Minivan babies and blues, leech alert in the national park, and eating parrot fish in the rain.

Day 96: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We were up bright and early for our day trip to Mount Kinabalu National Park. The weather forecast for the day was good – dry, with only 1mm of rain early afternoon, and some cloud. The reality turned out to be a little different.

Half an hour after we crawled out of bed, the rain started – and we’re not talking drizzle here – this was the emptying-bathtub-from-the-sky type of rain, with a dose of thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. But as is often the case with Asian downpours, it started to ease a little after about 15 minutes.

We threw our rain jackets on and legged it to the meeting point where minivans depart to the National Park. The drivers wait until their vans are full before they leave, and it turned out our timing was perfect. The other 10 passengers had arrived between 6.35am and 7.45am, and were sitting waiting in the van. We rocked up at 8am, hopped in and the driver started the engine, and shot out of the car park straight away.

It was our first minivan experience for a while, and we were thankful the trip was only two hours long. The lack of space, loud screaming babies and Malay versions of blues songs including ‘I’ve got the blues for you’ all became a bit too much after a while.

On a positive note, we got to stop at a viewpoint for a glorious sunny and clear view of Mount Kinabalu, 4,095 metres high, and one of the highest peaks in South East Asia.

We reached the National Park, registered at the desk, got a trail map and set off to explore the park. There’s a good mix of short and longer trails through the park. We chose a fairly long one for our warm up, followed by a walk up a very steep road, then a very long trail back to the park HQ.

The National Park is fabulous. It was established as one of the first national parks in Malaysia in 1964, and designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2000 and is one of the most important biological sites in the world. It covers an area of 754 square kilometres, and is home to a huge range of flora and fauna. We didn’t see a great deal of wildlife, though we did see lots of squirrels and some amazing red and orange parrot-like birds in the trees above us.

After the heavy rains, the trails were pretty soggy, so Lil’s ‘thing to worry about’ today was leeches. She smeared a thick layer of 80% DEET gel on her boots, sprayed her socks and leggings with DEET spray and checked every couple of minutes to make sure nothing was working its way into her boots to guzzle her blood. At one point she remarked to Jim that she recalled reading something about Borneo leeches, but she couldn’t remember exactly what. And it’s a very good thing that she couldn’t remember, or her ‘worry levels’ would have gone through the roof.

Borneo has some more ‘regular’ leeches – similar to the ones that we find in Australia. However it also has a giant red leech that can grow to 50cm, and is endemic to Kinabalu Park, which is exactly where we were walking. Had we encountered one of those, our trail completion time may have set a new record. The better news is they apparently sidestep sucking blood, and hunt down giant blue worms instead, which they eat like spaghetti. Below is a pic of what we thankfully didn’t see, and if you fancy reading an article from the UK Telegraph on this red monster, you can do so here.

Image copyright British Broadcasting Corporation

When we’d finished our walk, we hung about the visitor centre for a bit and had some lunch. We chatted to an interesting Hungarian guy called Laszlo, who has been a university lecturer for 20 years, and is tired of the routine and the low pay. He’s travelling for a bit around Asia to ‘distance himself’ before embarking on a life change and setting up a business back in Hungary (he’s no idea what exactly, but he’s determined to make something work). Part of our love of travelling is hearing other people’s stories and where they’re at in their life – we wish him well.

The mini van driver was doing a return trip to Kota Kinabalu and picked us up at 3.30pm, so we didn’t need to stand in the road waving at random buses after all. Someone in the mini van had Durian fruit hiding in their bags, so we hurriedly opened windows for some fresh air to thin out the overwhelming smell.

This evening we walked over to the fish market and picked out a large blue fish, which the stall owner threw on the BBQ, and delivered to our table with big plates of rice and vegetables. The fish was delicious (we found out later it was a Parrot Fish).

While we were eating, the heavens opened again and we found ourselves surrounded by waterfalls pouring off the fabric canopies above and around us. This time the rain didn’t ease after 15 minutes, in fact it showed no sign of stopping at all, so we had no choice but to wade our way through the rivers that were forming throughout the market, and across to our favourite beer den.

We had a couple of beers, exchanged ‘cheers’ with lots of locals who were getting blotto around us, then headed back to the guesthouse.

Tomorrow we pack up again and fly to India via Kuala Lumpur. Our plans are still up in the air, given we need to navigate around the monsoon floods, but we’ll work it out as we go.

More then.

Today’s plans go a little wonky, Lil gets tangled in a fishing line, and sending our caps off to cap heaven.

Day 95: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. Some days work out a little differently to how you planned, and today was one of those days.

We left the guesthouse around midday to go and visit the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands Reserve. We could see exactly where it was on Google maps, but couldn’t work out where the main entrance was, so dropped into the Tourist Information Centre to ask the staff there. Which also gave Lil a nice opportunity to snaffle some more paper maps and brochures.

The obvious route to the reserve seemed to be to walk past the Signal Hill observation platform again, then walk along the winding road and turn off into the reserve. The nice lady behind the desk at the Information Centre frowned when she heard that we were intending to walk – “it’s a very long distance, you need Grab”, she informed us.

We said we were totally fine to walk, and asked whether the road that runs past the observation centre was the best option. Once again she frowned, and said the Information Centre recommends Grab “so tourists stay safe”. We asked if it was the traffic that was dangerous, but she said no, “other danger” – and then said “maybe no problem, no recent reports”. Lil asked if she meant attacks, and she nodded yes. From the few details we could get her to share, we gather there is a house somewhere along the road with an angry dog, and possibly an angry monkey too.

It was all a little baffling but we decided to stay safe and walk the very long way around (which was three and a half sides of a square) – back along the waterfront where we walked yesterday. The lady at the Information Centre was very helpful, however she missed out one very important detail – the Wetlands Reserve is closed on Monday. We walked all the way there to find ourselves standing in front of a closed iron gate. A large sigh from Jim, and a touch of swearing from Lil.

We walked past a Golf Club on the way back, so poked our heads in there. We had coffee looking out over the pitching range, with what looked like Christmas decorations tied along the fence.

And then we walked back to town – which was uneventful until Lil got tangled up in someone’s fishing line. An embarrassing few minutes followed, while Jim worked on freeing the line from her hat and pony tail. Meanwhile the fisherman sat on the ground beside us, rolling his eyes in despair.

Having to walk three and a half sides of a square (or seven sides return) meant that by the time we got back to the town, it’s was after 4pm. The Sabah Museum – our second planned activity for the day – was due to close at 5pm, so we had to give that a miss too.

So we went and bought two new caps, which are dashing Nike rip-offs. They look reasonable but probably won’t last very long. On the plus side, our foodpanda and foo pand hats can now be sent off to cap heaven.

This evening we had beers and dinner at an eatery a block away from our guesthouse. It’s a popular local hangout and it was fun to watch locals coming in and socialising, ordering food and drinking beers – quite a lot of beers in some cases. The three guys at a table next to us had managed to drink their way through 14 cans of beer by the time we left, and were showing no signs of stopping. Wonder if they have to get up for work tomorrow.

Another fabulous dinner of chicken in a rich soy sauce, noodles and greens. And of course a couple of beers (though it would take a lot of practice to be able to keep up with the guys next to us).

Tomorrow we’re planning to get up at a crazy hour to get a minivan to Mount Kinabalu National Park – a two hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. To get home again, we need to stand in the road outside the park and wave madly at passing buses or minivans in the hope one stops to pick us up. Let’s see how that works out.

More then.

A seaside bike path with no bikes, an invite to a water balloon party, and doing our laksa research.

Day 94: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We had another slow start to the day, with another spot of travel planning – India is proving to be a bit tricky to sort out. Then we set out for a long sunny walk along the waterfront north of Kota Kinabalu.

Lots of Asian towns we’ve been to, including in Malaysia, don’t cater well for pedestrians. Most likely because local people seem to drive or use motor bikes everywhere they go (unlike Lil and Jim who use their legs everywhere they go).

Kota Kinabalu is a nice change, having a dedicated 25.6km cycling and walking track that runs from Tanjung Aru beach south of the town, through the CBD, and along the waterfront to Teluk Likas in the north.

We picked up the track in the town and walked towards Teluk Likas, a 16km easy return trip. It was a hot sunny Sunday afternoon and heaps of families were out having picnics along the beachside, with the usual food, drink and picnic rugs, but also big plastic iced drink stations, which look like they’d need a fairly decent sized trailer to transport them back and forth. One group of guys had a huge food serving table set up, and were spooning out big plates of delicious looking curry and rice. They invited us to join them as we walked past (such lovely, welcoming people everywhere).

What’s interesting is we only spotted one bike on the cycle path the entire time we were out walking – presumably a case of supply before demand. The one bike we saw was about three sizes too small for the guy who was riding it, a comical sight with his knees almost hitting the ground – he looked like he’d either nicked it or borrowed it from his younger brother.

There was a pretty cool shark statue next to the walkway made out of plastic water bottles (there’s certainly no shortage of empties here for artistic modelling). And right next to the statue was a sign indicating that it was an area for buskers – a fabulous big clean tiled platform, but sadly no one taking advantage of it. In Sydney, musicians and other artists would be scrabbling to perform there.

Further along there was an impressive looking floating mosque on the opposite side of the road, called Masjid Bandaraya. We crossed the busy main road, doing our best balancing acts on the 3-foot-deep drains on the median strip as cars whizzed past. The mosque IS impressive – it’s a beautiful huge building, which can accommodate up to 12,000 people at a time. But it’s also a bit of a faff to get inside and have a look around.

First you have be there at one of the appointed non-Muslim visiting times (which we weren’t), then you have to register and pay a fee and queue up. They only allow groups of 30 inside at a time, with a strict time limit. Given the coach loads of people buzzing around the grounds, we decided to give it a miss. The other option is you can walk along a grass strip outside the walls of the mosque, which is a good place for photographs – but you have to pay for the privilege of standing there too. So we took some pics from the road and headed off.

We battled our way back across the crazy main road, and continued along the waterfront, watching chameleons scurrying up and down trees. There was another impressive building further around the bay, which looked something between a mosque, a posh hotel and an apartment building. Turns out it’s the Sabah state administration offices – it must be pretty nice to rock up to work there every day.

We reached the end of the path, stopping for a quick chat with some fishermen on the last stretch, who were keen to ask (of course) “where you from?” On the way back we stopped for a quick coffee at a sprawling eatery, then retraced our steps back to town.

We spotted a large group of 30 or so people getting organised into rows on the grass, with a guy shouting instructions through a microphone. Intrigued, we stopped to see what was going on. It turned out to be a ‘pass the water balloon’ game for an adult birthday party. The guys spotted us, and invited us to take part – (Lil was keen, Jim not so much) – so we waved, shouted thanks but no thanks, and scurried off.

We headed back to the guesthouse, to do some more travel research. Many parts of India have been hit hard by monsoons, so our choices of where to go are pretty limited. Initially we were hoping to start in the south and work our way north, but we’re too early – September (or even early October) would be a much better bet. We’d originally hoped to spend a month in Sri Lanka in between Malaysia and India, which would have meant arriving in India at a better time, but decided to skip Sri Lanka for now given the terrorist attacks earlier this year.

We chatted about delaying our trip to India, which would mean cancelling flights with no refund (we needed proof of onward travel when we entered Malaysia, so booked flights a while back), and going elsewhere – perhaps Indonesia. Or flying into Kochi as planned, then flying straight out to New Delhi in the north, and working things out from there. We’re leaning towards the latter.

This evening we had a pre-dinner beer at a local eatery, then went in to search of some good laksa, using a local ‘top 10 list’ as a guide. We were close to the restaurant that was number three on the list, so headed there. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, we spotted an old turntable for sale behind us, along with a box of vinyl records and cassette tapes. We had a rummage out of interest, and found some fabulous kooky old gems.

The laksa arrived, and it was sensational. Lil had the standard one, with chicken, ‘fish bits’ as she calls them, and tofu; Jim’s had added oysters and prawns. They’ve really set the bar for future laksa scoffing.

Then back to the guesthouse, tired out from another active day. Tomorrow we’re planning to walk to a nature reserve, visit a local museum and get prepped for our trip to Mount Kinabalu national park the following day. And perhaps we’ll do a little more laksa research.

More then.

A mindless meander about town, some ghostly food offerings, and sampling the king of fruit.

Day 93: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We had a morning of not doing much at all – catching up on sleep, catching up with online messages, and generally getting our ducks in a row.

The good news is our Indian visas were approved overnight (presumably that means the process is automated rather than human-led). So we’re off to India on Wednesday – flying into Cochin in the south west, then we’ll likely have to fly straight out again t the drier east of the country. Lots of planning to do between now and then.

Yesterday was a browse-about-the-town kind of day – no real plans, just lots of walking to take in the sights and get some exercise in the sun after the long bus journey yesterday.

We started at the Atkinson Clock Tower, the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu, which was completed in 1905. It was built as a memorial to Francis George Atkinson, the first District Officer of Kota Kinabalu (previously called Jesselton) who died in 1902 at the age of 28 from ‘Borneo Fever’ (Malaria).

Next we walked up a main road to Signal Hill observatory platform, the highest point in the city, with sweeping views across the city and out to the bay and adjacent islands. There’s a neat little cafe there too, so we plonked ourselves down with coffee, and watched people posing and taking endless amounts of selfies.

We walked down a set of steps back to the town – veering past a large sinister-looking macaque monkey which was sitting on a step. Thankfully he was eating a piece of fruit, and was more interested in finishing his lunch than bothering us.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking along the waterfront, through another market (picking up another half kilo of longan fruits on the way), and along a shared path which ran alongside a very posh looking golf course by the water.

We passed some small blue bowls of what looked like rice porridge, lined up on the kerbside – presumably an offering from the Hungry Ghost festival, which fell on 15 August this year. It’s a Chinese tradition to lay out food offerings to appease wandering spirits. One of the bowls had tipped over, probably by a nearby wandering pigeon.

On the way back into town, we stopped at a shopping mall to get Lil new shoes – the endless pounding of pavements had taken its toll on her trainers which now have shiny smooth soles. She upgraded to some decent walking shoes rather than sports shoes, which should endure the long walks a little better.

Then we sat on a bench and watched the sun starting to set over the bay, while scoffing the half kilo of longan fruits (if anyone ever discovers they’re not good for you, we’ll be first in the trouble line). A few guys from the bars and restaurants behind us pestered us to try and get our custom, but otherwise, it was a nice peaceful end to the afternoon.

We walked through town to an eatery close to our guesthouse, had a couple of beers and a very early dinner. Somehow beef laksa got lost in translation, despite a lot of pointing, and we ended up with beef noodle soup – but regardless, it was delicious.

And then – to Lil’s horror – Jim decided that after three months in Asia, it was time to try Durian fruit. Which we’ve been endlessly putting off as something to do ‘another time’. And where better to try Durian fruit, than at Durian street? Kota Kinabalu has a whole street lined with market stalls selling the highly pungent fruit, which are currently in high season, so there’s no shortage.

Known in some regions as the ‘King of Fruit’, durian fruit is distinctive for its large size, thorn covered rind and strong odour. The smell is seriously strong, and can persist for several days – as a result the fruit is banned from many hotels and on public transport. Even in the open air the smell is overwhelming.

On Durian street, the stall owners were competing heavily – some drawing large crowds by getting them to chant ‘Wow! Oh my God!’ every time they carved open a new fruit. It was a lot of fun. Then Jim bought a tray of Durian segments, and we went and sat at a table to try it out.

First we had to put on plastic gloves, as the fruit is pretty messy to eat, and the smell will happily linger on hands too. Lil managed one mouthful of the rich sweet creamy flesh, wrinkled her nose (always a good indicator that things aren’t going so well), and pushed the rest across to Jim. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jim loved it and wolfed the entire tray. At least that little experiment is now out of the way.

We wandered about the town some more – and then went for more food. The thing about early dinner is you just get hungry again later on (and we’re eating insane amounts of food with all our walking and hiking). There’s a great Indian eatery on the same street as our guesthouse, which is open 24 hours (handy if you find yourself craving mutton curry at 3am). We packed in a late second dinner, then headed back to the guesthouse for a long night’s sleep.

Tomorrow we’re planning to have another easy day, doing some more exploring and walking along the coast. And Lil’s hoping Jim can resist another trip to Durian street.

More then.

Updated Asian Rambles route maps here:
Laos
Thailand
Malaysian Peninsula
Malaysian Borneo and Brunei Darussalem

Three months of Asian rambles, eight passport stamps in one day, and one brain bending visa application process.

Day 92: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei & Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. We were up early once again today to pack up and head to Kota Kinabalu, an eight hour bus trip (which turned out to be nine).

The bus left just across the street from our guesthouse at Bandar, so for once we had the luxury of being able to walk across just 30 minutes beforehand, go through ticket checking and settle into our seats.

And then the visa fun began. About an hour after setting off from Bandar, we reached Kuala Luarah, our first border crossing of the day. We piled off the bus and queued up to get our exit stamps from Brunei, than climbed back on again. Two minutes later, we were at the Malaysia immigration post, so piled off the bus to get our Malaysian visa stamps. Then it was back on the bus again. (Total: two passport stamps).

Less than an hour later, we passed from Malaysia back into Brunei (Brunei is split into two separate chunks of land, with Malaysia owning the piece in the middle). We got our Malaysian exit stamps, then a couple of minutes away, queued up for our Brunei entry stamps. (Total: four passport stamps).

This part of Brunei is far less visited, and it was great to be able to get a look at the unspoilt countryside whizzing past. 55 kilometres later, and we were entering Malaysia again. Another Brunei exit stamp, and another queue at the Malaysian immigration post to get our entry stamp. (Total: six passport stamps).

We stopped for lunch at a lively town called Lawas, scoffed some great laksa, walked around the fruit market, bought (and scoffed) half a kilo of delicious juicy longan fruits, then at 1pm it was time to get back on the bus again.

We spent the early part of the afternoon reading and snoozing, while the bus made its way through northern Sarawak. Then mid-afternoon, the bus pulled up for our final border crossing.

Borneo is split into two states – Sarawak and Sabah – and both retain tight control of their borders. Malaysians from the peninsula can’t work in Borneo without a visa, and the immigration rules mean that all travellers have to pass through a border to enter either Sarawak or Sabah. So we got our final passport stamps of the day – one to exit Sarawak, and one to enter Sabah. (Total: eight passport stamps). Thank goodness there weren’t also eight bag checks too.

It took another couple of hours to reach Kota Kinabalu and make our way through the Friday evening rush hour traffic to our guesthouse. It was a very long day of travel, and we were happy to scramble off the bus for the last time.

We checked into our guesthouse, then got straight online to apply for our Indian visas. We fly to Kochi on Wednesday, and visa applications need to be made at least four days in advance. We’ve been holding off due to the recent devastating floods in western India, but have decided to go anyway, and we’ll just have to head east when we get there.

The India application process is lengthy and detailed, and by the time we’d collated and entered all the details we needed (including the visa numbers and issue dates of previous trips to India, and the list of countries we’ve visited in the last 10 years, sigh) we were very ready to head out and relax over food and beers.

We had dinner at one of the huge night markets in the town – fabulous chicken and beef noodle dishes cooked in large wok-like pans right in front of us, served on plastic wrapped plates, to save on washing-up.

Then a stroll around the local fish market, where we oohed and aahed at huge counters of multi-coloured fish, with some astonishing bright blue ones. Lil wrinkled her nose at the platters of shell fish, including some giant sea snails which she declared ‘gross’.

Today marks three months since we set off on our Asian Rambles. The time has flown past, but it’s been packed with wonderful experiences and memories and looking back, there’s very little we would change. While we were enjoying evening beers, we exchanged our favourite and worst moments of the trip so far.

Jim’s favourites included our train trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi in Thailand, in a wonderful rickety third class carriage with our heads stuck out the window like dogs; the strenuous but exhilarating climb up through the thick forest on Penang Hill in Malaysia; cycling around the rice fields of Luang Namtha in Laos; and feeding Spectacled Langurs in the reserve in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand. And of course, the rice wine and ‘chinese medicine’ shop in Malacca, Malaysia.

Lil’s favourites included our hike in Bako National Park, Borneo where we saw heaps of wildlife including proboscis monkeys; a very long walk along the waterfront in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand with a perfect-moment-in-time stop for a cold beer at a wooden music shack; the crazy walk up to the viewpoint at Nong Khiaw, Laos that flattened both of us; the many colourful markets selling unexpected things like live chickens in newspaper; and sitting next to a barfing dog on a crazy packed mini-bus in Laos, thinking ‘is this really happening?’

As for the worst bits – there are very few. Jim getting bitten by a dog, and the race-about to get rabies boosters was top of the list for both of us. Lil’s insect bites in Luang Prabang, Laos that needed medical attention were horrid. The 40C heat in Laos was suffocating, the buses in Laos were also suffocating (for a different reason) – and Jim says he hates early starts.

So it’s cheers to a fabulous first three months – and here’s to the next three, and beyond. Travelling has become our life, and we love it. 🙂

Tomorrow we’ll explore Kota Kinabalu, and sketch out our final few days in Borneo. We also need to spend a bit of time working out where to go in India, to navigate around the western monsoon floods.

More then.

Several kilometres of stilts, an unexpected jungle trek, and scoffing battered butter chicken.

Day 91: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. After breakfast this morning, we spent a couple of hours finalising our travel and accommodation for the next stage of our trip. Tomorrow we leave Brunei and head back into Malaysia – this time to Kota Kinabalu.

Top of our to-do list today was a trip across the river to Kampong Ayer, the world’s biggest settlement on stilts, which has been in existence for more than a thousand years.

We caught a small speed boat across to the jetty, which was a bit of an exhilarating experience in itself. An English guy called Nathan shared our boat – he’s also travelling around Asia and is staying for a couple of weeks in a homestay at Kampong Ayer. (We bumped into him again in the supermarket in Bandar later, and had a much longer chat – once he’s finished his travels around Asia, he says he’s going to tackle Africa, then South America – a very interesting guy).

We started walking around the labyrinth of board walks and wooden houses at Kampong Ayer. The settlement is several kilometres long and pretty self sufficient, with its own schools, mosque, fire station and and even a few tiny corner stores, cafes and restaurants.

The village boardwalks are very rickety in places, with some planks missing and others rotted away. At one point Lil noticed a handwritten warning sign saying awas bandul (watch out), just a little too late. She had an alarming wobble on a couple of wonky planks, but thankfully managed to regain her balance before getting a closer look at the water below.

We stopped at a small cafe along one of the boardwalks for a coffee – the family who run it were lovely. They brought our coffees out to our waterside table and chairs, and said “these are free for you, no need to pay” – then brought us water and snacks too. Lil gave kangaroo key rings to each of the two young children, who shrieked with happiness and said, in perfect English “thank you very much, thank you very much”.

After a lot of walking and wobbling, we caught a boat back to the main town and headed for a walk up Tasek Lama Recreational Park. Our short walk to the top turned into an unexpected hike – the views across pristine rainforest and the city below was stunning, and we decided to continue along the ridge towards Bukit Serang Helang. There were lots of people of all ages out walking the trails – perfect end-of-day exercise in a glorious setting.

Dinner this evening was at a Malay Indian restaurant, around the corner from our guesthouse. We were starving after our hike and ordered a huge amount of food – three dishes, rice and a pile of roti breads with dahl. The waiter raised his eyebrow, double checked our order and went off to the kitchen looking a bit baffled. We managed to scoff the lot. Lil ordered butter chicken which was unlike any butter chicken we’ve seen before – it was chicken in a light batter, covered with sweet and salty shreds, and mixed with slices of chilli peppers. Very weird, but sensational.

We’ve really enjoyed our couple of days in Brunei, and have been blown away by the kindness and generosity of people. We’d love to return for a longer stay at some point, particularly to check out some more jungle treks.

Tomorrow we have a long eight hour bus trip to Kota Kinabalu, including another bunch of border crossings and passport checks.

More then.

Playing visa hokey pokey on the bus, a large black rat in a restaurant, and there’s no beer around here.

Day 90: Miri, Malaysian Borneo & Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. We were up and about early again today, to pack up and make our way to Brunei. The air pollution levels are still high in Miri, and we were very happy to be getting away from the smoky air.

After a quick breakfast and a large amount of caffeine, we finished packing and headed outside to order a Grab to the long distance bus station. We’d booked tickets for the 8.15am bus to Brunei, which we were looking forward to checking out. It’s a tiny nation on the north coast of the island of Borneo, split into two distinct sections surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea.

We’d heard the border crossing from Malaysia into Brunei was a pretty detailed multi-step process, which we found out to be the case today. We hadn’t even left the bus station when we found ourselves handing over our passports and filling out Brunei arrival and departure cards.

Once we were close to the Brunei border – only 80km from Miri – the bus pulled into a check point. We all piled off the bus to queue and hand over our passports, and get an exit stamp from Sarawak, Malaysia. Then it was back onto the bus, for a quick drive through a strip of ‘no man’s land’ and into the Brunei immigration area. We all piled off the bus again, and formed an orderly queue in the immigration office.

Jim entered Brunei on his British passport, so got a visa waiver – which was nice and simple, and quick. Lil, however, was entering on her Australian passport. She assumed from information online that she could get a 72 hour transit visa, however because we were going back into Malaysia again after Brunei, and not a ‘third country’, she had to get a multiple entry 30 day visa.

The cost was 30 Brunei Dollars (around 32 AUD), and they only accepted Brunei or Singapore dollars. Online it said there was a money exchange at the immigration area, however it turns out that wasn’t the case. Luckily the bus driver was able to change some Malaysian Ringgits for us, or we may have had to head back into Malaysia again.

We all got back on the bus, drove for another minute or two, and then had to pile off again – this time to take all our luggage into a small shed-like room. A security manager called our names individually, asked how many bags we had, scanned them individually and asked lots of questions about various items he could see on his screen. It took a while for everyone to make it through the process – a good opportunity to chat to other passengers about their travel plans.

Eventually we were back on the bus and on our way to the capital of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan. We reached our guesthouse, which was right across from the bus drop off point, and checked in. We had a copy of our marriage certificate handy as we were told we might be asked for evidence that we’re married, as it’s illegal for unmarried couples to share a room.

Once we’d settled in (another tiny room, so it didn’t take long), we headed out to take a look around the town. After a quick coffee, we started with a visit to the tourist information office so Lil could stock up on more paper maps and brochures. The lovely lady behind the desk chatted us through all the main sights we should see (and recommended various members of her family as tour guides).

Our first stop was the Royal Regalia Museum, which is a tribute to the Sultan of Brunei, providing lots of information and exhibits on his life and ascension to the throne. The main gallery presents a recreation of his coronation, including the highly ornate carriage that carried the newly crowned Sultan through the streets in 1968. Photos weren’t allowed in most of the exhibition areas, however we were allowed to take some pics in the main gallery.

Then we went for a look around the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which is named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei – the father of the current Sultan. It was completed in 1958 and is considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in Asia – it’s certainly pretty spectacular. We walked around the outside, but weren’t able to go inside as we were there outside the non-Muslim visiting times. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to go back tomorrow.

By then we were starving, so we walked a few minutes to the main shopping and eating area in the town, and chose a restaurant that serves a mix of Indian, Arabic and Malaysian dishes. Jim had mutton bhindi (okra), Lil had an Arabic style chicken curry – both were fabulous and we scoffed them alongside piles of rice and freshly baked nan bread. There was an interesting moment when a huge black rat ran under the table next to us – not overly surprising given lots of restaurants are open fronted, but it still gave us a bit of a start.

Then we went for a very long walk along the waterfront, where there were lots of people out running, walking and cycling. We also got to watch a spectacular sunset across the river, with the sky turning pink then bright and dark shades of red – spectacular.

Before heading back to the guesthouse, we stopped for a drink at a local cafe. The sale of all alcohol is banned in Brunei, including hotels, so it was lots of diet coke all round.

Our stay in Brunei is only for two nights, so tomorrow will be a pretty busy day packing in the rest of the sights, a trip across the water to a traditional stilt village called Kampong Ayer, and a walk around the mangroves for a bit of wildlife spotting.

More then.

Getting anxious about bee attacks, Jim wrings out his walking socks, and avoiding deep fried chicken ass.

Day 89: Miri, Malaysian Borneo. We woke to another smoky morning in Miri. Despite the Air Pollutant Index (API) falling to a rating of unhealthy rather than hazardous, we read that The National Disaster Management Agency has been directed to carry out cloud seeding operations here and in a number of other Bornean areas. The current dry spell in Sarawak is expected to last until October, so the chance of any major rain clearing the haze is pretty low.

Still, we were happy that the API level had fallen at all, given we had a big hike planned today at Lambir National Park, about 30km of Miri. We caught a Grab to the long distance bus station, and then negotiated with one of the bus drivers who was headed to Kuching to drop us off at Lambir Hills on the way.

We arrived at the National Park around 8.30am. While we were waiting for the registration desk to open, we read the notice board, which included a heap of safety information on hiking in the park. There was a table showing the incidents that have taken place in the park every year between 2011 and 2016 (we’re not sure what happened to 2017-19) and while snake bites and bee attacks featured, most of the incidents involved exhaustion, dehydration and people getting lost.

By now the office had opened, so we registered our details, our check in time, and the trails we were intending to complete. Lil of course had to ask whether there had been any snake bites or bee attacks of late. The park warden thought for a bit, then said “hmmm perhaps not recently, but it’s fruit season, so be careful”. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

We walked past the on-site accommodation and to the start of our walking trail. Any warning signs tend to throw Lil into a bit of a tizz, then she spends the day worrying about that particular danger. A few days ago it was crocodiles, yesterday it was snakes, and today it was bee attacks. Every few minutes she had to stop to listen and make sure there weren’t any bees nearby (there weren’t).

The hike was pretty intense but fabulous – great trails through pristine jungle, with all sorts of birds, monkeys and other wildlife making raucous noises around us. We didn’t see much of it though, as most of the action was taking place high up in the tops of the enormous trees. We passed a German couple who were headed in the opposite direction – they’d been walking since 7am, which is pretty impressive. They also mentioned they had started a jungle walk at 5am a few days ago, “but it was a little too dark”. Crazy stuff.

We walked under nearly midday, then turned around to retrace our steps, which gave us enough time to stop for lunch and get back before the park gates shut. The day was hot and the humidity in the jungle was unbelievable – our hair and clothes were dripping.

We stopped for lunch at a wooden shelter, and while Jim sat tucking into sandwiches, pools of water were forming under his seat. At this stage, we had nearly finished our third large bottle of water and were about to crack into a fourth – it’s seriously hard to keep hydrated in those conditions. Perhaps no surprise that dehydration is one of the causes of incidents in the park.

We finished the walk mid-afternoon, and had coffee in the canteen at the park HQ. Jim stood by a nearby drain, took his shoes off and wrung his socks out – gross. After he’s finished his coffee, he said fancied an ice lolly so went to see what the choice of flavours was – sweetcorn, yam, durian or orange (surprisingly, he chose orange).

When we’d finished at the canteen we walked back out to the main road, and waited 15 minutes until we spotted a long distance bus coming around the corner. We both jumped up and down like loons to make sure the driver spotted us, then climbed on board and settled down for the return journey to Miri. We ordered a Grab at the bus station, which once again was only a few metres away from us. We had long hot showers then headed to the laundry to sling our walking clothes into the washing machine. And after Jim laughing at Lil the other day for putting clothes in one washing machine and tokens in the other, he did exactly the same.

We had a beer in a nearby restaurant while we were waiting for the clothes to wash and dry. Lil decided to have a look at their menu to see what the food was like, but quickly decided we weren’t eating there. Amongst the specials were braised bats, ginger onion frog and deep fried chicken ass.

We went to another restaurant for a ‘safer’ dinner as Lil calls it – and had chicken nasi goreng, seafood nasi goreng and a beansprouts dish that was superb.

Then back to the guesthouse to start packing up again. Tomorrow we head to Brunei for a couple of days – which of course involves another Grab and another bus ride.

More then.

Masking the air pollution, a cute hornbill love story, and sampling the local tipple.

Day 88: Miri, Malaysian Borneo. We woke to another seriously smoky day – the Air Pollutant Index was even worse than yesterday. We hung about at the guesthouse until nearly midday again, then decided to venture out and see what it was like outside.

The air was thick and very unpleasant – Jim said he felt like he was like smoking a packet of cigarettes. Coughing as we walked, we found a pharmacy and bought some face masks (which came in a pack of 10) to help us get through the day. The combination of Foodpanda white hats (or in Jim’s case, Foo pand) and blue face masks was quite something.

We walked across to the Visitor Information Centre to ask a couple of questions about visiting Lambir Hills national park tomorrow, only to find they were closed for lunch. (Closing for lunch is still a thing here). So we headed to a local cafe and had a coffee while we waited, then wandered back to the Centre just after 1pm. We got the answers to our questions, and Lil couldn’t resist stocking up on some more paper brochures and maps.

Then we set off on a walk to the Piasau Nature Reserve which turned out to be a very very long walk. It was monotonous too – we found ourselves walking along the side of a very busy main road, with nothing to see but car repair outlets and furniture shops.

Eventually we reached a wooden bridge, which was in serious danger of disintegrating (a large part of it already had) and walked into the reserve, which is a rainforest regeneration area and a hornbill breeding ground with a small colony of Oriental Pied hornbills. We followed signs and walked down a road to find the Ranger Station, spotting a number of signs warning us to beware of snakes.

Despite the Ranger Station doors being unlocked and wide open, there was no one home. We shouted hello and had a look around, but the place was deserted. Given we couldn’t register ourselves before we headed off walking, we decided to just go for it. Until we reached the first corner and there were yet more signs warning of snakes, stray animals, falling objects, slippery paths and pick pocketers (the latter is probably unlikely we think). There was no one else around in the reserve, so erring on the side of caution and safety, we decided to skip the walk.

Instead, we wandered around to the Piasau Boat Club, which was closed as it was a public holiday – but the entry barrier was raised so we walked through and had a look around. The club house is right on the beach, so we had a good look up and down – despite many kilometres of sandy beach, there were only two people in sight, quite some way away, and thankfully no crocodiles.

Then we headed to the Visitor Centre, to get some background on the reserve. There was a list of mammal, insect and reptile species found in the reserve – which included the very deadly King Cobra Snake (now we know why they had so many signs warning of snakes).

There’s a lovely story at the centre of two hornbills who were mates since 2005, fondly known by locals as Jimmy and Faridah. The pair produced a total of 56 offspring before Faridah was sadly killed by a poacher in 2013. There was outrage about the killing and the police and public hunted down the poacher, who was sentenced to imprisonment. The centre was set up in direct response to the public outcry, to provide a safe conservation area for hornbills and other birds and wildlife.

Hornbills mate for life, so there was a lot of concern that Jimmy might not survive with his best mate gone. However not long after Faridah was killed, Jimmy found a new mate called Juliet, and they’ve since successfully produced lots of offspring. People still visit the park today to try and spot Jimmy and Juliet – given there are seven documented hornbill couples, we’re not sure how they know which is which. As we stood looking out across the forest, we saw two huge hornbills soaring overhead and landing in a tree right in front of us – we like to think it was Jimmy and Juliet, but who knows?

Faridah is now stuffed and in a glass case in the visitor centre. Sadly she looks a bit worse for wear.

We couldn’t face the walk along the main road back to town, so we called a Grab and asked the driver to drop us at Beer O’Clock, where we tried some local Tuak (Bornean rice wine). It came in an unlabelled bottle (but with a cute red fabric top tied with string) – hopefully it doesn’t have any ill effects.

Today is a public holiday and again, lots of places are closed. So we found ourselves at the same eatery as last night, and the night before. Even though it was only 7.20pm, most of the menu was once again “no more”. Lil was just about to order one of the remaining dishes available (mixed pork porridge) when she remembered from yesterday what mixed pork consists of. So she had safe duck with noodles, and Jim had some sort of tom yam seafood concoction with all sorts of bits and pieces.

Then home for an early night. Jim hates waste and is busy working out what to do with the eight leftover face masks.

Tomorrow we’re up very early to head to Lambir Hills National Park, for a long hike. We have to catch a long distance bus and ask to be let off at the park, and then wave madly to get a bus to stop to take us home tomorrow evening. Let’s see how that goes.

More then.

Amusing the locals at the laundromat, some unexpected rock climbing, and Jim scoffs mixed pig bits.

Day 87: Miri, Malaysian Borneo. We woke to a strong smell of smoke drifting through gaps in the window frames. The local Air Pollutant Index (API) has reached hazardous levels, attributed to a forest and peatland fire in a nearby area, where over 600 hectares of land are burning, plus smoke blowing across from land clearing fires in Indonesia.

We could see dense smoky haze outside, so hung about at the guesthouse until lunchtime, when it seemed to have cleared just a little. Our first task today was laundry. There was a bit of a comedy sketch at the local laundromat as Lil piled our clothes into one machine and put tokens into another. Then couldn’t get the tokens back so had to wrench open the door to retrieve our washing and re-pile it into the other machine, with the locals (and Jim) giggling nearby.

After we’d dropped the laundry home, we decided to go and check out the Petroleum Museum, which sits on top of Canada Hill. The fairly steep walk up was tough going in the heat and smoky air.

The Museum was set up 15 years ago and could do with a little updating – it was hard to read some of the faded information boards (particularly the ones where lights are no longer working), and the design lags some way behind other museums we’ve visited on our travels. It was pretty popular though, particularly with families, and the background on Miri’s rapid rise around the petroleum industry was interesting.

The main attraction – Miri’s first oil well – is located in front of the building. Nicknamed The Grand Old Lady, it struck oil on 22nd December 1910.

We headed inside the museum and wandered around the exhibits for a bit, but as the air conditioning wasn’t working, it was tough going. Lil found Jim playing with an exhibit that showed the way oil moves through gravel. A little later she saw him pressing buttons on a large box, and went over to ask what the exhibit was about. Jim’s response: “It’s the air conditioning unit. I’m trying to turn it on.”

After we’d read enough about the history of oil exploration in Sarawak, we went for a wander over the top of Canada Hill and then decided to try out some of the local hiking trails.

It started out quite well – a sandy, well defined trail through some light forest, but then got rather complicated. Suddenly we were scrabbling up and down steep muddy slopes, getting tangled up in dense forest and navigating across narrow trails with scary drops below. But the worst was yet to come. We discovered to our horror that the trail also comprises a series of sheer rock faces with ropes, that we had to scale and climb down. And each one was higher and harder than the last.

We were so far into the trail at this point, that it seemed easier to continue, than going all the way back. On the last and toughest one, Lil froze half way up the rock face and nearly bottled out, but with the help of two ropes and a well placed tree root that she managed to grab for leverage, shakily made it to the top.

Exhausted, overheating and covered from head to toe in sandy mud and dust, we walked back down to the town. The girl behind reception looked us up and down as we walked through the door, raised her eyebrows and said “Hiking? I don’t like that.”

After hot showers and making a complete mess of the bathroom (we’re still trying to rinse sand off the floor), our legs were still shaking. We agreed a bar stool was about as high as we were capable of climbing for the rest of the evening, so we headed out to Beer O’Clock again to try a couple of different Asian beers.

A lot of places are closed in town due to the holiday we mentioned in yesterday’s blog post – Hari Raya Haji, or Festival of the Sacrifice. The celebration involves animals such as goats or sheep being sacrificed, then shared out between the family, their friends and the poor – a symbol of the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to offer up his own flesh and blood to God. There were no signs of any festival activities in the town, so we assume celebrations must take place elsewhere.

We wandered about to find somewhere to eat, starting to think we might be snacking on pies from the local 7-11. Luckily the place we ate at last night was still open, though they were already mopping floors and stacking chairs when we arrived. Most of the dishes we pointed to on the menu were “no more”, however Lil managed to get the same pork and noodle dish she had last night, and Jim got mixed pork noodles. Except the ‘mixed’ bit wasn’t about the meat being mixed in with the noodles – it meant that it came full of all sorts of pig bits. Lil did her best to ignore him as he commented “oh look, I’ve got a piece of tube!” and “ooooh that bit is sprongy!” and “oh yum, liver!”.

We paid our bill and headed back to the guesthouse, with our achy legs looking forward to a good night’s rest. Tomorrow we’ll explore some more of the town, and do some more travel planning. We’re due to fly to the south of India next week, however due to the devastating floods in Kerala, we may need to look at changing our plans.

More then.