Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Our original plan to get to Borneo had been to catch a ferry from Bintan Island, just south of Singapore, to Pontianak in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. As this ferry wasn’t operating and there was no information on when it would be, we had decided to catch a flight from Singapore to Malaysian Borneo instead, which also solved the problem of otherwise not having enough time on our Indonesian visas to see everything we wanted to without going through a complicated extension procedure. We had the option of flying to either Kuching in the far west of Malaysian Borneo or Miri in the middle and chose the latter, as our research suggested that the landscape between the two cities would largely consist of palm oil plantations, of which we had seen plenty in Peninsular Malaysia and which we therefore didn’t mind skipping.
24th May – 15th June 2019
After landing in Miri like the Japanese in 1941 but with far better intentions, we soon crossed over into the sultanate of Brunei, which is, apart from its coastline, completely surrounded by Malaysia. Brunei was at one point supposed to join the Federation of Malaysia which was formed after the end of the British colonisation, but due to its vast petroleum reserves, which it would have had to hand over to the federal Malaysian government in a unification scenario, and the fact that the Sultan’s influence would have been diminished, he eventually decided to retain Brunei’s territory as an oil-rich self-governing state. The micro-state has been adopting a more conservative form of Islam in recent years and has lately been in the news for its gradual implementation of fundamentalist Sharia law into its penal code, most shockingly a law that makes homosexuality punishable by death by stoning. It’s also illegal for any person – including foreigners – to consume food, drink or tobacco in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan. And we just so happened to be visiting during the month of Ramadan.
When you’re cycling in 35° heat for six hours a day, not eating and drinking isn’t really an option. Before the border, we had some snacks and camelled up (a phrase we’ve adopted from our friend Katie when talking about cycling in the desert back in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) on as much water as we could drink. Once in Brunei, we would wait for the road to be quiet to have a big gulp of water; for a packed lunch we hid in a Chinese cemetery. In the afternoon, we found a nice park by a lagoon to camp in – nice apart from the somewhat worrying crocodile warning signs, but we were in a raised shelter and told ourselves that crocs probably can’t climb up steps; we didn’t have mobile internet to check (FYI: they can). For the foreseeable future, we would remain in saltwater crocodile territory, which meant no more camping on beaches or near any rivers. Whether it was a curse or a blessing that we found CrocBite – The Worldwide Crocodilian Attack Database, a tab with its map view of incidents has remained open in our mobile browsers for regular inspection of the area we’re currently in (“Hey look, that’s another river where someone was eaten last year!”).
We spent our remaining two nights in Brunei with Tim’s best friend’s brother Stephen, his wife Olivia and their daughters Ava and Isla, who live in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. They treated us to some pizza, took us on a jungly hike around Bukit Shahbandar Forest Recreational Park and on a boat trip on the Brunei River. We were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by thick mangrove forest not far from where we had boarded the boat in the city centre, and saw monitor lizards, funnily-nosed proboscis monkeys which are endemic to Borneo, and a baby crocodile. The trip ended with a tour of Kampong Ayer, a floating village made up of thousands of stilt houses which are home to nearly half the capital’s population. Brunei has a higher per-capita GDP than the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Switzerland, but when witnessing the contrast between the stilted family homes, schools, restaurants, mosques and police stations of Kampong Ayer, and the pristine streets and opulent, shiny mosques with marble minarets and golden domes across the river, it becomes apparent how this figure is skewed by the fact that the Sultan of Brunei is one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. The boat trip had been a great experience and it was lovely to see the abundance of rainforest throughout the country – where there is crude oil, there’s no need for palm oil – but politically, Brunei isn’t a country we’d want to live in.
We left Brunei not far from the capital and celebrated our re-entry into Malaysia with a snack and iced tea break in public, only to have to cross back into Brunei once more the next day, as the sultanate is split up into two parts with a Malaysian district in between. The Bruneian exclave, the district of Temburong, is about 30 kilometres wide and most of it is covered in pristine forest, so a pleasant one and a half-hour cycle with some proboscis monkey sightings in the trees by the side of the road later, we were back in Malaysia again.
While taking a break at a petrol station, a local called Isak introduced himself to us and asked us about our trip. He told us that he and his wife lived in the mountains in a part of Borneo we wouldn’t be going to, but that they also had a piece of land nearby that they were currently doing work on and would camp on that night, and invited us to join them. We accepted and followed him back to his plot, where we met his wife Wendy, and over the course of the afternoon and evening learnt their remarkable story: they used to be wealthy city-dwellers but at one point in their lives decided to donate all of their money and live a simpler life in close communion with nature, dedicated to the conservation of the jungle and its creatures. They said that a lot of people call them crazy when they hear that they gave away their fortunes or see them picking up other people’s rubbish, but they’re much happier than they used to be and know that their work is meaningful for the planet.
We left the Malaysian state of Sarawak and entered Sabah, home to the Crocker Range, the highest mountain range in Malaysia. The mountainous area made for some tough climbs amidst lush jungle thicket in intense heat, which contributed to our decision to save a particularly long and steep ascend for the cooler early morning hours and look for camping in a village before the hill. Since entering East Malaysia, we had seen numerous signs indicating churches, something we hadn’t come across in Peninsular Malaysia, illustrating the difference in demographics between the two parts of the country: only about 3 % of the population on the peninsula are Christian, while several different Christian denominations make up about a third of the population of Malaysian Borneo. In hotel rooms on Borneo, along with a Kiblat sign on the ceiling pointing out the direction of Mecca, you often get a bible in the drawer.
We had seen a signpost pointing to a church at the turning towards the village before the big hill and decided to see if we could camp at our first Christian place of worship of the trip. The pastor, whose house was next to the church, seemed a little apprehensive at our request but allowed us to put up our tent next to the church. Another notable difference to Peninsular Malaysia was that, while on the west coast, pretty much everyone spoke good English, and even on the more rural east coast, most people spoke some English, on Borneo, this was less often the case. Some curious village kids however came to talk to us while we were eating our dinner and impressed us with their language skills. After seeing us helping the children practise their English and with a big thunderstorm approaching, the pastor ended up allowing us to camp inside the church.
The big climb the next morning was as arduous as it had looked on the elevation profile, a gain of about 700 metres over a distance of seven kilometres with gradients of up to 20 %. Despite setting off early, we were dripping with sweat most of the way to the top, had to take several breaks and Tim, having had to replace his gears with ones less suitable for very steep gradients, had to get off and push large parts of it. As always, we made it up eventually, but the following days remained hilly. We went up to a viewpoint overlooking tea plantations, from where we would have been able to see Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain at 4,095 metres, if it hadn’t been obscured by clouds, but which still provided a beautiful panorama of the surrounding area. We also visited a nearby fish spa, created as part of a community river management programme to protect fish stocks. The carps administering the “massage” were bigger than we had expected and their nibbling on one’s skin was a very weird sensation; some of them were even quite bitey which definitely didn’t make us want to keep our feet in the river for long, but nonetheless, it was a unique spectacle.
Despite the fact that it was the dry season, we experienced heavy rain and thunderstorms quite regularly on Borneo. The lucky streak regarding the weather that has accompanied us for most of our trip however continued and usually the bad weather seemed to occur while we were having lunch or at night, and only on those nights that we had managed to find somewhere sheltered to put our tent. One afternoon, we were taking shelter from a sudden downpour at a restaurant, the owner of which, a woman named Marcell, started talking to us and invited us to spend the night at her house, where she lives with her son, parents and siblings. We accepted the invitation and spent the evening with her, her brother and cousin talking and drinking beer – as Marcell and her family were Christians.
After not having drunk any alcohol in a while, it seemed we were destined to get a buzz on more than once within a week, when a few days later, Linda noticed that a can of beer by the side of the road appeared to be closed. She stopped and had a closer look, then a look around the grass verge beside the road, and we picked up not two or three, but nine unopened cans of beer that must have fallen out of someone’s car or off their motorbike. Cheers to that!
The fasting month of Ramadan was coming to an end, and like the time when we were lucky enough to spend Vietnamese New Year with a Vietnamese family, we managed to find a local on Couchsurfing who was happy to host us over Hari Raya Idul Fitri (also spelt Eid al-Fitr in other parts of the world), the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, which is one of the biggest holidays in Malaysia. The festive period is a time of forgiveness, visiting family and friends and of course copious amounts of food. Many people, like our host Sahadan and his wife, hold open houses, so from the time we arrived at his home in a village called Gum-Gum to our departure, there were always people coming and going, and apart from some of Sahadan and his wife’s close family members, we were often not quite sure whom we had met before. Hordes of children would usually surround us, eager to practice their English, while the adults made sure our glasses were always filled with lemonade and our plates with seasonal delicacies such as rendang (meat cooked in a thick and savoury coconut-based gravy), ketupat (palm leaf parcels of boiled rice), kueh lapis (layered cake) and many more. While many dishes were quite meat-heavy, Linda didn’t mind having rice with peanut sauce and lots of desserts, which made for a welcome change after our lunches on Borneo had consisted of not much else than mee goreng, often with a side of waitstaff confusedly shaking their head after being asked if they had any vegetables to add to the fried noodles.
Sahadan’s father, who lives in Kampung Pukat water village 25 kilometres away, was also holding an open house, and we were invited. Before driving to his father’s place in the fisherman’s village however, Sahadan gave us traditional Malaysian clothing to wear, which did little to make us stand out less as Westerners – which of course wasn’t the point to begin with – but much to signify our aspiration to celebrate with the locals, rather than to just watch them celebrate. Many of the houses in the water village were decorated with colourful lights, people were out and about and happily greeted us while walking along the wooden walkways. At Sahadan’s father’s house, there were more people, more food and lots of group photos were taken – with us, of course: we were part of the family.
Sahadan’s father also showed us some British war medals he had been awarded after he had fought the Japanese in the not-so-distant past. Between 1941 and 1945, the Japanese occupied what had previously been and would thereafter again be British Borneo, until the Allies started training and arming local militia units and organised a liberation mission to reconquer the northern part of Borneo. The areas that are now the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah would remain under British control until 1963, when the new country of Malaysia was formed. It’s hard to grasp that all of this happened so recently that people who fought against the Japanese occupation of the British Crown colony they lived in are still around to tell their story.
On the way back to Gum-Gum, we stopped by a supermarket as Sahadan wanted to pick up a few things, where our appearance garnered more curious but friendly looks, and we also noticed that most families seemed to express their belonging together through wearing the same colour of festive clothes. We spotted the blue family, the golden family, the red family, and we, ourselves, were the purple family.
The next day, we visited the Rainforest Discovery Centre, where we marvelled at the diversity of the rainforest’s flora from a canopy walkway, and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where we were able to witness an adult Bornean orangutan living free at the reserve and her baby – or a baby she had been paired with – munch on a load of fruit and veg at feeding time. The species of great apes is endemic to Borneo and critically endangered, mainly due to habitat destruction caused by deforestation and expanding palm oil plantations. The centre raises orphaned baby orangutans rescued from logging sites and plantations, trains them to survive in the wild again and releases them as soon as they’re ready.
After staying at another Couchsurfing host’s place and another night of camping at a church, where a friendly man brought us a huge bag of mangoes in the morning, we made our way towards the city of Tawau, from where we would get a ferry to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. On the way, Tim faced a fairly serious mechanical issue: a small section of his rear derailleur cracked, which meant it wasn’t shifting properly anymore and he was very limited in the gears he could use. We botched the derailleur back in place with some MacGyvering, which could have worked fine for a long time, but the possibility of it breaking completely was too risky when heading for rural, hilly parts of Indonesia, so Tim called multiple bike shops in all major towns in Malaysian Borneo looking for a replacement SRAM derailleur. Nowhere sold the correct part so he ended up buying a Shimano derailleur in Tawau that isn’t fully compatible with his shifters but works surprisingly well. While chatting to the owner of the bike shop about our trip, he told us about a group of three long-distance cyclists that had sought his services. In regions more popular for cycle touring like Thailand, you regularly hear about the couple you know from Instagram that’s a few days ahead of you through Warmshowers hosts, bike shops and people you meet going the other way, so not having heard about this trio, we asked the mechanic how long ago they had been there. The answer reminded us how few cycle tourists come to Borneo: at the biggest bike shop in Malaysian Borneo’s second-biggest city, that other group of cycle tourists had been there “like, four years ago”.
We were going to stay in Tawau for two nights and catch a ferry on a Sunday as, according to what may or may not have been the ferry port’s official website, the ferry was running “every day”, which, as we discovered when we luckily double-checked at the ferry port, turned out to mean “not on Sundays”. So we changed our plans and sorted out everything we had to sort out before leaving Malaysia within a day, had our last Roti Canai and boarded the boat to Tarakan, a small island off the coast of Kalimantan.
The previous two months of entering, exiting and re-entering Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei had left us with fifteen new stamps in our passports and numerous memories of the people we had met – some for the first time, with others we had reunited – and the nature we had been immersed in – often managed in plantations, but also, particularly on Borneo, a great deal of wilderness. The jungle we had been looking for in Cambodia about two months prior, we had found it here. There had been a diversity in all aspects of our encounters: in the landscapes of the peninsular coasts and Borneo, in the religious and cultural backgrounds of the three countries’ inhabitants, in flora and animals we had seen. We had been hissed at by a snake by the side of the road, seen an enormous rhinoceros hornbill fly overhead, had swum with multicoloured fish and a sea turtle, shared beach camps with gangs of cats, had our feet nibbled on by carps and seen orangutans in the process of being rehabilitated.
Because of this diversity, it remains difficult to attribute a single coherent feeling to Malaysia other than a fuzzy positive one, or to describe it concisely other than stating that we enjoyed our time there. As has always been the case after spending a fairly long time in one country, we were however also ready to move on: ready for the last Asian country we would visit on our journey, ready for Indonesia.
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Thanks to our hosts in Malaysian Borneo and Brunei: Stephen and family in Bandar Seri Begawan, Isak and Wendy near Lawas, Marcell and family in Kampung Matupang, Sahadan and family in Gum-Gum and Ishnavin in Sandakan.
- We cycled 1,100 km through Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, making a total of 25,300 km for Tim since leaving England and 24,800 km for Linda. Between blog posts, you can check our current total distances on our Stats page which we update a bit more frequently.
- During this segment, our average distance on cycling days was 69 km, compared to 82 km for the whole trip since Germany.
- During this segment, our average day-to-day spending was 5.76 € per person per day, compared to 6.55 € for the whole trip since Germany.
- We camped on 10 nights (of which 2 at a church and 1 at a Buddhist temple), stayed with 2 Couchsurfing/Warmshowers hosts for 5 nights, stayed at paid accommodation for 3 nights, stayed with friends for 2 nights and received spontaneous invitations from locals for 2 nights. From Germany to Tawau: 170 nights camping/empty buildings/places of worship, 106 nights WS/CS/friends/family, 93 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay), 17 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work, 4 nights ferry/train.
- Puncture score: Tim 0 – Linda 2. Total from Germany: Tim 13 – Linda 7.
- Bike and equipment problems:
- Linda’s dynamo stopped working so we put her dynamo front light on Tim’s bike (whose dynamo light had stopped working a while ago), she bought a USB chargeable back light and, if necessary, will use Tim’s USB chargeable front light that he bought when his dynamo light broke.
- Linda replaced her front and Tim his rear inner and outer gear cables after the outer cables wore out and didn’t allow for the inner cables to move freely anymore.
- Tim’s rear derailleur hanger got bent and part of the derailleur broke, so he replaced the hanger (he was carrying a spare) and bought a new derailleur. As it proved impossible to find a SRAM derailleur anywhere, he went with a Shimano one which isn’t 100 % compatible with his SRAM shifters, however it’s a good enough solution until at least the end of the trip.
- Linda had two of her bottle cages break and replaced them.