Day 235: Goodbye Sarawak, Hello Sabah

Fri. 5th April 2013

At least we get a great sunset as we start the Sabah part of our Borneo tripWhilst we’re only halfway through our stay in Borneo, today marks the end of the first phase of our tour. Not only do we leave Sarawak and head for Sabah, the other Malaysian state in Borneo, but also today is our last full day as a group. Seven of the twelve of us have only signed up for the Sarawak portion of the trip and so will be heading their separate ways after today and we will be joined by seven newcomers for the remainder of the Borneo tour.

Unloading ferry at LabuanThe ferry is going to be our primary mode of transport today – we have made good use of boats in Borneo and at least we now have something a little more sophisticated than a longboat. First we will be going to Labuan, a small island administered as a separate Federal Territory of Malay, before catching a second ferry to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. Our route takes us past Brunei the tiny (but very wealthy) country that is the only part of Borneo that isn’t either Indonesian or Malaysian. The geography of this island may be complicated but, as we are about be reminded, the history is even more so.

Houses on the Limbang RiverOur hotel in Limbang is just a short walk from the ferry terminal – just as well as we’re in full ‘sumo’ mode with both backpacks and daypacks on. The ferries are just like those that we saw in Sibu. It feels like you are in a (really quite scruffy) airplane – seats three abreast either side of an aisle. We’re happy just to be sitting down. Being able to catch up with reading (5 weeks behind on Economist), listening (ditto on podcasts) and blog (still haven’t caught up after Mulu) is a bonus and the two hour trip flies by.

Duty free shops in Labuan ferry terminalLabuan is both the name of the island and its largest town. It was established as a (duty) free trade port by the British in the nineteenth century and that seems to have stuck. The ferry terminal looked like an airport ringed with duty free shops. Whilst the shops looked a little odd, it was really strange to see so much alcohol on sale. We’ve been in Muslim countries for so long, we’ve got used to not seeing anything stronger than beer on sale (and even then, not in every supermarket). The town itself seems to be a bustling little place and so we take the opportunity of our 2 hour stopover to go exploring.

There's a lot of history in a little islandThe Labuan museum is just a short walk from the ferry and as entry is free, we can’t really complain about the cost. The top floor has exhibits on local culture, clothing and artefacts that we’ve seen done better elsewhere, the ground floor had exhibits on the history of the island which we found really interesting.

The island was ceded by the Sultan of Brunei to the British in the 1840s and was then renamed to Victoria. At one point it was apparently Britain’s most easterly colony – looking on the map it could be just a hair further east than Hong Kong. During the Second World War it was occupied by the Japanese before being surrendered back to the Allies in September 1945. It was run once again by the Brits until the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1953. I think that it is a success of the museum that it presents displays and artefacts from all of these periods in a neutral way.

Malaysian state flags in Merdeka SquareThere are plenty of cafes and restaurants in Labuan. Some of our group were seduced by the charms of a KFC but our priorities were much more prosaic – coffee! Even better, we found a café with freshly baked cakes and buns and so the only tricky decision was what to have. (It speaks volumes when the best of the coffee options is Nescafe!) It was very pleasant just watching the world go by – so much so, we had lunch there too before it was time to head back for the next ferry.

The ferry to Kota Kinabalu (KK) is much like the first ferry only a little larger, much busier and an hour longer. We are not able to go outside – I did say it was like an aeroplane – and so there isn’t much to do other than crack on with catching up. When we get to KK it is threatening rain and so we hustle down the pier and to our bus to get our bags loaded up before the heavens open. As we walk past the shops and bars that line the pier we see many references to Jesselton and we learn that that is the old, British name for KK. More history for us to find out about in this portion of our trip.

Welcome to Kota KinabaluAs we drive out of KK to our hotel, we get the impression that this is a bigger, more lively and perhaps more modern city than Kuching in Sarawak. We pass one or two modern shopping malls (making note of the Starbucks location) and also spot that there is a food festival on – we’ll have to see if we can investigate that later. We also pass the airport which we’ll need in less than two weeks now for our flight to Taiwan but it also reminds us that we need to sort out where to stay for that last night in Borneo. Another problem for later!

Sunset at the Sunset Inn in KinarutThis is our last evening and last meal together as a group.With seven of the group head off home or on further travels, there is a slightly melancholic air as we sit around the table and swap stories and memories of our time together. Ayeh produces a guitar and plays a few songs that we sing along with. Perhaps it is appropriate that there is a truly glorious sunset with the sea and the sky turned into shades of yellow, orange and red by the setting sun. Its always an opportunity to take some photographs as well as being an apt metaphor for this part of our trip.

Thanks to everyone in our group for being great company and good fun. We hope that you enjoyed Borneo and being with us as much as we enjoyed being with you. Thank you and good luck and safe travelling.

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