Boppin Around Borneo

All of my life I have had visions of Borneo being this outlandish and exotic place where it’s just thick jungle and some people don’t come back alive as the cannibals will get them. Perhaps naïve from when I was a kid but even after the first “Survivor” was filmed there; it had to be pretty remote, wild and untamed. The reality is far different than what I was expecting however. Borneo does have jungles and beautiful rivers and rainforests and orangutans do still live there and they do have those longhouses. But it also has top notch Asian cities that are very clean, fun and dare I say, fairly cosmopolitan. This is modern day Borneo, an island divided in four and claimed by three sovereign nations but it still does manage to cast a spell over a newbie like myself and leave you wanting a little more.

Borneo is broken up into two autonomous states of Malaysia; Sabah and Sarawak. The largest portion of the island is part of Indonesian Borneo called Kalimantan and finally, the sovereign kingdom/sultanate of Brunei.

I flew into Brunei to begin my Borneo adventure and was in shock and disbelief about how clean and nice it was in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. It was Singapore clean and there were few people out at all when I arrived at about 9pm. I had a good walk around the city as my hotel was right in the center. I was in the Sheraton on another free night and was happy because it had a lounge that was open until 11pm when everything else in town shut at 9 or 10. I was happy I could get some food because I was starving.

Brunei is of course a very Muslim nation and it is a dry nation as well. There is no alcohol allowed period. They keep this very strict according to all that I’ve heard. However, as I arrive at the lounge and all the old Asian men stare at me, I see them drinking a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Anyway, I sit down on the other side of the room as they continue to stare as if they’d never seen a white guy before as I ordered some food and a Diet Coke.

One of the men screams for me to come over and have some whiskey. I declined as I could feel an interrogation coming on but he insisted then they all waved me over so I went and listened as they regaled me with glory day stories of back when Brunei wasn’t dry before 1991 I believe it was. The one man who initially asked me to come over was categorically insane and kept telling me how Brunei was a godforsaken place now that the place was dry etc. I asked if that’s all he does is drink and he replies, “I hate my wife, I hate my job and I hate this city-you’d drink too if you were me!” Not much you can say to that so I raised my glass and cheers’ed them and made up a lame excuse to get out of there as soon as I finished my drink but it was pretty funny.

Due to the fact that there is absolutely no nightlife I took the opportunity to book some flights and try to plan out my South Pacific portion of my trip which is proving way more difficult and much more expensive than I thought. We shall see what happens with that.

The sights of Brunei are very limited to be honest and a day or so is plenty and an hour in the capital is more than enough as the main sights are very easy to walk around and the famous mosque is very nice but even better to see at night as you can see up top when it is lit up and looks like it’s floating. The other fun thing to do is to take a speedboat ride down river to the city of Bangar where there isn’t much to do to be honest but the ride is a thrill ride and you go through stilt villages but as my friend Michael and I discussed, if you’ve seen the ones in Benin-then these are nothing but again the ride is fun.

I then moved onto to Sabah and stayed in its capital of Kota Kinabalu or KK as everyone calls it. KK is the best city in Borneo by far I think and had a lot to do. This is the best place to set off to see the orangutans and the longhouses and it is also the only place that has any real nightlife as I played pool in KK until about 3am the night I was there and even won some money off some local hustlers or so they thought.

KK is also renowned for its really cool and colorful night markets as the biggest one was right across from my hotel, the Le Meridien where from the lounge you could see the entire market and at night it is all lit up and the tents all have different colors and it looks really cool. I am not a market person but did check it out and to be honest I can do without fish markets as they stink and there are always fish guts somehow manage to get in between your toes if you wear flops. But those who like markets and may actually buy something from time to time would really like the night markets in KK.

Sarawak was next on my Borneo tour and I stayed in the capital of Kuching which is a very nice place. It is wealthy and upscale and home to some very nice hotels and restaurants. The waterfront area is the main draw and where everyone hangs out. There are many mosques around the predominantly Muslim state of Sarawak and they are well kept and everyone is very friendly. I had a really nice day in Kuching and just relaxed and walked around. I decided not to go into any day trips as I was tired and just needed some time to chill out and catch up on some writing and trip research.

Finally I spent the early part of today in Kalimantan in a place called Pontianak. This place was an industrial hole and I knew it which is why I scheduled my flights the way I did. The other option is to take a nine hour bus from Kuching as long as you have a visa ahead of time because they don’t offer visa on arrival at that border stop. Unfortunately for me the best parts of Kalimantan are on the other side of the island but I was unable to get down into the Balikpapan region because I had to get to Singapore to catch my flight tonight to Papua New Guinea.

So I am at the Singapore Airport, Changi, which is far and away the world’s best airport. If you’ve been you’ll agree with me and if you haven’t been then you may want to come here just for the airport! It really is fantastic. Speaking of airports, I was expecting so much from the new Bangkok airport but I was really disappointed in it. It is fine but can’t hold a candle to Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or even Seoul. I just figured since they had so much time to plan and see the competition which is all 10-25 years old already they would have come up with something better than a long mall that they now have.

While I am killing time before my red eye flight to Port Moresby, I am reflecting a little and will miss Asia but I am very excited to move on and eventually get down to Australia as I have many friends down under that I haven’t seen in years-literally. So if I can ever work out the flights for reasonable prices and times I will hit a few islands before I head to Oz. I am getting tired of moving around so much as I have been out of the States pretty much since December and straight since March. I can’t wait to spend August in New York and finally get to the new Yankee Stadium-it’s killing me that I haven’t been yet! Thanks for all the emails and I don’t know if I will have any service, Internet, Facebook, blackberry or otherwise in PNG so I will get back to people when I can. Check back with me soon and I will write about Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago.

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  1. Good posting Lee. Be careful in Port Moresby as everyone I have spoken to has said it’s very dangerous, as I’m sure you have heard. I think they still have a curfew there too. Safe travels.

  2. Don’t forget if you are having difficulty arranging flights in the South Pacific, try using this site at the very least it will let you know all the carriers going from point to point of where you want to go and you might find a bargain going directly through the individual carriers website.

  3. POM isn’t that bad mate. I’m there for the job quite often and never had a problem. The costs are what you need to take mind of. Good luck mate and enjoy the islands.

  4. I agree that KK is an awesome place to base yourself out of and also to just relax. Kuching was nice but lacked the charm that KK had I felt.

  5. Hi Lee, I’m from Banjarmasin @ Indonesia’s Borneo (Kalimantan)…. My City has big rivers… more beautiful than Bangkok’s one 🙂

  6. Yulian, while my time in Kalimantan was short, I can guarantee you your river is better than Bangkoks river and it has ti be less polluted!!!

  7. shame that when you got to Bangar in Brunei that you didn’t go for a long boat ride past the Ulu Ulu Resort and then climb the massive forest canapy to look over Borneo.

    ………but hey, you’ve had a million other adventures to get the adrenalin going!

    • haha true and yes I wish I could’ve done that but you can do everything…I will definitely make that effort next time I am out there..thanks!

  8. Hey! Really enjoy your blog. I’m from Kuching, Sarawak and I must say you have to and I mean HAVE TO venture more into Sarawak! The rehabilitation centre has rare Orang Utans that are free to roam or visit Mulu National Park (in Miri, Sarawak) for the ultimate rainforest experience. Hopefully you’re able to drop by here sometime soon and enjoy the Borneo experience.

  9. You did come around to Brunei! You must drop by again, there were so many things you missed and I’d be glad to take you around.

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