Malaysian Borneo + Brunei Darussalam: A Birthday for the Books
I’m going to write this post a little different than my usual posts, because I am not going to have time to write a long winded, reflective post about my time in Malaysian Borneo before I head off on my next adventure. So instead, I am going to document everything as I go!
Monday, August 24, 2015: Ciaran and I left Taipei really early in the morning and landed in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We had had disillusioned ideas of somehow getting into town to rent a car from an obscure dealer, but ended up haggling with the rental car place in the airport and drove off with a nearly new, gas-efficient-as-hell, tiny car that we will be using for a week, each having paid less than $50USD. Score. Straight out of the gates, we left Kota Kinabau in the dust and headed for the Tip of Borneo. Along the way, we stopped for gas ($10 to fill her up, wtf?), stocked up on road trip snacks and drove drove drove. We stopped at a tiny fruit stand at which we could identify maybe 2 of the 10 fruits and confused the bejesus out of the venders when I asked for a single banana in exchange for a photograph of their shop. Most of the afternoon was spent racing the sunset, trying to get to the northernmost tip of Borneo before the sun made her exit. Kudos to Ciaran, because we made it to the Tip in perfect time. A petite old Malaysian woman with perfect English spoke to us for a good twenty minutes about how we should spend the rest of the week, what those mystery fruits were, and how important it was to visit the Tea Plantation (mental note for later!) And here we are! We just so happened to pull up to a little restaurant/eco-hostel called Tampat Do Aman (meaning “a place of peace” in Rungus, the local language) at just the right time. The owner of the place, Howard, took us on a tour of his AWESOME property—we are staying in a longhouse tonight, there’s an indigenous museum and a rice patty and compost toilets and outdoor showers—and we ate amazing Malaysian food for dirt cheap. As I am writing this Ciaran and I are both sitting, writing in the common area of this remote haven, surrounded by a thunder/lightning/rain storm, headed to bed. A place of peace it is.
August 25, 2015: Following the advice of Howard the eco-hostel owner, we got up at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise over a mile-long rice paddy on the property. Keep in mind we are literally a couple degrees from the equator, and the air is quite literally dripping with humidity. AND it had rained the night before. Those ten minutes we were awake were a blur. A beautiful, moist blur. Obviously right back to bed for a few hours. After breakfast, we booked it out of Kudat with the intent of making it to Sandakan as soon as possible. We did make it… It just happened to end up taking most of the day driving across the entire country of Malaysian Borneo. Here are my two main insights about the whole of this country, formulated after many, many hours of being the copilot in a tiny, tiny car: 1) The world hates the idea of palm oil, and yet, a massive, massive amount of deforestation is happening in this country to make way for palm trees that will later be harvested for said oil. Why? It isn’t good for humans or our planet… so, why? And 2) KFC and Pizza Hut really stuck their claim to this country. We have seen an unfathomable amount of those establishments on our road trip, and only one McDonald’s. Is that insightful? Maybe a substitute #2 could be that outside of major cities, the people of this country are fascinated to see Ciaran and I. The people we have come across have all been exceptionally nice and (seem to be) genuinely excited to meet us. After countless hours in the car, we finally arrived in Sandakan a couple hours ago. We are staying in a Habourside Backpacker’s Hostel, and all we have done is wander two doors down for Indian food for dinner. Naan a thing hits the spot like naan! …That is a sign I need sleep.
August 26, 2015: After sleeping quite a lot, we woke up and had a tiny breakfast with a very helpful Malaysian woman who really wanted us to eat her papaya (papaya is always gross, I ate one piece and smiled uncomfortably). We drove to the Sepliok Orangutan Sanctuary, only to found out that we had missed the feeding time for the day, so we sat in the cafeteria for about an hour and waited for the shuttle to our river cruise to pick us up. We’ve come to agree that Malaysian fried noodles are a godsend. We have them whenever possible, literally. The shuttle ride to the Kinabatangan River took 2 hours, after stopping along the way for snacks and alcohol (sorry mom, this is my 21st birthday vacation!). The river cruise was absolutely incredible. The only reason we initially wanted to go on this cruise was to see orangutans in their natural habitat, but being in a tiny little boat, barreling down a river in the middle of the jungle and seeing a bunch of other monkeys and birds and snakes and cool trees, made everything worth it. We had dinner right off the river and were driven back to the beautiful (and cheap!) hostel we are staying at tonight.
August 27, 2015:
TODAY’S THE DAY THAT MADE THIS WHOLE TRIP WORTH IT. We woke up, had an awesome breakfast at this hostel (seriously, if you stay in Sepilok, Sabah, I recommend Forest Edge Resort. They have hostel-style accommodations and it was only $12 a night!!!) and set out for the sanctuary. We were not about to miss the orangutan feeding time again! We got there in perfect time. Watched all of the rescued apes eat bananas and drink milk. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any cooler, one of the monkeys came very, very close and started to walk alongside us. And then he started to chase us. And then he started to reach out to try and grab the plaid shirt that was tied around my waist. And that’s when we ran. We were being chased by a critically endangered species through the jungle of Borneo. The only possible way to follow that up was to come back to the hostel, charge our phones, and drive across the country. Along the way we found an extremely questionable hanging bridge going across a fast moving river on the side of the road. It was made of chain link fence and had two 2×4 pieces of plywood going all the way across. We, of course, decided to walk all the way across the river via this death bridge in order to pick a few pieces of fruit from a tree on the other side. I think I may have had a minor aneurism. Not only did I survive, I thrived. We made it to Kota Kinabalu once more, went out to a great dinner, and to sleep we go.
August 28, 2015:
We woke up and wandered around the neighborhood we were staying in (the street is famously known as Gaya strip). As soon as we ate and got gas, we started our trip towards Brunei. We drove all day (thaaaaaaanks Ciaran 🙂 ) and got lost in the same city along the way three times. We were so desperate for food and directions that we stumbled into a gaming cyber café, the only light provided by the hundred LED computer screens. The countless drooling young men behind those screens barely even noticed two foreigners stumbling into the establishment, but thankfully there was a free computer and we were able to find the directions we needed. I think it was around nine hours we spent in the car today… But now we are in a new country, and my birthday starts in about 2 hours. I’m already feeling 21, if you know what I mean. I must go. I need to concentrate on celebrating my incredible life. Pip piP!
August 29, 2015: We stayed up until midnight last night and ushered in my birthday by synchronized dancing to Shake It Off and Birthday by Selena Gomez and then walking around the neighborhood that our hotel is in. It is then that we met Jin and Tim. Our two new friends from Korea. The next morning we drove into the city, Bandar Seri Begawan, with our two new friends. (We have had a great track record for getting lost every single time we get into a car this week, so we thought it wise to let our new friends guide us.) We ended up at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. It was beautiful! It was comforting hearing the familiar sound of the Islamic call to prayer, despite the fact that meant we could not go inside. We wandered until we found lunch, and then wandered once more until we ended up at the loading dock for visiting the Water Village. Without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we paid a few bucks to get on a boat and be transported across the river to this floating neighborhood of small houses and apartments. Yes, floating. I guess the more accurate word would be stilted? Either way, it was great! We (naturally) skipped the tourist museum and went straight for the houses themselves. They were quaint, colorful, and full of interesting and friendly people. One man in particular, the owner of the Malay Modern House, brought us into his home. He’s turned the living room space of his house into a place where visitors can come and take funny pictures and laugh and add their name to the long list of friends that this man has made. Jin is an incredible illustrator, and the way she makes friends (and some money, too) is by drawing a caricature of all the people that she meets on her travels. She drew this man. She drew a quiet, beautiful old woman who was kind enough to let us into her home for a few minutes. She drew Ciaran and I, too. Right before we hit the road bound for Kota Kinabalu once again. Tim and Jin were the greatest companions we could have had for our day trip to Brunei!! We miss them already. We spent the rest of the day in the car, listening to Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and fantasizing about our last long road trip of the week being over. On the plus side, we hardly got lost at all on this drive! I saw the perfect sunset out of the passenger window, witnessed a pretty mighty lightning storm, and acquired 16 stamps in my passport in the course of 24 hours. Win win win. When we FINALLY arrived in Kota Kinabalu, we were both hangry and in need of a drink (or six) (sorry mom, it’s my birthday). We returned to the same restaurant as we had eaten dinner in a few days earlier, got really drunk, came back to the hostel and passed out. Would have never, ever guessed half of my 21st birthday was going to be spent like it was, but it was perf. #ThanksCiaran
August 30, 2015: Today is our last full day in Malaysian Borneo. We woke up way too early and walked down the road to Jesselton Point, a docking point for all the boats en route to the snorkel- and scuba-friendly islands off the coast. We walked into the incredibly busy ticket station, chose the very first kiosk we saw, and bought a cheap package to get us out to the island of Mamutik. We spent the morning snorkeling on an island that was dangerously close to a paradise. We drank our fifty thousandth glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice, ate our fifty-thousandth plate of fried noodles, took some really cool pictures, and just CHILLED. Been a while. We hopped on a boat back to the mainland, wandered back to the hostel and immediately fell into a deep, deep nap. We made our way to the mall near our hostel, because we had a reservation at a place called Lockdown. I had very little context as to what exactly Lockdown was going to be—all Ciaran had been able to tell me is that we were going to be locked in a room and had to figure out how to get out. Okay. Right. So we show up, we get told the back story about the lockdown sequence that we are going to be trying to escape from (we chose the storyline called Seven). And then we are left to our own devices in a series of rooms with a series of clues and very little background of the 7 circles of hell to bank on. I think it goes without saying that between the two of us, we won. We solved all of the puzzles and, when given the choice to either save the entire human race or detonate a bomb in every major city in the world, we chose to detonate. Wonder why we chose that option?! Go visit Lockdown in Kota KInabalu. Needless to say, we were both on a bit of an ego trip after that. Our plan was to go back to the hostel and watch a movie and chill. But after half of the movie, we got bored and decided to walk around the neighborhood our hostel was in. Not even half a mile away lives the Q Bar. We heard music and saw synth lights and slowed our walking to a crawl to get a peak inside. A very nice man told us we should come in and see the show! It was a contest! For just a few dollars you could come and watch and get a free beer! It was a blast! You could hardly tell the women performing were shemales! …Shemales? IS THIS A DRAG SHOW? IS THIS A GAY BAR? I immediately agreed to spend every Malaysian Ringgit I had left to get into this tiny bar for the night. Plus we were hammered and “gay bar” are red-alert trigger words for me no matter where in the world I am. So in we went. We literally spent all of our money and sat at a tiny table in a smoke-filled room and watched the second half of a drag contest. And it was marvelous. We learned that since Malaysia is a Muslim country, probably all of the men in that bar were completely closeted, might even have a wife and children at home, and come to a place like this on Sunday nights to find solace in their true identity. It made us sad but also made us cheer that much louder for each beautiful queen that got up on that stage. Who knows who the real winner was because we screamed as loud as possible for all 7 of them equally. After the contest was over, the bar shifted back to its more normal Sunday night routine—maybe 12 men remained and the karaoke microphones were whipped out. The hostess gave us free beer. We owned all of the English songs and hummed along to all of the Malay songs. No one knows how to work a small crowd of gay, Malaysian men while singing Let It Go and Chandelier quite like Ciaran and I. I am confidently saying no one in that bar will forget that night any time soon. That’s the last memory of Malaysian Borneo that I am going to have and I am perfectly content with that.
Next, I have five days back in Taiwan. Be back soon to tell you about that! I hope everyone is doing great!
Posted on September 1, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged airplanes, airports, asia, backpackers, backpacking, Bandar Seri Bagawan, borneo, brunei, brunei darussalam, budget travel, cheap travel, foreign airport, foreign travel, hostel, hostels, island hopping, kota kinabalu, kudat, lockdown, malaysia, malaysian borneo, orangutan, q bar, river cruise, road trip, road trip borneo, sandakan, sepilok, snorkel, snorkeling, water villages. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.