Making Brunei Ours

Making Brunei Ours

Jame'Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah mosque just got served
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque just got served

 

Our group departed East Timor-Leste the next morning for Bali, where the plan was to spend another day before leaving the next morning for Manila.

 

East Timor's sole and only international airport

 

But it would be in Bali where the group would begin our final round of goodbyes.

 

I think I've seen this statue 3 times already on 3 separate visits, but finally managed to get a good shot this time around

 

Instead of heading to Manila with the group I would split off for Brunei Darussalam, the last country in Southeast Asia I had yet to visit; it would be the final closing chapter to the original voyage for Southeast Asia I started 4 years ago with The Monsoon Diaries.

Jenn, having recently interviewed me for her blog The Points In Between and a fellow companion to The Monsoon Diaries in trying to change the way we travel, elected to join. After all, it would be fitting to explore how well we would be able to collaborate and lead a trip together this April (not telling you where yet!); this would be our test run.

So after one last goodbye to the group and Bali, I decided for a quick pitstop for a midnight snack in KL’s Chinatown during my 6 hour overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur. The cab ride from the airport to there and back took about an hour each way, which I had vastly underestimated, but the food was well worth it.

 

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Petronas Towers at night

 

Brings back good old memories.

 

Afterwards it was back to the KLIA airport, and before I knew it, with the plane landing 2 hours later in Brunei Darassalum, I felt a wave of accomplishment wash over me — I had finally touched down in every single country in Southeast Asia. Where 4 years ago took me to my first day at school, today would be Graduation Day.

While both Brunei and East Timor are rarely visited, are both pint-sized relative to its neighboring southeast Asian countries, and are not exactly the first places you think of when you consider Southeast Asia, Brunei lies on the polar extreme end of East Timor for everything else: East Timor is regarded one of the poorest nations on the planet (4th to be exact), Brunei has enjoyed being one of the richest since the late 1970s.

Thanks to plentiful natural resources of gas and oil, Brunei had elected to remain separated from Malaysia once having gained independence from British rule. To this day, it remains a devoutly Muslim nation, part of the British commonwealth, and still way off the beaten path for most tourists. For example, when we ran into an American Chicagoan named Tom and his Swiss friend, it was definitely cause for celebration/conversation and the mandatory question “so what brings you here, anyway?”

After gathering our bearings and formulating a plan, we took a $25 Brunei Dollar taxi ($35 at night from the airport…taxis must be pre-arranged here as there’s not many of them, and prices are standardized since there’s no meter) to the sleepy capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and first grabbing a quick gander at the markets on the southeast portion of the city.

 

 

We then took a 10 minute $15 Brunei Dollar taxi ride to the majestic Jame’Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah mosque, built to commemorate the reigning Sultan. 

The prayer halls are gigantic: its main prayer room for men could fit over 3,000 inside while its room for women could fit 1,000. Make sure you confirm their visitor hours before going; they aren’t exactly predictable.

 

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- At time of posting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy

 

Baucau Epic

Baucau Epic

 

Yesterday and today we went way off the beaten path. We headed to the second largest city in East Timor, Baucau, which is really more of a seaside village than a city.

The 10 of us hired a private van to take us to Baucau and back the next day, with a driver that would take us anywhere we wanted to go for $110 USD total excluding petrol. The journey itself towards the eastern end of the country was a stunning drive in of itself:

 

 

When we got to Baucau, you can say we were the most popular kids in town.

 

 

We headed into the largest market in Baucau, which pretty much translates to being one of the biggest markets in the country.

 

 

When we started interacting with the kids, you can see that a kind of wonderful chaos ensued:

 

 

So many warm, fuzzy, feelings.

 

  

We then headed to explore the old colonial center where many of the old, burned down buildings from the days of Indonesian occupation had been cleaned up and renovated. Nevertheless, it still felt like we were walking through somewhat of a ghost town.

 

 

Then we enjoyed a homecooked dinner at our beach bungalow homestay.

 

 

But then there was the night.

Imagine floating on a deserted beach that you have all to yourself, staring up at a black sky filled with stars. An hour later you get the moon slowly rising over the ocean, illuminating all the reasons you ever needed to explain why you went travelling in the first place.

As you wade in the sea, bioluminescence of countless phytoplankton begin to appear all around you, lighting up the waters around you with every movement. The scene from “The Beach” plays in your head as you didn’t think movie moments like that would come true. Well, it came true for all of us.

 

 

The next morning we took another dip in the sea and played football with the local children.

 

 

Afterwards we learned that our bus that would take us back to Dili had broken down and that another one had been sent for us in its stead. That was a blessing in disguise as it allowed us more time to wander Baucau. Eventually we got back to Dili in the evening.

After freshening up in the hostel, we headed to the fish markets on the other side of the Dili pier for some fresh seafood BBQ:

 

 

If that didn’t make you hungry, I don’t know what will.

 

- At time of posting in Baucau, East Timor, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Discovering East Timor

Discovering East Timor

 

Today the group pulled an all-nighter to catch at 7:30am flight from Bali to Dili, the capital of East-Timor Leste. When we landed, I immediately knew we were in a country unlike most others.

 

 

This is travel purely off the beaten track, where tourism hasn’t even begun developing yet. I even think our arrival today immediately doubled the number of tourists in the capital. Commence the long stares from locals, curious to know what brought us here in the first place.

East Timor-Leste, the second newest country on the planet after South Sudan and the newest stabilized country, just recently gained its independence as a former Portuguese colony. That didn’t stop the Indonesian army from trying to take over, but after their massacre of innocent civilians at Santa Cruz cemetery being shown on CNN and the rest of the world, the UN stepped in to ensure the independent will of the East-Timorese people. The UN eventually left the country to subsist on its own as recently as 2012, and to this day the country struggles to stand on its own two feet.

East Timor-Leste, however, because of the Indonesian army’s “pacification” that left more than 250,000 East-Timorese dead (1 in 5 of the country’s population) between the 1970s to the 2000s, still struggles with high illiteracy rates (>50%) and a life-expectancy of 55 years of age.

Sobering, to say the least.

BTW, the internet here in East-Timor is predominantly dial up, so it’s sort of a miracle I can get this blogpost out there.

 

 

Our group headed to the only hostel in East Timor — East Timor Backpackers — where we freshened up and commandeered an army jeep to carry 13 of us. Plus the driver, making it 14, and yet we were still 1 person shy of breaking the vehicle’s 15 person record.

 

 

I think the entire city knew who we were by the end of the day.

 

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We first drove south 7km to the statue of Jesus Christ facing the city of Dili.

 

 

Then we climbed up a long flight of stairs to reach the base of the statue, admiring the views of the bay and the city of Dili from afar.

 

Cristo Rei just got served

 

Afterwards, we headed back to the city and grabbed local Timorese food for lunch.

 

 

After lunch we did sightseeing at the well-curated Resistance Museum that documented the struggle for independence in East Timor, and then at the “Chengas! Exhibition”: a former prison for political prisoners that used to torture and execute hundreds of people was turned into a museum to remind the world of the horrors of the Indoneisian “pacification.”

After a week in paradise among The Palawan Islands and Bali, this was a sobering wake up call to the bubbles we’ve been living in. Back to the kind of travel I was meant to do.

 

 

After the museums, we strolled along Santa Cruz cemetery itself, the very place where 380 unarmed civilizans, while assembling at a funeral procession for an activist championing East Timor independence — were shot and bayoneted to death by the Indonesian army without warning. It was the footage of this massacre, smuggled out of the country and shown on CNN shortly afterwards, that awakened the world to the very existence of East Timor and its struggle for self-determination.

It was here that led to the turning point of the Indonesian’s army withdrawal from the country and the UN stepping in to end the violence and occupation.

 

 

Afterwards, we checked out the seaside and headed back to the hostel. Tomorrow, we head to Baucau.

 

 

- At time of posting in Dili, East Timor, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

No Typhoon Can Stop The Monsoon: Bali

No Typhoon Can Stop The Monsoon: Bali

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

 

In the last post I described the massive risk we were taking rebooking a flight from the Philippines to Bali after a later flight of ours was cancelled because of the typhoon.

Well, we made it. Not even a typhoon can stop the monsoon!

 

 

After landing in Manila safe and sound, despite the typhoon being 200 nautical miles away (that’s pretty close for a typhoon), we gathered for one final group picture and hugs goodbye.

 

The group leaving us. We'll miss you!

 

And with that we headed for our flight to Bali to meet up with the crew before a week in East Timor.

 

 

After a 3 hour flight from The Philippines to Indonesia, I let out a long sigh of relief: We did it. Despite the typhoon cancelling a majority of flights today and tomorrow, we still made it to Bali.

 

 

Some things have changed in the last 4 years since I’ve been here. The Visa on Arrival for tourists increased from $25 to $35 USD and the airport got a significant upgrade. Everything has become more flashy and I was surprised to not recognize anything from the last time I was here.

Outside the airport, we haggled 2 vans to take us to the hostel for $35 USD total (from a starting price of $120 USD!) and lo and behold when we arrived at 3am, there were 12 comfortable bunk beds waiting for us in an air-conditioned room by an indoor pool (a hostel with a pool?!). Perhaps our luck didn’t really run out just yet.

But as I looked into my backpack I realized I had lost my small bag of chargers, adapters, wires, and GoPro accessories. Although I still had my phone, cameras, and PC/tablet, I lost everything that could keep them alive. According to one of my monsooners, Anthony, he noticed a small bag being left behind in the overhead compartment as we were disembarking the flight from The Palawan to Manila. In other words, they had fallen out of my backpack during the flight. Then, a few hours later in Ubud, I dropped my Windows Surface, cracking the screen and rendering it unusable.  Aye, we can’t have all the luck in the world.

Perhaps fittingly, experiencing this at the end of a week in The Philippines, I want to take this opportunity to put some things into perspective: These first world problems we are wrestling with. For one, the things I’ve accidentally left behind or broken are entirely replaceable. Second, these typhoons do not affect us backpackers as badly as they have to the people of The Philippines who already did so much to make us comfortable despite the circumstances.

So we instead need to take these moments of supposed failure not to get upset but rather to remind ourselves the heaven and earth already being moved by the intrepid yet warm, hospitable people of The Philippines who ask for very little when they take us into their homes. And even — or especially — in the good moments we also should make the effort and time to be grateful to the local people who try so hard to make our experiences as memorable as they can be; they are the true survivors who brave these typhoons as part of their everyday lives — not us — and for them to make everything possible for our 1 unforgettable week here, means more to me than what any obstacle or difficulty we’ve encountered could ever measure up to. I learned this during the protests in Egypt and I’m still learning how to do that now. This is a place I want and will give back to one day, wishing I could do as much for them as they have for me.

And as this chapter ends, another one begins.

Our 28 hours in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia in a nutshell:

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia


 

Yes, and backpackers can be foodies too. We finished our lazy day in Ubud with a dinner at Mozaic, listed as one of the top 20 restaurants in the Miele Guide (the official Michelin Guide authority in Asia), Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards #1 most innovative restaurant in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s top 50 restaurants in the San Pellegrino Guide, and arguably the top restaurant in Bali.

Its executive chef, Chris Salans, is notable for being the head chef of Thomas Keller’s (of The French Laundry and Per Se fame) restaurant Bouchon in Napa Valley.

 

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Scallops with fermented soybean and foam
Seafood Medley with Dry Ice
Trio of Pigeon with Foie Gras
Wagyu Beef With Grape Reduction

 

After dinner, we headed out for bit of partying afterwards in Legian. Now we’re pulling an all-nighter waiting for our 5:15am shuttle bus to the airport. We’re embarking on a 7:30am direct flight to East Timor-Leste, the newest stabilized country in the world!

 

- At time of posting in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 26km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Escaping The Typhoon

Escaping The Typhoon


 

We’re not in the clear yet, so keep your fingers crossed until we reach Bali. And even then, I’m not sure if typhoons affecting even a single country may spread to the entire Southeast Asia region. For more drama, read on…

On our third and final day of island hopping, we started off our morning with a 1.4km zipline excursion (500-1100 pesos per person depending if you want to do round trip or one way, sitting or gliding like “Superman”) over The Palawan:

 

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After that, walked back and took a tricycle back to town, except Dave who rented a motorbike (cough, showoff…ok I’m a little jealous):

 

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At 2pm we hopped on our private boat for overnight camping on our own private beach.

 

 

Some of us took a speedboat back into town for an hour when we wanted to get more marshmallows, mosquito coils, liquor, and drinks. I guess you could call this our best “liquor run” ever:

 

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Also enjoyed the sunset and ate freshly cooked food made by our ship captains.

 

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And then the emergency news came: While in the middle of our “full moon party” we got word via a satellite phone call that our AirAsia flights out of Manila and into Bali on December 8th had been cancelled. This was bad. Supertyphoon Hagupit had finally reared its ugly head.

Sure, we had been dodging bullets left and right with such good weather in The Palawan, despite the threat of a supertyphoon hovering nearby…but now our luck had finally run out. Without our flights out of Manila and into Bali, we were threatened with the scenario of being stranded in The Philippines for the next week during the storm, as well as standing up all the folks who flew all the way out here to Southeast Asia to join us for the East Timor part of the trip. While these are first world problems, I didn’t want to let down my group with a horrible end to the trip, nor did I want to abandon anyone in East Timor.

Kicking our shit into high gear, we managed to leech off cell phone signal from one of my friends on the trip, Dave, and find alternative earlier flights direct from Manila to Bali. Instead of the original plan of flying into Manila, spending the night and catching the next morning 7:30am AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur to Bali (which flights were now cancelled), we would fly into Manila, hail a cab to another airport terminal, and barely make a direct Philippine Airlines flight out to Bali flying out that same evening. Although we would lose a night in Manila, we would gain an extra one in Bali and still be able to make it in time so that our monsooners joining us for East Timor wouldn’t arrive to an empty welcoming party.

Suffice to say, there was a lot of back and forth setting this up. It was hard enough to get cell signal on a remote abandoned beach in The Palawan Islands, let alone look up affordable alternative international flights on airlines that would be willing to book 12 people the day before. On the bright side, we were able to reach AirAsia and confirm their cancellations, and reach Philippine Airlines and confirm that their flights were still on. But we found out the hard way that some airlines and booking sites wouldn’t allow booking for flights less than 24 hour prior to departure. We found out the hard way that booking directly with Philippine Airlines would’ve been 50% more expensive. And we found out the hard way some booking sites only allow booking 5 people at a time. But after a few hours of laser-focus teamwork, we got the flights booked and plan B secured.

Resuming the full moon party on our own private beach in The Palawan would be a proper way to celebrate.

 

Loyal Repeat Monsooners: The Cuba delegation!
Loyal Repeat Monsooner: The Iberia Delegation!

 

The next morning we woke up drowsily to the sounds of waves and a serene sunrise:

 

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Took the speedboat back to town
Disembarking

 

On our way back to town, we were able to re-confirm that our flight out of The Palawan was still on schedule and that whatever I booked last night via satellite phone was still on the books. After almost forgetting to reserve accommodations in Bali for my group of monsooners, I once again harnessed borrowed WiFi to make sure we had a place to sleep in Bali at 2am. We then hopped on our 6 hour bus to catch our flight from Puerto Princesa back to Manila.

As of right now I’m blogging at the airport in Puerto Princesa, crossing my fingers that the flights are still on. It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings in Bali. Wish us luck.

 

- At time of posting in Puerto Princesa, The Philippines, it was 35 °C - Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 7km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Another Day In Paradise

Another Day In Paradise

 

The Palawan just got served

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We hopped on our private boat again today….and….

 

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Did a bit of snorkeling:

 

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Walked along the sandbar known as Snake Island:

 

 

Poured rum into coconut we picked off the trees:

 

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And gave into vanity:

 

 

Of course, no day in The Palawan is complete without a sunset:

 

 

To prove that we can be as flexible as possible, we just signed up another monsooner today, my friend Christina Elise, who flew into El Nido (cheater!) to meet us this evening and enjoy one more full day in The Palawan: evening Island Hopping with overnight camping under the full moon! That’s right, our very own private full moon party kicks off 2pm tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Until then, off to the bars:

 

 

- At time of posting in El Nido, The Philippines, it was 34 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy