Day 30 – Kota Kinabalu

 

Friday, 11 June 2010

It’s the last full day of the holiday.  We were going to treat ourselves to a bit of a sleep-in, but the sun was shining straight through the window so we got up earlier than expected.  We went for our last coffees and buns at our favourite little kopitiam; the waitress (we nicknamed “Happy” because she never smiles) has got to know us and asks us if we just want our usual coffees and tells us the baked buns (Tracy’s favourite) wouldn’t be ready until 09:30.  We had our coffee and at 09:25 the buns were delivered from the kitchen at the back of the shop to the servery at the front of the shop; the first bun off the tray was delivered straight to Tracy.  The pineapple filling was piping hot, so fresh.

After breakfast we wandered to the other end of town to go shopping at Espirit.  The shop didn’t open until 10:00 so we did a couple of laps of the shopping complex, watching the people getting ready for the day and the other kopitiams serve their clientele.  Right on time, the shop opened and Tracy bought several t-shirts (with Scott hovering in the background), they even honoured her membership card which she left in Australia and received her discounts.  On the way back to the hotel, we wandered back through the city, stopping at a few little shops to look for sarongs and some other local-wares.  We dropped the shopping at the room then went back to the restaurant where we had a good lunch the previous day, to test it out again and we had another good lunch, we even picked our own food out under the watchful gaze of our helpful waitress who explained what the vegetarian options were.

Tracy had a cunning plan to walk to the City Mosque which we had seen from the free shuttle bus taking us the hypermarket a few weeks ago.  The LP said it should have been just over 3km from town; it was still hot (and I mean hot and very sweaty) and looked as if it might rain later, so we scurried off straight after lunch.  We walked along the harbourside wall cum makeshift footpath.  The road verge was clean and all the litter collected, but walking along the wall we could see the huge quantities of rubbish in between the rocks which is not visible from the roadway; it is such a pity as there is a concerted (but superficial) effort to keep KK clean (out of sight – out of mind).  There is a small beach with bbq area that there had been a small effort to clean, except it still looked like a tipsite, however, the bbq areas were well used and some of the efforts in picnic lunches put us to shame, it seemed as if people had everything including the kitchen sink.  The walk seemed a lot further than 3km and by the time we reached the Masjid, we were pretty well soaked through.  In the carpark were a couple of tourist buses and we saw from a distance, the tourists entering the mosque through a side door.

By the time we arrived at that door, there was a sign saying tourists were not allowed through this door and we had to enter through the front doors.  From a distance the mosque is an impressive looking building, but up close it is just another concrete building; well constructed and architecturally interesting, but still just painted concrete.  We had totally lucked it in, the mosque is only open to infidels from 2-3pm and it was just after 2 – woohoo.  At the front door, we removed our shoes and stepped inside, to be intercepted by a little man who handed us some gowns which must be worn.  Did I mention we were soaked through already?  Donning our neck to ankle synthetic robes didn’t improve the situation; Tracy’s problems got worse when the man handed her a synthetic head scarf too!  We slowly wandered and sweated our way around inside the mosque (probably leaving a dripping trail), relishing the peace and quiet, taking notice of the simple yet interesting designs, all the time being followed by our little man.  It wasn’t any cooler inside than outside, there a thousand or more ceiling fans and free standing fans in the mosque, all of them were turned off.  At the end of the lap of the mosque, we de-robed and handed the now sweaty robes back to our “shadow”, signed the guest book and left the mosque.  We are presumed they wouldn’t bother trying to clean the robes after, probably taking them out somewhere for burning?  I know we would have.

Back outside, it was still hot, so we bought some water from the little stall at the front of the mosque entrance (being run by the wife of the little man) and headed back onto the roadway to walk back to the hotel.  We passed back from the bbq site near the beach, declining offers to eat food, my theory being if I stopped I might dissolve into a puddle of sweat.
We made it back, completely soaked through and hot.  Back in the room, we checked on Google Earth and discovered our walk was a crack over 10km, in the heat and the humidity, this was no simple feat.

After a rest and a shower, we started looking at the packing issue, sorting out what was going to be going and what was going to be ditched here in KK.  The initial pack went rather smoothly and it seemed that we would be able to fit everything in.  (How many times at the end of a trip have you not been able to fit everything back into the bags?)

It was just after sunset and we were hungry.  We walked back through town down to the waterfront and went back to the Indian restaurant (Kohinoor).  We ordered a couple of drinks (it is the end of holiday after all and our first drinks since leaving Kota Kinabalu) and some lovely Indian dishes, even splurging and having a dessert, we watched the last of the colour fade from the sky.  Sufficiently full, we strolled for the last time through the main part of town and back to the hostel.

Day 29 – Labuan -> Kota Kinabalu

Thursday, 10 June 2010

For whatever reason we had a restless night’s sleep and awoke less than refreshed to make the ferry crossing back to KK.  We packed our stuff, checked out of the hotel and headed down to the ferry terminal to get our tickets.  The ticketing office was closed when we arrived, the sign on the door read the office opens at 07:15 and at precisely that time, it did.  We got our tickets then went across the road for a coffee.  There were a few others in the kopitiam, some rig-workers in their overalls making ready to head out to the offshore platforms for the day.  The rain subsided overnight, but things were still a little damp with small puddles left over, so we watched as the cars sloshed down the main street (not exactly peak hour, but it wasn’t too quiet either).

Back across at the ferry terminal, we waited outside the departure gate with a throng of people waiting to get their ferries to wherever.  The sign on the door read the departure gate would open at 07:45 and promptly at the time, the door opened and some smaller ferry’s passengers were called to board; then it was our turn just a few minutes later.  We boarded and found our “business class” seats (there wasn’t much difference from what we could see between our seats and “economy”)  The ferry departed spot on time and headed out past all the oil/gas rig tenders at anchor in the harbour and shaped a course for KK.  The trip was calm and uneventful; the movie was awful (“2012”).

We arrived on time in KK and walked off Jesselton Wharf and made our way to Kinabalu Backpackers Lodge where we had stayed at the start of this trip almost one month ago.  We dumped our bags and headed off to the Step Inn to retrieve the bag we left there a couple of weeks ago, stopping off for some lunch at a hole-in-the-wall on the way.  Tracy was sure the bag would not be there, so was surprised when it was exactly where we had left it.  We walked back through town heading towards KBL, stopping in a couple of shops en route out to check out some souvenir prices without actually buying anything.

We dumped the diving gear bag at KBL and went out to do a spot of shopping.  As luck would have it, Tracy didn’t bring the umbrella, so of course, it pissed down rain.  We went back to one of the dive shops we had seen on a previous visit and bought a few small items which are significantly cheaper here than back home, then went down to Philippine Markets to buy a couple of t-shirts.  It was still pouring when we left the markets, we were soaked through but still stopped at our favourite little kopi kedai for a fresh bun and coffee.

Back at KBL we got out of our wet things and hung them up in the room; we don’t realistically expect them to dry, but maybe they will be less wet when it comes time to pack to head back to Australia?

Just after sunset, we showered and headed out for dinner.  The rain had eased off, but it was still drizzling and there were deep puddles everywhere.  We had no idea what we wanted for dinner, so wandered aimlessly until we arrived at the Night Market.  The stalls were all covered with multi-coloured layers of plastic, electric cables ran across the pathways and through the puddles, the strings holding down the tarpaulins were at neck height for Scott; an OHS nightmare and many accidents waiting to happen!  We went back to a food wallah we had tried before and ordered mee goreng.  The food is plain and we are getting very tired of the limited choices, but with only two nights left on the trip there is not much to do. After our main course, we went over to one of the many stalls selling desserts and bought some triangular shaped pancakes; we had seen these being made before and knew they contained a filling of peanuts, but weren’t aware the batter contains bananas.  The result is a not-overly sweet waffle-like pancake flavoured with banana and a filling with a nutty crunch.  They were hot from the stall so we carried them back the KBL where they were devoured.

Day 28 – Miri -> Labuan

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Up and packed for a moving day.  It is sad to leave the diving of Miri, but we need to get to Kota Kinabalu for our flight home.  The weather looked similar to the last few days, so the diving would be good – damn.

We had morning coffees at our usual brekkie spot before saying goodbye to the Somerset Hotel and heading to the Miri Airport.  The Airport is the usual efficient setup and we checked our bags through and headed up to the departure lounge, having a coffee at Coffee Bean.  The airport seems to be setup for the oil rig workers as there is a lot of people heading to Miri Helibase etc and the workers on Labuan are also oil rig workers.  Once our flight was called there was no faffing around and we were straight on the MASWings flight and took straight off.  It was a strange flight as it was really fast (you only got a drink of Milo) and we seemed to spend most of the flight avoiding pockets of clouds etc.  We landed at Labuan and jumped straight into a taxi to  Ambassador Hotel.  Well after not booking anything for the last 4 weeks, we found the hotel was full, bugger, but ventured to another one across the road who had two free rooms, so we selected what we hope is the quietest one.  We popped across the road to Abdullah’s and had a fantastic Roti Telur with dahl.  I have to say we have found the food in Sabah to be much more towards our liking than in Sarawak which seemed to be predominantly Chinese and extremely bland after a while.

First off was a trip to the Peace Park/Surrender Memorial in Layang Layangan.  So we headed to the local Bas Mini depot and found Bus 4 which took us straight there, although we don’t think that is their usual route, but they did a circuit of the park and after much discussion between the lady driver and one of the other occupants about the location of the entrance they dropped us straight out the front – perfect.  This is the memorial for the Japanese and commemorates the Japanese surrender.  It is in the process of being tidied up as indicated by the plethora of gardeners. 

Entrance to Surrender Point
Entrance to Surrender Point

There is also a plaque to remember the spot where the Japanese surrendered to the Australian’s and where the tribunals for war crimes against allied forces occurred, particularly the Japanese officers responsible for the Sandakan war crimes. 

The end of the war in the pacific
The end of the war in the pacific

I of course wonder if the Japanese ever come to places like these and feel remorse for what happened, but I wonder the same about the European countries as well.  Anyway it was a quiet place and we wandered along the paths etc in contemplation of what it was like for those here in 1945.  There is some interesting statistics on the number of Japanese killed during the conflict, the majority occurred towards the end of the Japanese occupation and done by the locals who probably had had enough by then.

We then headed back to the main road and caught another Bas Mini back into the town centre.  We wandered to the ferry terminal to see what are the departure times for Kota Kinabalu tomorrow.  Labuan is also famous for being a duty free island so we priced up some alcohol (which seems to be significantly cheaper than home) and then caught a taxi to our next destination.  The Labuan War Memorial.

This is the war memorial for all the commonwealth servicemen that were killed in the Borneo conflicts and also holds the graves of those that died in the Sandakan death marches.  This is a beautifully maintained memorial and it is so sad to see the rows upon rows of names, in addition to the rows that are for the unknown soldiers. 

Heartbreaking to see so many headstones
Heartbreaking to see so many headstones

There is also a really lovely memorial for the Indian soldiers that were also killed in the conflict.  I suppose you forget how many countries were involved.  It was strange that directly above the cemetery is the flight path for the military planes, but keeps you focused and kind of puts things into perspective.

Strange combination of military plane, war memorial and cemetary
Strange combination of military plane, war memorial and cemetary

We caught a taxi back into Labuan and Scott looked up some prices of duty free online and then went shopping for some Scotch.  Now to make sure he doesn’t drink it before we leave.

As the sun began to set, the clouds rolled in and then came the lightning, thunder and heavy rain.  It didn’t actually look too bad from the vantage point of our hotel room, but when we stepped outside to go get some dinner, we were met with a deluge and deafening thunder-claps.  We ducked in and out of sheltering sidewalks and made it to Choice Restaurant.  As usual, not all of the food on the menu was available, so we settled for our second preferences.  The mango lassi was good, the plain lassi wasn’t plain (but neither was it sweet, or salty!); the dosai was really good.  It wasn’t raining as hard when we left the restaurant, so instead of ducking rain we only had to dodge deep puddles.

Back in the hotel room, the internet connection is down, but the cable tv is still working (pity there isn’t anything good on) so we watched out the window as the lightning silhouettes the nearby buildings.  Tracy is hoping the storm blows over quickly as she isn’t looking forward to a rough ferry crossing back to KK.

Day 27 – Miri

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The storms did abate relatively early during the night, but the in the morning the skies were scattered with thick clouds and the winds were still fresh, but blowing offshore.  We had coffee in the room then went to the lobby to find our driver already there and waiting for us.  At the end of the short trip to the marina we noticed the boat we had been using for the previous two days had been replaced by a smaller single-engine monohull. 

Our new dive boat
Our new dive boat

Robert was running just a few minutes late and was profusely apologetic, but he had our lunch, snacks and more drinks than we could handle.  We got underway and as we exited the marina we saw the seas were very calm despite the overnight wind.  This was fantastic and even though the first day had been rough, Tracy found the boat diving to be great fun, mainly because you get on and off the boats with minimal fuss and as they know I suffer from seasickness there is a speedy exit from the boat and we go straight down to get out of any swell.  Unlike the boat dives in Perth where there is so much hanging around it gets nauseating.

The further south and offshore we got, the lighter the wind became until eventually at the first dive site there was no wind at all.  The sea wasn’t as blue as on the first day of diving, but it was certainly bluer than the previous day (when it had a considerable green tint).

Dive 7 – Batu Belais.  “The underwater jungle of Sarawak.”  What a magnificent way to start the day.  The water was warm (30+C), the visibility was excellent (30-40m) the bottom at 22m was easily visible from the boat.  This place abounds with gorgonian fans and their inhabitants, micro life is abundant (finding nudibranchs is not hard, they’re everywhere here, and in some instances in massive heaving balls), there were more bumphead parrotfish, lion fish, stone fish, big fish, small fish, hard corals, soft corals, awesome stuff!  There was hardly any current whilst deep, but an appreciable surface current became apparent at 5m and stronger again at 3m.

Dive 8 – Sunday Rock Garden.  Another brilliant dive down to about 18m in a coral garden that had no end in sight (even though visibility was still 30+m).  This was the dive where, if you hadn’t seen it before, it was here.  The fans and ferns, the fish and the corals.  There was sooo much to see you began to get overwhelmed.  You could spend a lifetime underwater here and still not find everything.  Lobsters hidden in their tiny holes with only their antennae poking out, the zillion different varieties of fish, bubble anemones, corals… it was very impressive.

Dive 9 – Eve Garden (West Point).  This is the western extremity of the reef where we have already done a couple of dives.  After the luncheon surface interval, the wind had picked up a bit and the surface current had also strengthened.  As we were going to be diving in 7m we were preparing ourselves for a swim against the current; we were right.  We spent most of the dive heading into the current, but thankfully near the bottom it was significantly less than at the surface.  It was shallow enough for us to take the housing-less camera for a last roll of the dice, it survived and we managed to get a few decent photos. 

Nudi's everywhere
Nudi

 

More nudis
More nudis

Waxing poetic, none of Picasso, Michelangelo nor any of the masters could paint this picture; they simply don’t have enough colours to truly represent this scenery.  Scott got annoyed at one point as there was so much to photograph it was hard to keep up and there was so much to see.  As we swam along the bottom, large schools of squid watched us from above, the wary and shy bumpheads again kept us under surveillance, a blue-spotted ray hidden deep in the coral kept a wary eye out. 

I am a fan of these beautiful starfish
I am a fan of these beautiful starfish

 

At the turn around point, we simply stopped swimming and let the current effortlessly race us back to the ascent line and the boat.

A summary of the 9 dives.  The tourism literature compares Miri with Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai, but they are actually completely different types of diving.  If you want to go deep and hang alongside a dark, bottomless wall, then head to Sipadan.  If you like muck diving on the house reefs at Kapalai and Mabul, then you would love Miri just as we have loved diving here; there are more sharks and turtles in Sabah, but the fans and corals here are much more abundant and therefore they host more micro-life.  We loved diving in Miri.

When we arrived back at the marina, our driver was there waiting as usual and took us to the Tropical Dives office for us to pay our bills, then took us back to the hotel; shower then siesta, you know the routine.

Just after sunset we headed out for dinner, trying somewhere different for our last night in Miri.  We went to Mings, a western-styled sidewalk bar cum restaurant for an ok meal, but a good lassi.  After dinner we took a lap around the block, then back to the hotel.

Day 26 – Miri

Monday, 7 June 2010

Well the weather doesn’t want to play the game for us – there was thunderstorms most of the night and some prolonged heavy rain, not that Scott woke up to see/hear it.  The morning sky was jet black and the winds were still up, but luckily blowing offshore.

We went for our coffee and then back to the hotel for our on-time driver to take us down to the marina.  The boat was there and ready for us, as was our dive partner for the day, Dr John (who is a serious photographer).  Robert (DM) and Steven (Boat Master) were confident conditions would be OK for diving, although suspect the visibility might be reduced.  John had a fully setup for his glasses – some special modifications to his mask.

John's mask
John's mask

We sailed out into South China Sea again, the offshore winds were abating and the sea was actually quite smooth, considering.  We had a 30 minute transit to the first dive site; one of the first things we noticed the water was greener today rather than the deep blue from yesterday. 

Dive 4 – Kenyalang Wreck.  This artificial reef in just over 20m of water is industrial; there is a large triangular-frame structure which was part of a gas vent/riser from a rig.  Thousands and thousands of fish and soft corals have colonised here and cover the entire structure.  The visibility at the surface was ok, maybe 10m or so, just below the surface things improved, but in the structure itself, visibility was markedly reduced to no more than 5metres, partly due to the silting from the storms but also due to the excretions from the millions of fish!  Tracy found a scorpion fish in amongst the growth and as soon as we had our eyes calibrated for these, we found many more of these dangerous, ugly masters of camouflage.

Dive 5 – Nemo City.  As you might expect from the name, this dive is all about sea anemone and clown fish; thousands of colonies are still not enough for Tracy. 

I could spend all day watching Clown fish
I could spend all day watching Clown fish

There was more to see though on the 11 metre reef, including bumphead parrot fish, turtles and first the time we’d see it, bunches of nudibranchs (at one point Scott saw four in a  space no larger than a hand-span).  

Although our camera is only rated to 10m (and had previously failed at 7m), we took it anyway and got some ok shots which do no justice to this magnificent area.  (The camera survived too!) 

These fish inhabit the anenome with the clown fish
These fish inhabit the anenome with the clown fish

The visibility was better than earlier this morning, but still not as good as yesterday; it was commensurate with the bad visibility we saw at Mabul (about 10-20m).

Dive 6 – Nemo City to Adam’s Garden.  We didn’t reposition after the second dive as Robert recommended a different dive to finish the day, to descend into Nemo City then ride the gentle current through to Adam’s Garden (gentle current, compared to Sipidan).  With a maximum depth of only 7 metres, we stayed down for over an hour and were again blown away by this spectacular muck diving. 

Lion Fish
Lion Fish

The luncheon surface interval had allowed the visibility to improve to 20-30m.

Giant Clam
Giant Clam
No idea what, but very pretty
No idea what, but very pretty
I think these must be some type of water filter
I think these must be some type of water filter

After the final dive, we sped back to Miri (where it had been raining quite hard) and took our transport back to the hotel where had a quick shower then wandered to a nearby travel agent to arrange flights to Labuan on Wednesday.  Of course this gives us another day of diving tomorrow!  We both think it is going to be quite a while until we get to experience diving like this again, so are going to make the most of this opportunity.

We went back to the hotel and took siesta.  When we woke up to head out for dinner, we noticed it was pouring rain.  Tracy bought a small umbrella in Kapit and it since has proved useful at keeping one of us dry.  We dodged traffic, puddles and more rain to make it to the Indonesian restaurant where we had dinner the other night.  A quick dinner, then back into the rain to dash back to the hotel.  Hopefully, this will blow over early for our diving tomorrow.

Day 25 – Miri

Sunday, 6 June 2010

We headed out for a morning coffee and the weather had improved overnight and our driver was spot on time again.  At the marina, the boat was ready for us, but today we would be diving in the company of four guys working with Shell in Brunei. 

Woohoo off we go diving
Woohoo off we go diving

The boat departed the marina and headed out into the South China Sea; the low swell and remnants of yesterday’s chop made the waters very sloppy and a quite uncomfortable 30 minute ride to the first dive site.  Of course usually any boat ride spells doom for Tracy and her seasickness, however, dosed up on drugs from the doctor, we set off optimistically.

Dive 1 – Santak Point.  The rough ride was forgotten as soon as we entered the water.  40+ metres of visibility; water so clean and clear it might not have even been there. 

The visibility is awesome
The visibility is awesome

The flat coral bottom at 20+ metres made the gigantic fans standing proud look even bigger. 

The colour is surreal
The colour is surreal

In the mucking, there were a plethora of nudibranchs, moray eels, small fishes in the hard and soft coral gardens.  There might not have been as much obvious life as around Mabul, but the visibility and the flat bottom made the experience beyond description. 

We are huge fans of flat bottom diving now
We are huge fans of flat bottom diving now

There was quite a strong surface current which dramatically as we neared the bottom, but nothing compared to the impossible currents around Mabul.  The gigantic fan corals were larger than 6 feet and the dive was just otherworldly as the visibility and colour of the sea were just extraordinary. 

Too much colour
Too much colour

One of the other divers was sick at the end of his dive which led to the domino effect and two of the other divers also decided to feed the fishes.  However, much to Tracy (and Scott) amazement this didn’t make Tracy join in. 

Dive 2 – Anemone Garden.  After an hour surface interval to reposition, we entered the water for the second dive; immediately noting the visibility was reduced, but was still in excess of 30 metres.  This was a shallow dive on another flat bottom reef.  The mucking was very much like before, but the micro-environment was well balanced with the presence of massive schools of jacks and other larger fishes, and a dozing 7 foot giant of a barracuda.  Our diving group was joined by two massive bat fish who stayed in close proximity for just about the entire dive.  As the name suggests there were hundreds of amazingly coloured anemones including some fire-engine orange, deep crimsons and bright reds, many home to clownfish, giant clams and Nudibranchs.  Also new for us was the bubble corals which are beautiful. 

Dive 3 – Eve Garden.  After another surface interval to reposition and take lunch (provided for us), we arrived at the final site for the day.  This site is another flat bottom coral garden with depths 2 to 7 metres. 

New years resolution - learn the names of underwater things
New years resolution - learn the names of underwater things

Due to a limitation with the camera we have, we chose not to go the edge where the reef drops sharply to over 12 metres.  The visibility was still in excess of 30 meters. 

See I do have my picture taken sometimes.
See I do have my picture taken sometimes.

Just because the water was shallow didn’t mean there was less to look at; there was abundant soft corals as well as bumphead parrotfish, clownfish (including the most brilliant red anemones), yellow tail fusiliers and angelfishes etc.

These were just brilliant red, the photo doesn't really do it justice.
These were just brilliant red, the photo doesn't do it justice
I never get sick of watching these
I never get sick of watching these

We arrived back at the jetty after a short boat trip from our last dive, to find our driver waiting for us and we waved goodbye to our fellow divers as they would not be heading out with us tomorrow.  We made it back to the hotel at about 3:30 leaving plenty of time to relax before heading out to dinner at Khan’s Indian Restaurant.

Day 24 – Miri

Saturday, 5 June 2010

We woke up this morning and looked out the hotel window to see grey skies, ominous looking clouds, rain on the horizon and trees swaying in breeze – not good signs for diving.  We prepared ourselves anyway, then popped into a local eatery for our morning coffee, then back to the hotel to wait for our driver to take us to the dive operator.

Our driver arrived spot on time and drove us to the marina.  It was raining en route so things still weren’t looking too flash for our diving.  At the marina we met Robert, our Dive Master, who duly informed us of the weather report; needless to say we didn’t go diving.  We were pretty impressed with what we saw of the dive operation; the boat was well laid out and they appeared to have all the gear.  When it was obvious the conditions were not going to be great, they happily recommended that we not go diving instead of trying to still make a dollar.  We got back in our transport and were delivered back to the hotel. Hopefully this afternoon we will get a phone call with a better report for tomorrow.

As we now had a day to spend in Miri, we went for a walk to see what was around.  The first thing we noticed was how quiet it was.  We walked through the rain to the Tourist Information Centre and gathered some details on buses to BSB and further (just in case).  We found a brochure for another dive company, who it turned out happened to have their office in a sports club just near the Tourist Information Centre.  We left the TIC and quickly found the sports club.  The sign on the door said members only, but we went in anyway to ask the Receptionist where the dive shop was; he explained it was on the premises, but guess what?  It was (yet another) public holiday and the shop wouldn’t open until Monday, maybe!

The Lonely Planet says this time of year is a great time to be travelling in Sarawak, but we whole-heartedly disagree; this time of year is very difficult for travellers.  Since the end of May, it seems everything has been directly or indirectly shut/unavailable because of some celebration or another.  Shall we remember the recent fiasco with the Belaga Longhouse where everyone was too pissed to receive us?

We resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to be doing too much today, so headed down towards where the river is supposed to be (you cannot actually see it from town) and found the Chinese Temple.  It wasn’t as colourful as previous temples we have visited, but it was still interesting.  We watched as an old lady lit up a massive bunch of incense sticks; remarking to ourselves how this Chinese religion seems to be based on setting things on fire!  Incense, pretend money, prayer notes etc.

Pyromaniac on training -  go Grandma
Pyromaniac on training - go Grandma

Just next door to the temple was the fish market; not too big and not too busy.  Outside on the roadway were some smaller stalls selling veges and chillies to accompany the fish purchased inside; a one-stop-shopping experience? 

Can't get much fresher
Can't get much fresher

As there wasn’t too much going on in the traditional end of town, we walked up to the other end of town to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafe in the Bintang Plaza shopping complex; there wasn’t anything happening up here either, but we did have a large coffee each (paying more than 10 times what a coffee costs in a kopitiam).  From the CBTL we walked around the corner to the City Fan, an intricate array of gardens which, according to Lonely Planet, is popular with families and joggers.  When we arrived in the park, we were the only people there (other than a toilet attendant and a bored looking security guard).  Eventually, we saw a small group who came to the park for a photography session with a model, and a couple of mini-buses with Brunei advertising and a plethora of tourists.  The main public swimming pool was of course closed for the public holiday, but it looked well maintained, with Olympic sized pool, diving boards and a separate smaller (water polo?) pool.

A clean peaceful park - the holy grail
A clean peaceful park - the holy grail

We had read in Lonely Planet that a weekend market was a must-see event in Miri.  As it’s Saturday, we thought we should see the market but had to find a taxi to take us there.  There was not a taxi to be seen near the park, so we walked back to the Bintang Centre and found a taxi driver, who  explained the market wasn’t open during the day, but was in fact a night market and would probably be open tonight?

With nothing much else to do, we headed back to the hotel, stopping at a “local” arts and crafts (for sale) centre.  Some of the souvenirs on sale were hand-made by locals (there was a man carving bamboo and a lady working with beads) but a lot of mass-produced cheap junk too.

We headed out to dinner at a local restaurant that was busy and even had pictures of what they offered for meals.  The meal was exactly what I ordered apart from the fact the sauce was so hot it nearly blew my head off, talk about sweating when we left.

Day 23 – Belaga -> Miri

Friday, 4 June 2010

After our insect disturbed night’s sleep we were all up early and headed off for coffee to fuel our upcoming journey to the Miri/Buntulu junction.  We had hired a driver the night before, as there doesn’t appear to be any public transport from Belaga to anywhere, other than by ferry and we didn’t want to backtrack, so forward was the only option.  We went in a convoy of two 4WDs as there are 7 of us leaving and soon realised why there is so many offroad vehicles around.  This is not Perth where 99% of 4WDs probably never go off the bitumen, this is not a road, but a continuous grouping of potholes.  It appears that when a road was meant to be built only the equipment came up here but was then left to rot on the side of the road.  We were all hanging on as the potholes got bigger and the going got tougher.  However, on a good note the jungle was amazingly close and there were some beautiful roadside orchids.  On the bad side it was bumpy, very bumpy.  One of the funny moments was when a sort of grading bulldozer was in front of us dragging what looked like as a house on a sled – not sure if they were using that to smooth the road or if they were really just moving house. 

This went on for hours, until we did a quick toilet break (in one of the world’s most gross toilets, remember, we have been to Tibet) and then the road widened and evened out and the palm oil plantations and forest clearing were the norm from there on.  Eventually after about 4 hours we made it to the junction and were dropped off to wait for a bus to Miri.  The first bus was full and wouldn’t let us on, but another bus stopped and we piled on, even accepting there weren’t enough seats and so Scott and the French family had to stand. 

We do stand out don't we :-)
We do stand out don't we

It was too hot to continue standing on the side of the road without melting.  We finally stopped for a short break at the Niamh cave turnoff where the French family decamped to the caves and the rest of us continued on to Miri.  I managed to get some sleep but Scott was sitting below the dodgy speaker so was too busy having his hearing damaged. 

We got off the bus in Miri and headed to the Somerset Hotel.  Checked in and the room isn’t too bad (wish places here would have tiles instead of carpet) and Scott made a phone call to a dive company and has arranged for us to dive tomorrow and Sunday.  We then headed out for a late snack where we ordered a laksa and roti which were delivered from a different restaurant across the road – very strange set-up here.  Back at the hotel we sorted out our ever expanding washing pile which is now most of our bag as we haven’t been anywhere for more than one night and in this humid weather that isn’t long enough to get anything dry.  We did some chores and headed out to an Indian Cafe (Khans) for a curry as a bit over noodles, the dahl and aloo gobi were a very welcome change and wolfed down with some naan and rice.  There are loads of food stalls here in Miri, although most of them tend towards seafood, not that we have seen much of the ocean/river, except for a very smelly part. 

We then headed off to find an ATM that is working.  We haven’t had much luck in the last couple of towns, but alas again nothing, so hopefully tomorrow can try and find one that will work, otherwise I will be selling Scott J 

Got home and finally decided to vent my dissatisfaction at not spending a night in a traditional longhouse by updating the blog, but travelling is an adventure and the best laid plans and all, should be making me laugh and it is kind off, typical.  The hotel also has wifi, so checked email and found out that our friends Jacqui and James are expecting their first baby – woohoo well done guys, we are very envious and can’t wait to catch up with Jacqui on 23 June for a celebratory soda water.  So our day has ended on a good note.


Day 22 – Kapit -> Belaga

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Well this morning did not start well.  Huge thunderstorms all night that continued as we left the hotel and grabbed a morning teeth rotting coffee.   We headed to the boat ferry terminal to buy a ticket for the Belaga ferry and were directed to the other boat ferry terminal where there was no ticket man in sight, this ferry terminal seems to be the poor cousin of the other one and there isn’t even a seat.  We waited and waited and eventually a ticket man came but not for the Belaga ferry which is heading upriver and as 9:00am came and went, it was obviously late.   There were another couple of westerners also waiting for the ferry and we stood there getting wet and now standing in piles of now wet rubbish (yes the rubbish from yesterday hadn’t washed anywhere just sort of clumped together in large manky piles).  Finally a ferry came and we jumped on board, paying once on board – I can’t work out how they know how many people they have.  We took off at a fast pace, but the windows were soon covered in the muddy river water, so I couldn’t see out.  After sleeping on the ferry yesterday, decided not to take travel sickness pills today so I wouldn’t miss out on the sights.  Scott went outside and took some photos, but the rain came on and off.  So instead I watched a fantastically crap film called Damage, not once, but twice.  The ferry made random stops to some very remote areas where there didn’t even appear to be a ferry stop with people just jumping on and off from the slopes against the river. 

How you even know what stop this is is puzzling.
How you even know what stop this is is puzzling.

 

There, however, is limited logging or palm oil plantations this far upriver and the jungle is extremely dense with just small communities who all live in longhouses.  You kind of feel you are now getting away from civilisation, except the fact you are in a speedboat ferry, but if you try and ignore the loud droning of the engines you can sort of imagine you are entering the darkness of the jungle.

The Lonely Planet suggested the trip would take approx 4 ½ hours, but 6 boring and butt numbing hours later we arrived at Belaga.  We got off the ferry to be greeted by an emissary of Daniel (who we rang the previous day) and as we made it further up the steps, Daniel himself appeared and gathered all the tourists up and whisked us off to his guesthouse.  And from here it all comes unstuck.

Scott, Tracy, Daniel (Canadian (not tour guide)), Cecilia, Marie and Jaques (French) decided to stay in the old fashioned local longhouse that night after a visit to a crystal clear swimming hole.  Sounds perfect doesn’t it?   We quickly went into the small town shopping street and grabbed a coffee and a gift for our longhouse hosts before we all piled into a ute and headed to the water hole to find it a muddy fast flowing river.  It was however very cool, but also very busy with locals, so we wandered a bit upstream for somewhere quiet which involved walking on slippery rockets trying to hold onto the odd twig etc along the riverbank.  Again we wore our Havaianas which have not developed offroad techniques since last time.   I of course slipped and fell into the water and am now sporting a lovely bruise on my shin.  We could only stay a short-time as we had to go back to the guesthouse and get ready for our night away. 

We headed back down to the jetty where we were faced with the world’s narrowest little boat.  Everyone that knows me will understand I hate boats and the smaller they are the more I hate them.  So I already had a foreboding that things weren’t going to go well, maybe I am psychic. 

Happy aren't it!
Happy aren't I

 

Anyway we headed off with Daniel (tour guide) steering and a local man rowing at the front.  We made it about 20 metres before there are engine problems and we randomly float back down to the jetty where Daniels ducks off to get a new sparkplug leaving us sitting in the boat.  Meantime being laughed at by some stupid children who thought it was funny to try and put fish bait on the back of the local man’s shirt.

Stupid kids
Stupid kids

 

As you can imagine my mood was seriously starting to disintegrate, I was hungry, paranoid about tipping in as people were moving around and the boat was moving, the river was moving and there were speedboats whizzing by – not happy. 

Now seriously unhappy
Now seriously unhappy

 

Daniel couldn’t find a replacement sparkplug but someone else comes alongside and bangs and taps away with the motor and off we set again, this time with the local man emptying the boat of the extra water we seem to be taking on.  We made it a bit further upriver this time, but the engine keeps cutting out, so we call it quits and head back to the guesthouse and get ready to go to a closer longhouse that can be accessed by car.  There is quite a lot of sporting activity here though – tennis, badminton, soccer etc. 

Hi ho hi ho, back to the guesthouse we go
Hi ho hi ho, back to the guesthouse we go

 

We all jump into a ute and head off again.  We arrived at the longhouse which appears to be similar to a council housing estate/squat with drunk people everywhere.  It is the end of the Gawai festival and in the Lonely Planet they state this is the best time to visit Longhouses – not if you want to see something other than drunk locals it isn’t. 

Not my romanticised ideal of a longhouse
Not my romanticised ideal of a longhouse

 

 

 

Alternatively a prison camp
Alternatively a prison camp

Anyway everyone was too drunk to meet us, cook or clean etc, so we all gave up and went back to Daniel’s Guesthouse.  Now I have to say that my psychic abilities had definitely been in overdrive as I had a premonition this would happen.  We headed straight out after Daniel refunded out money and had something to eat as Scott and I hadn’t eaten since the night before and luckily found somewhere that was open and did some quick food. 

Belaga is very small and there isn’t very much to see, so we did a couple of laps and headed back to the guesthouse and chatted before having an early night.  I was very disappointed as all I wanted to do was stay in a traditional longhouse for the night – even better if it hadn’t involved a boat.  There was another couple staying (Italians) and they went out drinking the local Tuak (wine) with the Canadian.  We didn’t have a very good sleep due to bugs etc (window was open).   C’est la vie.

Day 21 – Sibu -> Kapit

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

We were able to have a lie in this morning as there are boats every half hour to Kapit, so we wandered to the Fortunate Cafe for a Kopi Susu and then headed to the boat terminal.  We were given the choice of 1st class, business class or economy for our boat and we decided to splurge out and buy 1st class tickets.  Let me just mention I had all sorts of ideas going through my head of what 1st class would be like and yes I was disappointed as usual.  There are 12 seats in 1st class and when we got on board there was just us and another couple from Sibu. 

Not exactly Qantas 1st Class, but probably as close as I will ever get
Not exactly Qantas 1st Class, but probably as close as I will ever get

 

 

 

Our luxury speedboat.
Our luxury speedboat.

However, just before departure a gaggle of Chinese arrived on boat with screaming kids and loud old people, it was deafening and we only had one window to look out, so I started to watch the onboard DVD which was awful (Arachnid) which stopped working so they put on an even worse Chinese movie, so I gave up and went to sleep.  The group which joined us in the forward cabin included Chinese Grandma and Grandpa taking the grand-kiddies up the river.  Grandma must have had some sort of problem, she could just not shut up; even when Grandpa and the kids nodded off to sleep, she kept talking (talking under wet cement would not have been a problem for this lady).  To make matters worse, she had one of those voices which could penetrate a few feet of lead, and spoke at volume just a shade louder than a jumbo jet at take-off.  

Scott stayed alert and took some pictures etc of the countryside as we sped past it for the 3 hour boat trip.  There is still a huge amount of logging going on.  In the Lonely Planet they suggest that by the year 2022 98% of jungle will have disappeared, my opinion is that it will probably be heaps sooner.  You get the distinct impression that what you can’t see just behind the jungle framing the riverbanks is nothing. 

The disappearing jungle
The disappearing jungle

The river is still huge and obviously gets some massive tides as highlighted in the stilted structures along the riverbank.  There are lots of modern longhouses, some of them looking very new. 

Modernisation
Modernisation

I suppose the fact that logging and palm oil makes the indigenous population wealthy has a lot to do with the modernisation. 

Eventually we arrived at Kapit.  Well we guessed that by the sudden flurry of activity and packing up and everyone trying to disembark at once.  We had to push our way off the boat and climbed the steps up to the terminal.

Kapit
Kapit to Belaga ferry terminal

Once there we asked and there are boats heading up to Belaga so that is where we head tomorrow.  We checked into the New Rejang Inn which is clean and cheap and in the centre of town.  Not that it is difficult as the town is tiny.  We had a quick walk around and settled on a place to eat, which turned out to not do any food, so we had a kopi susu and an awful muffin that was so dry it was inedible.  We decamped to the “restaurant” next door (we’re using the term very loosely) and got a plate of sub-standard mee goreng, not boding well on the food stakes here. 

After the bad lunch we walked to Fort Sylvia which is meant to be an indigenous artist centre, but as today is a public holiday (isn’t every day so far been a public holiday?) it was closed, although there is a line marking how high the tide got in the floods of 1934 which were so huge it must have been devastating to the area.  Anyway this town was an outpost for the Raja Brooke (of Kuching fame), but there isn’t much left, now it is yet another Chinese town, not even any local handicrafts to be seen of the Iban.  We did a wander up towards the Chinese cemetery and past the Chinese temple which seems to be surrounded by some sort of lame ass sideshow alley (Scott thought it was like a Simpsons episode), so we did a bit more wandering, but things are closing down for the afternoon siesta, so we will join in (rude not too) and come out again later and see if things liven up, although we aren’t holding our breath.  At the Besar Pasar (MainMarket) the chicken vendors were transferring some scrawny chickens from their day coop into their transport crates; as we were passing we watched as the man picked the last chicken from the coop, it was dead so he just unceremoniously threw it into a nearby dumpster.  Tracy made comment, the dead chicken is probably in a better place than the other chickens which have more of their (unfortunate) lives ahead.

Scott rang a guy in Belaga to arrange for us to go out and visit some longhouses tomorrow, so now we aren’t sure if we are or aren’t going anywhere.  There doesn’t seem a lot of Bahasa spoken here, mainly Hokkien and that is one language we know nothing about.  So tomorrow will be a surprise.

As the afternoon drew on we noticed more and more business places were closing.  We were starting to get worried if there were going to be any places open at dinner time.  At sunset we headed down to the ferry terminal to try and get some photos over the river; the sunset was very ordinary tonight and lucky for us for as Scott was taking his only photo, the man was locking up the terminal and closing the shutters with us still on the inside.  We did a quick scramble cum limbo under the closing roller shutter and back onto the street in search of dinner. 

The now shut ferry terminal
The now shut ferry terminal

 

 

Sunset
Sunset

We had read about a night market in the LP but when we walked past the place earlier in the afternoon it was deserted.  Reasoning it’s called a “night market” we went back and found a few of the stalls had set out tables and were cooking food.  We ordered dinner from a couple of stalls; Tracy had a couple of roti and Scott had some satay and a laksa (it was very spicy hot, he is not looking forward to the morning).   We did see five other westerners at the night market, the largest contingent of “foreigners” we have seen for a while.

Scott eating - again
Scott eating - again

After dinner we did another couple of laps around town (it only takes about 10 minutes per lap) and watched as whatever shops that were open, close for the night; even the bank cash-point was asleep.  There aren’t even any bars or any other form of nightlife.

It might be because of the public holiday, or, it might be like this all the time (we don’t know), the centre of this town is filthy.  Just about every other place we have visited in Malaysia has been quite clean of litter and rubbish; just about all day and night it has been possible to observe people sweeping the streets and picking up the rubbish, leaves etc. But not here in Kapit.  The town square is a popular place to meet up with friends and sit in amongst the discarded cans, bottles, food scraps etc.  We would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the celebratory period and hope that tomorrow the street sweepers will be back at work, but as a lot of the rubbish looks like it has been there for a long time, we aren’t holding our collective breaths.

Day 20 – Kuching -> Sibu

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Got up and packed – yet again, luckily it doesn’t take long these days.  We headed down to find everything shut but luckily a very nice taxi driver to take up to the express boat terminal to Sibu. 

Our boat to Sibu
Our boat to Sibu

Even the scooters are loaded by hand
Even the scooters are loaded by hand

The boat trip should take approx 4 ½ hours, so we bought some water and got our seats on the upper deck.  Figured if the boat sinks we have a better chance of surviving than being trapped inside.   Downside after about an hour I couldn’t feel my ass anymore it was totally numb, wooden planks aren’t the most comfortable for long trips.  Anyway we progressed from Kuching up the Betang Rejang which is a huge river with many tributaries.  There isn’t a lot to see – let’s face it, it seems that the river is just one big logging operation and what is left are palms, so the countryside is still green, just the wrong kind. 

This was our view on both sides of the river
This was our view on both sides of the river

We are hoping as we go further upriver this changes.  After sitting and standing for about 3 hours the ferry stopped at a small jetty to disgorge a pile of people and their luggage, scooters and chickens (I am sure they aren’t going to a nice backyard like ours).  This however did now leave us with a bit of room to stretch out our legs, although wooden planks for sitting on were still uncomfortable.  The highlight of the trip were the fellow passengers, some of whom were very interesting, from the local who was very into his music as we had put up with his finger snapping and foot stomping.  There was also a massive variety of people who seemed to be chain smokers.

After 5 hours we finally reached Sibu, the first stepping stone in our trip up Batang Rejang.  We disembarked in a frenzy with everyone else and headed to our hotel which wasn’t hard to miss, it was exactly where the map said – near the swan statue.  Yes a giant statue of a Swan. 

Strange!
Strange!

We arrived and they realised that my Bahasa is crap and their English isn’t too flash and rearranged us from a triple room to a double room on the top floor with views of the river and city which ended up costing us rg10 less than they quoted, so we totally lucked in.  Li Hua Hotel is clean(ish) and the staff helpful. 

As we had no brekkie, we dropped our bags and then wandered across the road to the Victorious Cafe for a plate of Mee Goreng before having a cup of Kopi Susu.  We then set off to see the town, which we did in a manner of minutes, it isn’t very big.  We headed toward to Tua Pek Kong Temple which we saw from the riverside.  It is an interesting Chinese Temple with a seven-storey pagoda attached. 

Another beautiful pagoda
Another beautiful pagoda

 

 

Intricately carved pagoda
Intricately carved pagoda

This had the worlds biggest incense sticks burning, no joke they were as big as me.  It is also very very very hot here, and being next to the river isn’t helping cool things down at all.  We wandered through the market area but not much happening, although it is fairly interesting with a strong chinese history to the town.  Then again every town we have been through so far has been very chinese with little look of anything indigenous left.

Day 19 – Kuching

Monday, 31 May 2010

 

Tracy isn’t feeling well today; she has succumbed to a head cold.  We went for a short stroll through Chinatown to find something for breakfast and a coffee. 

A very quiet Chintatown
A very quiet Chintatown

 

We stopped in a food-market and ordered our drinks.  Looking around for something to eat, we noticed a lady selling a pancake filled with “stuff” which looked ok, so we ordered one each.  Sure enough it was a pancake, but the filling was mysterious; it definitely had crushed nuts, some sort of vegetable (sort of like rojak without being rojak), a hint of chilli and a few other spices and a lettuce leaf.  Scott thought they were quite tasty (a taste acquired after a few mouthfuls) but Tracy wasn’t of the same opinion.

After brekky, we took a slow walk back through Chinatown, stopping to take a few photos and to poke our noses into the Chinese temples along the route back to the hotel. 

Another Chinese temple
Another Chinese temple

 

We were welcomed in each temple and a lady in each pointed out a feature; in the first temple the lady pointed to some of the carvings in the ceiling and said, “Roof.”  In the second temple a lady pointed into a bath-like fixture and said, “Tortoise,” and surely enough there were live tortoises in the bathtub (some sort of good-luck-charm cum wishing well?)

We stopped at a travel agent near the hotel and booked a boat to Sibu for tomorrow.  With Tracy not being well, we decided that today will be a “no-day” and we shouldn’t spend another day here to make up for this one.  This of course means that we will not get out to Bako National Park to see the probiscus monkeys (luckily we saw these at Labuk Bay earlier) but will also miss out on the mangroves.  Cest la vie.  If we ever came back to Kuching we would definitely stay for longer; two days for the city itself, two days for Bako and another day to get out to the Semenggoh orang-utan sanctuary , and maybe an extra day or two to do some of the cooking schools.

Tracy went back to bed, so Scott went on a longer walking tour around town.  The waterfront was still quiet, leading him to the conclusion that Kuching might just be a quiet city.  The river was occupied by a few boatmen operating as ferries across the river.  Some of the boatmen have allowed their boats to be plastered in advertising, so seeing “University of Technology” emblazoned all over a simple wooden oar-driven boat is quite amusing.

Scott found more evidence that Kuching allegedly means “cat” in Bahasa, as he discovered more statues and carvings of felines along his way.  At the far end of town there is allegedly a large roundabout with a massive statue of a cat, but Scott didn’t make it that far downtown this morning, so maybe some time later?

Some statues are tasteful.....
Some statues are tasteful.....
and some are just weird
and some are just weird

It was lunchtime, so Scott went back to the hotel room to get Tracy for lunch.  She was feeling a little better, so we went to the little restaurant directly across the road from the hotel.  Scott ordered kueh teow goreng (fried flat noodles) and Tracy roti canai (plain roti) and asked for an egg filling (roti telur was not listed on the menu) and was very surprised to receive a western-style fried egg sandwich!  Maybe something got lost in translation?  Lunch was washed down with ribena soda, which not surprisingly was Ribena and Sprite.

After lunch we had a short stroll around town to see if anything was happening.  It wasn’t.  It was also hotter than the morning, which is not doing Tracy any good so we went back to the hotel for an early siesta.

After siesta we wandered around the town which seems in total shutdown with very few things opened due to the long weekend and Iban new year festival.  We had dinner down at the waterfront as it is actually nice and cool down there, thank god as I am sick of sweating to death every minute you are outside. 

State Capital Building at night
State Capital Building at night

We had thought that Chinatown would be open and that some of the pagodas etc would be lit up, but we were wrong, so after a couple of hours we gave up and headed back to the hotel for our sweet and sour cake dessert and vegged out reading. 

The cunning plan (for now):

We leave for Sibu tomorrow morning (4 ½ hours by boat), we’ll stay overnight there and then take another boat on Wednesday further upriver to Kapit (3 hours) for one night.  If the water level is high enough, on Thursday we will take a boat further upriver again to Belaga (4 ½ hours); if the river is not high enough then we will travel overland to Bintulu on the coast, in any case we will end up there even if we visit Belaga first.  Once back on the coast, we will travel north to Miri where we will spend a few days and hopefully will get the opportunity to check out the almost undiscovered scuba diving opportunities which are just starting to open up there.  From Miri, it’s just “short” bus ride into Brunei where we’ll spend a couple of days, then take the ferry back into Malaysia, landing at Pulau Labuan to visit the Australian War Cemetery and museums before finally taking another ferry to KK in preparation for going home.    The end of the trip is nigh. 🙁