6 mins

Brunei or bust

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, dodges bats and barking frogs in her attempt to get to Brunei

Boat to Brunei (Marie Javins)

Bark. Bark, bark.

Oh no, I thought. There’s a barking frog in my shower! I got out of bed and searched for it, but found nothing.


It’s a frog, I thought as I showered anyway. I was sure it had gotten wet before. The frog would survive.

I headed over to the Mulu National Park dining area for my breakfast before walking down to the pier for today’s excursions.

I’d signed up for exploring several "show caves" and watching the evening bat exodus. The hills of Gunung Mulu are combed with caves. Some of them are for spelunkers only, while others are for soft adventure. The show caves have been tamed with walkways, lights, and railings, so that tourists can walk safely without destroying the environment or slipping.

Several long, flat boats motored us tourists up the river, stopping at a small village for those who needed supplies (or souvenirs). Then, we continued on to the dock and walked up to Wind Cave first and then Clearwater Cave.

The caves were moody and dramatic, with just enough lighting to keep visitors from walking off the path. The tours were guided, with Malaysian guides making sure we didn’t miss a thing or stumble onto something we shouldn’t. After walking through both, we all headed back to the docks, where we could have snacks and drinks. After an hour-and-a-half break, I headed out again, this time to see two more caves.

P-U! The bat guano was stinky, reeking of ammonia. But after hiking around inside caves all day, it was time to leave them. The bats leave the caves at sunset, and we needed to be outside to watch them fly away to seek their food. The guide hurried us to the cave exit.

And then, the rain started. I hurried down the hill to the bat-viewing pavilion, then cowered there along with other tourists as everyone straggled in sopping wet.

There would be no bat exodus this evening. After waiting half an hour, I gave up. I had an umbrella in my bag. I opened it up and headed back to the waiting boats.


"Ugh. Rain."

The rain was still coming down when my alarm woke me up at six the next morning. I hit the snooze button. I hit it again about four more times, and by the time I finally dragged myself off to the barking-frog shower, the rain in Borneo's Mulu National Park had stopped.

But I hadn't gotten up early enough to pack, clean up, go on the 07.00 canopy tour, and still make the 09.00 taxi to the airport. That was all right – after yesterday's 20+ kilometres of trekking, I didn't feel inspired to go up to the canopy, as I had back in Ghana. I felt a bit more inspired to go to the national park lodge and get the free pancakes that came with my room.

I pulled on my clothes and dragged myself over to the meeting spot at 07.00. There was Silvia, the park ranger that had led the night walk my first evening here.

"I can't make it. Sorry," I mumbled.

"That's OK," she said. "You know it's too late to get a refund?"

"No problem." I hadn't expected to get one, notifying them at the last possible minute as I was.

I went back to Racer Cave (my room) and packed up, showered, stopped by the lodge for my pancakes and Nescafe (you pay extra for real coffee), then got my bag and left my key at park headquarters. I walked over the suspended bridge, over the river and out of Mulu National Park.

What a pleasant place. I’d like to come back one day, I thought. But for now, I had to continue on for the rest of my trip around the world.

"You need taxi?" A few women were hanging around over the bridge.


One of the women drove me straight to the airport, which took about five minutes. I checked in for my 10:15 flight and then had loads of time. I could have, I realised, had my pancakes, packed, AND walked in the canopy.

The MASWings flight wasn't full and only took 25 minutes. At the airport back in Miri, I plonked my luggage onto a cart and approached the taxi desk.

"Excuse me, do you know how I get to Brunei?"

"You must go to the bus station."

"Yes," I'd researched this as best I could – it's only about 74 miles from Miri to Brunei's capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan so there had to be a way – but information had been contradictory and sketchy. "But I'm wondering if I can get a shared car to the border, then get a bus on the other side."

She shrugged. "Try Airport Information."

A sweet, bored woman in a headscarf sat behind the desk labeled Airport Information.

"Hello. Can you tell me how to get to Brunei?"

"You must take the bus," she said. She reached to her left and grabbed a huge binder full of transparent plastic sleeves, each with several well-organised sheets of paper in the pocket. She paged patiently through, scanning each page until she got to the "International Buses" one.

"The next bus is at 15.15," she announced.

"Yes... but that is a long time from now. I had read it is possible to take a bus or car to the border."

She paged through some more, eventually hitting a different page about buses.

"This bus leaves at 1 o'clock for the border. But..." Her voice trailed off, and she raced through more pages until finding a phone number. She telephoned the bus, spoke to someone, nodded, and hung up.

"I am sorry but this bus no longer runs. You will have to go on the 15:15 bus with PHLS from the bus terminal."

OK, then. I bought my taxi coupon – 26 ringgit to the bus terminal – and went to download my mail and eat a muffin at Starbucks. I knew I should eat lunch but it was only 11.00 and I'd just had all those pancakes. I knew I'd regret it later.

"Excuse me, how do you say this?"

I looked up to find a Malaysian man standing in front of three baristas. They were all giggling and looking at me attentively. The man may have been the manager or maybe just a regular customer. He was pointing at the word "Lattice" which was the label on a baked good.

"Laa-tess," I said. "But I’m American... sometimes things are different in international English."

Satisfied, they all laughed and let me go back to my muffin and planning.

At noon, I headed to the bus terminal on the off-chance that there really WAS a 1pm bus.

There wasn't. And I regretted coming to the bus terminal early as soon as I got out of the air-conditioned taxi.

This is Borneo. It's hot and humid in Borneo.

I scanned the bus company offices, looking for evidence of anyone going anywhere near the border. It's only 20 minutes away. Surely there must be a way, I knew.

I found the PHLS ticket seller. The bus left at 15:45, not 15:15, and cost 40 ringgit.

A bus tout approached me, and I explained that I'd like to take a shared car to the border. He motioned me across the parking lot to a covered bench.

"Wait there. Someone will come."

Someone did. He offered me a lift to the border for 50 ringgit, but for once I thought things through. There was no guarantee that I'd find a lift after the border. I could end up sitting there for hours waiting on the very bus that left here at 3:45.

I declined the ride, walked back to the bus offices, bought my ticket, left my luggage in the PHLS office, and sat down in the shade with my phone and my Kindle.

I ran out my phone minutes doing nothing worthwhile online. Then I started in on this week's New Yorker magazine.

Three hours to wait. Fortunately, full Kindle.

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