I’d have been able to keep up with exchange rates as I bounced from country to country on my trip around the world.

40 ringgit bus or not, I’d read about this... there are rules about Malaysian buses going into Brunei. Never mind that the Malaysian coach had been vastly superior to this particular Brunei bus. Rules were rules.

The smaller bus headed out along the Pan-Borneo Highway, a perfectly paved road that runs parallel to the coast, passing through small towns that looked like suburbs of Houston, complete with lawns, garages, fences, joggers, oil derricks, and Shell signs.

Rain kicked in just before we arrived in Brunei's capital city after dark. This was the tropics, the weather reminded me.

At 7:30 – the bus freezing from the overpowering air-con – we pulled into the drizzle of Bandar Seri Begawan, passing a local branch of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Ah, that was near my hotel! I'd seen it on my map. After circling around the block past the bus terminal, the little bus pulled up nearly in front of my hotel, Brunei Hotel, which I'd booked into for two nights using points. I’d hung onto my point balances all year, knowing I’d need them for pricier destinations that didn’t feature much budget lodging.

Brunei Hotel turned out to be newly renovated and excellent, particularly considering I’d scored two free nights. I left my bag in my room and headed out in search of money and food.

The HSBC bank on the corner gave me a crisp $100 Brunei dollar.

"Ugh. That's going to be hard to break," I thought.

I headed to a shopping centre nearby, huddling under my umbrella beneath the rain as I scurried past a stunning, dramatically lit mosque. The shopping centre was all right, all bright lights, tiles, and escalators, but I didn’t find much to eat there. I’d probably arrived too late – I seemed to be in a business district rather than a residential part of town. So I went back to Coffee Bean for the same menu item – a pasta dish– I'd had plenty of times in the Kuwait and Cairo branches of the same company.

At least they could break my hundred.

The rain and darkness had me hurrying back to my hotel for the night.

In the morning, I was thrilled to find that my free room included a breakfast buffet and the kind of hot-water shower I didn’t have to fuss with. World travellers invariably become amateur plumbers, but my skills were not needed here.

When I got myself together and left the hotel, I discovered that a local outdoor market was located right across the street. I wasn’t on the prowl for fruits and veggies, but I enjoyed wandering through, watching locals do their grocery shopping.

I wandered around downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, looking at villages built on stilts across the water, a small but pleasant waterfront, some stunning mosques, and a couple of museums. I felt like I’d been moved to Kuwait City while I’d been sleeping, but on a smaller scale and with humidity and grass. This would be a great place to work for a short time – friendly, safe, multicultural, high quality of life, I thought. But for visiting, while Bandar was easy and relaxing, I wasn’t finding much to do downtown, so I wasn’t too upset when the rain kicked back in and again sent me fleeing back to my hotel.

* * *

Brunei is surrounded by the sea on one side and by the Malaysian part of Borneo everywhere else. I was heading back into Sarawak, Malaysia now, and I’d sorted out that the easiest way was by sea.

My plan for the day had been to catch a Bandar Seri Begawan city bus to a boat that would carry me to the island of Labuan. There I’d transfer to another boat to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah. I was following instructions I’d found on Wikitravel, but in reverse.

Easy, right? And there were three local buses and one express bus from the Bandar bus station to the port, so I shouldn't have any problems covering the 25 kilometres. I thought. I didn't set out to catch the express – this left obscenely early and I couldn't think of any reason to go on the first boat out. Plus, I wanted my hotel breakfast, which takes on an inflated importance when you’re about to travel all day and aren’t sure of what you’ll find en route.

But once I ended up waiting 45 minutes for the bus, and then had to change buses once, I started to see the merits of catching the early express bus to the Brunei port.

I was still on the bus when the ferry I'd been planning to catch left. On to Plan B! The final ferry of the morning was the 10 o'clock to Lawas, Sarawak, where I'd have to catch an onward bus into the state of Sabah.

An hour and a half after I left my hotel (!), I walked into the ferry terminal. Buses just don't run that often here, I’d realised. In Brunei, lots of people have their own cars.

I was stamped out of Brunei and sat on the Malaysia-bound speedboat as the final passenger raced to board. We zipped along on our hour-and-a-half journey to Lawas in Sarawak, spotting a crocodile on the way. Everyone hurried to take photos with their phones.

And just like that, I was back in Malaysia. I was stamped into Sarawak again at a small building by the Lawas pier, then someone directed me into a van that took me to the bus terminal, where the driver purchased my bus ticket and handed it to me. The ticket I'd bought included the transfer and the bus, which was a welcome surprise.

I passed time waiting for my bus departure in a KFC with a clean squat toilet. Then is was off to the bus to Kota Kinabu.. ba... bo... Kinabalu. I had to keep looking it up.

The four-hour bus journey included the fringe benefits of the stench of durian and showings of classic old Hong Kong movies, including Iron Monkey and Wing  Chun, where star Michelle Yeoh is implausibly mistaken by her childhood boyfriend for a man, and she does kung fu with trays of tofu.

The long-distance bus stop in KK was conveniently located within walking distance of my hotel. I’d done this on semi-purpose, but most of the budget lodging was downtown in the same area, around Gaya Street. I'd read on TripAdvisor and in hotel guidebooks that this street could be noisy, which now that I looked at how quiet it seemed to me struck me as hilarious. Maybe I'd spent too much time a block away from Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Or perhaps things livened up at night and on weekends.

I checked into my cheap, tiny – but clean and tidy – room. I headed back down to the lobby to ask a few questions, and when I got back onto the elevator, another guest greeted me.

"You stay here? What room?"

I looked at him, baffled. Seriously? I shook my head. He was probably just friendly, and I’m probably paranoid, but that’s one topic of conversation considered quite unsuitable where I am from.

I sat down in my room and did some office work on my email – I was keeping up with my job in Kuwait while I travelled. And then I looked up from my laptop.

And got lost.

In my room.

I mean I had one of those moments where I struggled to remember where I was. Not just what city, but what country and what part of the world. For a brief second, I thought "I'm near Bangkok, right?"

Sort of.

I spent the evening at Kota Kinabalu night market. It was a market, I noticed. At night.

I was taking a month off in a few days, resting in Bali.

And obviously, I needed it.

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