Brunei Darussalam – Small Country, Rich Resources

So there we were…staring at billboards all over town with the face of the Sultan of Brunei, one of the world’s richest men.

It felt strange arriving at the airport in Kuching instead of going to the bus station, but in Borneo flights end up costing about the same as bus transport. We took a plane further north to the town of Miri, located just south of the country of Brunei. From Miri, we had hoped to be able to visit Mulu National Park and do some hiking, but due to us not pre-planning the trip, accommodation at the park was full and we were not able to go. Instead we decided to just head further up through Brunei and continue on to the northern section of Borneo.

Brunei is a small country squeezed into the western coast of Borneo. Rich with money from the oil in the country, the Sultan of Brunei was named the richest man in the world in 1997 with a net worth of $38 Billion. It is a very muslim society with a very conservation population. The capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is the only place we visited and we spent a day walking through its clean, but scorching hot, streets. To get a break from the sun, we visited one of the Sultan’s (air-conditioned) museums where he houses a collection of personal gifts from leaders of other countries from around the world. After that, down on the river front, we hired a boat to take us through some of the floating villages surrounding the city. Expecting Brunei to have a high standard of living for most of its residents, we were surprised to see so many shacks built along the water front on stilts over the water. These families have created their own community with floating schools and even a fire station armed with fire boats instead of trucks. It is easy to notice how even though the country is rich with wealth, that money is not always filtering back down to its people.

With not much else to do in the city, we only spent one day in Brunei and then continued north back into Malaysia. The best way to leave Brunei is by boat to Pulau Labuan. They call Labuan the Vegas of Borneo, armed with casinos and duty free shopping, but we didn’t see any casinos the whole time we were there. We did take advantage of the duty free shopping though. Liquor and beer were extremely cheap on the island so we didn’t mind spending a few days enjoying ourselves with some drinks at night around the food markets. We also both picked up a bottle of liquor, Jack Daniel’s for Jason and Absolute Mango for Becky, both cheaper than we could buy them in the US!

Finally, after several days, we made our way to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo’s “capital” city. Now in the northern, or Sabah, section, we tried to make a plan for the remaining weeks left in the country. First on our agenda was a trip to climb Mt. Kinabalu, Asia’s largest mountain. But before heading to the mountain, we decided to take a day trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP), a small island off the coast of KK to do some more diving. We had been quite spoiled diving in Indonesia where all the sites we visited had beautiful coral and big fish. The diving at TARP was not quite the same with a lot of dead coral and hardly any big fish at all, but the islands above water were picture perfect, which was a wonderful way to spend some time during our breaks between dives. Coming back to KK, we made plans to head to the mountain and took off the following day to see what we could arrange.

Highlights

  • Getting some bottles of liquor duty-free for ridiculously low prices
  • Even though we were only there a day, checking out the small country of Brunei. A gallon of gasoline goes for $0.40 – $0.50 per gallon there!

Lowlights

  • Not being able to go hiking in Mulu National Park since we didn’t plan ahead
  • Having some boring days of travel up to KK with not many things to see along the way
National mosque of Brunei
In front of a floating Shell gas station in Brunei on our water tour - gas there was $0.40 per gallon!
Kota Kinabalu's famous marlin
Fish market in Kota Kinabalu
Beautiful island around Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Enjoying the views during a dive break
Clown (Nemo) fish
Underwater fun at TARP

Cambodia – Angkor What?

So there we were…exploring the otherworldly Angkor temples, having our very own Indiana Jones experience.

We got a late start out from Bangkok the morning we headed for the border and didn’t end up crossing into Cambodia until after dark.  Because of the time, there were no more buses to our destination so we spent the night at the small border town and continued on the next morning to the town of Battambang.  While the town itself didn’t have much going on we enjoyed getting a feel for Cambodia and the people, who were much friendlier than the Thai’s we met.  The highlight of the area was our transportation from Battambang to the town of Siem Reap.  Instead of taking another bus, we took a boat which was long (almost 8 hours) but it showed us a side of Cambodia we would not have never seen from the road.  The river is a source of washing (dishes, themselves, clothes), swimming (for the young kids) and fishing for the local people.  Many communities live in floating houses in wide areas of the river, using boats to visit friends or stock up on food.  Watching the daily river life pass us by was a fascinating way to travel up to Siem Reap.

The town of Siem Reap is home to the famous temples of Angkor Wat and was something we had been looking forward to for the whole trip.  To our surprise the town was very well-developed with plenty of western bars, restaurants and some great, cheap hotel rooms.  It was a welcome change from the prices we had been paying in Thailand.  We spent the first afternoon wandering around the town checking out the over-priced tourist goodies at the market and ended up running into our friends Rob and Danielle who we shared a house with in Langkawi, Malaysia.  We made plans to meet up for dinner later that night and enjoyed catching up with them again. 

The next day we headed out to explore the temple ruins.  We hired a tuk-tuk driver (a motorbike attached to a 2-seater carriage) to take us around the area as the temples are extremely spread out.  You could easily spend one week visiting all the ruins of Angkor Wat but we decided to just focus on the highlights and do it in one day.  The temples were magnificent to see in person and around every corner we found our selves saying “wow”.  Over time the jungle has over taken the structures creating dramatic trees and roots covering the temple walls.  By the end of the day, we were exhausted from our temple exploration, we plopped in the back of our tuk-tuk thankful he was driving us home. 

Our next stop was the capital, Phnom Penh.  Once again, it was much more built up and developed than we both expected and again we settled into a fantastic room at a dirt cheap price ($7!).  Our goal in Phnom Penh was to explore the city but also to learn more about the horrible genocide that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s.  Over 2 million people died during that time and it was important for us to learn more.  We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was used as a security prison by the Khmer Rouge to hold, torture and eventually kill prisoners.  We also spent time walking Cambodia’s killing fields on the outskirts of town where many of the prisoners from Tuol Sleng were sent to be murdered and buried in mass graves.  It is hard to put into words how we felt while visiting these places, it created a knot in our stomach as we saw pictures, read stories and even saw skulls of many people who died there.  We want to share more about the genocide that occurred in Cambodia as well as in Rwanda, please check out the next blog for more information about what we learned and experienced.

Highlights

  • The Angkor temples, specifically Bayon with its multi faced carvings which we both agreed was our favorite
  • Traveling from Battambang to Siem Reap via boat, seeing rural villages and the “real” Cambodia
  • Not having to bribe the border guards when crossing into the country – this is a very common issue that we got passed by playing stupid and killing them with kindness
  • The value for the extremely nice rooms, easily the best we have seen in our travels so far

Lowlights

  • Having to constantly fight back tears while learning more about the Khmer Rouge genocide
Village on our boat ride
Floating houses
Drinks with our old buddies Rob and Danielle
Angkor Wat - the main and famous temple
One of the many carved faces
Jason pondering the ruins at Angkor Wat
Angkor Thom
Becky Lamken or Lara Croft tomb raider?
The jungle taking over
Monks paying respect at Banyon
Cambodians are talented at sleeping anywhere!
Phnom Penh at dusk