Swiftly followed by Malaysia Sarawak was a brief but memorable stint in Brunei. It proved more difficult than anticipated to enter due to an outdated map sending me as the crow flies into Brunei. Things obviously got bad when I was accepting directions from 2 drunk tribal children….you take what you can get! The days events did not end there as I was backtracking 15km (I hate backtracking!) my chain decided to snap just like my patience. It is amazing what one can do when they are in the middle of the jungle with no one to turn to. So out came my pdf (for the first time) of “Bicycle maintenance” on my notebook and together with brute force, ignorance and pure chance I somehow fixed it. Routine to some but a heroic mechanical feat to others….not entirely sure I could replicate the wonder in the future however!
I saw more wildlife of the deceased nature on the roads in Brunei that I have in a lifetime of Zoos. I saw this as a sign to pedal faster as being stuck in the jungle at night was not a predicament I relished. Judging by the tiger scratches on the tree trunks and an alarming amount of rustling from the jungle I was pretty sure that is where I would meet my demise if stranded here after dark. 10km from Kuala Belait my pedal flew off the bike. Damn Chinese bike! It had gotten a belt on the flight and now the thread was bear and wouldn’t hold. As I persevered for another 4km with a “ministry of silly pedals” adjusting my pedal action to the root of the problem.....a very sorry sight! I then suddenly had my most genius bicycle maintenance moment. I rethread the pedal from the opposite side and then reinserted it in the other side…..obvious to some, monumental engineering to the novice bike mechanic!.
I had the great pleasure of staying with Sue from Australia in Kuala Belait . Clutching her address I asked a local for assistance and received the most original directions to date on my journey. “When the jungle ends turn left, when you reach the giant teacup turn right and after 3km you will see her place at Yokohama” Perfect directions and within moments after a day of innumerable hiccups I was seated with a delicious meal in front of me (Yay no rice for once!) and a vodka for rehydration by my side. The major hiccup of the day however was forgetting to bring a bottle of wine into a dry state! I consider it a real privilege to have met Sue who not only shared her experience of life as a foreigner in Brunei but most importantly her zest for life. When times are tough on this journey I will no doubt think of her character and try to emulate it…..a truly remarkable and inspirational woman who could put the devil in good humour!
First view of BSB as I approached at dusk.
Water village, Bandar.
After a days recovery in KB I set off early the following morning for the capital BSB. The road was pancake flat and I quickly slipped into the zone but stopped at the Empire hotel as recommended by Sue. Well if you ever find yourself with bags of cash to spare and wish to show it off in a building ….the empire Hotel is that. An architectural gem it is not but trophy architecture it is….in a non complementary way! Feeling a case of “Orphan Annie” as I pedalled up to it’s doors I quickly veered out the back and parked my bike in the staff quarters. Moments later whilst brandishing my sports bottle and towel around my next I emerged from the fitness suite into the ostentatious lobby. Downing my equally ostentatiously priced water I chose to pay cash much to their bewilderment…room tab? credit card?.....all foreign language to the bicycle tourist!
After a quick snoop around at how the other half live I was pedalling away to the other miss use of money in Brunei. The Playground as a present to the Sultan in Michael Jackson Neverland style....yes by playground I mean a playground, carousels,candyfloss etc. Testimony to the fact that money can buy everything and perhaps in this case everything you don't need.
Very addictive "snake fruit" salak.
I followed the call to prayer as I hit Bandar Seri Begawan. It was slim picking on the accommodation front as tourists are an equal rarity in these parts. Bizarrely enough they accept the Singapore dollar here as an official currency as they are a tied currency….thought that was random! I quickly observed that although the locals do not drink it would appear that they substitute drinking for eating or drinking pop of the inconceivably sugary and fizzy variety….jokes aside they can be seen scoffing up to 5 meals a day. I found it humorous that as I stayed in a rest house the following night there was a lecture next door discussing the obesity and diabetes problem in Brunei. At the coffee break what was on offer only banana fritters, numerous ghastly iluminous covered sugar treats and diabetes inducing fizzy delight s with icecream on top. It was like the menu at a 7 year olds birthday party but was eaten by a bunch of men in pressed suits discussing the evils of diabetes….the Brunei psyche is a local mystery I have yet to solve.
Listening to them all day I finally managed to snap one.
Speaking of drinking one must applaud Allah’s commonsense in prohibiting alcohol among his followers; if they drank alcohol as often as they do fizzy drinks, I reckon the Muslim countries would long since have exterminated each other. Food and drink is obviously very important to the locals as whenever I’m struggling in the heat or on a hill someone usually comes to my aid with a Pepsi. “No” is not an accepted response to nourishment in these parts and consequently I fear if I drink any more Pepsi I may just blow up!
Dramatic sky sunset BSB.
The Sultan is evidently on a building spree at the moment with as many turrets as cranes dotting the skyline. Architecture is not an accepted profession here so it’s interesting to note the outcome. The buildings in the capital BSB are hideously avant garde but somehow their incongruity is so extreme that it does not cause too much offence and simply bears a comic resemblance that is oddly enough almost pleasing! The housing boom is altogether a different matter as apart from their poor quality these “Ghost estates” in the jungle are down right depressing. Presumably they are to re-house and “civilize” the Iban tribal families but I fear it would be like asking an Italian to feel at home in Lapland.
With 2 pages left in my passport I had to take a boat for part of my journey today so as to avoid 4 stamps in my passport….exit Brunei-enter Sarawak - exit Sarawak - enter Brunei. Despite this ink economy I will still earn a melee of stamps tomorrow as I cross the Malaysian states, it’s not altogether a united country despite their “One Malaysia” campaign. Further proof of this is that fact that during my entire time in Malaysia I could never find a sticker of the national flag for the growing collection on my bike. I even managed to purchase one in tiny Brunei, albeit very much faded from no doubt countless years sitting on display awaiting a nutty cyclist.
I will leave you with a quote that I recently read and feel captures the essence of my journey to date. I sometimes feel that due to my newness to the whole bicycle touring concept I started this journey as a backpacker with a bike. Backpacking was simply the only method of travel I was familiar with. I have slowly realized backpacking and bicycle touring are like chalk and cheese and should be treated accordingly. Big cities are the bikes enemies, the highlights are the little known and less frequented places in between. Going native is ultimately the only way to travel….grab a bike and you will know what I mean! Or as someone more eloquently put it......
"For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move, to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly, to come down off the feather-bed of civilization and the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints". Robert Louis Stevenson.