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Big Nose the proboscis monkey
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Cute little orang utan

Our main trip today was out to Singapore’s zoo. It is a little way out of the centre of the city but a taxi made for a quick and relatively cheap way of getting there rather than slumming it on public transport. Oh how quickly we can ditch cheap travel principles!

We were given a map of the zoo with our tickets so before we went in we sat down and worked out what we wanted to see and where it was. The zoo looked pretty big and as it was baking hot we had decided to go for the ticket option that allowed you to use their little electric tram. As it turned out we didn’t really need to bother with the tram because the distances were no where near as big as we thought they were going to be.

The tram dropped us off at stop number two near to the Proboscis Monkey’s. These are funny creatures with large and rather ugly noses. I always think of monkeys as fruit eaters but to this species fruit can be pretty deadly. They were busily munching away on clumps of roots and leaves. All seemed to be changing in the group though as one of the younger males seems to be started to challenge the male leader of the group, or he was just being a wind up merchant for the day!

Next to the monkeys was a small enclosure with Mandrills. I’ve never seen these before and with their elongated snouts they looked pretty vicious. You certainly wouldn’t want to come across one in a dark alley on your own. Next to them were the chimpanzees who were absolutely loveable. A little baby one was cavorting about, swinging around and generally causing mayhem. Others were just sat around watching the world go by but one was totally chilled out, flat on his back, one foot resting on the knee of the other leg just having a quick (well, slow) forty winks). If it wasn’t for the hair all over its body it could have been someone sunning themselves on a beach somewhere. Stef got a great picture of what doing an impression of Dr Evil from the Austin Power’s film!

Walking through the reptile section a sign warns you that the inhabitants have free run of their enclosure and not to tease them as you may get bitten. I didn’t really expect any close encounters but soon jumped in surprise as a large iguana was sunning itself right across the middle of the walkway. A keeper had just come in to feed the animals and a couple of very cute little monkeys were busily munching away on their grub.

They had some pretty large crocodiles out in the open. Huge animals, they were totally motionless. You couldn’t even see any signs of them breathing. A sign next to a tank holding what I presume was a different type said that they can slow their heartbeat down to just two or three beats a minute which enables them to stay under water for about forty five minutes at a time. It was hard to believe that some of the crocs were real. They had a couple of Komodo dragons, the biggest lizard in the world, but the ones we saw were a bit small and were nowhere near the maximum three metres in length they can get to.

Our next stop was the Orang Utan’s and these were fabulous. I’ve always thought of them of having a scruffy mop of wispy orange hair fluffing around them but not so these ones. They all looked immaculately groomed as if someone had just been around them with a big hairbrush. Their hair was sleek and glossy and shiny and they looked fabulous. They had a few little ones and a couple of old ones but all were fun to watch. I suddenly heard someone next to us making a strange sound and looked round to see one of the keepers armed with some fruit. He was calling to the Orang Utans and they responded by coming over to the part of the enclosure where we were. One in particular stood waving his arms around as if to say “I’m here, throw the food to me”. It was a rare sight to see and we were lucky to have been there at what was an unadvertised feeding time.

We then caught another feeding session, this one a bit more vicious. As we were walking around a small pond I saw a keeper in his wellies holding what looked like a dead fish over the pond. All of a sudden the water thrashed below him and he quickly moved his hand away. The pond is home to some Arapaima fish, the world’s largest freshwater fish and they were massive. Over a metre in length they can jump clear of the water and very powerful and have a fast bite. The keeper has been bitten but he said they have no teeth so the worst that happens is that they scrape off a bit of skin with their jaws.

We made our way round to the Hamadryas Baboons. They had quite a lot of them here and they are in a big enclosure. There are quite a few different harems, with one male to each. As with the mandrills these also have long snouts but they didn’t look quite as vicious. The females on heat looked as if they must be pretty uncomfy though. Large sacks of skin on their bums seem to inflate full of liquid (?) creating a massive distended lump of red. It looked really painful, like they had a very bad case of piles but if they are designed that way I suppose it can’t be too bad. Here too the young baboons were playing about and challenging the older males but the main activity seemed to be communal grooming.

Pygmy hippos, exotic birds and restless white tigers led us back down to the entrance and to a small enclosure with otters. A lone otter was having a snooze on a platform outside and he looked very peaceful and cosy despite having a sandy nose. A line of bright red parrots saw us back through the door and out of the zoo, a very enjoyable couple of hours and well worth the trip out of town.

A taxi whizzed us down to the botanical gardens, a large open park closer in to the centre of town. Having had a taster I wish we had spent more time there because it looked like a great place to spend a day, wandering about, having a picnic and just relaxing. Our reason for going there was to visit the National Orchid Garden which is located within the park. Their collection was started back in 1859 and has gradually evolved and developed with the botanists at the gardens also starting a cross fertilisation and breeding programme to create new orchid species.

It is a relatively compact garden with wide paths leading around and through the displays. Probably less than half of the orchids were in bloom when we were there but we were still treated to a fabulous display. They have a small section displaying varieties that have been named after VIP’s, like the Queen and other heads of state, a celebrity’s garden (we didn’t recognise any of the celebrity names), a mist house and a cool house showing species from higher elevations. Again it was a worthwhile visit.

As we were making our way back to the botanical gardens entrance the clouds that had been building overhead started to thicken and we made it under cover with seconds to spare before the heavens burst open. It was thick torrential rain but the downpour only lasted about fifteen minutes as it had stopped by the time we got down to Orchard Road. Our taxi dropped us off at Borders book store so we could stock up on reading material and we then worked our way down the famous shopping street.

As neither of us are shoppers I think it left both of us cold. I am sure that if you love shopping you would find Orchard Road a dream come true. We just compared it to Oxford Street in London although the shops were pricier. Stef tried one of the local ice cream specialities, a brick of ice cream in a piece of bread, quickly getting the hump and giving up on it as the vendor wouldn’t play ball and pose for a nice photo.

A quick stop at the post office gave us the necessaries to send yet another parcel home and we then got a bus back to our hotel. Even the buses here are neat, clean and air conditioned and the come with TV’s on board to keep you entertained on your journey. Back at our hotel we did a quick change and hit the pool. The water in the pool was lovely and warm, warmer than the hot tub, and we spent a while just soaking and rehydrating after a hot day out and about.

For dinner we made our way down to Clarke’s Quay, a very recently renovated section of old warehouses along the river. It is now totally devoted to eating and drinking with just one bar/café/restaurant after another. You could eat your way around the world at all different price levels. If you had to, you could even go to Hooters, an American import that sees scantily clad waitresses serving a predominantly male clientele big jugs of beer.

We watched as a few brave souls (Stef’s version) or absolute nutters (my version) had themselves strapped in to a bungee jump experience. This was not one person jumping off a bridge tied to a big bit of elastic. Here, three people were strapped into a cage that was attached to two pylons with big elastic strings. Having walked up all full of bravado, the smiles turned to grimaces as they each pondered the fate that awaited them. You could see the elastic getter tighter and tighter and then all of a sudden some sort of clasp that holds the cage to the floor was snapped open and they shot upwards. They did a few bounces up and down but were then gradually brought back down.

Having watched the bungee jumpers we set off to find a place to eat and plumped for a fish place along the river. We had a great dinner washed down with a very good bottle of house wine, both eating and drinking far too much (what’s new!). Before heading back we went for a little wander though the buildings behind us. It’s such a new renovation that most are still empty. A courtyard at the back is home to a floor level fountain. Stef went for a wander in between the spouts and narrowly missed getting soaked. It was a lovely evening and a suitable finish to our stay in Singapore.

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Singapore

And so today we left the luxury and smooth-working-ness of Singapore and headed back to Malaysia. Singapore has been very different to the rest of Asia so far as everything here seems to work well and efficiently. The place is clean, public transport works well, traffic flows freely, the parks and gardens are well maintained and even the central reservations of the motorways have colourful bushes and flowers planted along the way to make your journey more pleasant. While we’ve seen elements of this mix elsewhere in Asia, Singapore is the only place where they have all come together.

A taxi took us to the airport for our lunchtime flight to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo. As you’d expect, the airport was clean and efficient and the shopping mall once you had passed through to the departures lounge was full of the big expensive labels. We stopped for a coffee and I had to chuckle at two British ladies next to us. One had disappeared off to one of the shops and came back armed with a small supply of Kit-Kats “because you never know when you might want a bit of chocolate with your coffee”. The other lady nodded in agreement and piped up “do you want to put them in our cool bag so they don’t melt”. How many people do you know who travel with a cool bag??!!?? It’s a totally sensible thing to do in this climate but it made me want to ask if they had their bacon and cheddar cheese in there as well.

Our flight was short and unremarkable and before long we were back in Malaysia. Kuching airport surprised both of us. I was expecting a small affair similar to many we have seen in South America but not so. It was quite large and very new, so new that they are still finishing it off on the inside! They had the familiar system of pre-paid taxis with a flat fare, which are a saving grace when you are somewhere new and don’t want lots of people hassling you to get into their cab. Either our taxi driver had a bad case of the DT's or he has bad nerves because his hands an arms were shaking all over the place as he drove.

We’d checked hotel options in Lonely Planet wanting to get back to our normal mid range places. Our first choice was the Telang Usan Hotel, owned and run by people from the Orang Ulu tribe. Its write up made it sound a bit different with tribal décor. The taxi pulled up outside it and we both knew we wouldn’t stay there, we didn’t even need to go in through the door. It was at the end of a small cul-de-sac in what looked like a very down at heel part of town. There were no obvious signs that the town centre was near by and it was very quiet and isolated.

The taxi then took us to our next choice, the Harbour View Hotel, which looked like a standard place that would be popular with Chinese tour groups. Unfortunately, it is the start of the school holidays and whilst they had a room for one night they couldn’t guarantee a room for as long as we wanted it. Not wanting the hassle of changing rooms they phoned around for us and found availability at another hotel. As we left and started to make our way there we realised it was back near to where the other hotel was so we decided not to go there. This coincided with us walking past the Hilton so we though we’d just go and ask out of interest. Fateful, it meant we ended up booking in there instead.

As our room wasn’t ready yet (strange as it was well into the middle of the afternoon) we were given vouchers for a complimentary drink in the Hilton Club bar, which you normally have to pay to get into. We sat looking out over the river watching the world go by and wondering what had happened to our principles of staying in a different class of hotel on our travels! The best was yet to come though and as we opened the door to our room (702 in case you ever happen to go there) we were both surprised.

Reception had told us we had a very nice room and they weren’t joking. You walked into a lounge area with a desk, settee, two armchairs and a large glass coffee table set amidst lots of space. Off to the right was a large double bed and to the left, through the dressing room area was the bathroom with walk in shower, separate bath and separate loo. We pondered how many times we could fit the motor home that we had travelled through Canada in into the room and came up with between five and seven. It was huge, so much so that Stef looked totally disorientated and as if he wanted to change room. I just loved it and went to look at the view over the river from our huge window.

By the time we had got into the room it was too late to go out and about sightseeing so we continued to slum it and went down for a swim in the hotel pool. Actually they have two, the main pool and a separate one tucked further away out of earshot for kids. The main pool was lovely. It had warm water and there was a little island in the middle that you could swim around. There is a small bar next to the pool and I think that when they are busy you can probably sit in the water having a cooling drink at the bar. Stef missed not having a whirlpool here (such a budget traveller!) but soon came to terms with it. We sat and had a beer while we dried off a bit and then went to shower and change before heading out for dinner.

Along the riverside there is now a wide walkway for pedestrians and from our window we could spy canopies along the way that looked like they would be home to tasty hawker food. We ambled up and down, disappointed that all that seemed to be on offer was halal burgers or ice cream. We retraced our steps and went past our hotel in the other direction and ended up at the Khatulistiwa Café, which we later saw was in Lonely Planet. Our experience was that the food has gone down hill since the Lonely Planet researcher who called it “good” has been there. They had quite an extensive menu but practice did not live up to what was promised and neither of us had a great meal. The beauty of it though is that it was a short stroll back to our little palace on the waterfront and we were soon tucked up in a very comfy bed.

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Fishing boat off to work
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Walking along Kuching's Main Bazaar

When we arrived yesterday we both felt the difference in the climate from Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore. While I think the mainland may have had higher temperatures, here the heat seemed to somehow be more dense and oppressive and it just zaps the energy out of you, well at any rate it zaps me.

We had a relaxed morning, enjoying a very good buffet breakfast (they are very dangerous things) where the staff were all very friendly and polite and seemed genuinely interested in you and what your plans were for the duration of your stay. We booked a tour to go and see a cultural village tomorrow and then headed out to go and see the Sunday market which actually starts on Saturday afternoon.

I’m not really sure why we decided to go there because we had seen quite a few markets already and they all seem to blur and merge into one memory now. The main thing that struck me here was how clean this market was compared to all other street markets we have seen. It was the same set up with rickety stalls under multicoloured tarpaulins and some “stalls” which were simply people sat on the floor with their wares spread out in front of them.

We had the usual experience of being able to identify many things but not having a clue about a whole bunch more. Colourful displays surrounded us of chillies, peppercorns, bananas, grapes, apples and oranges. One stall had large round pans of what looked like jelly that they cut into diamond shapes and sold. At another, a slightly grumpy young chap was making a type of pancake. There were bags of dried fish leading up to the fresh fish counter where we saw the biggest prawns I think I have ever seen in my life.

At the other end of the market were more household goods type of stalls and a few selling plants, flowers and orchids. The displays here were really eye catching and I laughed at Stef when he said “look at the orchids” after we had already walked past two big stalls chock full of them. It was also sad to see a few pet stalls where they had small puppies in cages waiting to be sold. In a cage the size of a large bird cage were three little Dalmatian puppies and another cage had what looked like shaggy Alsatians. They were really cute little dogs and I hope they ended up in good homes.

From the market we had a very hot walk back to the centre of town. The heat was punishing and the sun simply bounced off the pavements and walls all around us. We headed through some of the old parts of town, past the immaculately maintained blue and white police station (everywhere in Malaysia they are blue and white and spotless), skirted the padang (open square) and made our way to the tourist information office. Here a very helpful lady gave us useful information on getting around in Sarawak and also told us how we could get into and out of Brunei. We left with more options and possibilities to ponder over.

We worked our way back to the hotel, stopping off en route to have a look in some of the local handicrafts shops, and went for another dip in the pool. The attendant at the pool yesterday, and the chap from the tour agency had both given us the same recommendation of where to go for dinner – Top Spot Seafood centre. It was a few minutes walk away from the hotel and up on the sixth floor of a building. Open to the elements there was a large central area with loads of plastic tables and chairs laid out ready for diners. Around the outside were loads of seafood stalls, all looking as if they served up the same fare. The tours guy had given us a specific recommendation (no. 25) stating it was one where they don’t inflate the prices for tourists. Whether that is true or not we have no idea.

Each restaurant simply had a large iced display cabinet in front of their kitchen. In the cabinet were lots of different types of fish, prawns, crab, lobster, other shellfish and some also had chicken. Veggies were also laid out on a shelf above. We had a very friendly lady who told us what the different types of fish were and you simply chose what you wanted to eat and how you wanted it cooked and they brought it out to you. We had grouper steamed with ginger, humongous prawns fried in garlic and chilli, some deep fried fish that were like crisps to eat and a local speciality, jungle ferns cooked in shrimp paste and chilli. It was a pretty tasty meal but what made it even better was that there were hardly any Lonely Planet toting tourists around.

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At the Sarawak Cultural Village

This morning we went out to the Sarawak Cultural Village, a totally touristy trip but one that gives you the chance to get a taster of tribal life if time is short and you can’t spend days on a river trip to get to the real villages. It’s about a half hour drive out of Kuching, close to a couple of Holiday Inn beach resorts (we were tempted but didn’t stay there). The site contains seven traditional tribal houses and there are people in traditional dress in each of them to tell you a bit about their history or to give you a demonstration of some of their local village activities.

Most villages are based on or near to water and the cultural village is no different with a pond taking up the centre of the site. To give you that authentic village experience you can opt to go to the first house on a typical bridge made of bamboo poles. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the canopy walkway in Taman Negara. Here though if you fell the drop would only be a couple of feet and worst case you’d be a bit damp and muddy.

The first house was a large round hut raised on stilts. This was home to the men of the Bidayuh tribe and was where they would gather to plan their hunting trips and attacks on other tribes. Inside, a wide raised bench ran around the outside of the hut. In the middle was a sizeable hearth for warmth and cooking. Suspended above the hearth was a string bag for holding the heads decapitated from battles with other tribes.

Next up was the longhouse of the Iban tribe. Again raised on stilts, this was a large structure subdivided into family units. A veranda at the front was the open space for communal living and dining. Inside a small section served as the kitchen with the sleeping mats of the parents rolled out next to the hearth. Further back on a raised platform was the space for the children to sleep. Steps led up to another floor which was used for storage. It was very simple but looked quite cosy at the same time.

At the back of the longhouse and old chap was busy carving and shaping things out of bamboo. The wood itself was still green but the layer underneath was yellowy white in comparison. He was making the holder for a blowpipe and its darts, things they sell in the souvenir shop you pass on your way out. Stef had a go with the blowpipe and from about 1.5m away managed to get the shoulder of the false monkey on the wall. In the next room a lady was weaving with strands of bamboo, some of which had been coloured to create a pattern. Including preparing the bamboo it takes about a week to make a foot wide square of woven end result, a long process. Outside they also showed us how they used to hull and winnow the rice. A slow process as all was done by hand whereas today they use a machine.

The nomadic people of the Penan tribe were the next on the route. Their houses were very simple, really nothing more than a small bamboo shelter, which are made to last them just a week or two before they move on again. They hunt using blow pipes with poisoned darts but, unlike the ones being made for the souvenir shop, their blowpipe was a good two metres long. They had rigged up a support stand for the visitors who wanted to have a go but the tribal chap who demonstrated its use could steady and balance it just from the way he held it.

At the Orang Ulu longhouse we were treated to a bit of a music and dance show. The music was provided by a tribal guitar, which has been upgraded for modern use and was plugged into an amplifier and set of speakers! The chap playing spoke perfect English, which seemed at odds as he sat there in his loin cloth watching two girlies perform their tribal welcoming dance. He had a sort of faraway look in his eyes almost as if he was pondering life and the universe as he was playing. This longhouse was highly decorated both in terms of the living quarters and the large poles that provide the support to the house.

A bit further on we were introduced to a man who is an original descendant of the Orang Ulu tribe (most of the people working here are Malays who are really just acting out the tribal roles). He had a very long face and long earlobes from where they have been stretched over the years from all sorts of things being poked through them. He looked at the tiny holes in my ears and laughed saying “they’re not holes!” He had on a funny looking hat which seemed to have been made out of bamboo and was playing a small wooden chimes instrument. He pulled out of a plastic bag a small photo album which had pictures of him and his family from when he was a small boy. They were faded black and white shots and it was strange to see his family standing in a very formal, almost Victorian, family photo pose.

The Tall House of the Melanu tribe was similar in many ways to the other longhouses we had seen. It differed in terms of its height. Whilst most were built a few metres above ground, presumably to keep them from flooding and to keep the termites at bay, the Melanu build their houses over ten metres off the ground. This was to give them an advantage when they came under attack as they could pour hot water or throw stones down on their attackers as well as it being more difficult for the attackers to get into their house.

Most of the houses we had seen had small windows with large open veranda’s outside. The Malay house was different. A small veranda allowed visitors to wait before they were welcomed into the house but here the house was kept cool by windows reaching down almost to floor level. Dividing walls separated the main room (used by the men, for official occasions and to entertain guests) from a small prayer room, the bedroom and the kitchen area of the house. Here large pieces of wooden furniture decorated the house whereas in the others people simply sat (or squatted) and slept on the floor. Our final stop was the Chinese house where we learned that the bird’s nests used in bird’s next soup are actually made from the saliva of swiftlets and are a true delicacy.

The chap who had driven us here from our hotel had accompanied us around the village. It was useful to have him around as he was able to give us some background information and as he is a regular visitor he knows the people who work here and that’s why, for example, we got to see the photos of the Orang Ulu man. The downside was that we felt we were being rushed to get around. At 11:00, they put on a dance show bringing together examples from all the tribes featured in the village and he was keen to make sure we got seats.

As it turned out it was a good call on his part because although it didn’t feel as if there were lots of people at the village the theatre soon filled up. Having already seen a few “traditional dance” shows, I was expecting the worst, and I think Stef was too, but we were both pleasantly surprised at what came next. Each of the villages put on their own display and they were all very entertaining. After the opening sequence, an Iban warrior, having got the audience warmed up and involved by making us all copy his tribal cries, danced around with a 20kg mortar held between his teeth. His costume, and the moves he made, to me mimicked the movements of a bird but I didn’t think his red cycling shorts were very traditional!

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Ness gets that tribal rhythm
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Taking aim with the blowpipe

Other dances reminded me of the Morris Dancers back home. The men used long bamboo poles sometimes just banging them on the floor, other times laying them down and tapping them as the ladies danced in between them and then also using them to lift one of the women up and turn her round. In another dance, one chap climbed up a bamboo pole steadied by three others then balanced on his tummy on the top of it while the others turned him round.

Next up were the blow pipe warriors. There were two of them and they looked pretty fierce in their get up. It was probably more the stare they had, total concentration underpinned with a determination to get their prey. They picked on a woman in the front row for a bit of audience participation. After confiscating her mobile, which I think she was using during the show, and her handbag they pretended to cut off her hand and then got her to use a blowpipe to try and burst a balloon off to the side of the stage.

More dances followed before the finale which was probably the worst part of the show. I feel that Malaysians are, rightly, very proud of their country and the final dance reinforced that. The very western musical style song that accompanied it had lyrics along the lines of “this is Malaysia, the best part of Asia”. It was a bit cheesy to say the least and for me took away slightly from what had been an entertaining show. We had a quick look in the shop before we were bustled back into our car and taken back to Kuching.

We did a brief stop at Tourist Information to check our plans with the helpful lady there to make sure that what we wanted to do over the next few days was achievable. Then we ambled back past some of the shops that were still open and made our way to the hotel where we chilled out for the afternoon. In the evening we had planned to try one of the local cinemas so we headed out for an earlyish dinner, looking for places listed in Lonely Planet. Either they have moved on or because it is Sunday they are not open so we ended up in what looked like a reasonable Chinese place just opposite the cinema. It turned out to be pretty dire and we ended up with a small bowl of steamed rice with some unrecognisable meat on the top.

Our evening got no better when we went up to the cinema. Strangely it’s on the top floor of a multi storey car park. We both walked in, decided we didn’t fancy the cinema after all and walked out again! We just both had a feeling that it was going to be a bit basic and grungy and after our Gold Class cinema experience in Singapore we decided to leave film going until we are back in Kuala Lumpur.

Back at the hotel the pool was still open so we went for a swim in the moonlight. It was great to be in the cooling water with no one else around. With a slight breeze blowing you start to feel cold after about ten minutes or so even though when you get out of the pool you can feel that it is still a really warm night. We popped over the road to the James Brook café for a snack before bed. It is a smart little café, with beautiful décor, pleasant music and very tasty food, a surprise as the menu itself is a bit short and lacking in inspiration. After a disappointing early evening, it was a good way to round off the night.

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Kuching's cultural museum

Today was our last day in Kuching and we both struggled to get up and out and about. Stef had talked about going to the Bako national park, which would have been a day out in the jungle. I wasn’t keen as I have been really struggling with the heat here. It just totally zaps my energy and makes me feel really lethargic. I’d told Stef yesterday that if he wanted to go he was on his own which he seemed quite happy with. I hadn’t set an alarm and thought I would just wait and see if he managed to get himself up as that would be a sign of how keen he was to go. Needless to say, he didn’t make it to Bako.

Instead we had a lazy morning making it out in the afternoon. We went back to the little shops along the Main Bazaar still half looking for a trinket or two to send home. They had some superb wicker baskets, some small some very large. The small ones we were assured were “very old”, strange then that we saw exactly the same thing in several shops. Very old obviously means last month rather than last week! The others were large baskets about a metre and a half high. They would have been fabulous tucked away in the corner of a room but unfortunately were too big to send by post, or at least that’s the story we were given. We stopped by the river for a drink and to deliberate whether or not to buy anything but soon came to the conclusion that if we had to think this hard about it there was nothing really worth us parting cash for.

We spent the next few hours in some of Kuching’s museums. We started at the Sarawak museum, a large old colonial building in the style of a Normandy Town house. Behind it there is a small park with landscaped gardens that makes a quiet haven to while away some time. We opted not to explore the collections in the old building but instead took the bridge across the road to the new modern building. Here we also lost the plot a bit. Instead of looking at the permanent collections about the culture and lifestyle of Sarawak’s tribal peoples we got side tracked with the exhibits on the ground floor which was about the contribution Islamic scientists have made to the world.

It’s not so much that we read lots of information and came away better informed but they had little puzzles and games you could play with. That immediately brought out the kid in both of us and we were hooked for a while. We successfully navigated a loop of rope over different bent bits of metal, managed to make the tree, but not the T, from four odd shaped pieces of wood, gave up rebuilding the a human torso because we couldn’t get the heart and the lungs to stay in the right place and also gave up on building a pyramid from balls connected together. They were the type of puzzles we used to use as part of our recruitment process at work to assess people’s team and leadership skills.

Behind the new Sarawak Museum building is the Islamic Museum. In the gardens between the two they have some old tribal boats which were used in times of warfare. Until you stood back and counted to the number of oars it was hard to believe that twenty five men could fit into one boat, some of them keeping the troops going by cooking the rice on a fire in the middle of the boat while they were at sea.

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Turtles of all sizes at a Chinese temple

The Islamic Museum was also in a beautiful building. Set around two connected courtyards it was a cool and quiet place to spend some time. I found that it made me ask more questions about the Muslim religion than it answered. It also highlighted some of the contradictions between religious principles and what actually happens in the real world that also occur in other religions. The most prominent contradiction is the principle that life is sacred and that you should not kill. I don’t understand how religious terrorists work their way around this one but I am sure someone could explain all!

Nonetheless it was an interesting museum with collections of furniture, ceramics, costumes, weaponry and models of some of the mosques in Sarawak and beyond. Like museums we have been to in China and Vietnam, which portrayed all things communist in a positive light and talked about foreign influences as coming from imperialist forces, the text that accompanied the displays had a very positive and pro-Islam spin. In an Islamic museum I suppose it’s not that surprising but it was a little too obvious in several places.

Hot and tired by this stage we headed back to the hotel and the coolness of the pool. With an early start ahead of us tomorrow we opted to eat in the hotel and had an early night. Not long after nodding off we were both woken to the sounds of thunder. This was a really long, deep and low rumble and you could almost sense the building trembling under the force of it. I soon rolled over and nodded off again so whether it rained or not as well I can’t say.

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Spiralling plants at Niah

It’s far too cruel. Our alarm went off at 5:30am to get us up and out in time for our morning flight north to Miri. For some strange reason Malaysia airlines are not yet into e-tickets and with not time to post tickets to us we had to reserve them by phone and pick them up at the airport. We were told to be at the airport ninety minutes before our flight so we got there in time for 6:30 only to be told that the ticket office didn’t open until 7:00. Not a good start to the day, as we could have had an extra half hour in bed or made it down to breakfast (which at the Hilton is too good to miss) before we left!!

We finally bought our tickets and got our seats and had a quick and uneventful flight. We got to Miri just after 9:00 and headed for the Park Hotel, a cheap and cheerful Chinese affair that was well within our budget. Our room was large and clean if a little dated in its furnishings. The beauty of it though was that it is right next door to Tourist Information and also next to the bus station that we expect to have an early start from tomorrow.

We only came to Miri as it is a staging post to get across the border into Brunei tomorrow. With the rest of the day to fill we headed for Tourist Information to see what the options are for things to do. We knew that the Niah Caves was a possible and a quick chat confirmed that unless we wanted to see more markets and shopping malls in town this was also probably our only option for a day trip.

It was a little after ten when we left the information office. To get to Niah we had to go to the Express Bus Terminal a few kilometres north of town. The number 33 bus from the local bus station was nowhere to be seen so we hopped in a cab which for RM10 (less than £1.50) got us there in about ten minutes. The express bus station was smaller than many we have been to but it also had common features. As soon as the taxi stopped people from the bus companies were over at the car touting for business but they were pretty good natured with it here.

We did our usual routine of walking up and down the company offices but with few companies operating from here they all seem to have staggered their departure times so there are a steady stream of buses on the move. We told them we wanted to go to Niah and they all pointed out which was the next bus, which luckily for us left in ten minutes. Stef got the tickets while I stocked up on water and we were soon on board.

It was another comfy bus and pretty soon we were both nodding off, but not before I’d seen that as soon as we left Miri it had started to rain, pretty hard. I’d pondered taking my waterproof before we left the hotel but we had both left them behind so we had the prospect of a soggy day ahead of us. The bus followed what seemed to be the main road south, and the one we would have come along if we had opted for the sixteen hour bus journey to Miri rather than the one hour flight. It was a bit lumpy and bumpy along the way but I only really noticed it because the bus sprayed up all the rainwater that had accumulated in the potholes.

From what I saw of the countryside when I was awake it was pretty full of palm oil trees. The exception was just outside of Miri where there’s a posh golf course and country club. After about ninety minutes the bus pulled in at the Niah rest stop, a small village on the road that really seems to have only built up because it’s where the buses stop. There was a large almost hangar like building with a couple of shops and local eateries on our side of the road. On the other side was a small market and a few more shops.

We stopped for a quick bite of lunch before dodging the puddles to cross the road which is where our bus driver had waved that we could find a private car to get up to the caves. The first chap who approached us seemed to imply we were in totally the wrong place but then January turned up, a chap who used to work for the forestry commission. He was born on the first of January, hence the somewhat unusual name. We were bundled into his minivan and about twenty minutes later we were at the entrance to the Niah National Park.

At the bus stop we had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy plastic ponchos so that we’d be able to keep our backpacks out of the rain, mainly to ensure our cameras didn’t get wet. At the Park Headquarters, we paid our entrance fee and also opted to hire two of their three ponchos as well as a couple of torches because the caves are not lit. We followed the wooden walkway down to the river and then paid another RM1 each to get across. As everyone has to cross by boat you would have thought it was easier to collect this at the same time as the entrance ticket but apparently not.

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Emerging from the ginormous Niah caves

The river is probably only about twenty metres wide and you are across before you know it. There are two wooden jetty’s, both of which have seen better days but they were certainly a lot better than what we saw in Vietnam and Cambodia. We were then left to our own devices. A boarded walkway stretches for three kilometres through the jungle leading up to the edge of the caves. It was raining all the way and the walkway was pretty slippery in places. With it being so wet we didn’t really linger to try and spot any wildlife or to marvel at the local plants, we simply wanted to get somewhere dry. The sound of dripping water was a constant companion.

The first cave you reach is really just a bit of a warmer upper. This is the Trader’s Cave and is more a huge overhang of rock. The main, Great Cave, is home to lots of bats and swiftlets (whose saliva is used to make the bird’s nests used in Chinese soups) and the Traders cave is where the local people traded the bird’s nests and the guano (bird and bat droppings used for fertiliser). The Great Cave is huge. The entrance is 60m high and 250m wide and this then opens into a much larger chamber further inside.

There is an eerie and other worldly quality to the cave and it gave me a bit of a spooky sensation. The only sound you can hear is the birds and the bats flying above you and the smell of the guano is at first quite overpowering. We knew from the register at the Park entrance that there were other people here but until you saw a torch light flashing in the distance there was no other sign of life. If I was there on my own I would have turned around and come back but Stef happily sauntered off along the walkway and down the steps leading to the bottom of the cave.

Above us were what looked like bamboo supports holding the roof up. We only later realised that these were the props used by the local people who come to collect the bird’s nests. It’s a dangerous occupation but the US$1,000 per kilo price tag makes the risks seem worthwhile. Towards the back of the cave holes in the walls and the roof let in the sunlight and give you glimpses of the jungle waiting on the other side.

As well as being a geographical marvel, the caves also hide a long history. Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1950’s and they have uncovered human remains which are estimated to be 40,000 years old. The caves have seen continuous occupation and burial sites have also been found there with evidence of use from Palaeolithic times up to around 1400AD.

We headed back to park headquarters and whilst we were both glad that we’d had the ponchos to protect us from the rain (both water and of the excrement variety in the cave!) we were both still well and truly soaked from sweat. The rain has caused the temperatures to drop and with a slight breeze there was a cooling chill in the air. We had arranged a car to take us back down to the bus rest stop and fortunately pulled in just behind the next bus bound for Miri. We had a short wait for the driver to have his lunch and then were off.

For the first time since Halong Bay in Vietnam I felt cold and I wished that they would turn off the air con. For most of the way we were the only people on the bus, a unique experience for bus travel for the last nine months! Back at the bus station we double checked the information we had been given this morning about buses to Brunei. Lonely Planet and the people in Kuching said it would be quite a convoluted process, involving several changes of buses, which could take most of the day. At Miri though they said that the Biarama company now offered a service where you only changed bus once. It also had the beauty of enabling you to buy your ticket here all the way to Bandar Seri Begawan, the Capital of Brunei, rather than having to pay for different bits and pieces along the way.

We found the office for the bus company and a very helpful chap managed to get us both pretty confused with his explanations. It turned out that he was agreeing with the information we’d been given this morning but we had to buy our ticket from their “international” office on the other side of the bus station. With tickets in hand we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel and both hit the shower, glad that we could finally get out of wet and by now rather pungent clothes, freshen up and get warm again.

Tourist information had also given us an option of where to go for dinner for good local food. Everything around our hotel closes up in the evening so it was about a ten minute walk down to Taman Seroja, a local cluster of hawker stalls. The food here wasn’t really that good but it was quick, cheap and convenient. On the way back to the hotel we were on the look out for a shop that was open to buy some water. We finally came across one in the block just over the road from our hotel. There was a definite seedy feeling to the area and from the lone ladies standing around on the street corners we are fairly sure that our hotel is in the red light district of town.

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Entering Brunei, which feels more like the Middle East than Asia

With the easier bus journey to cross the border we had a relaxed start to the day and a surprisingly good breakfast thrown in as part of our room rate. We took a taxi back out to the express bus station and sat and waited for our International bus. Although Biaramas sold us our tickets, the bus turned out to be from the Miri Belait bus company and there were already a few locals on board by the time it arrived. I suspect that if you are in the know you can pick it up in town. We were kept company along the way by a few other (uncommunicative) Lonely Planeter’s, the first we have seen for a few days.

It took about thirty minutes to get to the border crossing along what looked like a new road. New estates were being built on either side and there was a definite feeling that Miri is expanding fast. At the border we all got off the bus to go through Malaysian immigration, got back on, drove round to the other side of the building and got off again. A Brunei bus turned up and we all got on board, only to be shepherded off again a few minutes later as the bus to Bandar Seri Begawan is today coming all the way to the border crossing, something it doesn’t normally do.

A kilometre or two further down the road we reached Brunei immigration and got yet more stamps in our passports for entering our fourteenth country so far on this trip. We were then off on our way through Brunei and heading towards its capital. The bus was a bit short on the leg room front and Stef in particular was uncomfortable and fidgeting. He claimed that his leg had gone to sleep but my tactics of gently thumping it to get the circulation going again worked a treat and he was soon sitting still again!

At first sight the landscape we passed through was just more of same of what we’ve seen in Malaysia. I somehow got the feeling though that here it is more natural and wild whereas in Malaysia a lot of the land is used for agriculture and is now turned over to large plantations. It was very lush and green and as we whizzed along we got our first taste of what wealthy Brunei was like. In the distance we saw a few oil heads, a sign of the source of the wealth.

By about 1:30 we had already reached the capital so a trip we had expected to take all ay turned out to be a much shorter jaunt. To my surprise, the bus asked us all which hotel’s we were staying at and we were given a lift to the door if we wanted it. I’m not sure if we just hit on a good driver or whether they all do this but it was a warm welcome to the city. We’ve opted for the Terrace Hotel, slightly out of the centre but affordable and with the luxury of having a pool and free internet access as well.

With time in the afternoon to get out and about we headed for the Brunei Museum, a little way out of the centre of town. It was in a large (for Brunei) somewhat imposing building with security men dressed as soldiers on duty in the main lobby. The first exhibition was, not surprisingly, all about the oil industry and it opened up in both of us the wish to know more. Brunei’s wealth is all built off the back of oil, an industry that only started in the 1930’s. Depending on who you talk to, their remaining oil supplies will keep them going for between ten and fifty years so they are already now starting to think, although it seems not with much earnest, about what they will do when the oil runs out.

The displays walked through explanations of how oil was formed in the first place and how the oil companies went about locating new supplies. They showed how the oil platforms used at sea were built and put in place and the different drilling techniques used to extract the oil and gas. It is all pretty clever stuff, including how they full up the oil tanker here as they cannot bring big tankers into the shore. Instead they have constructed floating barges about six miles offshore that are anchored to the sea bed. Oil is piped from land to the barges and the tankers moor up, connect the oil hoses and fill up. The whole set up can rotate 360 degrees so the tankers are free to hook up whatever the tides are doing.

The Islamic Art Gallery was the next section we visited. Here they house some of the Sultan’s own personal collection. There are many different copies of the Qu’ran, some quite simple, others elaborately decorated and illustrated. Some of them very small, the not much larger than a box of matches but there were also a few where the characters were inches high. In some of these the shape of the letters were themselves made out of many small words, almost impossible to read because of their small size.

This collection was diverse including pieces of furniture, armour, jewellery, pottery and the tools of the calligrapher’s trade. Some of the pieces were incredibly intricate. There was a small filigree gold box that was incredibly delicate. Another box, made from ivory, looked like the niches in the carving had acquired a fair bit of dirt over the years. But, when you took a closer look, it was the shadows created by the box itself as it was like looking through a piece of lace.

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Tasty curry for dinner

Upstairs one of the rooms was dedicated to Brunei traditional culture. I think we both cringed at the part that told how they circumcise girls when they are babies but the boys get done, with a sharpened piece of bamboo, when they reach puberty. They had displays of typical costumes and scenes from a traditional wedding. As with the pictures we had seen at the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, none of the brides looked too pleased with their lot! Around the corner they had a collection of cannons which were really interesting to see. These were not dull, boring bits of metal because they were all decorated somehow. Some had been made into crocodiles while others, which I am sure were for display rather than use, were designed as water buffalo’s and other animals. They were quite good fun to see.

A quite dull room traced the history of Brunei over the years. Originally a much larger sultanate, it has had a potted past and sadly has been carved up and given (or taken!) away over the years so that little remains. Neither of us had realised that it was only in 1984 that Brunei gained independence from Britain. There were brief histories of individual sultans and Stef spotted that many of them seemed to have passed on (or been bumped off perhaps) before they could fully take office. The current Sultan seems to be liked by his people.

The final room was a temporary exhibition about a ship wreck found in the late 1990’s. A team working for Elf Petroleum (odd as Brunei is definitely Shell territory) were surveying the ocean about forty kilometres offshore and came across an unusual bump on the surface. They sent divers down to have a look and they found the remains of a cargo ship which had sunk a couple of hundred years ago. The oil industry divers have now worked with an archaeological team to recover the remains of the wreck, which had at 13,000 pieces of pottery in its cargo.

It sounded like a pretty tough job to bring up the artefacts. The wreck itself has now totally disintegrated so the pots were just lying on the ocean floor in very muddy and turbulent waters. It was deep diving and the divers could only work for thirty minutes at a time before they had to start a controlled two hour ascent back to the surface. While working, they also had to contend with poisonous stone fish. Some of the pots are on display in the museum and they are in remarkably good condition.

We were pretty much the only people in the museum and wished we had had about another half an hour to amble around (we were there for just under two hours). As we found in China, if you are in a museum close to the time it shuts, the staff follow you around from exhibit to exhibit switching off the lights and locking the doors behind them as they go. We hadn't really noticed this until we were almost finished in the ship wreck exhibit. Stef did his usual and purposely started to go slow just to wind them up! When we got back down to the reception area to collect our bags, they asked us to sign another visitors book and gave us a present from the museum. It was a large hardback book in a thick protective cover with gold edged sheets of paper. The book was all about Brunei and it's history. It was a lovely idea but both us knew that it was far too big for us to carry around with us and that it was also not the type of thing we wanted to pay to post home.

After the museum we went back to our hotel, changed and hit the pool. Small, and shaped like a kidney bean, I had the feeling it doesn’t really get much use. There were leaves in the water and the tiled floor around the pool looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a while. It wasn’t really dirty as such but a high pressure hose treatment wouldn’t have gone amiss. A soak in the pool was a good way to cool off though but I was waiting for someone to come running out telling me to put on a t-shirt and shorts over my swimming suit as we’re in a fairly strict Muslim country.

In the evening we went for a wander down into the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan. It was cooler than the afternoon but not a great deal. Here, as with Kuching, it’s not so much the heat that gets to you but the humidity. The air simply feels very dense around you. We ambled down through a very quiet town which brought us to an equally quiet river front. On the way we passed the parliament building and had views of the central Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque which is the city’s old mosque built in the 1960’s.

Along the way we passed a few Indian café style restaurants that were open. There was an ice cream shop and two coffee shops that claimed to be open 24 hours a day. This is a new development in Brunei which has no night life. A new shopping mall complex has been built at Gadong a few kilometres out of town and this is now where people seem to go in the evening to shop and to eat out. The taxi driver who had taken us to the museum this afternoon had recommended a place to eat in Gadong and another along the river which we went to look at, discounting it quickly as it was a western style bistro.

In our quest for local(ish) food we headed back to one of the Indian’s. It was similar to the ones we went to in Penang and to hawker stalls all over Malaysia. The food has all been cooked at an undetermined earlier hour in the day and is on display behind the counter. You simply ask them what the different dishes are, take your pick and they stick it on a plate and give it to you. This one seemed a bit better than some though as they took the food away and heated it up for you, not like the one we went to in Miri. We were the only people in the restaurant and if we had seen more than one hundred people in town tonight I would be surprised. It really is true, Brunei has no nightlife - fantastic!

We made it out in the morning to go and explore Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) by day, knowing that it was a small town and it might not take us long to see the sights. We headed first to Tourist Information to get more up to date information on our route out of Brunei, two different ferries that will take us to Kota Kinabalu back in Malaysia. Here they also had a variety of different tours in and around the capital stretching from a one hour tour of the main sight, the Kampong Ayer (floating village), to day long trips further afield. Their tours were all pretty pricey but hoping it would give us a better insight into the floating village we booked onto their one hour tour.

Before the tour we had time for a quick look at the Royal Regalia Museum just around the corner. This again houses part of the Sultan’s private collections and again was protected with very soldierly looking security personnel. The ground floor is dominated by a large ceremonial coach, the only item in the museum that you are allowed to photograph. Around it are the standards that would be carried in a procession and you can picture that the whole affair is very grand and impressive.

The first main room of this museum focuses on the life of the Sultan from his childhood to his coronation. There are pictures of him at school when he is a young boy and from his time at Sandhurst. He is portrayed as an athletic character being an accomplished golfer and polo player amongst other sports. It makes me wonder, not just for him but for other “royals” too, whether they gain their places on teams due to their own abilities or because of who they are. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

Around the exhibition were various costumes, silver pots, shields, swords and pipes. The main draw for me though was the scale replica model of the throne room. This was incredibly ornate and covered in gold. On display were the royal crowns for the Sultan and his wife, as well as the ceremonial mace, the gold umbrella for keeping their highnesses in the shade and the gold hand used to support the Sultan’s head during the coronation itself.

With our tour pending we didn’t have time to see most of the rest of the museum. Instead we walked our way around the display of some of the gifts the Sultan was given for his silver jubilee. It must be a diplomatic headache the world over. What do you give to a head of state who already has everything they want and if they do want something they have so much money in the bank they can just go and but it. I bet each country has an administrative office somewhere that keeps a list of what gifts have been given to which dignitaries in which countries just to ensure that they don’t give the same gift twice!

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Mosques of Bandar Seri Begawan

I have to say that in my opinion tasteful items were few and far between. The Thai’s were top of my list with beautifully decorated boxes. A rather large and garish glass vase given by QEII was however nowhere near the bottom of the list and it was definitely above the bronze statue of a cowboy sent by the US. It was also interesting to compare the relative wealth of different countries by the quality of the gifts they gave and the materials they were made of which ranged from simple wood and bamboo, through rough silver work to very fine and intricate pieces which were highly ornate and decorative. An equal nightmare of what to give as a gift must be what to do with them all when you receive them. No doubt, many a nation’s museums provide the answer to this problem!

It probably would have been worth our while going back to the museum as I think there was a lot more to see than we had time to cover this morning. Nevertheless our quick forty minute visit was worthwhile and it was a good way to fill the time before our floating village tour. As we left the museum we were again asked to sign a visitor’s register and this time were sent away with two copies of the large book we had been given at the Brunei museum yesterday. Not wanting to offend by refusing them we took them with us but explained the difficulty to Chai, our tour guide, who with a slightly bemused look on his face took them from us. I suspect that several hotels in Brunei and the next destination after Brunei have a little collection of these books and probably have a system for sending them back to the museum’s they came from.

We met Chai back at the Tourist Information office and he led us off to the canal by the open market to get our boat. There is a speed limit (allegedly) on the roads in Brunei but on the water no rules apply and as we chugged slowly out into the main river another taxi came whooshing by us in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film. We headed up river for a few minutes to try and get a view of the Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s palace.

As with many buildings in BSB it is relatively new and it has been built slightly set back from the river so that all you can really see is the roof tops. The Sultan and his family, Chai thinks about ten of them in total, live in the palace. It’s hard to see why they need so many but it had 1,788 rooms, its own sports complex, shopping mall and cinema. The banqueting hall can seat 4,000 guests and the mosque can accommodate 1,500. About 3,000 people work in the Istana. Each year at the end of Ramadan the Istana is opened up to the public for three days so that people can come and see it and get the chance to meet the sultan and his wife. They are fed, watered and sent away with small gifts to boot. With a total population of around 350,000 in Brunei this is feasible to do. Can you imagine the chaos, and the expense, if the Queen tried to do the same thing in Britain?

Our boat then took us on a brief tour of the floating village. We saw floating villages in Vietnam and Cambodia. There they were either being boats or floating houses that moved up and downstream with the seasons. Here though the houses are all built on stilts/piles in the water so they are not technically floating villages although they are villages on the water. Traditionally built of wood they are gradually being built of less flammable materials. Fire is a hazard here with houses completely burning in less than ten minutes.

There seems to also be a somewhat complex set of rules that apply to the floating villages. If a house burns down the occupier can no longer rebuilt on the water, they are now relocated to houses on the mainland. People cannot buy these houses either. It seems they are handed down within a family. The families do not seem to pay rent and as they are just over the river from BSB they have a relatively low cost of living as they don’t need cars to get around.

In the 1970’s the government upgraded the facilities of the village bringing mains water and electricity to them. Unfortunately though they didn’t also complete the set with a sewage system so all waste is simply dropped into the river below. Schools, a police station, a fire service and mosques were all built so that the village has a full set of facilities. Shops and restaurants also exist in the village, which is actually forty two separate villages) so people do not need to set foot on dry land unless they want to.

The houses are connected to each other by a series of plank ways. I had visions again of Vietnam and Cambodia and fully expected these to be single planks of wood lopped on top of each other. The prospect of ambling around these, and the risk of falling into the water below, was not something I had relished. I was pleasantly surprised then to find that the plank ways are a couple of metres wide and very stable. I reckon you could probably drive a Smart car across them if you tried.

If you want to you can just wander around the floating villages on your own. The benefit of the tour was publicised as the ability to see inside the houses and to get to meet and talk to some of the local villagers. The former was true, the latter extended simply to a shy nod of welcome. Tour agencies have linked up with some of the homes who basically run a bit of an open house policy. The house we visited was a large two storey house but I am not sure how typical of the village it really was. There was veranda outside where rice was left in the sun to dry. Next to where we left our shoes was a small tank with three turtles inside, two of which had holes smashed in the tops of their shells. They were the family pets.

Inside the house was a real mix and contrast. To our right was a section raised up slightly from the rest of the floor. Here a number of settees were all lined up against the wall. They, the walls and the archways you walked through to get to them were decorated in what to me were very garish colours with garlands and bunches of fake flowers dotted around. To the left was a more open space with more comfy chairs lined up in front of two TV sets. Above the TV hung portraits of the Sultan and his two wives (he could have four if he wanted), not a compulsory element of a house but one that is expected to be seen.

Dining tables were set in between these two seating areas and they led down a wide central corridor. Off to either side were the bedrooms of the family which were closed to us. At the other end was a kitchen. From the way Chai introduced it I had the feeling it was a large and modern kitchen by Brunei standards. Large it was but it was removed from our concept of a modern kitchen. Across the way a small corridor led to the smallest room in the house which is were the evidence of no sewage system became apparent. A neat tiled room, the loo was simply a tiled slit in the floor, flushed by washing it all down with a hose. As we backed up from here another door opened and out came an elderly lady wrapped in sarongs who had just finished her bath. At the back of the house another small veranda was the back yard. Here were a few small cages, one with a cockerel the other with chickens.

The pictures of the Sultan and his wives opened up some discussion on the Muslim way of life. In Brunei, Muslim men can have up to four wives. They don’t all live in the same house together and until relatively recently it was possible for the wives to have no knowledge of each other. An increase in foreign wives has led to an increase in family tensions so the rules have now been changed. If a man wants to take a second wife he has to inform his first wife and get her permission before he is allowed to do so. Future spouses also have to go through a series of lesions and instruction to ensure they are suitably prepared for marriage and all it entails.

I also asked Chai why it was that Muslim women have to be covered up. In this heat in particular it must get pretty unbearable especially as underneath their headscarves they also seem to wear a hat which they pin the scarf on to, to stop it slipping. He could only tell me that they have to wear long sleeves and cover their heads because the Qu’ran says so. What I really want to understand is why the Qu’ran says so. One taxi driver we met said he thought it was unnecessary for young girls to wear the head scarves, this was as we passed students on a road race a few days ago and the girls were wearing their scarves to run. An enlightened man I thought but no, he then went on to say that in later life it was right that women cover themselves up. It seems to be a bit of a hit and miss thing because in their pictures above the TV the Sultan’s wives did not have their heads covered. I’m still none the wiser.

As we chatted we sampled the other element that gave the tour added value – tea and local cakes. The tea was just normal tea but the cakes were something different. They seemed to be made from rice and coconut milk and other mystery ingredients. One was bright green, another banana yellow (apparently made from corn) and another was half green and half white sticky rice. I can’t say I would rush to try them again. Chai also explained that in Brunei 80% of the population work for the government. With the exception of doctors, and I think teachers, all government workers have to be Brunei nationals.

We finished our tour of the floating village with a little wander up and down to see the other houses. People here were simply getting on with day to day life, washing, drying prawns and rice, cooking meals. As we passed children we were met with loud and noisy “hellos” and chuckles when Stef showed them the pictures he had taken. They have a hand, foot and mouth disease problem in Borneo at the moment and until it is over the government has closed all the schools to prevent the disease spreading. The kids seemed quite happy not to be at school. In the morning they have standard lessons but in the afternoon they have four hours in the religious school where they are taught about the Muslim religion and way of life.

We were dropped off near to the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah complex which is named after the Sultan (but this is a shortened version of his name). It is the central shopping mall for BSB and until the out of town malls at Gadong were built it was the main place to come and shop. Now it is like a ghost town with hardly any people insight at all and everything looking pristine and tidy. It made me think of a weird sci-fi film where most people had been killed off by some strange super bug and the ones that remained were all a bit zombiefied. A corner café provided cooling drinks and lunch for Stef while we pondered options for the rest of the day.

With time to spare we decided to go and see the larger Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque which is near to Gadong, out of town. At the bus station the driver of the number 22 bus which Chai had told us was the best and most direct one to take told us to get the number 1 bus. It finally left and rather than heading directly for the mosque, headed out in the other direction before looping back through Gadong and dropping us off in front of the mosque.

It certainly is large and it is a pretty impressive building. Unfortunately as it is Thursday we were not allowed to go inside. Why, no-one explained it’s just another one of those restrictions. The mosque is set in small but beautiful gardens with the sound of water and fountains never far away. It makes for a tranquil and relaxing place to sit and contemplate. It is decorated with blue and white tiles and golden domes and minarets glimmer from the central area and the towers around it.

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Snooker game

There seemed to be three main entrances into the mosque. Two have large covered walkways leading up to them from the car park. I assumed that these were to protect people fro the rain on their way in so I though it was odd that the covers didn’t lead all the way up to the building. I later realised that it is where people leave their shoes before entering the mosque. The third entrance was much more grand and was like the covered porch you drive up to if you are staying at a swanky hotel. From the ground two curved staircases led up to the left and right, with what looked like an escalator under repair in the middle. This entrance had its own private access from the road and we think it is probably the one for the Sultan or other VIP’s.

Our walk around the mosque completed we headed back down to where the bus said we could catch the return bus into town. We saw one just turning off down a different road as we were walking through the car park so knew we would have to wait a while. After about five minutes a bus reappeared from that road but it was away from where we were waiting. By the time we had spotted it and tried to flag it down it was gone. We knew that time was not on our side as all buses stop running here at 6:00pm but after a few minutes we saw another one and this one stopped and waited while we ran down the road.

Curiously though they were not keen to take any payment for the journey and, unusually for Brunei, the conductress on the bus didn’t speak any English. A passenger behind us helped to translate. It turned out that this bus was about to end its route and it would only take us to the Shell petrol station on Jalan Gadong. Here we would have to wait for the number 55 into town. Dubious about the connection we figured that if the worst came to the worst it would at least be easier to find a taxi here where it was busy than at the mosque which was pretty quiet. But soon the 55 turned up and it dropped us right outside our hotel.

The pool beckoned again and we both went for a cooling soak. In the evening we headed back down to town to try to get some better night-time shots of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque but clouds had rolled in so Stef spent about half an hour or so huffing because the light wasn’t right. I still think the photos look great but what do I know! The Taman Selera night market opposite our hotel provided us with our dinner for the night before the highlight of our evening.

Our hotel has a pool table and a full size snooker table. Knowing how bad we both are at pool we decided to upgrade and have a game of snooker. You rent the table by the hour and yes, you guessed it, it took us that long to complete a frame. It must have been one of the lowest scoring games of snooker ever. I can’t remember ever playing on a full size table before so it just compounded my uselessness at pool. It was still a bit of a giggle though and a relaxing way to round off another day.

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Leaving Brunei on ferry to Kota Kinabalu

A taxi took us the thirty minute drive up the coast to Muara from where we could get our crossing over to Malaysia. This time we’re not on a plane, train or bus but we’re back in a boat for a sea crossing. We got to the ferry terminal with just under half an hour to spare before the boat left, thinking that was loads of time but in fact it was probably only just enough. There was a small queue for tickets but with those in hand we started to chat about the rest of our plans, forgetting that here we had a border crossing to go through. Fortunately a chap from the ferry company was on the ball and ushered through the process of paying our departure tax, going through immigration and getting on board.

The ferry was a catamaran that probably seated a couple of hundred people. We went upstairs to the open deck and sat filling in our third set of immigration cards for Malaysia waiting to set sail. Before long we were off and we saw Brunei retreating away from us into the distance. It was worth going to Brunei to have a look and get a bit of a feel for the place. It has a very relaxed atmosphere but in a different way to places like Laos. There everybody was just totally chilled out and had a very slow pace of life. In Brunei, like Singapore everything seems to work and to work efficiently but there is just a very calm and peaceful atmosphere here. You sense that people don’t really want for anything but that the price for this pressure free lifestyle is that it is a bit of a boring place to live. Certainly that was the view of our taxi driver this morning who comes originally from Kuching.

We had been given a more up to date ferry schedule by Tourist Information in Brunei. While it tells you what time the ferries leave, none of the information tells you how long the crossing will take so it’s pretty hard to judge your onward connections. Our first ferry took us to the island of Labuan back in Malaysia. We landed at 10:15 and thought that gave us more than enough time to get through immigration and to buy tickets for the next ferry to Kota Kinabalu which, from our information left at 10:45.

Standing in the immigration hall waiting to go through passport control Stef saw the departure board which showed the connecting ferry departure time as 10:30. Mild panic stepped in as the next ferry after that was not until 3:00pm, far too late for us to stand any chance of getting to Sandakan tonight, our then current plan. Seeing a queue diminish rapidly we went and joined it only later realising it was for Malaysian nationals only. Stef worked his charm and the initial firm “Malaysians only” response from the lady behind the counter soon melted and she let us through, sending Stef ahead so he could buy our next tickets. At the ticket desk it was 10:28 and despite us being frazzled that we would miss the boat the lady selling the tickets was perfectly calm. She had radioed to the boat and assured us it would wait.

We went through customs and walked as fast as we could to get to the next ferry. We made it on board, grabbed a couple of seats in the forward lounge which had karaoke blaring out on the TV and then sat and waited for twenty minutes for the boat to leave. We needn’t have rushed after all! This crossing was about three hours long and being at the front of the boat, an enclosed catamaran this time, it was a bit more of a bumpy crossing. My temperature control was al over the place and despite it being air conditioned I was hot and feeling a bit sea sick. Sleep came to the rescue and I woke up with the skyline of Kota Kinabalu in sight.

From the ferry we walked down to the Sabah Tourism Board Office on Jalan Balai Polis. Our plan for Sabah was to try and get to Turtle Island, where turtles nest all year round, and then go to the orang utan rehabilitation centre in Sepilok. The latter we knew would be easy to do but the turtles can only be booked through a tour company and despite trying to track them down when we were in Singapore we had failed to do so. Within a couple of minutes I think we were both ready to throttle the chap behind the counter. We are running out of time in Malaysia and only have three days in Sabah. All he seemed to be able to say was “three days, aahh not enough time”. Once would have been OK, twice maybe would have been acceptable but he just kept on and on.

He made a half hearted effort at checking availability for getting to the turtle islands for us but he didn’t really seem to go out of his way and when his initial enquiry came back with a “fully booked until 23 March” he made no effort to give us alternative options. We asked if we might have luck booking through a different tour operator and he sent us in the direction of a couple in town. The nearest was Diethelm Travel, a branch of which we had used in Vientiane in Laos to book flights. They are just across the road from the tourism office so off we trotted.

There we had a very friendly welcome but also got the same “three days is not enough” story. Here though they did seem to understand and Anne, the Operations Coordinator who dealt with us, was genuinely interested to hear about our travels elsewhere in Malaysia and the wider world. She has the travel bug herself and I think she understood the time pressure we were under. Here they checked around for availability for turtle islands but also drew a blank. It has now become so popular that you need to book a few months in advance. She told us that some people are now booking a year in advance to get there. She also looked at the possibility of us getting down to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a comparatively new reserve where wildlife sightings are still good. This would have been a fully inclusive three days two nights package but this too was fully booked, probably just as well because it was pricey too.

Both feeling a little despondent and needing to rethink our plans we checked into the Promenade Hotel, which Anne booked for us getting a reduced rate into the bargain, rueing the fact that our visit to this part of the world has clashed with school holidays. The negative vibes for the day continued when we tried to hook up to the internet. The hotel’s broadband service was totally crap and when Stef phoned to see if they could fix it he was finally told that their supplier’s line was fluctuating and that they had been complaining about it since January. Funny that they didn’t tell us that when they took our money off us for wanting to use it. Grudgingly we were given a refund.

By the time we checked in it was already close to 5:00pm and we spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out in our room, watching TV (Species, a slightly dubious sci-fi film, and Mrs Doubtfire which I found quite funny) and catching up on our diaries. Lethargy had well and truly set in so much so that we even had dinner in the hotel, quite unusual for us. As we drove up to the hotel we both spotted the Chinese characters above the door and knew that the standard Chinese hotel experience awaited us. Usually this means you have a smart and clean hotel with all the trappings of a well run establishment but that it lacks on warmth, friendliness and service. We had seen this in our few dealings so far with the staff but the best was to come. As we walked into our room after dinner the phone was ringing. It was reception. As we had paid for our room through an agency they did not have a swipe of our credit card for any room incidentals. As we had just charged dinner to our room they needed our card details. In any other hotel they probably would have waited a bit longer, or even asked in the morning, but not in the Chinese variety!

Actually, that probably wasn't the best experience. Stef had to go down to reception for some reason and on his way back up a young lady in the lift asked if he wanted a massage. This too is a typical Chinese hotel service, although they normally call your room rather than proposition you in the lift. A massage is perhaps part of the package you'd get but its not really the service that's on offer!

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Tailor at the market

We hadn’t totally shaken off our despondent feelings when we woke this morning and our first experience of the hotel’s staff didn’t improve the state of play either. We made it down to breakfast a little after 9:30 only to be instructed as we were shown to a table that the buffet closed in twenty minutes. At the Hilton in Kuching we had a similar scenario but there the staff asked us how we had slept, what our plans were for the day and just let us know that the buffet would close shortly. Such a contrast to this place and sure enough at 10:00am on the dot the buffet was whisked away even though there were still quite a few people in the breakfast room.

Our room provided us with sanctuary through into the middle of the afternoon. We had decided to stay in Kota Kinabalu today and to then go on to Sandakan/Sepilok tomorrow by bus, see the orang utans on Monday and catch our flights as planned to KL on Tuesday. Extending our stay here was not straight forward either. The chap at reception who answered our call seemed delighted we were staying another night but then quoted us a rate much higher than the one we had got through Diethelm. We then had to call Diethelm to book the extra night through them.

It seems daft that you can get a cheaper rate through an agent than by booking through the hotel directly. No doubt it’s the same at other hotels but to us it was just another feature of this one. There’s information in the room about leaving luggage with the hotel. They will store it for you for a day but if you leave it in their luggage store for longer than that without special agreement they reserve the right to sell your luggage. If within a month you don’t claim any difference in value between the sale price and their storage costs (specified in the lobby as RM5 per kilo) they will pocket the difference. This combined with the signs in the room telling you the price of all the furnishings and fittings if you wanted to buy them simply reinforced the Chinese-ness of the hotel!

We finally dragged ourselves out in the afternoon to go and have a bit of a look around town and to try and find the bus station to ask about the buses to Sandakan. For some reason we didn’t ask at the hotel, which would have been the sensible thing to do. The town map we had shows a bus station but when we got there it looked like it was only for local buses and they definitely were not the type you would want to spend six hours on. We gave up on the bus front and ambled through the town and I have to say it was pretty dire for the most part.

Along the waterfront there is a section that they have redeveloped. It now has a wide boardwalk lined with bars, cafes and a coffee shop from one of the big chains. It would bee a pleasant place to sit and drink and while away some time if it wasn’t for the really strong and unpleasant smell wafting in off the river. It smelled like very stagnant sewage water, which is probably what it is, but being so close to the sea you would think it got washed away and cleaned up a couple of times a day.

The main part of town is just an anonymous collection of shops, banks, travel agents and restaurants all looking slightly down at heel. We drew comparisons with Machala just across the border into Ecuador. At the time I recall thinking that was a pretty dire place but compared to Kota Kinabalu it has a lot of charm. For the first time in a long while I felt slightly uncomfortable here, partly because I suspect that several of the women standing around on their own on street corners in the middle of the day were plying a trade more usually associated with the night! It is not somewhere I would want to be on my own during the day let alone at night. There was no firm rationale for this feeling it was just a sense and a feeling I had picked up.

Back at the hotel we tried again to find out about buses to the east. There was a travel/tour agency desk there staffed by a very unhelpful person. It was almost as if as soon as he realised we did not want to book on of his tours, he was not interested. He grudgingly told us the long distance bus station was out of town, hence the reason why we couldn’t find it, but he had no information about the times of buses and made no offer to call to find out for us either. The concierge service was little better. They said that buses went throughout the day, but that there was no timetable, they just left when they were full. We were both unconvinced with this explanation but as again there were no attempts to get more information for us, we gave up.

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Market snacks

In the evening we headed out to the cinema, stopping first at the riverfront market for Stef to get some food. The market was much like the ones we have seen in other towns. Rows of stalls all selling different types of fruit and vegetables made up the majority of the market. Around the edge were the fast food stalls selling satay, grilled fish and chicken legs, deep fried food (samosas, bananas and pancakes filled with cabbage) as well as the now familiar stalls where you picked what you wanted and had it slopped onto a plate for you. Stef declared the food tasty but I’m not convinced he really enjoyed it that much.

There are three cinemas in town and Anne from Diethelm Travel told us that the one in the Centre Point mall had the most comfortable seats while the Golden Screen Cinema had the best screen. We wanted to see Tristan and Isolde which was on at the Centre Point. Strangely, as in Kota Kinabalu, it is on the top of a multi storey car park. There seems to be a small entertainment complex here with a bowling alley and a small amusement/video game arcade.

Much to the surprise of the woman at the box office we had bought our tickets earlier in the day when we came to check out the cinema. Screen 3 could probably hold one hundred or so people but there were less than ten at the start of the film. Five minutes after the film started another group of six walked in and sat in front of us. Lonely Planet had warned us that in Malaysia people talk all the way through films as well as answering calls on their mobiles and this is what this group did. I doubt they could have left knowing much about the film but they were pretty quiet so we could watch the film uninterrupted. The film was very enjoyable and was a good mix of history, action and a bit of romance.

We finally found our way out of the cinema building by following another couple. There are shops on the ground floor but this late at night (11:30pm) they were all locked and shuttered as were the doors into the shopping complex itself. We made our way back along the riverfront, walking on the road as there is no pavement (unless you want to walk on the wooden planks that are currently covering the sewers) and headed for bed.

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Lazy morning

With good intentions of getting a bus out east, we were up earlier and down to breakfast with two hours to spare before they whisked the buffet away. I don’t think either of us really relished the idea of a six hour bus journey and when Stef half seriously half joking said about flying instead I didn’t strongly disagree. On our way back from breakfast we stopped at the travel/tour desk again to see if they could at least help with flights. It was no surprise then when the same useless guy was as useless as he had been yesterday with the buses and we came away again none the wiser.

Back in our room we phoned Malaysia Airlines to find out that all the flights to Sandakan were fully booked until lunch time tomorrow. I think that was kind of the final straw for us and we decided to blow out Sabah and head back to KL. We booked ourselves onto an early evening flight, extended our check out time at the hotel and went back to bed for another couple of hours kip.

We had to be out of our room by 2:00pm, still earlier than we would have liked because we didn’t need to be at the airport until 3:30pm. The flight path for the planes taking off and coming into land seemed to go right over our hotel so I was surprised at how far out of town the airport was. Here we got more of what we had expected from provincial Malaysian airports. It was a reasonable size but is slightly ageing and is very different to the new modern airports at Kuching and Miri. We went to the Malaysia Airlines office, bought our tickets, and then saw that Air Asia also flies from here, a low cost airline so we realised we had probably paid more than we needed to for our tickets. Ah well.

Within minutes we were through the formalities and camped out at the airport café waiting for our flights. Gin rummy filled the time with Stef starting to gloat a little because he had a bit of a winning streak. It won’t last so I’m not worried! The flight was smooth and after a slightly hard landing we were back in Kuala Lumpur.

Rather than getting a taxi from the airport we opted to go on the Klia Express, partly because we thought it would work out to be a cheaper option and partly for the experience. Like the Gatwick and Heathrow express trains the “express” refers more to the fact that it is a non stop route rather than that it is fast. The trains though are very new, smooth and comfortable and as announced when we boarded, 28 minutes later we were at KL Sentral train station. From here we got a taxi to our hotel and the whole trip probably cost about the same as a taxi direct from the airport, although it was much more fun.

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Out in KL's Chinatown

We had opted to go back to the Royale Bintang hotel for our last night in KL. Our experience this time round wasn’t as good as when we first arrived there but they were still friendly enough and our room, although a tad shabby compared to the last one, was still very comfortable. Without stopping to unpack any of our stuff, we headed out into town and camped out in a bar for a couple of drinks. It seemed to be an ex pat place but was cosy with wicker furniture and a nice atmosphere. Premier league football was an inevitable companion in the background.

Having had a dry few days we both enjoyed having a glass or two of beer (Stef) and wine (me) but common sense prevailed and we left before we got too comfortable. Back down on the street of Chinese eateries we grabbed a table for a late supper, sitting inside as it had started to rain. Again football kept us company. It still surprises me how popular English football is in Asia and how people were glued to the screen.