After over 2 years of not feeding my perpetual wanderlust, I sat down at the computer and begged Andrew to come traveling with me over NYs. He agreed, without as much enthusiasm as I had anticipated. Little did I know that a week later he’d be proposing and knew an overseas trip probably wasn’t the smartest financial move before a wedding! Nevertheless, a 10 day trip to Brunei and Borneo was booked!
As we boarded the plane in Sydney, I realized just how underprepared we were. I usually spend weeks in the lead up researching and planning every step of the journey, writing down local sayings and sometimes detailed time schedules! But with the busyness of Term 4, Christmas, and a wedding to plan, I hadn’t even looked up what the local language was.
We arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan and instantly I felt welcome. The drive to the hotel reminded me of the tropics of the Pacific Islands. Thanks to Andrew’s family connections – and unbeknown to us – we were staying in one of the world’s best hotels, the Empire Hotel and Country Club. I’ve stayed at some very impressive places before, but this one topped the lot. We walked into to a golden lined Italian marble foyer with a huge Swarovski crystal chandelier overhead and spectacular ocean views broadcast from the 4 stories of glass windows. The hotel was built by the Sultan, and cost $1.1 billion to build. Our room was surrounded by a lagoon and aqua pool. The grounds includes one if the world’s top golf courses, a cinema and multiple restaurants. Do take note: it’s not enough to be ‘rich’ enough to stay at The Empire. Once must also dress decently to be welcomed into many of their restaurants!
Brunei was very hot and humid. The city was seemingly deserted as we marched around to all the major attraction. We were quite pleased to have the city to ourselves, only to realise that people avoid the heat of the day and instead finish their activities in the cool of the evening.
We were so endeared to Brunei. In speaking with residents we heard only positive reports about the Sultan and the way he rules his empire. In his older age the Sultan has become increasingly religious. Each Friday for two hours in the afternoon, all shops and businesses close so locals can attend mosques to worship. In addition he recently commissioned the building of a $4 billion dollar mosque (Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah) from his personal wealth. Once a year he opens up his palace gates for residents to come meet him.
In Brunei we visited most of the touristy attractions, including the Royal Regalia (A collection of the Sultan’s treasures), Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, a river ride to spot proboscis monkeys, wandered around the water villages and even drove all the way to Lumut Beach on the shores of the South China Sea. But our real highlight came through an unplanned visit on the Sunday to St Andrew’s Anglican Church. The fact that the Sultan allows an Anglican Church in his Muslim nation is credit to him. The service was in English, and we were treated as long lost friends. One couple – a British man and his Bruneian wife later picked us up from our hotel and took us for a 9-hill hike. We were dripping in sweat! But the jungle was stunning and we listened to the chatter of the macak monkeys and insect calls in the trees. It was also a great advantage to find out about life in Brunei from a local’s perspective.
On NYE we flew to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. My heart sank upon arrival. There is usually few places I visit that I completely dislike, but KK is one of them. The streets reeked of rotting caucuses, rats scurried along the gutters, locals pestered for sales of cheap rip off merchandise and our hotel, while clean, provided pathetic service. We stayed for 2 nights before flying to Sandakan, then spent our final night back in KK before returning to Australia.
In KK we hired a car to get around. This in itself was a mission! We initially booked through one company and wasted half a day for the hire car company to open- only to realise they weren’t going to bother showing up for the day. We ended up booking through the hotel instead- I’m pretty sure something dodgy was going on as the driver told us to lie to the police about whose car it was if we were pulled over. Needless to say we drove around on edge and through backstreets whenever we saw police road blocks! (Of which there were plenty!) We visited the Lok Kawi Zoo. We enjoyed the rainforest walk the most as well as watching the elephants play! I was disappointed the biggest drawcard- the orangutans- had been removed and relocated to Sepilok.
I had stupidly read some blogs and reviews while planning this trip. More than one told me that Sandakan was a dump and although was the gateway to much of Borneo’s wildlife, one must avoid the city at all costs. Blogs are dumb, I realised, after flying into Sandakan and instantly falling in love. We hired a car from the airport and set off for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This experience was the whole draw card for going to Borneo and I was super excited. Naively I daydreamed that because my love of orangutans was far superior than everyone else’s, that maybe I’d get special treatment to get up close and personal with one. But at 2pm when the afternoon session began, I was herded along with everyone else to the info session and the out to see the feeding at 3pm. Two orangutans turned up for feeding and we watched as the dominant one fussily picked out his favorite fruits while his not-so-patient friend dangling from a rope screeching out for his mate to hurry up. It is believed that only 11,000 orangutans exist in the wild, but numbers are dwindling at a rapid rate (5000 last year) thanks to palm plantations and the destruction of their jungle habitat. Farmers shoot orangutans when they enter their plantations, often orphaning young orangutans. Like humans babies, young orangutans are dependent on their mothers for up to 6 years. Once orphaned they often illegally become caged pets for locals. If the rehab centre is notified, the young orangutan is brought to the centre where he or she is taught the necessary skills to be released back into the wild.
Some Aussies we met along the way advised us not to go to Turtle Island as it was very much set up for the tourist with baby turtles kept in big tubs to be ‘released’ after hatching back into the ocean conveniently at the same time a crowd of tourist gathered every evening. Upon recommendations from the Sandakan Tourist Info centre, we began the 124km road trip to Kinabatagan River in hope of a boat ride and elephant spotting. Along the way we stopped off at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok. It was pouring rain, but we wanted to make the most of it, so commenced the Pitta Trail through thick jungle. The scenery was beautiful and we kept half expecting to see an orangutan sheltering from the rain above. No luck. But, the leeches were out in force. We soon realised we could no longer stop to appreciate the surrounds without having these blood suckers inch their way up our shoes and latch onto our ankles. After 3kms of hiking, torrential down pours and only 300m till civilization again, our leech-infested path suddenly disappeared below a brown muddy flooded creek. With no desire to turn back around, we kicked out shoes off and made a run for it. By this stage, I had had enough jungle for one day!!
The trip to Kinabatagan River took 2 hours along pot-hole ravaged roads through endless palm plantations. Seeing the jungle devastation with my own eyes gave me a great appreciation for the work of conservationists and a strong desire to avoid any products using palm oil, unless rainforest certified. We arrived at Sakau where the boats launch… Only to discover the boat rides were for ‘in house’ guests only. It was raining anyway, so we commenced the journey back to Sandakan. Along the way we stopped into the Gomantong caves, a ‘special attraction’ marked on the grossly inaccurate road map we had purchased for our drive. I stupidly (or rather lazily) sent Andrew in to investigate as the place looked so run down and deserted from the front. He returned, 90 ringgit poorer after purchasing 2 entry passes and 1 camera pass. The next half an hour was the low-light of our entire trip away! The cave was a sewerage for thousands of ugly grey protected birds that one couldn’t see without a torch, smelt so putrid it was enough to make a maggot gag, and the ground and hand rails were a slippery mess of bird crap. Just to make the experience more pleasant, the ground writhed in giant cockroaches. Even Andrew, Mr. Positivity had nothing nice to say about the place. Seriously, don’t waste your time or money. Even if someone pays you to go, don’t.
Day 9 started with a sobering tour around the Sandakan War Memorial. 2500 Allied troops were held at the POW camp here in WW2 and died either on site or during one of three Sandakan Death Marches which started at the camp and ended in Ranau (260kms). Only 6 men survived Sandakan. The Memorial covers only a section of the whole area of the original camp. If you ever go, wear mosquito repellent!! In the afternoon we flew back to KK.
On our final day we decided to hire a car again and drive out to Mt Kinabalu. We woke at 6am and after traveling for 2 hours along a steep and windy road, we arrived at Kinabalu Park. This is no thanks to the Malaysian pride proton (read, pathetic, powerless proton) and insanely dangerous other drivers we were unfortunate enough to share the road with. Entry to the park was 15 ringgit each and a further 10 to climb to the mid way point of Layang Layang. In total Mt Kinabalu is 8.5km of steep terrain and to reach the summit requires the aid of a guide and a further climb pass. Most people do the trip in 2 days. With a flight back to Sydney that night, Layang Layang was a feat enough in itself for us.
The journey up the mountain was breathtakingly beautiful- a vast array of green mosses, ferns and jungle vines. Andrew promised we’d have time to take photos on the way down, so we hardly stopped on the 4kms up. It was supposed to take 4 hours to reach the mid point, but we managed it in only 2. The final 1km was quite challenging – persistently steep with large steps than my short legs had a work out trying to hobble up. Upon reaching Layang Layang, we were slightly disappointed that a thick cloud now covered any sightings of the summit. And the it started to rain. The path below that we had just laboured up was now transformed into a slippery, gushing clay-coloured waterfall. It took us an hour and 45 minutes to return back to base, completely saturated and shivering from the cold. My shoes were drenched and I threw out my socks afterwards. As we were heading back to the car, a young German named Olive asked for a ride back to KK. He had returned from the Summit sick, without his group. The three of us drove the 2 hour return journey, soaking and freezing inside faithless proton back to KK, sharing travel stories along the way.