Hiking through the remote jungle of Borneo, my guide stopped suddenly. With a worried expression on his face, he said it was going to rain. I was still a novice to the jungle but knew that it didn’t just rain in Borneo, it downpoured. We had just enough time to jump into a wooden longboat before the guide’s premonition proved true. As the rain beat down, the wind picked up. Bravely (or foolishly), we hit the rapids at full speed as we rocketed in the direction of our base downriver.
Most of my travels are not preplanned but my most recent one took this to an extreme. Unable to sleep one night in Singapore, I was browsing a budget airline’s (AirAsia) website looking for
deals. As I went through the list, one particular deal jumped out at me, a $80.00 (59.19 Euro) flight to Brunei Darussalam. Brunei Darussalam? I am a fairly well educated traveler and I was a bit stunned to see a flight to a country I had never heard of.
A quick google search didn’t return much information (the Brunei government website was under construction, complete with animated gif) but from other sources it looked like I wouldn’t be decapitated while visiting. I promptly bought the ticket.
That day I went to the airport completely unsure of what I was getting into. I wasn’t even sure if what I was doing was legal. The US State Department website said I needed a visa to enter the country but the Brunei government website (which looked about as trustworthy as a geocities site) said I didn’t. I said the hell with it and boarded the plane anyways.
I read a bit more about the country while I was in the air heading there.
Brunei Darussalam is an Islamic sovereign state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia. It has a population of 401,890 (July 2011) that is ruled by a Malay Islamic Monarchy (meaning it has a Sultan who has absolute power within the country). The Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, is periodically the richest man in the world (that honor switches depending on the stock price of Microsoft and the buying price of oil internationally). According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product per capita (one ahead of the United States) and is one of only two countries in the world with no public debt.
Surprise was my first feeling after I arrived. Brunei had a modern airport but didn’t have a staff to run it. There was no way to exchange money and no one to talk to. This was a completely new experience for me as usually airports are a safe zone for me.
I found an official looking taxi and after some negotiating arrived at the hotel that I had hastily booked online. I secured a last minute tour for the next morning and quickly went out to go explore.
My first impression of the country was that it seemed quite westernized but with a delay behind the United States of about 20 years. It seemed to have solid infrastructure but the buildings and styles were dated. It had a very clear and religious setting (which is generally a nice thing) but the people seemed cold and uninviting.
My initial ‘meh’ impression quickly changed when I spotted a Mosque in the distance.
I have seen countless religious buildings during my travels. They are the highlights of many tours and the centerpiece of many cities. This site however was on a completely different level. It was the single most incredible religious building I have ever seen. Surrounded by fountains and gardens stood the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.
Awe struck, I spent an hour walking around the grounds. Despite not being Islamic, (far from it) this was one of the most spiritual moments of my life.
Into the Jungle
Early the next morning, I left the only safe base I had in Brunei and boarded an unmarked and seatbelt-less tour van. I had absolutely no idea what to expect with the tour. I had only scanned the description and instead based my decision on the ratings (there were only two ratings as tours of Brunei were not listed on any major tour websites).
The “tour group” was just three people, the guide (a local), an incredibly shy Japanese student and myself. The three of us loaded into a covered speedboat and at full speed ventured out of Brunei, into Malaysia and then back into Brunei (Brunei is split in half by Malaysia the same way the United States is split by Canada between Alaska and Washington). Faster than really necessary, we took hard corners and quick accelerations as we cruised through the thickening Borneo jungle. The entire time, my smile grew wider. The river got thinner and the vegetation got thicker. I sat on the bow and was totally thrilled by what was happening.
From the speedboat we landed in a remote city and got into a rugged van. The van ride lasted about 45 minutes. From the van we jumped in a ridiculously cool motorized wooden longboat. Again at full speed, we ventured further upriver deep into the heart of the jungle.
I was completely loving every detail of the journey. I was completely out of my element and in a new and dangerous situation. It was clear I had no way out.
Surrounded by miles of jungle, we jumped out of the longboat, and started to hike. The first thing I noticed about the jungle was how loud it was. Despite not being able to initially see them, there were animals and insects everywhere. The next thing that surprised me was how thick the jungle was. The vegetation was so pervasive that I literally couldn’t see more than four arms lengths in any direction (this includes looking up). It was incredible.
As we hiked, the guide identified some of the sounds we were hearing.
“You hear the whhhoooop, whhhoooop noise? That is a rhino bird.”
“You hear that super high pitched buzzing? That is a horned beetle”
We stopped as we walked by a tree that had recently been cut down. “Because we don’t have defined seasons here, the trees don’t have rings. They are just sap and wood”
He then pointed to one of the creepiest things I have ever seen.
Crawling on the far side of the trail was a group of ants that were devouring a caterpillar. I didn’t have to look closer to see that the ants were as big as the lid to a soda bottle. It was the closet thing to a real monster that I have ever seen.
Later during the hike, we came to an extremely tall metal tower. With a smile, the guide said to start climbing. Apparently I was going to see the canopy.
The view from the top was incredible. It reinforced how remote I really was.
I spent a long time at the top of the tower thinking about the jungle below. I left only when I saw that despite the height, the top of the tower was home to more giant ants. (I am not sure how that was even feasible…)
We continued the hike and eventually re-boarded the longboats. We stopped at what I thought was a small creek and my guide recommended that I take my shoes off. I was skeptical (shoeless hike in the middle of the jungle? Sounds like the makings of an embarrassing doctors visit…) but agreed. We continued hiking through the bed of an active creek.
Eventually we made it to the scene of some waterfalls.
I walked right into the pool under the falls and immediately screamed like a little girl. Something had bit me!
I jumped out of the water and looked in horror at my guide. He was losing it in laughter.
The small pool was home to dozens of skin nibbling fish (like the ones you see at Asian spas). I laughed both out of surprise and out of appreciation for the prank. I spent about 15 minutes having my feet gnawed on by the wild fish.
After the fish had lunch, we had lunch of fish and other jungle creatures. (I am hoping it was not the same fish that ate me) The meal was strangely luxurious and absolutely delicious.
At this point, the guide noted it was going to rain. He explained that in addition to feeling it in the air, he could hear upcoming rain because all of the birds come out for one last feast as they knew they wouldn’t be able to find insects during a storm.
We loaded back into the longboats as the rain started.
Faster than I understand to be possible, the river switched from calm waterway to white water rapids. The wind immediately picked up and we were bulleted with leaves and rain from all directions.
The guide drove the motorized boat at full speed. We narrowly dodged swinging vines and rapids. I sat at the bow completely soaked and absolutely thrilled. My adrenaline was pumping, my senses were heightened and I was living through one of the most thrilling scenes of my life.
Several hours later I made it back to my hotel and immediately feel asleep with a smile on my face.
The Water Village
The next morning, I forced myself out of bed and into yet another taxi. I had heard about a local water village and was tired but eager to check it out. I was dropped off at the waterfront of the capital city and instantly realized I had no way to get to actual water village (which as one would expect, was located offshore).
Within seconds a boat drove up and asked me if I needed a water taxi. Problem solved.
The village on stilts was massive. It was connected by seemingly endless thin wooden paths and contained hundreds if not thousands of water houses.
As soon as I landed on the water village, I immediately noticed how nice everyone was. Stranger after stranger went out of their way to greet me and learn about where I was from. One family even took me in to have photos taken with me and their children. These people were as warm as the mainlanders were cold.
They explained that their village lifestyle had become so popular that the government had started to build floating suburbs around it.
They also explained that while many people assumed the community was poor due to the state of their houses, that they were actually quite well off. They pointed at the shore where they parked their sports-cars. (no joke!)
With a huge smile on my face, my journey to Brunei came to an end. It was a constant experience of amazement and exposure to new lifestyles. A week prior, I had never even heard of the country. After visiting, it quickly became one of my favorite travel destinations.
I say this not as hyperbole. My days spent in Brunei were some of the best of my life.