Tag Archives: birthday

Birthday in BSB….Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Unbeknownst to us, our 7 hour bus ride from Sepilok to Kota Kinabalu had passed right by the epicenter of a 6.0 earthquake that occurred just a few hours before. We knew when we were near Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest point in Southeast Asia, but the weather was pretty dreary and all we saw were tons of cars and people along the side of the road.

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Headhunting has been outlawed, but not for very long

But the first thing the receptionist asked us at the hotel was if we felt the earthquake. We didn’t have a clue. Turns out almost 20 people have died, at least 6 Singaporean children. And who to blame? The westerners who a week before stripped naked for a photo at the top of the mountain and disturbed the spirits, or something. Or at least that’s what one state official has been quoted saying. They’ve been arrested, detained, and face up to three months in jail if found guilty. More than a week later. (Update – they’ve been released after spending 3 days in jail) For indecent exposure and causing an earthquake? Seriously. No, they should not have posed naked, as its offensive to the people, who regard it as a sacred place, but insinuating that they are responsible for the earthquake takes it a bit too far. Also, this tidbit found in the local paper the same day really irks me. (Maybe I should wait to post this until after we leave Malaysia)

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The Borneo Post, June 5, 2015, Page 2
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“husband’s cheque book” Just posting this makes me cringe, cover my face in frustration and shake my head.

The quickest way to get to Brunei, besides flying, is by ferry. A bus involves three border crossings because of the crazy country border lines – due to the British slowly taking strange shaped parcels of land. You go into Brunei, then back into Malaysia, and then back into Brunei (there’s only one road). We don’t have enough space in our passports for all these extra stamps, so opted for the faster and more scenic boat, with only one border crossing.

The boat ride was pretty pleasant. We stopped on Labuan, an island, which is Duty-Free, for a few hours before boarding our next boat to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), Brunei. There, we bought a bottle of Cuban rum, as Brunei is a dry country (with Sharia Law) and we planned to have a little celebration for Riki’s thirtieth birthday the next evening. This involved filling out a special customs form, which was supposed to be kept with the bottle at all times.

Upon arriving at the ferry terminal outside BSB (the capital), we walked out to the main road to look for the bus. There are only about 50 taxis in the country and none of them were at the ferry terminal. After a few minutes walking down the road, a bus came along and picked us up. After changing buses at a nearby strip mall (bus station), we headed down the coast for about 20 minutes before being dropped right in front of our hotel. The kindness of everyone we met really helped us get to the right spot. Random people showed us where to get the bus, told us which bus to switch to, and when to get off the bus. So many helpful and friendly people. Not many tourists here, and we were soon to discover why.

Brunei has just over 400,000 people, in the whole country. It is largely Malay based and Muslim. Brunei gained its independence from Britain in 1984 and has developed extensive petroleum industries (90% of its GDP). Hence, it is very rich. But it is a country where homosexuality can be punished with death, by stoning, a law just passed in 2014. It does not let its citizens consume alcohol and there is no freedom of the press. Sounds rough, but the people pay no income tax and the cost of living is pretty low. And they get an average of 6-7 hours of sunlight per day. Highs and lows.

The bus ride into town was unlike what we are used to in SE Asia. Large houses, with wide lawns lined the streets. Multiple cars sat in every carport – nice cars. We arrived at our hotel, a few kilometers outside of the city, but right along the water. From there, we checked in and managed to glean that we could take a water taxi into town. So we walked down to what we thought was the pier and asked someone to help us hail one. Luckily, we were close to the “gas station” (hose with plastic buckets to cart into the boats) and waited only a few minutes for a boat to refuel and pick us up. And then we high-tailed it into town. Which was amazing! But very uncomfortable. It was only a short distance, but we sped as though racing, through the village on stilts along the waters’ edge and back across the river to the center of town.

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Mosque in BSB (not Backstreet Boys)

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And then it got strange. We wandered the short distance to the big mosque and around the main downtown. It was empty. Devoid of people. Yes, it was Sunday evening, but it was not dark yet. Modern buildings mingled with older, more run-down low-rises. It seemed like a city on the verge of booming, or just on the decline. It was tough to tell. Like nowhere else we have been. It was even hard to find somewhere to eat. There seemed to be only a handful of restaurants – and nothing that really stood out.

On Riki’s thirtieth birthday, we once again got a water taxi into town and tried to do a bit of shopping. Like Malaysia, mall culture seems to be very prevalent. There was one souvenir shop along the waterfront and a large, modern mall with sparsely populated stores – which mostly seemed to be selling phones.

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Downtown, from the boat

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Mosque
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Grounds around Mosque
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Not much traffic for a weekday
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Easy to take pictures without people getting in the way

We walked to the Royal Regalia building, where things of the Sultan (yes – he rules here and is highly revered) are housed and displayed. We explored rows of gifts from different countries – anything from paintings to intricate models of Angkor Wat to lavish tea sets. Unfortunately, photography was only allowed in the lobby.

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Just waiting for a funny caption

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Next stop, the water village across the river. Having ridden through the night before, and assuming the B$50 offer for an hour-long tour was a bit overkill, we opted to walk along the raised boardwalks between the scattered houses. Like many communities over water we have visited, this one was on the weathered side. The walkways were precarious at times, making us jump at moving boards and shuddering sounds that shouldn’t come from under your feet. A strange contrast to the city just across the river.

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Cheap and quick ride across the river – compared to the 45 minute drive to go by land (until they finish the bridge)
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Boat and boy
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Same mosque from earlier pic with its manicured grounds.  And this is just across the way. Stark contrast
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Same, same.

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Flying kites
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Another mosque along the water

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Very precarious walkway
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This is the menu from one the cafes in the water village – rice chicken – two words we are very familiar with
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Brunei flag
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For pics of the birthday boy – see the Instagram shots on the side or here:  Somuchtravel on Instagram
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More traffic here than on the roads

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Newer “neighborhood” on the water

Just as we were finishing a late lunch/early dinner, the skies began groaning and darkening in prelude to the coming storm. We rushed for a water taxi back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night watching videos and drinking our Cuban rum. Not exactly a normal way to spend a birthday, but with no bars and barely any restaurants, a night in, and out of the heavy rain was just right.

The next morning, the hotel’s owner gave us a ride to the bus station (extra lane along the water front with no signs) for our 4 hour trip west into Sarawak, Malaysia. Though is was only a 48 hour trip, Brunei was an interesting place, teeming with contrasts – to itself and to our other stops.

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Tubing & Birthday Visas….Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos

We were incredibly lucky this week. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but looking back, we were. I was reluctant to leave Luang Prabang. We met so many interesting people and we really liked the atmosphere of the town. But it was time to go and we boarded a VIP bus for Vang Vieng (this just means they may stop and give you a snack along the way). The trip was rather nauseating but the scenery as we approached Vang Vieng was incredible. Huge limestone karsts jut out of the flat landscape and tower over their surroundings. We have seen karsts in Vietnam and a few in Thailand, but these were far more impressive.

Arriving in Vang Vieng, we checked into a hostel that had been recommended to us and then found a new Mexican place around the corner. The infamous happy hour scenes were in full force, but we elected to forgo that night as Riki was a bit under the weather. The next morning, I woke up and reached down to pick up my new Scottish thriller from the floor, but the pages were soaked and the 500 page book was incredibly heavy. Thinking the neighboring water bottle must have leaked, I got up and immeditately stepped in half an inch of water, which had formed a large pool on our tile floor. I woke Riki and we started picking up bags and books and papers and shoes. But to no avail, because everything had been soaking in water for 5 hours and was already thoroughly drenched. This is where we got lucky. Most of the electronics were on a table, except for the Ipad which has a case that we have found is very absorbant, keeping the tablet dry but saturating the fabric and padding. With the help of the hostel staff, we moved to another room and sent everything worth saving to the laundry or the porch to dry in the sun. Unfortunately, this meant I lost another sock along the way, but at least it was one of the knock-off ones I got in Nepal. We also had to dispose of some papers, books and maps we had accumulated. Turns out at 2 am the room next door had a problem with the ‘bidet’ (essentially a hose with a sprayer next to the toilet) and it sprayed water everywhere. They didn’t bother to wake us up to check and see if the water went through the walls, so the water accumulated and saturated everything.

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Our bags on the line
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Riki’s Journal 😦

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With the morning pretty much shot trying to salvage things with a hair dryer, we had a lazy day and meandered around the small town and ate lunch at one of the many restaurants that show ‘Friends’ reruns all day long. Vang Vieng is famous for crazy parties and even crazier tubing. However, after too many backpackers have died while drinking on the river doing crazy stunts off rope swings and ziplines, the government has cracked down and closed many of the attractions along the water. There are still some great ‘happy hours’ in town and we partook in a few of the free whiskey drink options that evening. This part of our trip is a very popular trail for backpackers and we keep running into people we have met in the past few weeks at other destinations.

The next day we headed out to met up with some of these people and go tubing. In many hostels here, you remove your shoes before entering. Standard procedure. And there may be a rack to store your flip flops until you leave again. Well this morning, I had left my flip flops downstairs for about an hour and returned when we were ready for tubing. My shoes, however, were gone. My flip flops are bright green with zebra stripes. They are not easy to mistake as your own. So we told the hotel staff to be on the lookout and I borrowed Riki’s extra pair. Not half a block from our hostel I see my shoes. Some man (just imagine the worst kind of tourist you can think of) had commandeered my shoes and was having lunch in them down the street. So I went up to him and yelled things he couldn’t understand and took my shoes. He pointed at the ones I was wearing, probably asking for those in return, but I said, no, those were also mine and left him shoeless. I huffed back to the hostel to drop off Riki’s extra pair and off we went. Hopefully, he has learned a lesson and won’t steal peoples’ shoes anymore. But probably not. I no longer leave my shoes unattended.

Tubing is different here than what we are used to. There is not actually much tubing. You hop in a tuk tuk and get taken 3 km up the river. After you get in the water, you tube about 50 meters to the first bar, where a guy working there throws a rope with a water bottle to you and pulls you in. This bar has games and free whiskey shots. They also have brightly colored bracelets they hand out. We played bocci and watched some people try to chicken fight on a log over a very shallow pool of muddy water. There was also mud volleyball and basketball with the backboard shooting a steady stream of water down at the players. After awhile the whole crowd slowly meanders back into the water and heads to the second bar across the river, 200 meters away. You do about the same thing as the first bar. I think this one had a musical-tube game though. The third and fourth bars were pretty much the same, so we set out with a group to tube the remaining hour back to town. Most people seemed to stay at the bars and just take a tuk tuk back to town in time (or not) to get your tube deposit back. It took us more like an hour and a half to get back to town and by the end we were paddling vigorously with our hands to get there before dark (and because it was getting chilly).

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On Saturday we rented mountain bikes for about $2 and headed 7km out to the Blue Lagoon. I am not going to recommend this. While the scenery was gorgeous along the way, full of huge karsts, little villages and rice fields, the road was awful. We were told it was a dirt road, but really it was more rocks than dirt. Not fun on a mediocre mountain bike with rock hard seat. But we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, where we stuck our feet in the water and watched the Chinese tourists in lifejackets jump off a tall tree. The water was a very fresh, bright shade of blue, but we didn’t go in. For one thing, I was a bit self concious about being the only one in a bikini. All the Laotian women wear shirts and long shorts in the water. Also, it was a bit cold. Right behind the Blue Lagoon is a cave some 200 meters UP. We climbed to the entrance and discovered a rather small opening. But when you step into the cave, you are confronted with a vast room, which is pretty well lit from other small openings. It was really incredible to climb down and explore the illuminated areas. We didn’t bring a light, so we stuck to the first cavern, which was huge.

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We left the Blue Lagoon and got back on our horrendous bikes, stopping about halfway back to do an easy 20 minute walk 500 meters from the village or so the sign said. Sounded like a great break from the bikes.

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Right.
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This is me not having fun.

This was actually my favorite part of the day. But it wasn’t until we had reached the top that I decided that. The hike up the mountain was maybe 500 meters vertical and definitely took more than 20 minutes. At one point, we were walking up a wood ladder rather precariously attached to the side of the rock. But there was a section of chain link fence between us and many meters below, so it worked out. At the top, we were rewarded with an amazing view. We sat in a wood hut for probably an hour with some fellow Americans and admired the landscape.

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Much happier.

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The next day we hopped on a bus for the capital of Laos, Vientiane. A quick four hour trip, not too windy and relatively scenic. We had heard there was not much to do here and people only come to catch flights, renew visas and to cross the border to Thailand. However, we were pleasantly surprised and within hours of arriving, Riki had already said he could live here. We wandered that evening through the night market, which was crowded with clothes, electronics, souvenirs and scarves. Normal stuff. We even found a hot pot place right on the Mekong for dinner.

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Monday being my 29th birthday, we planned an extra special trip to the Vietnamese Embassy. On the way, we climbed the Laos version of the Arc de Triumph in France. The story goes that the Americans gave Laos a bunch of concrete to build a new airport. However, Laos thought of a better use and built this arch, which is a few feet taller than its sister in Paris. Hence, it is often called the vertical runway. It is really strange and the sign at the entrance calls it a concrete monster. But the view from the top was nice.

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After we handed over our passports to the Vietnamese and an incredible amount of US dollars, we walked back toward the river. We stopped at the morning market and found me some real birthday cake. Most of the desserts here are a cross between jello and custard. Not really my thing. The morning market is a bizarre place. The second floor is entirely gold jewelry vendors, and practically no customers. The other sections sell anything from pens to refrigerators. And everything in between.

Laos has a troubled past, mostly because of the Americans. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam War than all the bombs combined dropped during WWII. Our next stop was the COPE visitor’s center, which is an organization that helps people still affected by these bombs. Every year 100 people in Laos die because they come across a “bombie” as they call them. Many more are injured. These are fist sized bombs that were dropped by the millions along the Ho Chi Minh trail and all over Laos. Many of them didn’t explode on impact and lay in wait for their next victim. The center helps people who have lost limbs, mostly by giving them custom prothestics. Many of their patients are children. The scrap metal from the shrapnel is a huge draw for people in the rural areas. They come across bombs and just see the money they could make from them. They don’t necessarily know they can be dangerous. Many children collect the metal to sell to help feed their families. But when they come across a live bomb, it can be devastating. The visitor’s center is a really informative place. We watched a couple of their documentaries that show what they are doing to help and how people are trying to educate others about the dangers. They still find bombs all over. They find them in the streets when rain shifts dirt around. They find them in the rivers during the dry season. I could rant some more, but will spare you. Basically, what was done here was horrible and not really well known, especially at the time.

We ended my birthday on a higher note, with naan at a Pakistani restaurant and then some bowling with new friends. I bowled a 154 (my second highest ever), but that was after starting out with an 89 on a different lane. The lanes were crooked, the balls were chipped, but the beer was cheap and we had a good time.

Our last day in Vientiene was spent wandering the city, picking up our Vietnamese visas and planning our trip to Thakhek and the four day motorbike loop there.

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