Brunei, is a country that has long fascinated me and a country which, until recently, I knew very little about. I guess, like many people, my interest in the place stemmed from the 1980s, when the Sultan of Brunei, seemed to appear from nowhere to top the worlds richest people list. I can recall the exact moment that I first learnt this information. The year was 1987, and I was a sat in the canteen of my first job, a 17 year old boy amongst a group of working men. It was a Scouser (person from Liverpool)going by the name of Tubs that furnished my brain with this trivia. Looking up from his newspaper,and between bites of his pie sandwich, a snack that he had perfected and others in the canteen had plagarised over the years, he said "Hey lads, who do you think the richest person in the world is"? Of course, we made some haphazard guesses, such as Richard Branson and the Queen, as well as some joke guesses, naming the owners of our small company. Perhaps not surprisingly we hadn't got a clue.
"The Sultan of Brunei", Tubs eventually informed us. "The Sultan of where"? , came our rapid and confused replies. "Brunei",Tubs re-informed us. There followed a discussion about the whereabouts of this place they call Brunei, but nobody seemed to know for sure.
In February this year, the opportunity arose for me to travel for a few weeks. A two week holiday between contracts always fills me with excitement. But where to go? I've now been to most of the countries in South East Asia, with the exception of Papau, New Guinea, East Timor and Brunei. The former two countries proved a little too difficult and expensive for a small break, so I elected for Brunei. Should I say, in a roundabout way I elected for Brunei. First I would go for 5 days to Vietnam to visit Dangerous Dave, and then I would fly to Kota Kinabulu in Borneo, with a one night stopover in Kuala Lumpur. From Kota Kinabulu I would hire a motorcycle and ride down to Brunei for an overnight stay in the capital- the awkwardly named Bandar Seri Begewan. A quick search in Google, led me to Wikipedia and voila, a detailed printout of the trip ahead (it's all too easy these days).
Everything is running like clockwork. I've had my trip to Vietnam, which despite the early scare of Dave not being at the airport and me not having a clue where he lives, panned out ok. I've had my one night stay in the over priced, supposedly budget "Tune hotel", where the only incident of any interest was the fact that I got propositioned by a guy who apparently thought that I was very beautiful and wanted to buy me a drink. Which either meant, he was going to date rape me or get me ridiculously drunk and take advantage of my man hole. Either way, I declined, told him I was tired and despite his protests and numerous compliments about my beauty, I bid him farewell and ran around the building to throw him off my scent, least he was following me. I then returned to my room and upon realising that I had forgotten to sort out an alarm clock (which had been my task before being accosted by a Malaysian sexual deviant), I spent the rest of the night too scared to A, leave the room, and B, Fall asleep in case I did not wake up for my very early flight.
It is inaccurate to say that there was no drama, in the reaching of my destination, Kota Kinabulu, but compared to some of the horror shows that I've experienced in the past, it all went very smoothly. Once in Kota Kinabulu, I found my hostel and settled in nicely, thanks to some wonderful guests there. I mean, come on, they even talked to me after enduring a night of my snoring.
The next day, I hired a scooter and it was time for the off.
As usual with my trips, there is minimum preparation. Armed with only a small rucksack and a Wikipedia set of directions, I mount my steed and set off into a beautiful Borneo morning. My 5 page printout breaks the journey into 4 more manageable stages. At the top of my printout is written the following text.
"By road all the way even in your own car is taxing, taking anything between eight and ten hours. A lot of time is spent waiting at border checkpoints -- there are no less than eight checkpoints to go through -- and some of them, especially those with Brunei, can get very busy with long lines during weekends and holidays. There are also two ferry crossings which can take time too. The road condition is generally good and is sealed all the way".
Fortunately, a short conversation with the person at the rental shop, alerted me to the fact that a weekend trip would not be the best idea, and therefore I set off a day earlier than anticipated. Although, I had read the Wikipedia link and printout many times, I could not quite get my head around the fact that I would have to travel through 8 border controls. How is that possible? I was about to find out.
Stage 1 Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort (92km):
After an initial wrong turning and a detour around the airport region, I am back on track and flying full throttle down a dual carriageway towards Papar. The view on this part of the trip, is quite splendid, with glimpses of the blue ocean and many a palm tree. I am beeped once only, by a driver who is alerting me to the fact that my back box has sprung open.
My scooter, I am surprised to witness, travels in excess of 130 kmh. By the end of the trip, I have managed to max it out at 140 kmh, as I whistle down a steep hill with the assistance of the wind. On the road to Beaufort, my throttle is pulled fully back for 90 percent of the journey, which results in arthritic wrist pains for the next week. The sun is so intense, it is not long before my skin is badly burnt. I make it my quest to buy some sun-block in Beaufort.
At such a pace, it is not long before I am in Beaufort. Here I find a small town with a highly foreigner curious population. I hunt for a cheap place to eat, where I plonk myself down and wait for 15 mins whilst the 4 waiting staff decide who is brave enough to serve me. In the end they send one of the kitchen staff, a boy who cannot be a day over 10 years old. Seemingly he has the best English in the cafe, but after 5 minutes of asking him for the menu (and eventually fetching it myself), I am wondering how bad the 4 waiting staff's English really is.
After breakfast, I go off in search of sun block. First stop the indoor market. Here I apply the brakes of my scooter and almost lose the front end of the bike on the shiny tiled surface which fronts the building. After calling my bike a bastard, I dismount the bastard and enter the first shop. Upon spotting a cheap alarm clock, (which I immediately purchase), I almost forget the object of my true desire. It's only when I step into the hot sun and my skin starts to fry once more, that I am reminded of the sun-block. The young girl in the shop, amazingly, not only understands from my charades what I want, but also leads me to a place where I can buy it.
Stage 2 Beaufort to Lawas (110km)
Sun block applied to my red bits, my stomach suitably full, I head off for the Sabah, Serawak border. By now, as always on these kind of trips, I can hardly contain myself with the excitement of life's opportunities. These really are my favourite days in life. A scooter is sufficient enough for me. I've often wondered if I should make the step up to a bigger machine, but why should I? I'm happy with this, so why change it? The smaller the machine, the longer the journey. This suits my needs perfectly because I never want the journey to end.
My mind is so consumed by happiness, that it has to go and construct something to worry about. And this is what it comes up with.
"Shit, it's all going so terribly right".
I mean, what am I going to write about? With this thought circulating my central lobe, a very strange thing happens. For the next 5 hours, my mind and body are in direct conflict with each other.
Mind: "This is all going terribly right, what can we do to add some spice to the trip"?
Body: "Shut up, it's great, I'm enjoying the sun, the serenity and the view".
Mind: "How about a little accident? That should pep things up a bit".
Body: "I'm warning you, SHUT UP - if you win this battle - you're going to work overtime to help me recover".
Mind: "There must be something that we can do to add some adrenalin to our story"?
Fortunately, the mind does not win this little argument, although it's only when something actually does go wrong, that it relaxes and begins to enjoy the journey even more.
A large rocky outcrop, reveals itself through the tree's, prompting me to stop the scooter and dig my camera out of my pocket. In my excitement at seeing this splendid geographical feature, I forget to put my scooter into neutral. This would be perfectly fine, if I did not decide to lean on the right side of the handle bars to take a better picture. Of course, I inadvertently lean on the throttle and spend the next few hair-raising seconds trying to regain control of the bike before it plummets into a 6ft deep roadside trench. Had there been any living soul on this stretch of road, they would have been rewarded with a Mr Bean like scene, as I weave along with my camera in one hand, whilst trying to somehow steer the bike with my chest. Somewhere in the unfolding drama, my footrest digs into the back of my right calf, causing it to immediately swell and bruise.
My right calf in considerable pain, I ride on, my mind only slightly satisfied with the low end drama that it as just experienced - yet yearning for more of the same. It is not long before I hit the town of Sindumin, which is the first check point and the border between Sabah and Sarawak. The fact that both these places are in Malaysia leaves me more than a little confused. By the time I have gone through all 8 border controls, I no longer know whether I am in Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, Borneo or Timbuktu.
Stage 3 Lawas to Limbang 68 KM
I have been looking forward to this section of the journey immensely. I have read in my guide notes that there will be a ferry trip to break my journey up. I imagine a relaxing little ferry trip, where I sit back on the roof deck, watching the beautiful scenery float on by. If I had actually read the guide correctly, I would have noted that it says
"The ferry (RM8 or B$4) runs regularly and the crossing is almost ridiculously short".
How I ride my scooter onto the vessel without noticing that you can see the opposite bank of the river, is a mystery to me. I spend the whole 90 seconds, that the ferry takes to cross the narrow river, asking the ferry master how long the trip will take. I mistake his confused expression as an indication that his English is not too good, when in actual fact he is amazed by my stupidity. My conversation and the ferry simultaneously come to a sudden halt as it hits the opposite bank. This causes me to spin on my axis, whereby I realise the origin of the ferry masters confusion.
Sheepishly, I start up the engine and make my escape. By now, my buttocks, my sunburn and my fatigue are causing me some discomfort. Thankfully, my mind, appears to have calmed down a little after it's recent bout of irrational thinking and is once more in cahoots with my body. Although there is a small section of my mind that is seeking adventures beyond the one the one that I am in the middle of.
Passing through, the not unattractive town of Limbang. I learn from my guide notes, that if I were to take a speedboat from the the port here, I would be in Brunei in less than 30 minutes. Whereas, the road will take me at least 2 hours. Limbang, is a weird little town located in the middle of the 2 parts that make up Brunei. My finely tuned mind picks up on the strangeness of the atmosphere, and hopes that excitement lurks within. In approximately 1 hour, due to unforeseen events, I am to find out.
By the time I reach the Sarawak/Brunei border, even my mind is ready to concede. I approach the border guard with a smile and a look of "Am I happy to see you". He returns my smile and takes my passport. By the third time that he has anxiously flicked through it, I instinctively know that something is not quite right. He informs me that I am missing one of the visa stamps. This guy has the face of a man that really does want to help me. He even summons his manager for further clarification. His manager is even more smiley than he is, and I can see that it pains him, not to let me into his country. He informs me that the missed visa stamp can be obtained at a wooden hut, off the main road, some 3 hours in the direction whence I just came. As I leave the building, I can hardly my excitement. My body is fatigued but my mind is yelling out
"Oh yes, it's all gone terribly wrong".
I end up heading back to Limbang, which rather beautifully, turns out to be just as strange as the atmosphere suggested. I book into the first hotel that I see (The Metro Hotel) and take a little nap on the surprisingly comfortable bed. It is only when I awake that I notice the words "FUCK YOU" scribed into the headboard.
After a late dinner, I decide to have a quick beer. Although it's Friday night, this proves more difficult than I anticipated. Eventually I hear the "boom, boom, boom" of bass and head for a rather weary looking establishment, from where the music is emanating. I open the door in a rather timid fashion, a little scared of what I am about to find on the other side. As, soon as the door opens, the barman literally leaps over the bar and rushes over to greet me. His over enthusiasm makes me wonder when the bar last had a customer. A quick glance around the room dispels any thoughts that the answer to this is 1976.
In one of the corners of the room, sit a group of 5 middle aged men. Surrounding them, in a semi circular formation, sit an equal amount of young girls. The girls, who appear to be of Filippino descent, are wearing revealing outfits. Obviously, I have accidently stumbled into a hooker bar. Upon futher inspection, I see that the Filippino whores outnumber the men in the building by at least 3 to 1. I also observe that they look terribly bored. Sex with one of these girls would be laden with "philia" (Necra, and Peado), to name but two.
The bar man springs back over the bar, and with a Scientology smile, asks me what I would like to drink. I aim for what I think is going to be the cheapest in such an establishment and I am pleasantly surprised that the prices are not overly inflated. He then asks me, if I want to buy the girl next to me a drink. I refrain from asking him if we should first wake her up and ask her if she wants a drink. In response I ask him why, I should buy her a drink. He is not used to this line of enquiry and tells me that there is no reason. I politely decline, but out of curiosity ask how much her drink would have been. Of course, it is 10 times more than my own beverage.
Any questions I have in my mind about what I would actually get for my money are soon answered. One of the middle aged guys decides to buy my zombie neighbour a drink. As if by magic, her sullen face springs into a smile and her limp and lazy body, springs from the seat and bursts into an apparently sexy dance routine. I can't help thinkiing that she's a human vendning machine.
My curiosity satisfied. I exit the buildng, bidding farewell to the DJ on the way out. My words are wasted. He is so absorbed in trying to raise the mood of the crowd (20 whores, 8 middle aged men (9 including me) and 2 bar staff), that he does not even notice my departure.
In case you wondering. I did actually make it to Brunei the next day. Here I spent probably less than an hour and got a nice shot of one tiny corner of the Sultan of Brunei's palace roof (which is allegedly made of solid gold.