Brunei to Limbang to Miri (14 -16 Sep)
The border crossing was a joke. We bade farewell to our elderly cab driver and $5, hopped into a small boat, tossed a dollar into the tin and took an 8 second boat ride across the river that separates the two countries. Lucky for us. On the road from Brunei, a long line of vehicles queued up for a barge to ferry them across. Haven’t the two governments heard of a ‘bridge’? Someone living here should write a song called ‘No Bridge Over Peaceful Waters’.
The unconventional backdoor-entry into Mulu plan was shelved when we found out from a very enterprising Mr Lim (who runs a budget hotel, a small grocery shop and a tour agency) that it would cost us more than RM$2000! Still, we decided to spend an extra day in this small town to slow things down a bit, eat KFC and enjoy the power of the Sing dollar once more.
We sampled our first Kolo Mee (Gan Lao Mian) in Limbang and it was deceptively good. When the white noodles first touched down on our table, it looked painfully plain. 6 scraps of chicken and about 5 shavings of scrambled egg were the plenteous toppings. But after I sank my teeth into the crunchy and flavoursome noodles…Ohhhh…the world suddenly seemed a better place with the discovery of this RM$2 delight.
The Kimidin has now usurped the Shu Zi Cai as my favourite local vegetable. I had my first encounter this tender river fern shoot in when I visited Mawai’s Eco-camp in Johore with Hong Kah’s NPCC. On one of the nature walks, the guide pointed to the dark green lollipop-looking shoot and told us it was a local vegetable. We finally got a taste of it at Limbang’s pasar malam. We loved it so much that we had it for both our dinners and its delectable, lightly fried with sambal.
The only tourist attraction we visited was the Limbang Regional Museum. This well-maintained museum was once a fort and still has small canons fronting the 2-storey wooden building which also functioned as a prison. Here, besides the tedious historical manuscripts, is a wonderful display of woven baskets, canoes, rice sieves, pottery, weapons, traditional costumes, dibble sticks, musical instruments, cooking utensils, fishing traps, coloured clay bead necklaces, handicrafts and several well-taken photographs of the various indigenous tribes that give you a feel of their culture and daily doings. Each tribe is briefly described but only homogenifying boring niceties are said about them and sad to say there are no gruesome accounts of head-hunting escapades.
The hazy billiard saloons here are an ALL MALE affair. The only two females I saw were probably foreign workers from Indonesia and their sole purpose in life in this shady establishment is to set up the table before each game. Fortunately, they were not skimpily dressed.
Thanks to Mr Lim’s recommendation and free transportation, we landed ourselves in a really cheap hole. For RM$30 we had a room with a toilet so tiny that you could wash your hands from the outside (the room wasn’t big either)! Thanks to some smart person, a slanted cement bund beneath the flimsy plastic door ensured that no water could flood the room. We had yellowed pillows, grubby greyish blankets, cigarette butts in a corner, a clammy doormat that probably contained a whole range of bacteria and the good company of a big lizard and a roach nymph. Fortunately, the place did not smell too badly, the air-conditioner was working really swell and we had only two nights here!
When dusk fell, we realised that perhaps we were indeed staying in a clandestine brothel. Downstairs along the 5 foot way, emerged young, voluptuous and immaculately made-up Indon foreign ‘talent’ who strutted their stuff in tight blouses, denims and 2-inch platforms. I was quite shocked to see 3 or 4 of them half-hidden in the shadows of the narrow shophouse stairways that lined this particularly seedy street. They were peering from behind the grills, eyes inviting, waiting to be approached (It’s a good thing this area does not see the hordes of men the Geylang Lorongs get on weekends). The more proactive and seasoned lasses were out in the open, on the prowl for potential customers. Several were into the negotiation phase. One, just inches away from clinching a deal was already halfway up the stairway that led to our rooms. Incidentally, her ample bosoms were also just inches away from his. This seems to be the general stance while discussing the final rules of engagement. I didn’t see any pimps around so perhaps it was like our buses at home, a one-woman-operation. The juxtaposition of this subtle night trade together with the regular businesses of grocery, furniture, computer, handphone and motorcycle repair shops does give the scene a touch of comic relief. In the day, after they have been rejuvenated, these women mingle and joke with the shop-owners and hang out at the corner coffeeshops to chat. This symbiotic relationship perhaps ensured a steady stream of customers for both establishments. The coffeeshop WAS packed out but then again it could be the kolo mee. I was quite tempted to pay one pretty lass just to interview her. Upon closer examination of our hotel’s signboard, we found that there was a RM$20 alternative below the standard price. Hmmmm…Hotel 81 does have similar 1 hour room rates.
The 20 seater, 2-propeller ‘Twin Otter’ was lying in wait on the tarmac. As I walked towards this tiny aircraft, I already knew the ride to Miri would be thoroughly enjoyable! This plane being shorter than an SBS bus is the smallest I have been on. Even the domestic planes in Cambodia are bigger than this bird! I managed to get a front seat from which I could get excellent views of the analogue dials and switches in the cockpit and the engine beneath the wing. The rubber wheels were not retractable and were visible from my seat when I craned my neck. There was no door to the cockpit and two little fans in front made up the ventilation system! The steering handles looked antiquated and the headsets the two pilots were using reminded me of the ones I used for listening comprehension in the language labs of Henry Park Primary School two decades ago. It was entertaining to watch the pilots tweak the dials, crank the handles, flip the large metal switches and hear their voices over the speakers when they were so close to all of us. The cabin reverberated when the engines fired up and a pair of earplugs would be nice to dampen the loud chopping noises the powerful propellers made. Being so small and light, the plane didn’t need much of a runway to takeoff and soon I could see Limbang and the grand meanders of the river that ran through it. Flying low enabled me to get clear views of settlements, large tracts of jungle, ox-bow lakes, tributaries, channels, roads, tracks, resorts, solitary houses, the coastline, vehicles, boats, oil palm plantations, deforested areas and farmland for the entire length of the 40 minute flight. This you will not get on the 747s. When we flew through clouds, it usually became more turbulent and in a small plane, the effects of a short dip seemed to be immensely magnified. One lady behind me sent her lunch into a puke bag and a visibly vexed makcik beside me was reciting (presumably prayers) from a small Arabic book right from the start!
I arrived at Miri, really contented with the sights and the many video clips taken.
Karen, having forgotten to take her motion-sickness pills and having witnessed some serious puking onboard, arrived in quite the opposite state (Read her side of the ride at www.take-the-mickey.blogspot.com).
Miri’s modern airport is only two years old and puts KK’s International Airport to shame. Everything there seems to be working fine except for the vacant tourist information counter. Being poor backpackers who are unable to afford the steep RM$14 taxi ride into Miri, we needed to find out if there was a local bus into town. ‘Ya, there is a bus to Miri, coming in 10 minutes. Wait outside at the bus-stand.’ reassured the helpful ladies at the pseudo-tourist information cum control room. We ended up waiting for more than an hour for the bus and reached our accommodation at Fairland Inn another hour later after the grouchy bus driver had woven through half the suburbs of Miri. But we arrived with RM$12.20 more in our pockets to check out Miri’s makan scene. While we were waiting for the bus, I got the chance to observe their airport taxi system. Passengers would emerge from the arrival hall, approach a lady sitting on a plastic stool who would decide how much they had to pay for their ride, collect the cash, issue them a ticket and then direct them to the next taxi in line. When a couple of taxis had left, the middle-aged drivers waiting behind would come out of their vehicles and push them up the queue. It is quite a funny sight! I thought the lady had the most boring job in the world. Apparently a trustworthy metering system hasn’t come to Sarawak yet.
In Miri, the administrative ‘miri-cle’ happened. In just under one and a half frantic hours, we booked our flights and accommodation at Mulu, checked out the rates at a tour operator (which were ridiculous!), got our Bario (destination after Mulu) permits done at the Residen’s House and bought our flight to Bario. We were probably the last two who managed to secure the crucial Camp 5 accommodation for the Pinnacles Trek in Mulu. If we called any later, we might have to endure a five day wait just to do the popular trek.
Phew! Mulu here we come!