Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thursday 15th May - Last Day :o(

Paid a last visit to Bandar this morning, just to check I hadn't missed any shops or photo opportunities!

Steve stopped in a barbers to get his hair cut. As part of the service they give you a massage, which includes pulling your fingers to make them 'crack' - yuk! And all for B$4 (£1.50)

Also had a last swim at the RBRC. I thought I would try to spend half an hour in the sun, just to get the tan (or what there was of it) topped up. I laid there for about 15 minutes, and just as I was thinking it was getting too hot, the sun came out!! I thought I was going to fry to a crisp, it was so hot! I made a run for the shade and gave up on the tan.

All too soon, it was time to go to the airport. I've had a wonderful time in Brunei, and hope to be able to visit again. The country and its people are very peaceful and gentle, and I've never had such a relaxing time. I was very sad to leave, but take some great memories with me. Thank you Brunei (and Steve, of course!!)

Wednesday 14th May - Recovering

I woke up expecting to be aching all over today after yesterday's exertions, but felt suprisingly OK. Even so, we decided to take it easy - after all, we deserved a rest!!

We went to have a look at Muara beach. Another beautiful beach, but as with all the other beaches, it was deserted, but this appeared to be more family friendly as there is a park behind it with picnic facilities, and there appeared to be some improvements going on as well.

Steve decided to try his hand at fishing again, and as the spot we went to before, at Kota Batu, was so lovely we went back there again. Unfortunately Steve didn't manage to catch anything (again!) There were a lot of helicopters flying around, and we wondered if they were searching for someone, but we later found out it was all part of an army exercise for the Prince of Jordan who was visiting Brunei for a few days.

As the day went on, I could feel my calf muscles seizing up, and by the end of the day, I could hardly walk downstairs - and I thought I'd got away with it, no such luck!

We popped into Gadong in the evening, and before visiting the market for our dinner, we stopped in a coffee bar - big mistake! While we were in there, it absolutely poured with rain, so we were facing the prospect of yet another visit to the market in the rain!

When we got there, most of the stalls were packing up, but we still managed to find something delicious to take home!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tuesday 13th May - Rainforest Adventure!

An early start today as we had to pick up the river bus (known locally as 'flying coffins'!) at 8.00 in Bandar. They really do fly as well, although the morning journey was pretty sedate compared to the return journey in the evening - more of that later. The trip to Bangar, in the Temburong District, takes about 45 minutes and for most of the journey you are travelling through the mangroves, with nothing to see but wildness! The journey takes you down the Brunei River, across Brunei Bay then up the Temburong River. The only way to get to the Temburong district, is by boat, via Brunei Bay, or by car, via Malaysia. The National Park, where we were going, is only accessibly by river.

We were met at Bangar by David, our tour guide, and were taken by minibus to a guest house near Batang Duri for breakfast (spring rolls, banana fritters and hot chocolate for me - heaven knows why I wanted hot chocolate in that weather) and to collect our life jackets for the next leg of our journey. We got back in the minibus and headed off to where we would pick up the longboat (Temaui) to take us further up the Temburong River, stopping to pick up our lunch at a local school on the way.

The longboat holds about 6 or 7 people and is a bit like an overgrown canoe, with an engine on. Getting in was a bit of an art as they wobble from side to side a lot!! They go pretty fast, when the river allows, and the driver must know the river like the back of his hand as it seemed quite shallow in places (David was helping us along every now and again using a big stick!) and at times we seemed to be squeezing in between rocks and old tree trunks that were sticking out of the river. The scenery was absolutely amazing, just trees and plants reaching up high on both sides of the river. We also saw a hornbill flying way up above us. After about 45 minutes we stopped at the National Park Information Centre - a lovely wooden building - to register, then had to get back in the longboat (oh joy, more wobbling!) for the 2 minute journey to the staffhouse, which is at the place where the Temburong and Belalong Rivers meet.
We had a couple of minutes to gather our thoughts, and grab some water, and then it was into the jungle. The first part of the journey takes you up about 50 steps, then onto a swaying rope bridge over the river, which was a bit scary. You then have to go up another 970 steps to get to the canopy walkway. We stopped at various points along the way and David was telling us about the trees and plants, and we saw some termites nests and a couple of lizards as well. I was pretty relieved each time we stopped as I found the climb really hard work in the heat and humidity, and being unfit didn't help much either. I've never sweated so much in my life, and thought I was going to be sick a couple of times too!

We made it up the 1200 steps (Steve did it without any problem - like a gazelle!!) only to be faced with the climb up to the canopy walkway. It's 40 metres up, above the trees, and to get to it, you have to climb up what looks like a scaffold tower. There was no way on earth I could get up there - even if I hadn't done the previous marathon up all those steps - I really don't like heights!! Steve was happy to go up and took my camera with him to get some great photos, while I sat in the shade and got some energy back for the walk down.

The walk back was much, much easier and we got to the staff house to be greeted by lunch - various curries and rice. I hadn't realised how hungry I was and the meal was delicious! We had a wander around and David pointed out a chilli plant (Steve picked one and I licked it briefly - it was the hottest chilli I'd ever tasted!!) and a papaya tree.
David is an Iban, which is Bruneian who isn't a muslim. They appear to be very superstitious people - he was talking about food that he eats and said he wouldn't eat crocodile, because they believe when old people die, they turn into crocodiles. They also don't eat monkeys, because they believe that if you eat one, your children (or future generations) will be ill.

We then set off down the river in the longboat, back to the minibus. We stopped at a small zoo with with some very unusual animals. One of them was a binturun, which is a sort of cross between a bear and a cat. David told us that it was related to a tiger, and it would kill you, but even if you shot it, it wouldn't die - another Iban superstition presumably!

There are deer running around in a large field, and every year on his birthday in July, the Sultan comes to kill 2 of them. A lot of the cages were much too small for the animals, especially the birds, and it was particularly upsetting to see eagle owls and hornbills in small cages.

After the zoo we stopped at an Iban Longhouse. The house has a long veranda type area with doors leading off it to the living quarters for each of the families living there. The veranda is the communal area where the families sit, although they own TVs etc. Hanging from the ceiling of the veranda were 2 babies, in cloth 'hammocks' attached to the ceiling by a stretchy cord. They looked very comfortable!!

We then went back to Bangar in the minibus, to wait for our river bus. The driver of the bus was obviously in a hurry to get home as we flew along. The boat was really leaning over as he turned round some very sharp bends - he obviously knew what he was doing as we made it back in one piece.

The first thing we did when we got back to the apartment (after putting the air conditioning on to its lowest temperature) was to have a lovely cool shower - probably the most welcome one I've ever had!

It was a fantastic day, and extremely tiring, but we had just about enough energy to visit the market at Gadong for some takeaway food!

Monday 12th May - A Quiet Day

We had a quiet day today, going to Bandar in the morning to book our trip to Ulu Temburong, and having the usual coffee, then swimming at the RBRC.

We wanted to save some energy for the trip into the jungle!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sunday 11th May - Wild Weather

We had decided to get up early and go for a swim at either Muara or Meragang beach. Unfortunately Steve couldn't get the car out, thanks to some dodgy parking by one of his neighbours. Luckily a while later someome else moved their car and we were able to get on our way. Muara was pretty busy as it was Sunday, so we tried Meragang beach instead. The sea was pretty rough, but we still went in for a refreshing dip.

After a shower, we drove into Bandar for a coffee, then tried to find the Sultan's Mausoleum as we'd read about in in a book we'd bought. We found it down a quiet road, in a tranquil settng next to the Brunei river. We didn't go in as we weren't sure if we were allowed to, but we were pleased we'd seen it.

We drove up to the Sultan's palace, to see if we could get a good photo of it, but the best we could manage was one of the entrance - better than nothing though.

The next stop was the Jame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, which is the most beautiful mosque I've ever seen, and the biggest in Brunei. It is covered in tiles and has 29 golden domes, and is set in lovely gardens.

I'd wanted to visit Jerudong Park, as the guide books said it was a 'must see' but Steve had heard it was deserted. I wanted to make my own mind up about it, so off we went. When we arrived, we took a wrong turn and ended up at the Jerudong Park Polo fields. Alongside the road in fenced off paddocks were at least 100 polo ponies (presumably the Sultan's). They were magnificent looking animals, and probably worth a fortune. There didn't appear to be any security, but who would steal one of the Sultan's ponies anyway? We eventually found our way to the Park and it was almost completely deserted. It was very sad to see all the empty rides. Apparently it used to be busy when it was free to get in, but once they started charging an entry fee (B$5 per person, less than £2) the Bruneians stopped going.

Rather than go in, we decided to pay another visit to the Empire Hotel & Country Club. While we were sitting in the lounge with our mocktails, we could see very black clouds in the distance. They were heading our way and getting nearer and nearer. Suddenly the wind started howling - the trees were swaying like mad. It looked pretty scary, but we were nice and cosy in our seats overlooking the 8 storey high windows, thankful that we'd made the decision not to go into Jerudong Park! The rain started lashing down as well - I've never seen anything like it! It calmed down after about 30 minutes and we made a run for the car, but we still got soaked

On the way back, we saw the market at Gadong was on again, so paid it another wet, rainy visit to get a takeaway for our dinner.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Saturday 10th May - Gone Fishing

We drove into Bandar this morning to visit the Chinese Taoist Temple - it looks quite out of place, surrounded by modern buildings. We then walked through the riverside market, which was mainly food, and full of many different smells - some nicer than others!

We walked from the market to the Royal Regalia Museum, most of the exhibits being gifts given to the Sultan by the people of Brunei, and from other countries. On display was the chariot used to carry the Sultan during his Silver Jubilee celebrations along with models of the 64 guards who carried it (well pushed it along, as it is on wheels) It must have been a fantastic sight.

After a coffee in DeRoyalle, we went back to the apartment to pick up Steve's fishing gear, then drove to Kota Batu. There are wooden jetties leading to little shelters overlooking Brunei Bay. The view was lovely, but the sky was black and we were sure we would get soaked. We could see the rain heading towards us down river, but luckily it stayed on the opposite side to us. Unfortunately Steve didn't catch any fish, although one or two ate the prawns he was using as bait!

Before going back home we stopped in Bandar for coffee and to have a look in a few shops - I bought some beads - as well as the 24 hour street market that's on every Saturday.

Friday 9th May - Massage, Malaysia and Market

I left early for my pampering session at the Empire. The session started with my feet being soaked in a bowl of warm water, and I was then taken into the changing room and given a robe, slippers and a very small pair of disposable knickers to change into! The second part of the session consisted of a massage with what felt like sand, but which was actually coconut flakes and salt in oil. I then had a shower - my skin felt lovely and soft. I was looking forward to a lovely gentle massage to end the session. Gentle???!!!!! She must have had thumbs of steel! She dug her thumbs into places I never knew I had! She started with my back, then my left arm and leg, and then right leg and arm. When she dug into my right calf, I nearly shot off the bed! Even though it was a hard massage, and pretty uncomfortable at times, once she'd finished, I felt very relaxed, and I was surprised to find I'd been there over 2 hours - the time had flown by. A very well spent B$230 (about £85)

Steve picked me up and set off to Kuala Lurah to pop over the border to Malaysia. We decided to walk over the border, as there was a lot of traffic. Apparently a lot of Bruneians go across the border on Fridays for a boozing session! The whole experience was very different from the civilised border crossing at Kuala Belait - this was completely mad!! Immediately after the border, there are loads of macan (food) stalls lining the street. There is smoke pouring from their barbecues, which smells lovely, but they all sell the same thing - skewered chicken wing, each skewer holding one very stretched wing, skewered chickens bums(!), fish cakes and very dodgy looking sausages - needless to say, we didn't try any of them!

We stopped for a couple of beers and just sat taking in the atmoshphere, before heading back to Brunei with some more beer.

We decided to go to Bandar for a walk, stopping in the DeRoyalle coffee bar. This is one of two 24 hour coffee bars in Bandar, and is full of character and very friendly. The whole city was very quiet though, bearing in mind it was Friday night.

There was a lot of lightning as we set off back home, and the guy on the radio said it was raining hard in the city - well not where we were, it wasn't!! No sooner had we heard that, than the heavens opened! Suddenly we spotted a big market as we passed Gadong, but couldn't get to it from the road we were on. After much searching in the torrential rain, we finally found a way to get to it - and it seemed half the population of Brunei had the same idea - so that's where they all spent their Friday nights! Most of the stalls were macan stalls and the smell was mouth-wateringly gorgeous. It was still raining, and we got soaked, but it didn't matter. We bought a parcel of rice with sauce and onions on top, wrapped up in a banana leaf - yum! We had a wander round and decided to get some food to take home. We bought 4 large vegetable rolls, 5 banana fritters, 7 prawn balls, and 2 different types of fried noodles, all for $6 - just over £2. There was more than enough for the 2 of us, and it was delicious!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thursday 8th May - Bits and Pieces

I went into work with Steve today, stopping for a coffee on the way. 10 minutes later (!) we were on our way to Serasa beach for Steve to try a bit of fishing. After losing 3 weights and hooks, getting them stuck in the rocks, we headed off for further adventures.

We decided to go back via the route through Kota Batu that we took when I arrived on Sunday, as most of it had been a bit of a jet-lagged haze. We stopped by the Sultan's tomb, which is hidden away from the road in a beautiful setting. He lived from 1473 to 1521 and was the 5th Sultan of Brunei. Just as we were leaving, the heavens opened. When it rains in Brunei, it really rains - even windscreen wipers at full speed are of little use - and everything starts steaming. Also, because it's so cool inside the car, the outside of the windows have condensation on the outside!

As we'd seen the Empire Hotel and Country Club from a distance yesterday, we decided to pay a proper visit today for a drink - non-alcoholic of course. It is a beautiful hotel, which cost US$1.1bn to build. It has a main atrium which is at least 8 storeys high, and the grounds and pools are stunning. Steve very kindly said he would treat me to a spa treatment, so I booked a Tropical Body Rub for the next day - what luxury!

We returned to Bandar for another look around the shops in the early evening, and were just walking past the main mosque (Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque) when the call for evening prayer started. You could hear the call from 3 or 4 other nearby mosques and it sounded great. At prayer times, all radio stations broadcast the call to prayer - its quite a relaxing sound!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Wednesday 7th May - It's All About the Oil

Steve had to go to Kuala Belait (or KB, as its know to us locals!) to meet up with his boss. KB is at the opposite end of Brunei to BSB and it takes just over an hour to get there. On the way we stopped at the Megamas training centre, where much of the training for workers in the oil and gas industry takes place. There was some driver training going on, as well as some survival training.

For part of the survival training, the trainees are put in a mock up of a helicopter and lowered into a swimming pool. They go through various stages, getting lowered deeper into the pool each time, and they have to escape from the helicopter each time. The grand finale is when they not only get completely submerged, but also get turned upside down. I was suprised to learn that some of them were non swimmers as well. I couldn't imagine having to do any of it, let alone doing it and not being able to swim!

Steve had to pop into the office for an hour or so, so I sat by the pool at the Seaview Hotel, which is right on the beach, and yet again the beach was lovely, but deserted.

Once Steve had finished, we headed off to Malaysia, to buy some alcohol. Brunei is a completely dry country, however non-Muslims can take in 12 cans of beer and 2 litres of wine and/or spirits. There is a small duty-free shop just over the border so we went in there, bought some beer and gin, and headed back into Brunei, 4 stamps in our passports later!

We headed back via KB, stopping to have a look around (its fairly small, so not lots to see) and also to buy some curry puffs. They are just like small cornish pasties, filled with chicken or beef curry - delicious! We then drove on to Seria, which is a town built mainly by Shell. It looks very much like an army camp, with all the houses looking the same - just like chalets. I wouldn't fancy living there at all.

There are 'nodding donkeys' bringing up the oil all over the place, and right by the beach is a monument to the billionth barrel of oil, which was produced in 1991.

Not surprisingly, petrol and diesel is extremely cheap in Brunei - 50 litres of diesel costs B$16, about £6!

On the way back from Seria, we spotted a sign for a beach that we hadn't seen before - Pantai Tungku. We decided to investigate, and from the beach we had a great view of the Empire Hotel and Country Club - the best hotel in Brunei.

After heading into Gadong to buy some supplies for the apartment, we headed back home for a lazy evening.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tuesday 6th May - Exploring

We ventured into deepest Brunei today, driving via Tutong to Tasek (Lake) Merimbun. We stopped for breakfast on the way - Steve had noodles with seafood, and I had Nasi Goreng - a very different breakfast, but delicious!!

We eventually managed to find the lake; it had a big wooden visitor centre, showing examples of all the wildlife that could be found at the lake, including a grasshopper that was 6 inches long! I was hoping we weren't going to meet any of them.

We decided against doing the whole 1.8k walk as it was very hot, so we walked through the forest for about 20 minutes until we came to the viewing platform that looked out over the lake. It was beautiful and peaceful - all you could hear were birds and insects. I've never seen so many dragonflies and butterflies in one place. The lake is a 'black water' lake, which is actually a dark brown. The colour comes from the tannin in the leaves that fall into it. We stayed there quite a while, just enjoying the view and the peace, before starting walk back. Although it was a short walk, most of it was uphill, and by the time we got back to the car, my head was buzzing and sweat was pouring from me. It made me a bit concerned about the trip into the rainforest in Temburong - I hope I'm going to make it!!

We started the journey back home, stopping in Tutong for a couple of photos, and then making a detour to Seri Kenangan Beach. This beach sits on a spit of land between the Tutong River and the South China Sea. It was extremely beautiful, and completely deserted. It seem such a shame that these beautiful places don't seem to be used. There is very little tourism in Brunei, so the usual areas that the tourists would go to are very quiet. On the other hand, maybe if these beaches were busier, they wouldn't seem so beautiful?

After another visit to the Royal Brunei Recreation Club, we went back home to chill out. While standing on the balcony, vodka in hand, we spotted some monkeys in the trees opposite - a brilliant sight and the perfect end to a lovely day.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Monday 5th May - Feeling Human Again

Was up early this morning - Steve went off to work, while I stayed in the apartment, got myself organised and played with Ninja. When Steve got home, we went to the Mall in Gadong where I bought some beads - must try not to spend all my money on the first day!!

It's quite difficult to get used to the heat, as everywhere is air-conditioned - the apartment, the car, and all shops. When you step outside, you have to get acclimatised to it all over again. The best way to do this is to sit outside when stopping for a coffee, so we did just that - well I had a lovely mango smoothie!

We then went off to the Royal Brunei Recreation Club, which Steve is a member of. The club is mainly for the staff of the Royal Brunei Airline, but other people can pay to join. It has a gym and badminton and squash courts, and a big outdoor pool. There are lots of shaded areas so we sat in one of them for a while. There was hardly anyone there, which was a shame, as its lovely. It's also surprisingly peaceful, considering it's right next to the airport.

I had a lovely swim - the water was pretty warm, but still quite refreshing. I slipped on the steps when I was getting out of the pool, scraping my shin down the steps - ouch!!

We popped into the supermarket on the way home, and were amazed to see monkeys playing next to the car park; one even had a baby - not something you'd expect to see on a trip to the supermarket!!

Later in the afternoon, when it started to get cooler (ha ha, down from 33 to 31 degrees!!), we drove into Bandar - the capital city. It's a small city and very clean, with some lovely buildings. We walked along the Brunei River, opposite Kampong Ayer - the Water Village. It's huge - there are about 30,000 people living there with schools, medical facilities and a mosque, all built on stilts in the water. Water taxis take you across to the village, and the river was full of them, zipping up and down at what looked like some dangerously high speeds.

After doing a bit of shopping, we went to a fast food restaurant and had our fill of dim sum for about £4, and the price also included a couple of cans of coke!! A trip to a bar for a couple of beers would have been most welcome at this point but that's not possible, so we had to make do with a delicious iced coffee, watching the mad pedestrian crossings, where the green man starts to walk, then runs when you only have 10 seconds to cross the road!

After coffee, we had a leisurely evening drive around Bandar, to see some of the beautifully lit buildings - stopping for some photos of course!

Sunday 4th May - First Impressions and Jet Lag

It took about 15 minutes to get to Steve's apartment. It's in a very nice looking block, on the 3rd floor. We had to be careful as we went in as Ninja, the kitten, was waiting for us!! She is absolutely gorgeous, but gets right under your feet - its a bit of a worry as she's so small, and you think you're going to squash her. The apartment is lovely and very spacious - I think I'm going to be very comfy here!!

After a quick drink, we headed out - I thought it would be better if I kept going, as I wanted to try to stay awake until that evening. We headed off to Maura, where Steve's yard is. My first impressions of Brunei, as we came in to land, had definitely not been wrong. It's very green with some beautiful houses - some absolutely huge. It's clean, and there's loads of room - none of the buildings seem to be crowded. Some of the buildings are very modern and most of them look good, fitting in well with the green surroundings.

We visited Muara and Merangang beaches, and also Serasa beach. The road leading up to Serasa beach was crowded with all sorts of stalls - mainly different types of food, and some 'Garage Sale' stalls. At this point, the jet lag really started to kick in - I felt a bit queasy and Steve said I'd gone deathly pale, so we headed back to the apartment so I could give in and have a couple of hours sleep.

I felt loads better after a kip, so we went back out to Merangang beach (also worryingly known as Crocodile Beach, although there have never been any crocodiles seen there - allegedly!) We went in for a swim - in the South China Sea, very exotic! It was like being in warm bath! It was great and I could have stayed in for ages, but it was a bit rough, and I'm a complete wimp in the sea!!

We went back to the apartment for the evening and I was OK until I hit the vodka, then it all hit me and I had to go to bed at 9 - for a fantastic nights sleep!!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saturday 3rd May - the Long Journey

London - Dubai. After an early start on a very cold morning in Essex, I arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time, and feeling pretty relaxed, thanks to a nice leisurely drive by Mark, and an empty M25. I managed to get a window seat, as I'd hoped, and luckily sat next to a very nice man, who was flying to Dubai to spend a few days with friends. We chatted for a lot of the flight, so the time passed pretty quickly.

Before the plane takes off, they bless the flight, and a prayer is read out, which was a nice touch. On the down side, as the airline is Muslim, there was no alcohol on board, which just hadn't occurred to me - I was looking forward to a couple of vodkas to help me sleep on the second leg of the journey! There is a screen at the front of the plane, with a map of the journey, how far to our destination etc - nothing unusual there. Every now and again, a picture of a plane was shown, with an arrow coming off it - it took me a while to realise that this was showing the direction of Mecca. I didn't see anyone kneeling to pray though.

I was really looking forward to tucking into some breakfast, so when they started serving food at 10 o'clock, I thought 'great!' Unfortunately, they'd started serving lunch - lamb stew or sweet and sour chicken! Of course, I managed to eat some!!

We eventually landed at Dubai after 6 hours and 40 minutes. I couldn't see much as we came into land, as it was a bit hazy. I had 20 minutes to stretch my legs, before we were due back on the plane, also just enough time to get a bottle of vodka from Duty Free ($12.50!). It was then time to settle down for the second part of the journey.

Dubai - Brunei (Bandar Seri Begawan) Yet more dinner was served at the start of the flight - I'd have loved a glass of wine or a vodka to go with it! I tried to get some sleep, without much success, so this flight went a lot slower than the first one, unfortunately. 2 hours before we landed, they served breakfast - scrambled egg with a raw-looking chicken sausage. Thank god for the chocolate muffin that also came with it!

As we came into land, the skies over Brunei were clear - I could see a beautiful beach with a winding river behind it. My first thought was that I must find out where it was. Everything was really green (no surprise there then) and the houses looked beautiful. I then caught a glimpse of the Sultan's Palace - I was really excited to finally be arriving.

I got through immigration pretty quickly, and didn't have to wait too long for my suitcase (always a nervous moment!) While I was declaring my vodka at customs, I spotted Steve pacing up and down outside - fantastic! I was so pleased to see him!!

I just wasn't prepared for the heat and had a bit of a shock as I walked out of the terminal - it felt a bit like being wrapped in a duvet that had just come out of the tumble drier!

The air-conditioning in the car was very welcome as we set off back to Steve's apartment, and I got my first proper look at Brunei.