Brunei and Malaysian Borneo

This year’s trip takes us to Borneo, the third largest island in the world, home to three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. It is also home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, over 140 million years old.

History of Borneo

The island became a trading port for Indians, Chinese and Javanese during the 1st century AD, with Brunei emerging as a centre for trade in the 13th century. Brunei’s decline through the 17th and 18th centuries saw other rulers assert independence, first Sarawak in northern Borneo with help from the British and then Sabah through the US and then the British. The Dutch, concerned with the British in the north, beefed up their presence in Kalimantan in the north. Eventually, even Brunei became a British protectorate and the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 split the country into what would become the current national boundaries.

In World War II, the Japanese occupied Borneo and housed British and Australian prisoners of war on the island. In 1945, British and Australian troops landed and the Japanese finally surrendered after the atomic attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sarawak and Sabah joined Malaya and Singapore in 1963 to become Malaysia (Brunei pulled out of the deal at the last moment). Indonesia claimed all of Borneo, unleashing an eight-year war. Eventually, the two countries settled into their current borders and Brunei became independent in 1984.

A few days in Brunei

Like the history of Borneo, we started our holiday in Brunei. The capital, Bandar Seri Bagwan (or BSB) to be exact. Brunei is a strict, socially controlled religious state where booze is banned and citizens love shopping and food. We arrived on the Sultan’s birthday and enjoyed the small markets set up to celebrate the occasion.

The next day we walked around the small but beautiful capital city, dominated by the large Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque .

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In the afternoon, we jumped on one of the hundreds of motorised water-taxis for a tour around Kampung Ayer. Home to over 20,000 locals, it is the world’s largest water village.

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The village has its own schools, mosques, police station and, my favourite, fire station complete with fire boat.

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The next day, after a walk around the markets and a lunch that finished with a milo freeze (best drink I’ve ever had), we made our way to the jetty for a 45 minute speedboat ride through the mangroves to Bangar. Bangar is in the exclave (part of a country physically separated from the rest of the country) of Temburong and home of Ulu Temburong, the best preserved tract of rainforest in all of Borneo.

A short drive to Sumbiling Eco Village and we were in the middle of the jungle, at what could best be described as a rustic camp. After having dinner, we were taken on a short night rainforest walk to the longhouse. A longhouse is a traditional, well, long house where the entire village lives. It consists of one main room with multiple smaller bedrooms and kitchens all coming off one side. After saving the chickens from an ant infestation, we wandered back to the camp looking at quite a few of the stick insects found in the forest.

We were at Sumbiling for a trip to the rainforest, departing the following morning. Along with a Chinese mother and her son, we climbed onto a longboat and sped through the forest as the trees became denser and denser.

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We eventually disembarked and sweltered through a 385 metre ascent in humid temperatures through virgin rainforest to the base of the canopy walkway.

I should have realised that the canopy walkway wasn’t a normal canopy walkway when I was made to sign a consent form. Turns out it is a series of 6 towers, joined by walkways at least 40 metres from the ground. To get to the walkway, you needed to climb a multi-storey tower designed and built for engineers.

Needless to say, I made it about 3 storeys up before wimping out and coming back down. Michael made it to the top and walked across all 6 towers, however even he stated that it was a bit scarier than he would have liked. The look on our Chinese friends when they made it down said it all – I think they felt that they had somehow cheated death.

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On the way back to the camp, we stopped at a beautiful little waterfall with its own fish spa with little fish that nibble at the dead skin on your feet. This was much more to my liking, although Michael’s ticklish feet meant he was ever so slightly uncomfortable at times.

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We made it back to the camp in time for the monsoon rain. Well, almost in time for the monsoon rain. After the dip in the waterfall, we didn’t mind getting saturated in the longboat on the way home. It rained all afternoon, including the drive back to the speedboat, the entire speedboat ride back to BSB and the trip to the airport. We managed to dry off in the humidity, our passports not so much. While still legible, they were drenched, and Michael can no longer use the chip to scan himself through the automatic gates at any airport.

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Malaysian Borneo

We flew out that night to Kota Kinabalu, the largest city in the northern Malaysian district of Sabah. This was our first ever Air BNB stay, and it was just like the pictures so we were excited. Our plans for the following day were mislaid by more rain, however we did manage a walking tour of KK that included the port, the Atkinson clock tower and the observatory on Signal Hill. A 2 hour massage that evening ensured that the day was definitely not wasted.

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We decided to get out of the city the following day and take a day trip to Mount Kinabalu. The trip involved a short walk around the botanical gardens that, although quite pretty, isn’t worth the trip. A selection of the flora can be found in the images below.

After the botanical gardens, we headed to the Poring Hot Springs. Don’t bother with the hot springs either, they’re just holes in the ground with heated spring water. In the unlikely event that the taps in your “hole” are working, don’t worry as the plug is probably missing anyway. What is good about the springs is the canopy walkway, an enjoyable walk across a series of rope bridges high up in the forest canopy.

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After reaching the end, we went in search of the Rafflesia plant, a parasitic plant with no stems, leaves or roots. It consists of a vine and a flower, that in some species only lasts for 2-3 days. The flower itself smells like rotting flesh. We got lucky (if you call it lucky), with a plant flowering at the time we were there.

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Arriving home, we decided to eat dinner at the fish market and enjoyed a couple of nice crabs beside the ocean. It was lucky they tasted nice, as you’ll find out later in the post.

A flight the next day took us to Sandakan, the site of a Japanese prisoner of war camp where only 6 Australians survived out of the 2400 British and Australian prisons sent there. Our taxi took us directly to Sepilok, home of 1 of 4 orangutan sanctuaries in the world. We headed straight out to see the first feeding of the orangutans, amid the hundreds of tourists and popped in to the Sun Bear conservatory to get a glimpse of the smallest bear species in the world.

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Unfortunately, while enjoying a cool drink at the cafe, last nights food (or at least I think it was last nights food) decided to evacuate my stomach and I fell violently ill. I can honestly say it is the first time in my travels that I have fallen ill so I’ve had it pretty lucky. That didn’t make it feel any better at the time though. I made it back to the hotel and they were nice enough to clean out our room early and let me rest for a while. Some fruit, a cold towel and a nap helped me get strong enough to revisit the orangutans for the afternoon, less frequented, feeding session where we managed to get close enough for some better photos. Nonetheless, food was not my friend for the next couple of days.

We had booked in for a day trip to Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river and a chance to see some animals in the wild. I dragged myself out of bed, feeling better but still unable to hold food down. Our first stop on the trip was to Gomantong Caves, lauded by our Lonely Planet e-book as a massive crack in a mountain, with a cathedral-like grand inner chamber. It also warned you about the steaming soup of bat crap and a chittering, chitinous army of roaches, centipedes and scorpions. Let me tell you it is more of the latter than the former. And probably not worth the entrance fee.

We continued on. An hour or so later we arrived at our lodge and a cup of coffee (my first “food” in the past 24 hours). We spent the next couple of hours cruising through the rainforest in a small longboat and were lucky enough to see an orangutan in the wild as well as plethora of other animals, including a proboscis monkey, some cheeky common monkeys and a variety of birds.

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We arrived back at the lodge and were treated to a meal consisting of rice and vegetables. While not particularly tasty, it was exactly what the doctor ordered as I was starving. I managed to hold it down for a few hours, at least long enough to make it back to the hotel in Sepilok. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough and dinner that night didn’t stick around long either.

I woke up bright and cheerful the next morning, and thankfully almost fully recovered. We walked down to the Rainforest Discovery Centre where the Borneo Rhythms of Rimba festival was underway. Two days of music, art and adventure bringing together wildlife organisations and scientists from across the world. Our accommodation was full of tourists excited about the festival, but it seemed little more than a few tents and an awesome location (that’s available all-year-round). We enjoyed the canopy walk, saw a few birds and some of the most incredible trees.

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Our flight back to Kota Kinabalu left that evening, we made it back in time for a swim in the hotel pool and a pleasant walk down to the food market at Tanjung Aru for some (as always) sweetened noodles. An early night and an early departure the next morning saw us flying home to Melbourne via the chaotic KK airport. Our luggage made it a couple of days later, having missed the flight somehow.

Overall, while I really like Brunei, Malaysian Borneo is not on my list of top destinations. Turns out I’ve found the one cuisine I’m not a huge fan of (perhaps because of how it reacted to my stomach) and I feel that most of the tourist destinations have been designed to ensure that the increasing volume of tourists have something to do when they arrive. I’d like to go back to climb Mount Kinabalu at some stage though. It was closed when we where there, and I probably would have to some training before we go anyway as it is quite a steep climb.

On to the next destination, wherever that may be…