Brunei and the Borneo rainforest

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do in my life is visit some of the places (actually, that grammar makes absolutely no sense, but my blog – my grammar) that I read about in Jules Verne’s books. Patagonia, Africa, Borneo – they all appear somewhere or other and the magic that he creates describing the adventures in them simultaneously belies the impossibility of most people to actually go and verify it and underestimates the difficulty of actually doing half of the things he writes about.

That said, hey, let’s set the romance aside and go to Borneo – right? I had to go to Kuala Lumpur for work (and this is actually current – I’m writing this post from KL), it’s a quick flight down (well, over sideways) to Brunei – and since there’s a general lack of anything else to do in Brunei, it’s not something I thought the family would want to do, so here we go.

I reached out to a company called Borneo Trekking, and they set me up with a semi-private (i.e., one other person) tour to the wilderness. It wasn’t necessarily cheap, but hey, who’s counting when it’s once-in-a-lifetime annual experiences, you know.

We departed from the downtown boat pier at 7am.

View from the pier. Quite amusingly, boats in Brunei don’t follow any particular schedule. There is a signup sheet at the pier for the boat, and while they haven’t filled up the passengers they do not depart (or in our case, even arrive).

So while I waited for the boat to arrive, I took pictures of the random boat traffic on the water.

First, a man in a Superman shirt went by.

Then, some sort of a black boat with a lot of men in black went by.

I’m not sure they entirely appreciated me snapping away at them, though…

Well freaking hell, don’t dress so damn conspicuously then!

Then our boat came, but not before being splashed around by a police boat.

The boat lokoed like it has seen better days.

In their desire to fill up the boat to the gills, they seem to have miscalculated the number of seats; so when the guy in the front centre showed up (Japanese, interestingly enough), they did not have a seat for him. Since they didn’t want to leave him on the pier, they brought him a beach chair, and he sat in that for the whole journey. Guess that makes for an experience.

Interesting cultural note. When we boarded, there came a point where most seats had one person sitting in them (seating was 2×2 on both sides of the boat). One of the last people on was a mother and daughter, both dressed in traditional Bruneian wear; they got to the middle of the boat and started looking around looking obviously uncomfortable. They started talking between themselves, and although I don’t speak Malay, the language does tend to borrow occasional expressions from English – and I heard one of them say, in a relatively low voice, “… sit next to a man …”. Finally, since standing was not an option, they reluctantly did exactly that – and the mother started talking to her neighbour in somewhat of an apologetic tone. My impression, and once again, lacking the language, I have no justification for that impression, was that she was apologising that she was forced to sit next to him for lack of available seating, inconveniencing both him and her. Very peculiar.

It took us a while (a good 50 minutes) to get to our destination. As it turned out (and here I once again exhibit my utter lack of geographical skills), Brunei is actually a two-piece country, separated by a bit of Malaysia.

The boat went pretty fast – up to 70 km/h, which was fairly impressive.

When we got to Bangar, we had to switch to a car. Before that, at the boat terminal, there was a huge advertisement for the rainforest resort where we wouldn’t be going, but where I sort of wondered whether I should’ve gone when I was booking the day trip.

The area looked pretty rural, though nevertheless there were tons of cars everywhere (Brunei, with gas prices less than half of Canada – 56c vs. $1+ at the time of this writing, and a complete absence of duties and taxes) is a haven for car owners. Therefore, understandably, everyone has a car, or a few, even in the countryside.

We drove further into the forest on a narrow two-lane road….

… occasionally permeated by the odd Japanese racecar.

Since we got picked up at the hotel at 6:30am, and did not get a chance to eat breakfast, we stopped by some sort of a local restaurant serving authentic Bruneian fare. Actually, that’s a lie – there’s no authentic Bruneian fare for the same reason that there isn’t really anything “ancient” Bruneian – the country is young, raised on oil, and comprised of nomads and economic migrants of various generations – similar to Dubai and so on. Therefore, cuisine is typically Malay, Indian, or other nearby nations’. This particular restaurant had a mix of everything.

Interior of the restaurant was a completely average normal rural restaurant.

The menu was on the wall. Our tour guy asked us to pick one thing we could eat.

Looking at the prices, it occurred to me that chances of being hungry with a single dish were quite high, and considering what we paid for the tour, they can afford another dollar for a second meal. So I demanded two dishes, and they arrived:

The naan bread wasn’t the typical Indian dense bread – rather, it almost had a croissant’ish fluffy feel to it. It was really rather good. As was the chicken Nasi.

As we left the restaurant, it occurred to me that people in Brunei didn’t sell cars on the second hand market – they dumped them in the bushes.

It further occurred to me that if Toyota didn’t invent the Land Cruiser, then I wonder what the entire Middle East and Southeast Asia (and Africa) would have done.

Once we got to our next destination, we had to get back into a boat to climb upstream. I did say that we’re going to Borneo, right? It’s freaking far. I can almost understand why people don’t do day trips there. Our ultimate destination was the Ulu Temburong National Park:

(note how I gave up on the blue line…. that river was just insanely zigzaggy).

Here was the vehicle we would be using for this segment of the journey:

My temporary travel companion looking somewhat frazzled at the challenge of boarding the boat, and the tour guide helping her.

A boy looking indifferently at some tourists suffering in the boat.

 

Or maybe that’s just how he looks at the world in general.

Eventually, we departed. The river was variously wide and narrow, calm and angry, deep and shallow; apparently, though, since it was August and it hasn’t rained for several weeks (this was the middle of the dry season), the water level was spectacularly low.

Eventually (i.e. a good hour later), we got to the national park. According to the tour guide, if the water level were normal, it would’ve been a 20 minute trip. Well, good to know.

Next up was the ridiculous 1,300 step climb to the top of the canopy in the forest to see the view of the Borneo landscape.

The canopy of the Ulu Temburong National Park is located on top of a mountain of sorts, that you have to climb up 1,300 steps (well, it’s actually 1,373 or so, but in 36 degrees with 99% humidity, it might as well just be infinity) to get to. It sounded like a lot until I reflected on my recent experience climbing up Mt. Azuma, which was not 1,300 steps, but it almost killed me regardless because it was so damn high (but then I saw a 90 year old grandma going down the stairs, so it made me wonder just how sedentary I’ve become).

We got to the “registration jetty”………..

… left our bags in the boat …

… and off we went. First up was a suspension bridge. I had some concerns at first, but then realised I’m not in China, so it was relatively unlikely it would collapse anywhere.

… and now the 1,300 steps began.

It was really, really far. Well, not so much that it was far as it had a lot of steps. By the time we got to the bottom of the canopy, we were somewhat exhausted; and now we had to climb this metal concoction to actually experience the damn view.

The canopy is 42m high and has about a dozen platforms you need to climb on; no more than 2 people per platform and no more than 5 people per tower are permitted. All this work to see the view.

………. but what.

a.

view.

The weather was perfect, so the view worked out great; it’s impossible to describe just how encompassing and grandiose the view of this much greenery really is. One really has to pause and reflect on this for a minute or ten.

After spending some time walking around the canopy and taking more photos (which, admittedly, all look pretty much the same, so I’ll skip posting them here), we climbed back down. At this point, a number of tour groups made their way up (we were literally the first – huge props to our tour guide for arranging the tour so early, so we could basically enjoy the entire experience pretty much in private, as opposed to the hordes of Chinese and Japanese tourists that subsequently arrived). I did my usual “scaring the Japanese” gig, where I overheard them talking about how scary the canopy looked and did they really have to climb it – and I just casually dropped into my best Osaka regional dialect and entirely innocuously let it slip that it’s an amazing view, and they should, essentially, shit or get off the fence. Oh, how I love the confusion that invariably follows. Anyway, we went on to go down the steps, and of course, the return was a thousand times easier. Our guide commented that it was odd that she smiles at everyone and says hello, but nobody ever seems to smile back; I offered a theory that when you’re climbing 1,300 steps and are somewhere between 1,200 and infinity, not only will you not smile back at a stranger, but you just wish that whatever deity you believe in would just smite you and end your suffering; that thought appears to not have occurred to her, but she entirely agreed with the thought process.

We passed this interesting tree on the way down:

It’s some sort of a rare hardwood that only grows in the Borneo (as do probably a billion other varieties of flora, which is what differentiates it in the first place), but as my guide calls it, “the selfish tree” – because those roots prevent anything from growing around them.

After we went down we hopped back into the boat and went downstream for a bit.

A boat went by with some tourists who waved at us.

First, we stopped by a waterfall where fish live that eat dead skin off your feet. This exists worldwide in various clinics and shopping malls, but I find the practice entirely disgusting so I’ve never even remotely considered visiting one. This seemed somewhat different, since you know, Borneo. We were the only ones there, and the fish seemed relatively hungry, so they went at it – it’s a REALLY weird feeling, and I can’t tell whether I enjoyed it or thought it was bizarre. Probably both.

We went on to have a swim and lunch further downstream on the river.

As part of the tour, our guide and her assistant prepared lunch for us, which was honestly, amazing. Maybe it was the fresh air and being tired from swimming, or maybe I just like rural Bruneian cooking, or both.

After we had lunch, we got back in the boat and started heading back to the ferry terminal – it was time to head back to the city as it was starting to get sort of late. More pictures of the river:

I found this Bridgestone knockoff scooter rather amusing.

When we got to the jetty (after boat ride + car ride), we had to wait for some time, once again, for there to be enough passengers for the boat trip to be “worth it”. Eventually, a boat showed up, about half the size of the one we came in on.

One thing that does not come through in this picture is that this little dinky piece of shit had not one, but TWO 200hp Yamaha motors. What this meant was that when we went out onto the river, and when the water was calm, this thing went up to 85 km/h on my GPS!

Just for reference, let’s put this in context like this. This is a P1-28SS Superstock racing powerboat. It’s made of carbon fibre and unobtainium, it goes about 110 km/h, weighs 1,586 kg dry and is typically driven by professionals competing to get stuff. Our boat was made of plywood, racing stickers and broken dreams, was piloted by a fat guy with a nonchalant attitude, had 400hp in it and 30 people, which even at an optimistic 60 kg per person would make it almost 2 tons of ballast (though the boat itself probably weighed less than 50 kgs, since, well, it had plastic windows and maybe a lifejacket or two). So 80 km/h was …… pretty damn bloody fast.

We expeditiously got back to the jetty of Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital of Brunei), offloaded, and went back to the hotel. My day was nowhere near finished; I still had to watch the sunset and take a boat ride around the Water Village, but the Borneo experience was complete, and a checkmark was achieved.