I was not too happy to be leaving Cambodia, my favorite country. Nonetheless, I had always wanted to visit Borneo and was excited to finally have the opportunity. Little did I know what I was in for on this trip.
Borneo is administered by three countries—Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. There is little in the Indonesian part and Brunei is just an expensive version of the Malaysian part with little to see but the sultan’s mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan (though I did visit). Most of my time I was in the Malaysian parts of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak.
Saba and Sarawak are semi autonomous so I had to be stamped through immigration when arriving in each area, despite being stamped into Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur (my trip to Borneo resulted in no less than 9 new stamps in my passport and I only left Malaysia once to visit Brunei). The cities in Borneo are rather unimpressive and offer very little for visitors. Most people are seeking out the natural beauty of climbing Mt Kinabala, diving Sipidon, spelunking through Niah and Mulu Caves, or visiting the various national parks for jungle treks and wildlife encounters.
This sounds wonderful and all except most of it is very challenging to do, and I don’t mean physically. You must plan months in advance for most tours, and yes, you must do nearly everything as a tour, not independently. And the prices are, well they are unbelievably high. In fact, everything in Borneo is expensive. This is fine for tourists who don’t no any better but terrible for backpackers (i.e., me). For the few adventures that were available I was unwilling to pay the exhobident cost (and this was low season). Just to climb Mt Kinabalu was $350US—and they don’t carry you!
To dampen the experience of visiting Borneo even more, people are not very friendly there. Of course, there were a few nice people, but most could care less about you and whether you enjoyed yourself. I think the best way I could put it is they tolerated me because I had money. The government is repressive and several websites are censored. I’m sure the poorly administered social mix between ethic Malays, Chinese and Indians does nothing to help this. These things just didn’t make me feel Borneo was very nice.
Hotels were generally bad but charged a lot. One hotel, the Lavender Hotel, was downright terrible with extremely rude staff and very bad rooms. I found one that was acceptable but the staff was more interested in watching soap operas than helping me. Taxis flat out refused to use their meters and would rip you off with extremely high fares (even blatantly telling you it was because you are visitor). In general, it was not a place where I felt welcomed at all.
Nonetheless, I was there. After screwing around for far to long trying to figure out what to do in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and only visiting a couple little unimpressive islands just off the coast, I headed to Miri to see their famous caves. I wanted to go diving, but it was not an option for me because of a lack of availability and (when it would finally be available) cost. So the caves it was and they were impressive, though once again the people were rude (with the exception of the longhouse I stayed in) and the park was poorly administered. I am sensing a theme here!
I did go to Brunei. Of course, I was charged tourist prices over local prices for the bus, which was 4 times more. Crossing the border into Brunei took some time since I was the only person not from some part of Borneo. It turns out, everyone gets 30 days or less in Borneo except Americans. We get 90. That meant my stamp needed adjustment and that took some effort. When I finally made it to Bandar it was late at night. I got a glimpse of the mosque (quit beautiful) on the way in before a massive downpour essentially squashed any possibility of doing anything in this repressive country. The people were exceptionally nice, but i had to leave early the next day because of the wacked out bus and ferry schedules that would have resulted in far too many days in Brunei (at best, you only need one day—Bandar is small with only a few sights).
I managed to spend more money in two weeks in Borneo than the last two months combined and not really enjoy myself much. And my parting gift was a serious chest cold that laid me up for nearly five days in the Philippines.
Borneo was a bust.
There is usually a positive side to every place, and Borneo is no exception. I enjoyed the Mulu Caves, the topic of my next post. Though, I can honestly say that I have little desire to visit Borneo again.