Tl;dr – taxi, flight, skytrain, long queue, metro, early arrival
Our taxi was booked for 07:00. Having seen the traffic build-ups around Kuching we didn’t want to take any chances. The traffic however was non-existent and although we could check-in we couldn’t go through passport control because it didn’t open until 08:00.
Once we were through we saw a sign that told us exactly where we would find our gate, having consistently been at the farthest gate.
Lo and behold we were indeed gate 9, but at least Kuching’s international terminal is tiny. One gripe I did have with the airport is that for some reason, rather than having one big security checkpoint, Kuching has a small one at each gate. So once through security you are stuck in a big holding pen with no shops and no drinks. We were only there for a short time though and soon enough we were on our plane.
Thankfully our flight was short and, thanks to the bright paint job, a very smooth flight indeed.
We landed in Terminal 1 of Singapore’s gigantic Changi Airport. We cleared customs and grabbed Bertha off the belt and then got screened on the way out. We chucked everything through the scanner, got asked if we had pepper spray, said no and then went on our way.
We found food and liquid sustenance before finding the inter-terminal monorail to T2 in order to get the metro to our flat. We needed to get tourist metro passes and these had a separate counter with a huge snaking queue. Whilst Kate stayed with the bags it took me the best part of half an hour to get to the front, and I didn’t help the waiting times by asking the only member of staff for 5 passes which all needed activating individually. But I got them all, 2 for Kate and I, 3 for my family who we would be meeting soon.
We were informed by the almighty Google Maps that our journey would take 90 minutes so I informed my Dad when we got on our first metro so he could meet us at Bukit Panjang, the nearest station to our accomodation.
To get the train from Changi you can only travel two stops before you have to change onto a different train on the same line. After that we had one more change at Bugis before we were on our way to the end of the line. We did the whole journey in just over 60 minutes. This would have been great news had we not arranged to meet my Dad at the station. It was supposedly a 4 minute walk from the metro station to the flat so I thought we could make it. At the foot of a big shopping mall with no obvious route to the flats above, we gave up, downed bags and waited. A short while later my Dad showed up and showed us the way up to the flat where my Brother and Sister-In-Law were staying along with the rest of us.
07:01 taxi from Threehouse to Kuching Airport: 26 RM (£5.12), 22 minutes
Time Zone: GMT +8 (7 hours ahead of UK summer time)
24th – 28th Oct
Kuching (literally ‘cat city’) is the capital of Sarawak (the Southern portion of Malaysian Borneo) and the largest city in Borneo. As usual our first job was to find food. Kate’s “snack” in the airport had been a full McDonalds Filet-O-Fish meal so it was just me that was super hungry. Three minutes away from our hostel we found a rather hip little restaurant called The Wrong Place. They did a mix of Western and Malaysian food which seemed to suit us both, but with slightly inflated prices. Unfortunately they were all out of all of their Western food. My twice-the-price beef rendang was ok. It was the Wrong Place after all.
After food we popped next door to a pub called the Drunken Monkey, where we met a Welsh chap who’d visited Kuching once previously and loved it so much he was back for 6 months. We figured this was a good sign.
After the Drunken Monkey we set off in search of the main strip to try and explore Kuching’s nightlife. On our way we encountered a large group of stray dogs hanging out on a busy road. Kate tried to usher them back to the pavement but they just began to follow her round. At this point a group of Chinese people at the cafe on the roadside noticed what was happening and all gasped in awe before one shouted “dog whisperer!”
Once Kate’s pack had been deposited in a safe place we headed into a bar called 21 Bistro with a live band and a seemingly middle aged clientelle. A lot of the men were sharing a bottle of whisky in groups of 2 or 3. It turns out a bottle of whisky is as cheap or cheaper than the equivalent in beer. But it seemed a tad excessive for a Monday night.
The next day we had no big plans other than to explore the city. We were a short walk from the Sarawak museum and had heard good things, the highlight being a watch, dental plate and giant hairball recovered from a humongous man eating croc that was captured in 1993.
Following on from the museum was a foodcourt on top of a multistorey car park. I thought I’d read about this in the guidebook but we’d gone to a different one. Turns out car park food courts are a thing. It was nice though and the grand total of £1 I had a full meal with chicken, rice, fish, veg and soup. Kate didn’t fancy the car park food so went for her traditional FOF at Maccie D’s.
Our next port of call was India Street, an undercover shopping court with plenty of cheap knockoff goods.
At the end of India Street there were a couple of wall paintings of cute little orangutans. I had just noticed a little marker on Google Maps and knew nothing about them but they were a good find.
We wondered along the waterfront with the intention of heading across the river to a 19th century fort but the opening times were short and we were running out of time so instead we sauntered back to the hostel via some locally sourced Sarawak coffee.
We wondered out later to find food and ended up at James Brooke’s Bistro. James Brooke was the “White Raja” and is well renowned in Sarawak for bringing stability in a time of rebellion. The food was largely traditional fare and I went for the Sarawak laksa, the traditionalest of the traditional dishes on offer. It’s effectively curry chicken soup and it was delicious.
I tried some Tuak (local rice wine) with my dinner and was pretty unimpressed. Following on from dinner we tried a new bar on the way back to the hostel. Their promotion was cheap Guinness but they also gave us some free Tuak. This one was much nicer though.
The following day we had organised a trip to Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse. The reserve was an hour or so away through Kuching’s appalling traffic. Their aim is to rehabilitate orangutans and get them back into the wild. The orangutans are described as “semi-wild” in the sanctuary because they are encouraged to find their own food but they can also pick up food from the rangers.
We were hurried through to park HQ because just off the path there was a very large tree making very large cracking sounds and leaning precariously over the bridge to the feeding area. After some waiting around we were hurried back out and up to the car park instead because some orangutans had been spotted nearby and that seemed like a much safer place for 50 people to stand than under a massive falling tree.
As soon as we got there we spotted an orangutan way up in the trees.
We were told there were three in the vicinity; two sisters and a two-week-old baby. Sure enough the other two popped out soon enough.
It was fantastic being so close to these unusual creatures. They were fascinating to watch, catching fruit and veg from the rangers, swinging through the trees (with baby clinging on) and munching away (on the food, not on baby).
Once we were dragged away from the spectacle it was off deeper into the rainforest to see a traditional longhouse. It’s a big part of Malaysian heritage as this was, and still is, how many Iban people lived.
On stepping foot on the bamboo slats above the ground we were offered a welcome drink of more Tuak. It was pretty good and I was offered a second which I couldn’t refuse!
We wondered around with our guide and fellow guidees and although there are some modern facilities (electricity, running water and a bank) they try and keep things the same as they have been for hundreds of years.
We saw the skull room with a collection of blackened human skulls. It was a sign of power to have more skulls than your neighbouring village. To commemorate a big event a villager would be tasked with collecting a skull (or headhunting) from an enemy. Usually they were dead already but sometimes not. They were then put above a fire to stop the spirits getting nasty, hence them being blackened. This practice was outlawed by James Brooke but the skulls were kept.
There is still a fair population in Annah Rais and they have a number of guesthouses, cafes and stalls selling home-brewed whisky and pepper that has been cultivated and dried on site.
They try and be as self-sufficient as they can be and so we saw a huge variety of fruit and plants growing in and around the village.
We explored some more before being picked up and whisked off by our driver. We headed back via an awkward stop off at a commissioned tourist knick knack store and landed back at the hostel just in time for the heavens opening.
We stayed in for lunch and ate instant noodles before going for an epic nap because that seemed like the thing to do with the rain. When we woke it was time for tea! We happened upon the Granary Kitchen, another hip local/western fusion restaurant where we had some great pizzas. Kate picked margarita and mine was inspired by nasi lemak, a malaysian dish of fish and eggs amongst other things.
Our final day in Borneo was a hectic one with another early start to get the first bus of the day to Bako National Park, Sarawak’s first National Park. The route to it involves a 25 mile bus journey to the outskirts and a 30 minute boat ride around the park to the headquarters. When you get there the boat just rocks up near the beach and you wade to the shore. A befitting start for our day of adventure!
We trudged across the beach to the headquarters building to find a bearded boar, a species only found in Borneo. Bako is a popular spot to see another endemic species, the proboscis monkeys, but we’d seen them and wanted to explore something new so weren’t too fussed about them. You have to sign in and put your chosen trail (out of 14 options) but we were told the east side of the island was closed and the beaches were to be avoided due to sightings of a giant crocodile. We were told the best ones were a short route from HQ to spot the proboscis monkeys or the loop trail to see all sorts of rainforest vegetation. We asked about trail 7, Tajor trail, a slightly longer trail leading up to a waterfall with a natural pool to swim in. The lady told us you can swim in the pool but effectively told us not to walk the trail because it’s too far and difficult and we should do the loop trail instead.
We weren’t going to be told what to do and set off on Tajor trail. To get to Tajor you need to walk a small section of the loop trail before splitting off. On this section there was a staircase blocked by a fallen tree and we had to hoist ourselves up a near-vertical muddy bank. At this point we questioned our brave decision but it turned out everything after that (bar one rickety plank over a stream) was far easier.
After just over an hour of walking through rainforest tunnels over tangled roots we arrived at our own little slice of paradise.
We were joined shortly after by a Polish couple and then a British couple. We had a short dip in the natural pool but were all a little put off by the staining of the water and the slight fear there may be a giant croc in there so no-one spent long in the deeper sections. Although we didn’t see any crocs we did see this scary chap!
He kept swimming up to Kate and after we’d eaten our leftover pizza from the night before we had to cross the water and he swam as fast as he could to wave us/scare us off.
It was a linear trail so the way back was the way we’d come. It was a fantastic walk with some spectacular views when we were out from under the trees.
The tree that had previously blocked the stairs had been moved so our descent was trouble free and we made it back to headquarters in plenty of time to get the boat back. We had just missed one so we had a bit of a wait for the 3pm boat so we got some drinks and sat down at the cafe. The boar we’d seen in the morning appeared to still be there until a guy with the most spectacular beard showed up and took his place.
There were some pesky monkeys stealing food from plates and we were a bit peckish so we wandered over to a hut near the beach to munch on the snacks we’d brought. But a crazy one-eyed yellow-toothed monkey had followed us and started hissing when we wouldn’t give him our satay broad beans. So we put them back in our bag and ran away.
Once our boat arrived we headed back to the start of the park to get the bus back to Kuching. In the evening we tried John’s Place again for some cheap Chinese grub before heading back to the Granary for a drink. Just as we arrived the heavens opened and we had to stay for another, which we were both terribly upset about.
Once the rain had settled we headed back to pack our bags and get some sleep before yet another early start for our journey the next day.
Recommended by Hostelworld and Lonely Planet we thought we were onto a winner with Threehouse B&B. The location in the heart of Chinatown was great and the staff were very friendly. However, it was a dirty place. The sheets were old and torn, the bathrooms were grubby with one not working, the kitchen had loads of empty or out-of-date sauces and we washed our clothes and they came out covered in multiple black blotchy stains. It could be a great little place but we felt very let down.
In a similar manner to the previous day we awoke at 06:00. We had a 07:00 bus to Miri to fly to Kuching. We needed to get the bus from the side of the road so we wanted to be early. We saw a few big fancy buses and couldn’t work out which one was ours. Then we saw our minibus. We were ushered on and squeezed Bertha and Max into the gap at the back (and a spare seat). A man in a fluorescent orange vest with many flag badges checked we were going to Miri. It turns out he’s a quasi-celebrity in Brunei for dedicating his tine to helping foreigners get on the right bus. He chatted to us about his flags and informed us he had many vests, one with a Scottish flag but no Welsh flag.
A short bumpy van ride later we stopped at a car park for a toilet and snack break before heading off to Kuala Belait near the border. Once there we stopped and waited. A big luxury coach turned up and we were ushered off our minibus and onto one of the fanciest coach I’ve ever seen. 3 seats across, a footrest, cupholders and more legroom than I could use! As with our previous bus, the suspension was rather generous but overall, 9/10.
We arrived at the Brunei border and sped through. At the Malaysian side there was a short wait before being ushered around the corner so they could ask if we had Zika. We said no and they seemed happy.
From the border to Miri was the shortest leg. We knew our transport options to the airport were limited to taxi or 3 hour walk so we were relatively pleased to see loads of taxis. We had one collective foot on the tarmac before being hassled to get a taxi. I didn’t know the exact price but knew it was around 30 ringgit. We needed cash but had Brunei dollars and were offered an awful exchange rate but it was still cheap enough.
At the airport we had an almost 4 hour wait so we visited a couple of food & drink establishments for a couple of hours and checked in, once it had opened. Another 2 hours later we were ready to board the plane.
1 hour later we landed in Kuching. A quick stop off for a snack and we set off to get in taxi. In Kuching Airport they have a ticket system so you pay a set fare to the city centre which made everything nice and smooth. The traffic was poor so it took a while but we were dropped right at the door of our next home.
06:32 walk from Jubilee Hotel to Jalan McArthur bus stop: 9 minutes
07:00 bus to Miri: 40 BND (£23.67), 4 hours 32 minutes
11:35 taxi to Miri airport: 15 BND (£8.88), 16 minutes
15:47 (2 minute delay) flight to Kuching: 246.76 RM (£48.09), 58 minutes (on time)
17:28 taxi to Threehouse Bed & Breakfast: RM26 (£5.07), 42 minutes
Time Zone: GMT +8 (7 hours ahead of UK summer time)
21st – 24th Oct
With a scheduled arrival time of 23:59 and having been delayed by significantly more than one minute we actually arrived on the 22nd. Our first job was to sleep.
The next day our plans were to wander around the capital city of Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB or Bandar for short). We had arranged a tour into the rainforest and the driver from the tour company came to collect the cash. We needed an ATM so he very kindly drove us into town. Once cash was withdrawn and the tour was paid for we sat down for lunch at a nearby coffee shop.
Our first sight was the Sultan Omar Ali Suifuddin mosque, the central mosque and a rather extravagant example of the kind of thing you can build when your country has vast amounts of oil money.
We weren’t able to go inside so we wandered around the outside to the reflecting pool at the front with a replica barge within. They are currently renovating the waterfront so we were unable to walk all the way round.
We spent some time in the nearby department store and it was around this time, looking at all the mirrors, I had realised my hair had not quite been cut properly. I had a long dangly curtain at the back and the sides were far from symmetrical. So we bought some scissors so Kate could try and save my dignity later on.
The city is sat on the Brunei river, some of it is literally sat on the river. BSB is home to the world’s largest water village, Kampong Ayer.
A village on stilts it has been a part of Brunei culture for over a thousand years. Villagers built boats, baskets and fishing nets and would trade with their neighbours. It is still going strong to this day, although it has been modernised to some extent with running water, electricity and outboard motors for the boats. The village however is relatively self-sufficient with schools, shops, petrol stations, a post office, a police station and a fire station.
We got a taxi boat for $1 to the jetty the opposite side of the river. We wondered tentatively along the many slatted walkways and found the visitor centre, a small, free exhibition on the history and culture of the village. They have a viewing platform you can climb up to get great views of the village.
After speaking to a couple of super friendly locals we went to find a jetty to get a boat back to the main city. A boat very quickly turned around and picked us up but offered us a tour of the mangroves to see the beautiful dangly appendaged proboscis monkeys. We had wanted to do this anyway, it was the right time to do it (almost sunset) and he gave us what seemed to be a good price so we went for it.
We started off exploring the waterways around the city. We saw the mosque, the sultan’s 1,788 room residence and the beginnings of his new residence (slightly smaller but in a nicer spot).
After this we headed into the mangroves to try to spot some big floppy noses. We popped into a small clearing next to a larger tour boat full of rather loud Chinese tourists. There was a small group of monkeys way up at the top of the trees but our fellow boat blabbered, shouted and screamed the whole time they were there, so the monkeys stayed put. When the shouty boat left the monkeys came down and towards us and we got our first glimpse of that glorious nose. Unfortunately there were still too many trees in the way so I couldn’t get a good photo.
We set off for another 10 minutes or so until we found another boat taking pictures. They were stopped right underneath a proboscis monkey sat eating right next to the river.
In real life you could see that dangly beauty flopping around! We stayed put for a few minutes before heading back the way we came. We had a small tour of Kampong Ayer and he dropped us off back on the city side of the river just as the sun was setting.
On the way back to the hotel we went past the SOAS Mosque all lit up.
Our destination for tea was a night market 15 minutes north of our hotel. Like previous night markets we’d been to nothing was in English but thankfully all the staff spoke English. We stopped at a seafood stall and had butter milk prawns, rice and tom yam soup. A beer would have completed the ensemble but I made do with a watermelon juice.
The next day we had an early start for our rainforest tour. We saw the driver who’d met us the previous day who told us we needed to wait for the next boat to Bangar. There were three other people on the same tour as us and we all got on the boat and whizzed off round Malaysia to the tiny town of Bangar. We were then picked up by our tour guide Brian in his van who took us to Sumbiling Eco Village.
Once there we had a not-so-light snack of deep fried banana with coffee and tea before heading off on our third leg and second boat to the rainforest. The boats were motorised longboats with an experienced driver and a child with a stick at the front. The river was barely knee deep throughout and they had to navigate around underwater obstacles with the stick being the last resort to push off when grounded or when the propeller didn’t fit in the water. At times we were going uphill up rapids.
After all that excitement we got off the boat and climbed up to the Ulu Temburong park HQ to sign ourselves in. A second boat arrived with three more trekkers that had stayed overnight at the camp (an older couple and their grown up daughter) and we set off up the hill. The couple were a little bit slower than the rest of us so we had to do a fair bit of waiting.
We had a short climb to a bridge (with one pit stop) to cross the river before we started our climb up towards the rainforest canopy. This climb was in 5 parts with huts on the way to rest. When we got to the 4th we were stopped by a ranger as it was windy and raining and therefore dangerous. We didn’t appreciate at this time why it was a problem but we would find out soon enough. In the meantime one of the group of 3 we met on the boat decided he would walk all the way to the bottom and run all the way to the top. Because he was mental.
Once the weather cleared a bit of a queue had built up for the canopy walk and we were at the back. We walked up to the top station and saw why we were stopped ffo some wind and drizzle. The canopy walk is a spectacular scaffolding structure around 50m high. You climb up multiple ladders to the top and walk along to the end to get unbeatable views above the tallest trees. A few of our group decided against it in the wind but fair play to the older couple, they went for it and loved it! Their daughter and 2 out of 3 of the other group stayed on solid ground.
After all this fun it was back down, across the river and back to the boat. It was a quicker journey back to base camp and it became much more obvious how steep some of the rapids we’d powered up were. We were supposed to visit a waterfall on the way back but took too long getting to the canopy so unfortunately that bit was missed. But it was 14:00 and we had lunch waiting for us so I wasn’t too disappointed.
After a traditional Borneo lunch it was bus time before a half-hour wait at the boat terminal. We explored the local vicinity but Bangar is tiny so after 5 shops we had seen it all.
Just as our boat was due to depart a large man with a baseball cap, multiple tatoos and a heavy metal t-shirt shouted something in Malay on got on a boat. I joked this was our driver. He was our driver. Brian and the other guides had to run to get on the boat because they’d got the time wrong and had clearly been indulging in Bangar’s burgeoning shopping scene.
Our boat driver was crazy. The boats between Bangar and BSB are somewhere between river cruisers and speedboats and when we went round the corners you felt it!
Once back we walked the short journey back to our hotel, spotting a large group of monkeys ravaging through bins on the way. We were supposed to be going for a nice dinner somewhere but unfortunately Kate wasn’t feeling well after our hectic day in the sun so I went down to the cafe in the hotel and ordered what I thought was exotic but turned out to be chicken and chips.
After dinner it was time for another early night for yet another early start.
Jubilee hotel is a budget hotel 10 minutes walk from the harbourfront and centre of BSB. Due to the lack of backpacker options this was the cheapest we could get. It was once a very fancy establishment (back in 1977 I assume) but it appears to have not changed since. Thankfully neither have their prices so for an ensuite double room in the spot we got, we were happy.
Tl;dr – walk, minibus, boat, minibus, too many taxes, flight, wait, free bus, wait, delayed flight, super late hotel transfer
These remote islands take a while to get to and therefore a while to get out of. Also, with Manila being the main hub of the islands we were heading back to the madness to transfer to Brunei.
We had been so impressed with the transfer on the way in we figured it was well worth getting it back. When we gave our flight time we were told to be ready for 12:30. At 12:21 we were met by our first orange-shirted man. We were walked to the van and we set off. We picked up a bunch of people on the way and arrived at the jetty. The jetty had been closed the previous day due to the bad weather but the weather was glorious now.
We paid our terminal tax and had a short wait at the terminal before our boat was ready and we zoomed off across the strait.
Apart from the short walk at the start (which was in the shade) we had been air conditioned all the way until the boat but the breeze from the speed was perfect. When we stopped at the mainland we realised just how hot it was. We had to carry all our stuff round the terminal to the bus stop and Kate had overindulged on the UV rays so couldn’t carry much on her shoulders. So old Mike the Mule carried both bags in the midday sun and I felt it. But thankfully, the company’s little waiting room had loads of air conditioning! It also had a broken bench that both Kate and I sat on on separate occasions, much to the amusement of one of the eight orange-shirted men.
Our air conditioned bus rocked up after a short wait and we made the long but pleasant journey to Kalibo airport.
Once at the airport we checked in and I was informed the hand luggage allowance was 7kg and I had to pay to check my bag in. Once checked in we had to pay an extra tax to use the terminal, despite our airfare being “inclusive of all taxes and fees”. Regardless, we were through and when we picked up our own plastic child-sized chairs to sit on, we knew our airport tax was being well spent.
Our plane arrived on schedule and we got on board.
As soon as we were up at altitude we were heading back down into Manila. We had plenty of time for this transfer which helped but we were still going between terminals (this time T4 to T1) and we were pretty worried about how exactly it was going to happen.
Once off the flight and with bags collected we saw a sign for terminal transfers. We gave our flight details and waited patiently. The room was getting full until a man came through and read out a bunch of names. Everyone got up one by one until it was just us left. Then the room started filling up again. The man walked through once more and started reading out everyone elses name once more. Then “Laney, Kat” was shouted out and we assumed that was us and got on the bus to terminal 1.
We were there in no time and it was free. This whole transfer business had worked smoothly! We got some cheap microwaved food after security and headed to our gate (not quite the last one but only one off) to hear our flight was delayed due to needing a new tyre. We weren’t too bothered, after our last experience of Manila we were just happy to be there.
Our flight was with Royal Brunei as they had been the cheapest airline to get to Borneo. They are however not a budget airline and it was lovely. Big seats, all-inclusive price with a meal, even if it was served after midnight. Unfortunately due to our consistent usage of budget airlines I must’ve missed the special dietary requirements box and Kate was left without a veggie option. But aside from that, it was a very pleasant experience.
In Brunei immigration and customs took no time at all and our hotel driver was ready and waiting to take us to our hotel room so we could finally get our heads down in Bandar Seri Begawan.
12:21 walk to main road: 3 minutes
12:25 minibus to ferry terminal: 1100 PHP (as part of complete transfer deal) (£18.67), 24 minutes
12:59 boat to Caticlan: included with above but extra 200 PHP terminal tax (£3.40), 7 minutes
13:37 bus to Kalibo airport: included with above, 1 hour 36 minutes