Kuching, Sarawak to Brunei

We were now heading along the coast of Sarawak, in Borneo, up to Brunei and there we would be visiting an old friend we knew when we lived in Thailand, some 10 years ago. Kuching to Miri, which is near to the Brunei border takes a whopping 17 hours by bus. Di and I decided on breaking this up with a stop after eight hours in Sibu. The cost by bus from Kuching to Sibu was 50 Ringgits each (AUD$16). We had booked on Bus Asia and over the next two days we learnt to both love and loath Bus Asia and its drivers.

The bus left at 9.00am. On arrival at the bus station several touts for various bus companies will converge on you asking where you are going. We replied we already had a ticket and the touts immediately asked which company. When we replied Bus Asia all the touts, bar the Bus Asia tout, immediately disappear in search of other prey. The Bus Asia guy told us which counter to go to for our boarding pass and which bus to take our luggage to – he was helpful.

From there our experience with Bus Asia took a rapid downturn. The bus was half full and departed right on time. However, for the 15 minutes before departure the drivers worked on mechanical issues under the bus. The two drivers looked like brothers. They were in their 50’s, with long grey/black hair. They wore ‘leatherish’ vests and baseball caps – they looked like ‘Bogans’ or ‘Rednecks’ – you get the picture. The two drivers were rude and totally ignored the passengers. The bus travelled about 10 minutes and pulled into the Bus Asia bus depot. The drivers never said a word to the passengers leaving us sitting there for 45 minutes whilst work was done on the bus. The drivers eventually came back on the bus and they drove back on the highway without a word to anyone.

It soon became clear that the buses’ suspension was not right, we started to get bounced around and we felt every single little jolt the bus made. The bus stopped for a toilet break and then later stopped to pick up passengers. Di and another lady went to the toilet at the second stop whilst passengers got on. As soon as all the passengers were on the driver started blasting his horn continually, when Di and the Malay lady came back, they had not been gone for long, the second driver yelled the word ‘F*$#k’ and slammed his hands on the side of the bus whilst glaring at the ladies getting back on the bus, the driver was still blasting the bus horn – customer service seemed foreign to these two clowns.

When the drivers swapped over with each other and the other driver took over driving, the speed of the bus increased significantly and with it the suspension started to make some horrible whining noises.  The rain started to pour down and we were being bounced around. Any small bump felt like we hit a huge pot hole in the road. The eight hour journey took absolutely forever.

On arrival at Sibu both Diane’s and my backs were killing us. We were so glad to get off that bus alive and so happy we were not continuing on with those two drivers.  We booked into a hotel across from the bus station for less than 60 Ringgits, AUD$18. The rain poured down all night and the next morning there were signs in the bus station advising of rising river water near Bintulu and Miri – here we go again!

The next Bus Asia left at 9.30am, the seats in the bus were bench seats and large and soft. We sat in them and we sank in comfort.

Our gloriously, comfortable bench seats

The two bus drivers were friendly and chatted to us and the other passengers. The nine hour journey flew past. The ride was smooth and the bus driver stopped for toilet breaks when requested – it was bliss. The rain poured down intermittently and the rivers we passed were swollen but, other than that, there were no issues. This bus journey also cost 50 Ringgits each and was such a contrast from the day before.

We arrived in Miri far more refreshed than we did the day before in Sibu. We stayed one night in Miri at a lovely hotel called The Grand Palace, which cost 150 Ringgits or AUD$51. The hotel was five star with a pool and gym and included a buffet breakfast. That night we went to a local restaurant near the hotel and had a simply outstanding meal which included three cans of beer for 50 Ringgits, AUD$15, for the two of us. The waitress was a very funny lady and we had a great time with her – when you travel some days are diamonds and other days you could strangle the $%$$#$% bus driver!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our very friendly waitress

Our friend in Brunei, Sarah, had organised a car and driver to pick us up and take us to her house in Brunei. The driver, Joseph, arrived at exactly the time he said he would in a minivan. The minivan, though, was packed with his morning purchases in Miri. The shopping in Borneo is supposed to be a lot cheaper than the shopping in Brunei, hence Joseph was buying goods, when picking us up, to take back for clients in Brunei – the minivan was packed with items, but there was plenty of room for us.

It takes about twenty minutes to the border and we crossed out of Borneo without any issues.

Dodgy looking Brunei Immigration office

Once over the border there are duty free stores to buy alcohol. Each person is allowed to take two litres of spirits or wine and 12 cans of beer into Brunei. Sarah asked us to buy alcohol for her and the two bottles of Gin and two bottles of Vodka with 12 cans of beer cost 260 Ringgits or about AUD$85, so it was a bargain. Di and I thought there would be an ATM to get Brunei currency near the duty free shops – wrong!! This meant we had no Brunei currency to pay for our Brunei visa on entry. Joseph generously loaned us the money. The Brunei visa on entry costs BND$20, AUD$18 each. The day we crossed into Brunei was a Friday afternoon and we were the only people going into Brunei but there was a long line of cars leaving Brunei. Joseph explained that the day before was monthly pay day for most of the workers in Brunei so a lot of people head to Miri to do their shopping.

Brunei is a very small country. In fact from one end of Brunei in a straight line to the other side is about 126 kilometres long. The trip to Sarah’s took about three hours as Joseph dropped goods off to clients along the way. The trip cost was BND$50, AUD$47. The Brunei Dollar is tied to the Singapore Dollar and is worth the same. This also means that Singapore Dollars can be used as currency in Brunei. One Brunei Dollar (BND) is worth about 0.94 Australian cents – basically a dollar for dollar for simplicity sake.

Brunei was not what I expected. I thought with it being so small it would basically be one big city being fed by outlying areas – a bit like Singapore. The reality though is that the capital is small and there are very few outlying areas. We travelled for an hour or so without seeing a building. The population of Brunei is about 400,000 people.

Brunei is a Kingdom and an Islamic country. The Sultan of Brunei rules Brunei. Brunei was ruled by the British from about 1880 up until 1959 when it became a self-governing state and it gained independence in 1984. Brunei became very oil rich in 1929, which is probably why Britain held on to control for so long. Brunei is ranked by Forbes as the 5th richest nation in the world due to its gas and oil.

Sarah is a teacher/librarian in Brunei at an International School in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. We met Sarah and her family in 2006 when Di and I lived in Thailand for a year. It was great to catch with Sarah and her daughter Eskarina. Di and I have been living out of suitcases, cheap and not so cheap hotel rooms, for some time now and we were surprised just how comforting and relaxing it was to be in a family house. We also cherished the home cooked meals and, with Sarah being a trained chef, we were absolutely spoiled in the culinary department. It is surprising the things you take for granted.

To be honest there is not a lot to see in Brunei for the tourist. Brunei has a huge expat community who work on the oil and gas fields and in the school system but tourism is not a strength and it is definitely not on the backpacker route as alcohol is prohibited.

A foreigner can possess and carry alcohol in a public place in Brunei. They can also consume alcohol in a private place provided they have a license to do so. The license is obtained when you buy the alcohol at the border on entry to Brunei. When you purchase the alcohol you fill in a yellow form. This allows you the two litres and 12 cans of beer and when you get to Brunei customs they stamp the yellow form confirming that all you do have is two litres and 12 cans each. You need to keep the yellow form, your license, with you at all times you have alcohol in your possession or you break the law.

The Sultan of Brunei was going to adopt Sharia Law penalties in Brunei and these laws were supposed to be in place by 2016, but as of writing this, it has not occurred and it seems it is unlikely in the near future.

The tourist highlight of our three night stop in Brunei was undoubtedly Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The mosque has the feel of grandeur about it as it rises high into the skyline – it is, of course, the highest building in the capital and no building can be built higher than it. The mosque is made of marble with a large golden dome roof. There is a large man-made lagoon surrounding the mosque. There is a walkway across the lagoon to a ceremonial barge.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque

To enter the mosque you must be covered up – this means no knees or shoulders showing and, for the ladies, their heads must be covered with a hijab. Di, Sarah and Eskarina all looked like the doting wife when clad in their long black coat like cover with hijab on.

Eskarina, Sarah, and Di

Di had her large black handbag under the black coat and she rested her hand on the handbag – this gave the appearance she was pregnant – she of course hated those photos and I will be surprised if she lets me put one in the blog.

So there!!!

The non-Muslim can enter the mosque, once appropriately dressed, but only at stipulated times and NEVER on the Islamic holy day of Friday. The problem is though the non-Muslim can only go about three metres into the mosque and must stand on a carpeted roped off area. This roped off area is less than a square metre. We went late Saturday afternoon and basically only a few people were there either praying or visiting. The mosque is a must do.

After the mosque we walked to the Brunei River and there we caught a water taxi to take us on an hour long trip around the river and Kampong Ayer.

Kampong Ayer is a suburb where the houses are built on stilts in the water. This area is very old and dates back over a thousand years. The area is eight kilometres long and boats are the only means of getting to and from the area. However, that is until 2016 when a new bridge was completed.

There are over 2000 houses and 30,000 residents in Kampong Ayer and of course it is the LARGEST STILT settlement in the world – another largest, longest, et al, box ticked!!!

Kampong Ayer in the Brunei River

Kampong Ayer is a maze of walkways connecting the various houses, shops, schools, police station, fire station, etc, together. There are slum areas and there are areas considered upmarket within Kampong Ayer. The water throughout the settlement is a deep brown and I am told there are alligators lurking in the area – hence no one was in the water.

The fire station

There were places where a fire had recently destroyed dozens of houses, and now newly built houses are of concrete – hence being the expensive areas. I found the journey around Kampong Ayer truly enthralling and I recommend it.

Fire destroyed a lot of the wooden houses

Getting on and off the water taxi can be a little challenging as the water taxi ‘beaches’ itself on the steps leading down to the water and you step on to the taxi. The problem is that the water in this area is being churned up by the continual coming and going of numerous water taxis dropping people off or picking them up – the water is a bit like a washing machine – once away from the steps it does settle down. Di handled the churning water magnificently without the slightest burp!!!

The steps leading to the water taxi is right next to the most amazing Japanese Restaurant, Kaizen Sushi. We arrived there just after 6pm and luckily we had a reservation as the restaurant was already packed out and people waiting for a place to become available. The food was magnificent and so cheap for a Japanese restaurant – maybe it was just cheap because we could not spend all our money on overpriced alcohol! We sat overlooking the river and it was the perfect end to a brilliant day. The meal for the four of us was BND$80.

On driving back to Sarah’s house we passed the mosque at night and it was all lit up in its beautiful finery.

It was then time to make full use of my alcohol licence back at Sarah’s.

Sarah has two lovely dogs, Nutmeg and Male, who entertained us with their big slobbering antics and they just added to the being at home experience.

Nutmeg

Male

The next day the rain fell and we did the malls and cinema. We watched the amazing ‘Hidden Figures’ movie for BND$7 – why is it so expensive to go to the movies in Australia?

I really enjoyed my three night stay in Brunei and thank Sarah for making the stay so special. Brunei is not your usual tourist destination but a three/four day stay whilst travelling through Borneo is a must do.

Monday morning and we said good bye to Sarah and Eskarina as they went off to school at 6.45am – school starts at 7am – thank you so much for your hospitality. Joseph picked us up again at 7am and we were off to the jetty to catch the ferry to Labuan Island.

Let the adventure continue……………..

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