Borneo and Brunei!

Friday, June 11, 2004
We arrived to Malaysian Borneo hoping to see the world’s largest flower, wild orangutans, lots of jungle and animals… and we have not been disappointed! Borneo boasts the largest of many things, one of which is the rafflesia flower. This bizarre flower is found only in Indonesia and Borneo, and it only blossoms whenever it feels like it – no particular season, nothing. And since it doesn’t have its own plant to flower from (it’s parasitic!) you never know where one will burst (that is actually how they bloom; pop!). Fortunately, you have the Tourist Information Office to tell you. We walked into the office; saw a big sign that said, “Rafflesia in Bloom!” and hightailed to the National Park. Only twenty rafflesias bloomed throughout 2003… so we were pretty lucky.

The other thing that’s only found in Indonesia and Borneo nowadays is the orangutan. They used to be found all over Asia, but like most places, people are encroaching on the surrounding woods and wildlife. They have a reserve where they rescue the orangutans from all sorts of situations and then help them back into their natural habitat. Before the orangutans go back into the wild completely, the park feeds them twice a day. It’s during these feedings that you get to see them; then they go back into the jungle. The visitors get to “hide” behind some trees while the animals come up for food. We saw eleven orangutans!! Four of them were babies. It was fantastic! Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay. We’ve been on lots of hikes – they have about a billion National Parks, so we went to a few. We’ve seen loads of bats, lots of random brightly colored LARGE insects and even a wild bearded pig!

Since the day we arrived, Borneo has been celebrating the Gawi Festival. It represents the end of the rice harvest and it’s their biggest celebration. This means that all the kids have two weeks off from school and ALL Malaysians are trying to visit the same places we are! Other than the buses being full, this has been great! The people of Borneo, most of whom have grown up in longhouses (big, long communal houses with extended family), are extremely friendly. One night we got invited to a huge family BBQ and the Mom insisted that all six (!) of her little girls call Rob uncle.

In contrast, we just spent the last two days in Brunei. The people there are still friendly, but the country takes on a whole different feel. Brunei, one of the world’s smallest and richest countries, has an almost eerie quality to it; at least in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, where we went. The whole country has about 330,000 people living there and the sultan pretty much is their government. He is one of the richest men in the world – the sultan and Brunei get their money from oil, and we get our oil from Brunei!

While we were there we checked out a few museums, meandered around the city and peeked at a few mosques. The best part though was the speedboat ride through the Stilt Villages. Overlooking this modern capital is a village built on stilts in the shallow water of the river. The other side of the city sports the $350 million palace of the sultan. Complete with gold dome and everything. It’s pretty cool. We rented the boat for an hour and he sped us past all the sites.

Fun Facts About Brunei:

  1. The country’s full name is Negara Brunei Darussalam which means, “Brunei – the Abode of Peace”.
  2. Islam is the national religion and about 99% of the people there follow this religion.
  3. Alcohol is not for sale (since 1991) and there is no nightlife.
  4. They were a colony of Britain until 1984. Even then, they were reluctant to gain independence. And, when they are not pumping prayers through their radio stations, they are listening to London radio.
  5. The sultan is no scrooge either. He appears to take good care of his citizens; everybody gets a pension, free medical care, free schools, free sport centers, short work weeks, subsidies for purchasing cars and, best of all… no taxes!
We are now in the northern part of Borneo, and will be here for another 2 weeks. Then we go back to Thailand for a few days to eat at our favorite Thai restaurants in Bangkok before we head off to Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. We bought those flights the other day, so it’s pretty definite! It’s also definite that we will head through China, Mongolia and Russia before getting back to England for Carla’s wedding in October! Congrats, Carla!

Beautiful Bali!

Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Bali is one of those places you always hear about – a tropical paradise on the other side of the world. For me, the image it conjured up was exactly that, a tropical paradise. But the reality is that despite the fact that Bali is a tropical paradise, it exists in a country with more than its fair share of crime, corruption and poverty. Add to that the terrorist bombings of recent past and it becomes quite easy to forget sometimes that you are really in paradise, especially when you are in Kuta (where the bomb in the nightclub went off last year). There is a gigantic hole where the club used to be, plus the World Bank is sponsoring a renovation of the Kuta sewerage system, Indonesia style. The sewers are directly below all the sidewalks. They’ve got every sidewalk in the entire area torn up with giant holes everywhere. And, it appears that there are less than a dozen people working on the project. The work is so slow it practically looks abandoned!

One place in Bali that still does seem like paradise is the town called Ubud… where we spent five days! It’s tropical in all the ways you would think of – complete with monkey forests, temples, and palaces. One night we went to see the traditional Monkey Trance Dance, which was cool. And, you get to stay in traditional Bali family homes. These homes are big tropical gardens where the whole extended family lives. In the ones where the tourists get to stay, the families still live there but they add a couple of rooms for extra income! There are all sorts of intricacies about the traditional home as well; it is shaped like person - with a head, body and anus… that’s where they put all the trash and the compost heap. There is always a giant doorway complete
with grimacing statues to keep out the evil spirits. Also, the little paths leading around the family complex and to the rooms are extremely curvy and practically overgrown with tropical jungle. This is to confuse any evil spirits that make it past the grimacing statues! And, apparently evil spirits can’t make 90 degree turns, especially if they can’t find the path in the first place.

After soaking up the atmosphere of Ubud, Rob and I and a Nepali Peace Corps Volunteer named Trey, rented a car for two days to avoid the typical tourist extortion. We wanted to go to the wreck of the U.S. Liberty and hike up one of the volcanoes. The wreck was fantastic, and I only went snorkeling! I think it is one of the few wrecked ships that can actually be snorkeled. Rob and Trey went scuba diving and said it was the best dive site they have ever been to. It is an American cargo ship that the Japanese torpedoed in World War II. The Americans towed it to shore so that the Japanese wouldn’t benefit from its contents. It sat on that eastern Bali shore until the force of nearby volcanic eruption tossed it into the ocean. It plunged just far enough so that it is entirely immersed under water. It is now home to an abundance of coral and fish! You can have a look at Rob’s website if you want to see underwater photos from the wreck.

After going to the ship wreck, we spent the day driving to the volcano and all the while admiring the unbelievably gorgeous views of the ocean, volcanoes, and rice paddies galore. The road map we bought was very unspecific and the roads we were driving on were virtually unmarked, so we took many wrong turns. We even thought that we went to Bali’s most religious site which is perched halfway up a volcano at the end of a road. But, as we found out from a local when we stopped for directions all the roads go in the area go halfway up the volcano and have a temple perched at the top! Of course they do! We just chose the wrong road.

That night after NOT going to Bali’s most religious temple we went to the volcano and were accosted by the local volcano mafia. There is only one road into town and when we arrived at that intersection there were THREE men on motorcycles there waiting. We promptly ignored them and carried on trying to find the hotel we found in our guidebook. Those three motorcycles followed us the whole way yelling, “We are not mafia! We only want to help! We will show you a hotel!” Sure, we believe you. They tried to block the road, they tried rolling down the windows, etc. but fortunately Rob just plowed through them. Our hotel was renovating their restaurant, so they let us eat on the balcony of the room… and sure enough… who comes sauntering in eating food provided our hotel but the most persistent of the moped drivers. Trey chased him out.

All of the touts have gotten together and forbidden hikers to go up the mountain without a guide – and you can only get a guide from the mafia. When we tried driving to the parking lot where we intended to start our hike from, the same thing happened, only this time the mafia moped man (MMM) prevented us from finding that parking lot and from actually climbing. He told us that we’d fall off the mountain if we didn’t use a guide and then proceeded to show us photos of bloody people being carried off in stretchers because they didn’t use a guide. And (even though he claimed to not be mafia) he threatened to have fifteen of his friends block the road if we didn’t pay him as our guide. After at least an hour of driving and getting followed, we decided to just enjoy the scenery that was near us and went tromping through the lava, going no further than 10 feet from the road while Rob stayed with the car. The best part was, one of the Swedish tourists we picked up from the side of the road (miles from their destination) actually spoke Indonesian! She talked to MMM and eventually he drove away. All in all it was still a fun two-day road trip, but I can’t say I’d recommend it!

We have just happily arrived to Malaysian Borneo for the next few weeks!

Love, Alison