Prepaid GSM

Sarawak, Brunei, Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu
Part 3

22- 23.8: Munich -> KL
24.8: KL -> Kuching
25.8: Kuching
26.8: Kuching -> Bako NP
27.8: Bako -> Kuching -> Miri
28.8: Miri -> Mulu NP
29.8: Mulu NP -> Miri
30.8: Miri -> Belaga
31.8: Belaga -> Sibu -> Miri
1.9: Miri -> Bario
2.9: Bario
3.9: Bario -> Brunei
4.9: Brunei ->  Mt Kinabalu NP
5.9: Park HQ -> Laban Rata
6.9: Laban Rata  -> Mt Kinabalu  -> Kota Kinabalu
7.9: Kota Kinabalu -> Kota Belud -> Kota Bharu
8.9: Kota Bharu -> Perhentian 
9.9: Perhentian island
10.9: Perhentian island
11.9: Perhentian  -> Redang
12.9: Redang -> Kuala Terengganu -> KL
13.9: KL ->  Ayutthaya
14.9: Ayutthaya ->  Munich

Continues from Part 2

30.8: Miri -> Belaga (via Bintulu)
Budget Belaga hotel, 25 RM for a double room with no windows but with A/C, bathroom but no shower; the water comes intermittently - but what can you expect for RM 25 ?
Weather: It has rained during the night. In the morning in Miri it's sunny with some clouds in the sky. So far the weather has been perfect, with all rain happening during the night and none during the day. Also in Belaga the sun shines the whole day (it's very hot and the sun is very strong)
GSM coverage (Belaga): surprisingly TMTouch (strong signal) - who would have believed that ?

We get up at 6am. I'm flying to Bintulu at 8:30am, while Shirley is flying to KL via Kuching at 8:40am. The plane I'm on (a Fokker 50) leaves on time from Miri airport and is quite full (only a few seats are still available).

The Bintulu airport, probably very new too, looks like an exact copy of the Miri one. In the plane to Belaga (a Twin Otter) there are just two other passengers besides me: a Czech couple which is travelling across Malaysia for three months.

The airport in Belaga is basically just an airstrip with a small building nearby. There is apparently no control tower. We land at 11:34am, a few minutes ahead of schedule. A group of people is there to greet us - no wonder - just three visitors arrived this time. To get to Belaga city you have to take a boat as there are no roads connecting the airport to the town. The boat trip takes 20 minutes. Again the sun is incredibly strong and hot. The boatsman tells us that right now it is dry season in Sarawak, but the boat service to Kapit is still operating. The only problem is that the boat now leaves at 6am - not at 8am as written in my guide book. Will have to get up 5am tomorrow.

At the jetty in Belaga a friend of the boatsman is waiting for us. This guy owns a guesthouse (the Budget Belaga hotel) where I end up taking a double room with A/C. With the boatsman I agree to do a boat tour in the afternoon - two longhouses and a waterfall for RM 100. The price seems a bit high, but the boatsman insists that the fuel is very expensive etc. He is by the way the father of six children, so let's make a small donation and support a local.

After lunch in the Budget Belaga hotel (fried rice which I can't finish as it contains too much chilli), I wait for the boatsman. We were supposed to leave at 1:30pm, but he doesn't show up. Then after half an hour he shows up and we finally manage to leave at 2:15pm (when leaving he offers his friends an alcoholic drink - kind of a good fate ceremony ?).

The boatsman by the way is a Kenyah and we will visit the longhouses of his family and of his wife's family. It takes only 15 minutes to reach the first longhouse. This longhouse is a bit modern (was built in 1969) and the people there are quite modern too, have electricity, TVs etc. I was kind of hoping to find some more rural, original people, but it looks that even Belaga is too close to the civilisation. No wild people wearing ancient tribal dresses. 
Several longhouse inhabitants don't like being photographed. Kind of understandable - these longhouses get many tourists and I'd guess that some of these locals must be feeling like animals in a zoo. By the way, while visiting the longhouses we distribute the gifts the boatsman told me to buy (ballons and sweets for the children).

At 3:50pm we leave the last longhouse and head towards the waterfall. The boatsman first heads back to Belaga and from there he drives the boat upriver into another river (Belaga is at the confluence of the Rejang river and another river. After almost 40 minutes and after passing some rapids, we finally stop somewhere and start a brief climb. After 15 minutes we reach the waterfall (not much of a waterfall actually - the thing is 5m high). The boatsman swims a bit then we go back. We reach Belaga at 5:40pm.

In the evening I just go out briefly for dinner in a Chinese restaurant (RM 3.50 for a noodle soup with chicken and a coke - one of the cheapest dinners I've ever had in Malaysia). The whole town is pretty much firmly in Chinese hands - most shops and restaurants are owned by Chinese people. Makes me wonder why on earth there are so many Chinese in a place like Belaga.

Tomorrow I'll get up at 5am to catch the 6am boat to Kapit and Sibu. I think I'll take a rest in Bario - will do nothing there for two days.
31.8: Belaga -> Sibu -> Miri
Crown Prince Inn, Miri (somewhere downtown): 56 RM, (smallish) double room with A/C, bath & hot shower, fridge, TV, decently furnished, although the furniture is a bit old; outside it's a bit noisy. I choose this place as the other 10 hotels I call are all fully booked (see below).
Weather: fresh in the morning in Belaga, not too hot in Sibu; clouded with some sunshine every now and then; no rain
GSM coverage: TMTouch has coverage in Belaga, Kapit, Sibu and Miri

Last night the owner of the hotel woke me up at midnight to collect the room rent, as I'm leaving early (his wife refused to take the money from me). Anyway, I manage to get up at 5am and be at the jetty at 6am. When the boat leaves at 6:20am it's still dark and quite fresh. In the boat itself it's freezing, as the boat owner turned on the A/C to the maximum, without taking into account that outside it's not hot at all. The boat itself is a bullet - or cigar-shaped speedboat (reaches Kapit in just 3:40 hours!).

This speedboat ride is probably the coolest thing I've done so far. Until Kapit the boat passes through relatively less civilised territory, with settlements and longhouses every now and then along the river. It is possible to stay outside, as the boat doors are left open. The coolest thing is when we reach the rapids near Pelagus and when the boat driver has to quickly manouver to avoid rocks and does fast turns (between Belaga and Kapit the Rejang river is still a bit rough). I guess it must be even more fun to do the ride in the rainy season when the river carries more water.

The boat reaches Kapit at 10am and stops there for 15 minutes. After that the journey continues. The more downstream we go the larger and smoother the Rejang river gets.

We reach Sibu at 1pm. The immediate problem is where to put the backpack, as my flight to Miri is only at 6:30pm. Since it's lunchtime and I'm quite hungry, I take a taxi to the New Capitol restaurant. This is supposed to be one of the better places in town. I order lemon chicken and explain that the chicken meat should be without skin and without bones. This is necessary as in the original, not westernised Chinese restaurants they serve dishes with small pieces of chicken with meat, skin and bone. You are supposed to eat the skin and spit out the pieces of bone onto the table. 

In spite of my efforts to explain what I want they still serve me pieces of chicken meat with skin and bones. Either they don't know that chicken filet exists or perhaps they don't want to serve it to a foreigner.

After lunch I leave my bags in the restaurant and stroll through Sibu. It's not too hot, so it's possible to walk on the streets. There is a Chinese temple along the waterfront, the Tua Pek Kong temple. The Lonely Planet of 1999 which I'm using explains that the temple has a caretaker who will give you a crash course of Taoism. 

And indeed when I walk into the temple I get adopted by Mr. Tan Teck Chiang, the caretaker of the temple. He starts teaching me Taoism. Actually quite interesting and since I have some time to kill I have a chat with him. Taoism interests me also personally, as my wife is Tao (she is Malaysian Chinese). After a while chatting with this very friendly guy, I've got enough and my supply of time is getting less unlimited, so I politely put an end to the conversation and climb on top of the temple. Very nice view of Sibu.

After that I have a look at the market between the temple and the Sibu harbour. Around 5pm I'm back in the restaurant to fetch my bags and then take a taxi to the airport (RM 27). The airport in Sibu is relatively old and less imposing compared to the ones of Bintulu and Miri.

The flight leaves on time at 6:30pm and reaches Miri 55 minutes later. In Miri there are big problems finding a room. I call about 10 mid-class hotels and they are all fully booked. Finally I manage to find a room in the Crown Prince Inn with the help of the airport staff. The taxi driver later explains me that today, August 31st, is National Day in Malaysia and politicians from all over Sarawak meet in Miri today for celebrations - which is why most hotels are fully booked.
1.9: Miri -> Bario (Kelabit highlands)
Tarawe's Inn, Bario: room with three beds (and nothing else), RM 15/night, no A/C, shared bathroom, water bowl for tooth brushing is the one in the kitchen. This is the highly recommended place in the Lonely Planet of 1999 (don't have the newer edition). According to the 1999 LP, John Tarawe, the owner, married to a British woman, runs this place and will provide you with a lot of information and maps of Bario. Food should have also been available. Well, this place has seen better days. When I arrive, John is not it, his brother says he is no longer married to this British woman, they serve no food and they have no maps of the area. Looks like the place to be now is Gem Lodge, run by Jaman Riboh, a lodge 6km out of Bario, in the jungle. By the way, Tarawe's Inn has only electricity from 6:30pm until 10pm.
At 9pm I check out of Tarawe's and move into the Bariew Lodge (see below).
Weather: sunny in Miri in the morning, overcast in Bario, but no rain; in the afternoon the sun starts shining through. Fresh - the temperature in Bario is 23°C.
GSM coverage (Bario): no GSM coverage

In the morning I find out that the Crown Prince Inn charges 30 sen/minute for local calls - three times the standard rate. They charge me 18.50 RM for one hour of surfing the Internet (local call). Never mind... 
I get a taxi to the airport and fetch the plane to Bario at 9:35am. There are four empty seats in the plane, in spite of the fact that the flight was fully booked. It turns out that travel agents block seats with fictional passengers, and don't release them even if they don't use them. According to what I hear MAS can do nothing about this.

We reach Bario airport at 10:25 am. Surprise, surprise, the airport is much more developed than the one of Belaga (the runway is of concrete). I get a pickup truck to Tarawe's Inn (see above). This place doesn't seem to get too many visitors - right now I'm the only one. After settling down and going out I meet Jaman Riboh, the owner of the Gem Lodge, with whom I had a chat at the airport. He explains me a bit Bario and shows me a restaurant (actually a shop where you can eat something). So I have some lunch. Once back in Tarawe's lodge I meet the brother of John Tarawe. He offers to be my guide tomorrow. For RM 60 he will show me some places for the whole day.

Around 1pm I start walking around Bario village. Everywhere there are rice fields and women planting rice. Lots of water buffaloes also  - people here don't use tractors. As the owner of the restaurant explains me in the evening, the Bario rice is famous for its quality - it's even better than rice from Thailand. Tomorrow I'll give it a try.
It's not too hot and the sky is overcast, so walking is easy. I manage to get past the village and until into a forest (no leeches by the way), until the path gets very muddy forcing me to turn back. I'm back in Tarawe's at 4:30pm. I only walked for three hours but am quite tired. I take a rest until about 7pm. 
It gets dark... and the generator isn't switched on. They explain me that the generator is broken and that they are trying to fix it. Great. Imagine being in a dark room without power. Never mind, I wait one more hour in the room.

Then I go down again. They are all there having dinner with the emergency light. This time they explain that the generator probably won't work the whole night. So I go out and start looking for another guesthouse and indeed find one, which does have electricity. But it's 9:20pm and they have power only until 10pm and I need at least three hours to recharge the batteries of my notebook. But for RM 15 (RM 5/hour) they can keep the generator running for three more hours. Suddenly it becomes clear why there is no power in Tarawe's place. If electricity costs RM 5/hour, they would spend RM 20 for the four hours in the evening and at the moment they only have one paying customer for RM 15/night. No point switching on the generator for just one customer - they would lose money.

Anyway I check out of Tarawe's and check in this new lodge - which indeed is a much better place. The Lonely Planet should remove Tarawe's Inn from the list of recommended places.
Accomodation in Bario (brief overview September 2003)
Tarawe's Inn
Manager: Tarawe brothers
Located centrally in Bario town, RM 15/night per person, rooms with three beds, shared bath and toilet, no A/C, water sink in the kitchen, no food provided; no electricity at night. Not recommended.

Bariew Lodge
Manager: Reddish Aran
Address: Kelabit Highlands, Bario, 98050 Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia
Located centrally in Bario town, RM 15/night per person, rooms with three beds, shared bath and toilet, no A/C; food provided if you want to eat here (costs extra), helpful staff, electricity from 6:30pm until 10pm. This is the best place to stay if you want to be in Bario town.

Gem's Lodge
Manager: James Jaman Riboh
Address: Pa' Umor, Bario, Kelabit Highlands, P.O.Box 5, 98050 Bario, Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia (Phone: 019-8553546 in Kuching)
Near the Pa' Umor longhouse in a beautiful setting in the forest, RM 20/night per person, rooms with three beds, shared bath and toilet, no A/C; food provided (costs extra) (and you'll have to eat here as the place is 6 Km from Bario and from the next restaurant), helpful staff, electricity from 6:30pm until 10pm. This looks like the best place of the Bario valley; only drawback is that it is 6 Km out of town (but very peaceful in an idyllic setting)

De Plateau Lodge
Manager: Douglas Munney Bala, http://www.kelabit.net
3 Km out of Bario along the road to the Pa' Ukat longhouse, in a peaceful setting, RM 20/night per person including breakfast, rooms with three beds, shared bath and toilet, no A/C; food provided (costs extra) (and you'll have to eat here as the place is 3 Km from Bario and from the next restaurant), helpful staff, electricity from 6:30pm until 10pm (?). This place is new and is still being developed by Douglas and his wife.

2.9: Bario
Bariew Lodge, RM 15/day per person, my room has three beds, no attached bath, no A/C (there is no need in Bario); shared (cold) showers and toilets; nice meeting room; friendly owner; they will cook food for you if you want
Weather: a mix of overcast and sunny the whole day; very strong sun when it shines through; not too hot unless you are in the sun; very brief shower at 3pm, then it starts raining at 8pm and it is still raining when I'm writing this (10pm)
No GSM coverage

I sleep until late and get up at 10am. When I'm ready and have taken a freezing shower, it's already after 11am. As I'm about to start my day and get out of the lodge I run into Reddish who just came back from the airport looking for new tourists. He grins and greets me with a "Good afternoon", I reply "Good evening" and smile. They (Reddish and three other tourists staying in the lodge) are on their way to the Bario school, which has Internet access, to check their email. I join them and check my email (Internet access is RM 4/hour). Once back in the lodge I ask Reddish what I could do in the afternoon. He says I might do a walk to the Pa' Umor and Pa' Ukat longhouses. Since I'm not familiar with the Bario valley and don't want to get lost I ask for a guide. Rose, a local Kelabit, will show me around in the afternoon for RM 40.

I have lunch again in the same place (the shop/restaurant owned by the Chinese/Kelabit couple, near the Bario Telecentre. I tell the owner that I'd like to try the Bario rice in the evening. At 1:30pm we start our walk. There is no cloud cover anymore and the strong sun is now shining directly, but walking is still ok. We are heading towards the Pa'Umor longhouse. Interestingly the scenery resembles very much the one in the Bako NP. The ground is sandy (why is there sand here in the mountains ?) and the vegetation is similar. Everywhere there are pitcher plants (Nepentes). 

At about 3pm we reach Pa' Umor and walk into the nearby Gem's Lodge. Just in time to avoid the rain which comes all of a sudden very heavily, but only lasts for a few minutes. Gem's lodge is very nice and lies in an idyllic setting in the forest. We have a chat with the owner/manager, Jaman. Apparently there are very few tourists coming to Bario, but there are plans to increase their numbers, mainly by addressing local Malaysian tourísts.

At 3:50pm we leave the lodge and visit the nearby Pa' Umor longhouse. There is a church and an airstrip. By the way, so far I haven't met a single leech. But I heard that there should be many deeper in the jungle. 20 minutes later we continue the trek, this time heading to the Pa' Ukat longhouse. The path becomes small and very muddy (my shoes get wet), as we cross the jungle. 

It takes one hour of fast walk to reach Pa' Ukat. We stop briefly, have a chat with the local villagers, take some photos and then continue the trek this time back to Bario. When we leave Pa' Ukat it's already 5:20pm and we have to rush a bit in order to be back before dark. 

On the way back we briefly stop at the De Plateau lodge (see above). We are finally back in Bario at 6:30pm. In the evening I have a dinner with Bario rice in the shop/restaurant where I usually go. In the evening it rains from 8pm to 11pm.
3.9: Bario -> Miri -> Limbang -> Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei)
Jubilee Hotel, Bandar Seri Begawan, 70 B$, nice room with A/C, bath with hot shower, telephone, fridge, cable TV, breakfast and transfer to the airport included. Good value for a hotel in Brunei and good location also (was prepared to spend upwards of 100 B$ for a hotel room, and was positively surprised by the lower rate. 
Weather: rain in the morning in Bario until about 9am and quite cool, overcast sky the whole day; still overcast in Miri, Limbang and Brunei, but no rain in the afternoon and evening in Brunei
GSM coverage: local Brunei GSM operator

It's raining heavily in the morning. I'm ready with my bags at 9am - flight to Miri is scheduled at 10:20am, at 1:20pm I have a connecting flight to Limbang. At 9:30am we leave for the airport. Due to the bad weather conditions the flight to Miri is delayed, but luckily not cancelled. These small Twin Otter planes are not that suitable for bad weather conditions (heavy rain). As the time passes and the plane from Miri is still not landing, I start getting a bit nervous, because I have the connecting flight to Limbang in Miri at 1:20pm. 

Finally the plane lands and about half an hour later, at 11:55am the Twin Otter takes off. We reach Marudi at 12:28pm and there the plane fills up with passenger for the route Marudi-Miri (on the route Bario-Marudi the plane was almost empty). The baggage guy in Marudi almost unloads our baggage in Marudi (mine and that of another traveller) - we stop him at the last moment. We take off again, arrive in Miri airport at 12:55pm, where I immediately rush with the bags to the check-in counter. Luckily they check me in (the flight to Limbang is delayed anyway).

After another flight in the Twin Otter (I'm starting to get tired of these small planes) I arrive in the small airport of Limbang. There I fetch a taxi to the harbour (RM 5). The problem now is that the speedboat to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) costs RM 15, but only if the boat is full of passengers. Since apparently I'm the only passenger they want to charge me RM 150 for the half hour trip to BSB. The alternatives would be a) wait until there are enough passengers to fill the boat (it's 3pm and I'd like to do some sightseeing of BSB before dark) or b) drive by taxi to the border in Kuala Lura (RM 50) and there fetch a bus to BSB (and the bus is going to take 2 hours!). So I negotiate down the price to RM 100 and after going through immigration I leave on a speedboat to BSB.

I reach the jetty of BSB at about 3:30pm, go through immigration and get a two weeks visa (will only stay one day though). Then I walk out and start looking for a bank with an ATM. I'm lucky and nearby there is a Citibank branch (where I can withdraw cash with no fees).

Then I start looking for a hotel. After walking a bit around and finding nothing I start looking for a taxi. And that's not so easy. It takes me about 15 minutes to find one. I tell the driver to go to the Jubilee hotel (listed in the Lonely Planet of 1999 as one of the relatively affordable ones). The taxi has no meter and the ride costs 5 B$.
In the hotel I'm surprised by the relatively low rate. After unloading my things I start my walking tour of BSB at 4:30pm.

I'm positively impressed by what I see. Based on the stories I heard, BSB was supposed to be a boring, sterile place with nothing to see. Instead it's a very nice and interesting town, with many nice buildings and a comfortable and laid-back atmosphere. It's also relatively clean and elegant. An affluent place, as everybody is driving good quality cars (mostly Japanese ones). People are very friendly. I guess all these bad reports must have come from disgruntled oil industry workers who are stuck in Brunei for months and cannot live without pubs and beer.

After some time I reach the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque - a very nice mosque, which kind of forms the centre of BSB. Then I continue onwards to Kampung Ayer and fetch a boat for a short ride to the palace of the Sultan. I think I'll visit the palace tomorow by taxi. I ask the boatsman to drop me off at the green mosque in Kampung Ayer. From there I slowly walk back to the centre of BSB. On the way back I run into a group of children. A small girl poses for me - first time in my life that a girl in a Malay society poses for a photo. I guess Brunei doesn't get that many tourists and locals find tourists interesting.

In the evening I check my emails in an Internet cafe (very low rate of 1 B$ for two hours). By the way, already 1800 images (total 10 GB) already taken in this holiday.
4.9: Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) -> Kota Kinabalu (KK) -> Mt Kinabalu NP
Nepentes Villa (accomodation within the Mt Kinabalu NP), 88 RM, room with two beds, some furniture, bath+shower shared with the other half of the Nepentes Villa (but this evening I have the whole Nepentes Villa for myself); no A/C, no heating, hot showers
Weather: in the morning in Brunei hot & sunny with a thin clouds layer; cloudy in KK in the afternoon; rain in the evening and at night in the Mt Kinabalu NP (quite cold)
GSM coverage: TMTouch has coverage in KK and even in the Mt Kinabalu NP (as do Celcom and Maxis)

In the morning I'm ready shortly before 10am for my morning visit of BSB. I'm planning to charter a taxi for one hour to see a mosque and the palace of the Sultan. The receptionist calls a taxi at 9:55am and tells me it will be here in 10 minutes. At 10:15am the taxi has still not arrived. The lady explains me that there are few taxis in Brunei as most people have a car and the foreign workers use the bus. It's just the tourists and foreign businessmen who have a problem.

At 10:20am the taxi finally arrives. We drive to the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque in Kampong Kiarong, which we reach in a matter of minutes. Very nice mosque - even nicer than the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque. I shoot some photos. Going inside is not allowed, because today is Thursday (but why? I thought Friday is the holy day of the muslims).

We then drive to the park near the palace of the Sultan. Going inside is not allowed and from the outside it is difficult to take a photo, because there is a thick tree belt around the palace. After a further stop in town I'm back in the hotel (cost of the taxi: 40 B$ for the hour spent).

I finish packing my things and check out at 11:45am. The cost of the laundry is a whopping 30 B$. Unbelievable it is so expensive to wash a few T-shirts and some underwear. Outside the van of the hotel is waiting (the ride to the airport is included in the price of the room). We reach the airport about 15 minutes later. After check-in I have some lunch in the restaurant of the airport. The airport of Brunei is not that big - there are just eight gates.
The plane is a Boeing 767 - a too large plane for such a small trip. The flight is delayed by one hour, as the plane arrived to Brunei late. Instead of arriving in KK at 2:05pm as scheduled, we reach KK at 3:05pm. It takes half an hour to get through immigration and retrieve the luggage. I then take a taxi to the minibus station of KK. We arrive a few minutes before 4pm and luckily there is an almost full minivan leaving for Ranau (the Mt Kinabalu NP is on the way to Ranau).

We leave at 4pm sharp. The road to Ranau has been substantially improved since last time I've been there (2001). Over large sections of the road there is now a third lane, which makes overtaking slow trucks easier. The higher we get and the closer we get to the park, the more it rains.

When I finally walk into the Mt Kinabalu NP headquarter it's 6pm. I book some accomodation in the park (see above) and in the Laban Rata resthouse at 3300m. They have increased again the fees they charge to climb Mt Kinabalu. This time there is a RM 100 fee for climbing Mt Kinabalu (RM 30 only for Malaysians), and a compulsory RM 70 fee for a guide - which nobody needs, as it's virtually impossible to get lost on the very well marked trail. Basically these RM 70 are a donation you make to the local people. Total cost, including accomodation, fees and permits, for climbing Mt Kinabalu is well over RM 300 now.

In the evening I have a dinner at the restaurant in the park. It keeps on raining through the night.

Copyright (c) 2003 Alfred Molon