My continuing summer 2003 journey found me next flying from Turkey back to Southeast Asia, landing in Brunei to spend 12 days on the island of Borneo. I honestly cannot remember at all why I opted for this particularly itinerary. Even by my sometimes strange travel patterns, this one strikes me as odd. I wrote that I did not know where I would be going or what I would see. I had a few ideas in my head, but no reservations other than the flights in and out of Brunei. But lack of plans often leads to the best of travel. My big regret on this trip is not taking any pictures in that cat museum…
Brunei. I arrived first in Brunei, incredibly my second trip to the sultanate. There was actually a surprising amount going on as it was the Sultan’s birthday and celebrations were in full swing. There was traffic! On my previous visit I felt like I could walk down the street of the main road of the capital city and not be concerned for my safety. This time it seemed people actually live in Brunei.
I only stayed in Brunei a single day so I could visit Jerudong Playground. The amusement park is the largest and most expensive in Southeast Asia, a gift from the Sultan to the people of Brunei on his 48th birthday. For many years the park charged no admission fee, but now for the price of 15 Brunei dollars (about US$9) one can go on all the rides unlimited times. Due to the heat of the day, the park is only open in the late afternoon to evening, from 4 PM to 11 PM. And it was nearly deserted. There was myself, two other guys from the hostel, and perhaps 10 other people. We seemed to be the only ones riding the rides. Two Indian guys just seemed to be taking pictures of themselves in various poses. The few people with children seemed confined to the playground portion. We basically had the park to ourselves. Rather like a childhood dream come true.
Except that one always has in the back of one’s head “Be careful what you wish for.” There were no lines in this amusement park. In fact, the rides were not even running until we stepped up with our tickets and then the ride operator would start it up, and then turn it off as we went away. We went on every ride that we could, sometimes two or three times. We did the log ride three times so we could each have a chance to sit in the front, the back, and the middle! On a mini rollercoaster, which was not so much scary as a bit rickety, we did not even stop when we came to the loading area, we just rode right through for a second time around. I said I sincerely hoped that they would not do that on the big scary loop de loop roller coaster on the other side of the park, because I would seriously need a breather between rides there. At least that guy gave us a few minutes before firing it up again. I had to get off while the other guys went for the third time. Two times in a row was plenty fine for me. By the end we were quite bored having done everything in the park in two hours, except the children’s rides, which although we begged to ride, they would not let us.
The following morning, I woke up at 6:30 AM so I could be packed up and at the bus station for a 7:30 AM bus to Miri in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Good thing I was there early as the bus left at 7:15. And thus began the crazy bus circus to Miri and the whole day of travel to get to Kuching, because for some reason there was not enough demand for a direct flight between Brunei and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak….Someone suggested I take the bus gauntlet from Brunei to Miri and fly to Kuching. Or to take a bus to a boat to a flight to a flight. Or a flight from Brunei to Sabah to Sarawak. It all sounded incredibly complicated for a place a little over an hour flight away.
I opted for the bus trip to Miri. This bus went for two hours to the town of Seria, where I waited ten minutes before boarding another bus to Kuala Beliat. From Kuala Beliat I waited 40 minutes before boarding a bus which took us literally five minutes away to a ferry crossing; we took the ferry and boarded another bus on the other side. That bus took us to the Malaysian/Brunei border where we all disembarked and went through immigration, then boarded yet another bus to town.
In Miri, I needed to take a bus to the airport. Some taxi drivers tried to convince me there was no bus coming for HOURS, but upon inspection of the bus schedule I found one arriving in ten minutes. I arrived at the airport at 2 PM, just 40 minutes before the flight I wanted was to take off. That plane was to fly from Miri to Bintulu to Sibu to Kuching (my final destination), but it was full. I then had to take the 5:30 flight. There was very little to do in the brand spanking new Miri International Airport as the restaurant and ATM and coffee shop had yet to open…But luckily the plush chairs for the opening ceremony were still sitting out front in what would be the drop off area for taxis someday, and these chairs had no arm rests, so I could lay out and take a nap….in time to take my flight to Kuching, where I arrived at 6:30 pm. Only to find that now there were no more buses running and I had to take a taxi to town. By the time I got settled in my new hostel, it had taken more than 12 hours to get from Brunei to Kuching, what could have been just over an hour flight…
Kuching. The capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak means “cat” in Malay, so little wonder that one of the first things I thought to do in Kuching was to go to the Cat Museum a little way out of town. This has got to be one of the most bizarre collections of cat paraphernalia in the world and not a place for people who do not like cats. Besides displays of kitschy cat posters and books, displays of Garfield and Hello Kitty, and information on the wild cats of Sarawak, there were also some REALLY interesting exhibits. Such as the display for veterinary equipment or cat food. (was it really necessary to put cat food into class cases and label it?) There was also an interesting display on “famous” movies about cats such as Disney’s 1979 movie “The Cat from Outer Space.” What interested me more were the cat horror films such as the movie “Eye of the Cat” (year not given) which had a poster describing the movie as “if you have ailurophobia (the fear of cats) this picture could send you beyond the point of normal fear.” Then there was the 1982 classic “The Cat People.” My favorite just might have been the 1974 “Night of a Thousand Cats” which had the fascinating plot described as “Alone only a harmless pet…one thousand strong they become a man-eating machine! When the cats are hungry…Run for your lives!” I cannot figure out why I have not seen that amazing movie! There were displays of cats in history, such as ancient Egypt and different kinds of cat products like the Black Cat cigarette – the 1920s bestselling cigarette in the UK! Finally, there was a display of famous people who owned and loved cats such as Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Victor Hugo (who had a special armchair made for his cat), Henri Matisse, and Isaac Newton (supposedly the inventor of the cat door!). Ah, the Kuching Cat Museum, a real treat!
I also visited the Sarawak museum, considered one of the best museums in Southeast Asia. Although half of it was closed, it had some good displays on indigenous tribes. The downstairs though was full of the flora and fauna to be found in the jungles, which means lots of stuffed animals staring out at me. It was a bit scary, even the cute animals were scary. Since they were all stuffed at the turn of the last century (i.e. about 1900) I didn’t know if it was the wear and tear of the stuffed beasts or some kind of technique of early 20th century taxidermists to make even the tamest of jungle animals seem terrifying. The Chinese Heritage Museum too was equally interesting. Though neither were quite equal to the Cat Museum.
I really wanted to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center as it is, as far as I know, only one of three in the world. To get there I decided not to take a tour, but to get there on my own steam. Good thing too because I did not see a single orangutan! The others paid 35 Ringgit for their tour, while I paid 2 Ringgit for the bus there, 3 Ringgit back, and 3 Ringgit to get into the park. What a bargain since I did not see what I went there to see. Instead I was treated to some very obnoxious children with their more obnoxious parents. They made so much noise that no orangutan in his/her right mind would appear before our mob.
The next day, though exhausted and a bit deflated from the failed orangutan outing and unsure I wanted to risk a two-hour one-way bus trip to be disappointed again, I headed to Gunung Gading National Park. The rare Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, was in bloom. It has a gestation period of nine or ten months, blooms for only five days, then dies. It smells of rotten meat to attract flies, which transport its pollen. Sounds delightful, right? Again, I decided to go it on my own rather than take the 80 Ringgit tour. It cost ½ Ringgit to get to the bus station and then eight Ringgit to take the bus, plus another two Ringgit to get to the park, 20 Ringgit for the guide shared with two people, and five Ringgit to get into the park. And I saw it! As it was the last day in bloom, it didn’t smell (probably a good thing). It felt more like a mushroom than a flower, almost like it wasn’t real, like plastic. It was very cool.
Pontianak. From Kuching I took a ten-hour bus to Pontianak, Indonesia to visit some Internally Displaced Persons resettlement villages. I slept almost the entire bus ride. Arriving in Pontianak around 7 PM, I first looked for a place to stay. My first cheapie choice was full, but I found a lovely two star across the street that was having a special promotion. I had a whole room, tv, air-con, in-suite bath with HOT water, all for US$10! But I made the mistake of going out. A guy on motorbike offered to give me a ride for no charge. Less than a minute later we were stopped by a policeman because I was sans helmet. The police took the guy’s license. For some reason the resolution involved us riding out to his Kampung (village) outside of Pontianak to his house (the whole 30-minute ride I had no helmet, the irony). I met his wife, his child, his neighbors. They offered for me to stay there that evening, but I declined. I borrowed his wife’s helmet, we rode back to the police station where I paid a fine (10,000 rupiah, a little more than US$1), then he drove me to my original destination two minutes from the police station, by then closed for the night!
I spent much of the next day in Pontianak enjoying my hotel, walking across town to the museum, and checking in at the Internet cafe. The walk to the museum took longer than expected, especially in the heat, and I was disappointed to find it closed but swarming with junior high school children. A guard was enticed to open the museum for me while some random guy volunteered to be my guide. Although some exhibits had English signs, he still insisted on trying to explain them to me in broken English. The following day I visited one of the resettlement villages outside of Pontianak. Over the course of my graduate degree I had researched this issue several times and with a contact working with the International Organization for Migration, I was able to organize a visit. This is a village where internally displaced people from ethnic conflicts in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have been placed, though some of the people have been “displaced” in the village for as long as four years.
Another long bus ride back to Sarawak then a flight found me in Miri wondering about how I spent more time on different forms of transport than any particular place. I meant to go on a longhouse tour, maybe go to Bako National Park and the Niah Caves, but I didn’t do those things. And I didn’t see the orangutans. But I once heard something to the effect that it is good to have in mind an end to a journey, but it is the journey itself that matters in the end. So much journeying here in Borneo…