A name evoking impenetrable jungle and isolated tribes. Poison darts and murky rivers. Crocodiles. Snakes. Disappeared explorers.
Some places are worth visiting if only for the exotic images conjured by their names, and Angela and I have written about this travel dynamic in past posts. When you talk about visiting Zanzibar, Transylvania, or Patagonia, there is automatically a certain credibility associated with the location, regardless of what you actually find during the journey.
And so it was with Borneo, a dark and dangerous island of legend. The stuff of movies. The name alone worth the trip.
With previous stops in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Sumatra, and mainland Malaysia, we had already seen much of Southeast Asia during this trip around the world. But we planned to take our time with Borneo, exploring all three countries that maintained a presence on the island, and comparing that experience to the other far-flung regions of Malaysia and Indonesia.
That said, our adventure in Brunei began with a decidedly urban experience. Congested traffic, high-rise construction projects, and canal ferries moving beneath arched city bridges.
Arriving in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB for short), we picked up our rental car at the airport and stopped for our first night at an Airbnb just outside the city center.
“Why are you here?” our host asked with perfect English after we had settled into the room.
We began by giving him the standard answer: We’re on a one-year trip around the world. We’re looking for our next home. We are sampling the countries and cultures of the world to see what we like…
“Yes,” he somewhat interrupted. “But why are you here? There is very little to see in BSB. It’s quiet and we have few things for tourists to do. Very likely, you will be bored.”
It was the only instance on this trip where a local had actually discouraged us from being in a country or region. Don’t get me wrong. He was a nice enough fellow, but he really didn’t think very highly of his own city.
So we asked him what we should do instead, and he gave us three suggestions: take the ferry to Brunei’s Temburong district, drive southwest to the Malaysian state of Sarawak, or drive northeast to the Malaysian state of Sabah.
Since our car rental company had already forbidden us from driving to Sabah, we decided to attempt the other two recommendations instead. After a good night’s sleep we drove along the coastal road toward the border with Sarawak, planning to visit Temburong after we returned.
Although we waited in the queue for nearly an hour, the border crossing to Sarawak was relatively painless. With no need for a visa to enter Malaysia and with the rental car’s paperwork and insurance in order, we got our passports stamped without ever having to get out of the car. Brilliant!
We arrived in the coastal town of Miri, Malaysia, just in time for dinner and checked into our hotel at the Pullman Miri Waterfront. Angela and I went for a walk along the inner coastal waterway in search of food and drinks, settling for a lively little café that served local beers and fresh seafood on an open patio.
And that’s when the trip grew decidedly less dull.
Asia really knows how to celebrate the Christmas and New Year seasons. Not only do most countries celebrate the Christian holiday at the end of December, they extend the festivities through the arrival of the lunar new year as well.
For 2019, Chinese New Year occurred on February 5, and we had arrived in Miri on February 1. Everyone was building toward a party crescendo. And, although alcohol is officially banned in Brunei, it flows freely just across the border in Malaysia.
With random Santas handing out treats, plentiful fireworks throughout the day and night, and a bounty of drinks shared with strangers-turned-friends, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the spirit of things.
The table of Chinese gentlemen sitting next to us at dinner invited Angela and me for a round of local beers. I’ve never been one to turn down a proffered drink. And, especially in Asian culture, it’s considered a significant insult to do so. So I accepted, shared a toast with them, then returned the favor by buying a round of drinks for the table.
That led to another round and an invitation to join them. The aforementioned Santa showed up shortly thereafter. Drinks. Drinks. Laughter. Drinks. Tempers flaring when I accidentally insulted one of the gentlemen by filling his glass incorrectly. Apologies. Hugs. Drinks. Drinks.
And a Happy New Year all year long!
Next up: Boating the Backwaters of Brunei