Off to Labuan!

Backpacking South East Asia: Onward from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei

Day 3: Kota Kinabalu-Labuan-Brunei via Ferry (the route most traveled)

Room 99 awaits!
Room 99 awaits!

After a great day and evening spent with Zuldee and Sally, I spent some more time chatting with the other guests at Sensi Backpackers. The Shanghai family is scheduled to leave the day after, just like me. We spent some more hours just chatting and me trying to convince them to come here in the Philippines. After that, my eyes and body finally gave in to the strong pull of the comfortable bed.

I woke up at about 6am and readied my stuff. I grabbed some breakfast too, and got myself some baon fruits (an apple and an orange), free! :p Before I left, I bade Sally goodbye (she told me to wake her) and promised that I’d see if I can come back to Kota Kinabalu before she returns to London (December 18). Unfortunately, I did not hold future at my hands and as much as I wanted to return and visit the Kota Kinabalu National Park, I no longer can. (If you are reading this Sally, I’m sorry! Come visit me instead! Hehe)

Anyway, if my camera time tag is correct, I am still having my bread toasted at 6:45am. The ferry that would take me from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei, passing through Labuan Federal Territory of Malaysia, is set to leave at 8am. Meaning, I should have been on my way at that time already instead of having two toasted bread with butter (more of margarine actually), strawberry jam and orange marmalade. So, I had to rely on my long legs and even longer strides to get me there before the departure time. I even made some stops actually, taking snaps here and there (I think I ended up erasing those here and there snaps when I ran out of memory somewhere in Vietnam).

One of the snaps here and there that survived the cut!
One of the snaps here and there that survived the cut!

I think it took me about 20 minutes walking from Sensi to Jesselton. It probably helped that I have been to Jesselton the day before for my Sapi Island Hopping Half-day Tour. I bought my ticket (sorry, I’ll try to juggle my memory to remember from which counter it was purchased) and paid the terminal fee. I asked for the cheapest ticket available (economy ticket), priced at RM53 + RM 3.6 for the terminal fee at Jesselton.

Off to Labuan!
Off to Labuan!

I figured, we’d all get there anyway. Besides, it’s an air-conditioned cabin whether you choose first-class or economy. Perhaps they got a better view though. Or they would be served a meal or something. I really didn’t know and I didn’t care so much. What mattered to me at that time was that I can save some bucks. :p

All aboard!
All aboard!

A little before 7:30, our attention were called from the waiting deck. It’s time to board. Yey! There wasn’t really any order by which we should come. I did follow the seat number indicated in the ticket. I think it’s possible to move to another chair though, given that it’s not really super full.

2x3x2 per row seats at the Economy deck
2x3x2 per row seats at the Economy deck

Baggage is placed at the left and right sides at the front, arranged by a staff. I think they’re supposed to be stewards or something. Someone would also be checking your ticket before departing.

Goodbye KK!
Goodbye KK! (I might be wrong but I think that’s Wisma Merdaka?)

At 8am, we finally started to move away from the port and out into the open sea. I had a great time in Kota Kinabalu but I was so looking forward to Brunei already. I sent a message to Zaza, my couchsurfing host that I have already departed from KK. I also sent a message to Zuldee and Sally, thanking them for a fast but memorable vacation in KK.

The ferry ride was supposedly for three hours. An old Chinese action flick played, plus another gory Chinese flick after. It was really bad but I decided I’d watch it anyway. Because no matter how bad it was, the feeling on my tummy and my throat was worst. The ferry cruised smoothly in the first hour. But I think after that, we experienced some turbulent waters or rough seas. In any case, at the half of the journey, I started asking myself if I was wrong on trying to save some bucks. Maybe it wasn’t so rocky at the first class deck or something. But, I stomached it, literally.

Hello Labuan!
Hello Labuan! This is already the facade of the terminal at the Labuan side. Goodbye, traces of paleness!

I reminded myself of the ferry ride from Bacolod to Iloilo and the RT ride of Cebu and Bohol. I told myself that if I survived that, I would survive this too! Well, both routes lasted more or less two hours. And gentler waves. I think we were at the economy deck at both occasions too! Anyway, getting through the KK-Labuan ride was really difficult but I did it.

I tried to distract myself by watching the movie being shown or by updating my mobile phone’s Excel file of itinerary and expenses. But it just made me feel even more dizzy. I begged God to make our journey faster so I can feel better already. And before I knew it, the ferry was already slowing down and I can see the industrial buildings in the horizon. It was a little past 11am already.

By the time we alighted the ship, I thought I’d go straight to the bathroom and throw up (sorry for the word). But I didn’t. Not even at the ferry’s restroom while aboard (it’s not the cleanest or prettiest but passable enough for me). I can only imagine how pale I thought I was (nearly impossible for someone with my skin). But still, I tried to stay calm and collected when I fell in line for the immigration officers lined up on the deck. A few questions like “where are you going” and “how long will you stay” were asked of me as a standard operating protocol of some sort. After that and a few more I can’t remember, I was given passage.

I wanted to go around Labuan, at least in the places near the port. This was why I took the 1:30pm ferry from Labuan to Brunei instead of the 12nn ferry. Besides, I was in no hurry since my host won’t be available to pick me up at Serasa Ferry Terminal in Brunei until 4pm.

However, since I am not aware of the area, I decided to stay instead. Tourism Malaysia (perhaps with other agencies) left a bunch of brochures, maps, and information on key Malaysian cities and States. Actually, in all countries I visited, there are free maps. There’s even a guide book in Siem Reap and I got two sort of guide book for Malaysia. Such a pity that our government can’t do the same. We even have to buy maps! Tsk tsk.

Waiting area, outside hall
Waiting area, outside hall

Anyway, while browsing and generally observing the area, I saw four girls/women being directed by Immigration officials into a police car. My assumption is that these girls, surely Filipino, are either saved from or accused of human trafficking. I noticed them earlier already, but there were more of them before and during the trip. I think at least one girl and two guys (one of which is in the KK ferry boarding photo above) are missing.

In Kota Kinabalu, I already learned that this situation is quite common. I got additional information about it later upon arriving in Brunei, as a Filipino couple based in Labuan and KK explained. Apparently, these girls are being trafficked as sex slaves or prostitutes for the Borneo area (especially Sandakan and Sabah), lured by the promises of recruiters for a better job and life as salesladies, cashiers and waitresses. Shame on you human traffickers! Walang habas ang pagka-balasubas! Hindi na kayo naawa!

Waiting area inside hall
Waiting area inside hall

After that, I decided to go and pay my RM5 travel tax (or ferry terminal tax). I also bought Pringles at one of the duty free shops. I think it’s the only one my stomach can handle at the time, especially since I don’t wanna risk throwing up during the one hour ride from Labuan to Brunei. I was also thinking of something to get for Zaza, like pasalubong or something. I didn’t know what she liked though so I gave up on the idea.

Labuan passenger front
Labuan passenger port area

I decided to proceed in the “inside” waiting hall afterwards. It’s an airconditioned area (although it’s also open) with two duty free shops of bags and perfumes. From this hall, there’s a glass ceiling to floor window wherein you can see a passenger port area where smaller boats can also load and unload passengers.

On the other side of this hall is the immigration clearance area. At about 1pm, we heard boarding announcements already. I met an Australian couple by then (mid-50s). They’re traveling for about a month already and they would only stay for a night in Brunei. They’re bound to Vietnam the next day and back to Australia a few days after that.

Kinabalu Express from Labuan to Brunei
Kinabalu Express from Labuan to Brunei

I think they’re kinda nice. 🙂 Nice enough to offer taking my picture with the Kinabalu Express ferry before boarding! 🙂 On the left side of the photo is like a checking area so be ready for your passport, ticket and terminal fee receipt. It’s really not much of a hassle since you already got an exit stamp from Malaysia after clearing with the immigrations officer.

The Australian couple and I parted ways when we got into the ferry. They have seats at the first deck. Again, I have an economy ticket as I bought a “package ticket” from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan to Brunei (that’s probably also why the stewards are the same). If you wish to break your trip, you can just buy the KK-Labuan ticket at Jesselton and then get your Labuan-Brunei ticket when you’re ready to go. I think though that Labuan is just a small island territory. Beer’s cheap here, they say. I guess it really is, especially if you’d compare it to an “almost dry” Brunei.

Inside the Kinabalu Express (Economy!)
Inside the Kinabalu Express (Economy!)

The ferry trip to from Labuan to Brunei is just about an hour. Still, I dared not risk it. I was already hungry but I ate as little of the Pringles as I thought possible. Few sips of water too! The trip was smooth sailing as well. Thank goodness. And after a few more moments of holding on, I felt the ferry slow down and I had my first glimpse of Brunei.

Heading to Arrival Hall
Heading to Arrival Hall

I always thought Brunei as a grand place, known as the address of the (or one of the?) wealthiest in the world. Upon arrival, however, there wasn’t really anything grand. I mean, maybe it’s just coz I thought everything in Brunei glitters and gleams. Well, I was just in the port area so I gave Brunei a second chance to wow me. Arte lang. hahaha. 😀

Last look at the open sea
Last look at the open sea (West Philippine Sea, isdatyu?!)

It’s just a short walk from the arrival hall to the immigration area. If my memory is still intact, I think there’s also a webcam type thing that’s being used to take pics of arriving people, whether you are a national (?) or a visitor. The line wasn’t so bad but it also took a bit of time before I was able to get my immigration stuff done.

Blurry shot (cameras not allowed in the immigration area!)
Out of focus shot (cameras not allowed in the immigration area!)

Well, I wasn’t really that in a hurry since I know that Zaza, my couchsurfing host, won’t be arriving until a little later than 4pm. So, I just watched locals and tourists alike board the bus/shuttle from the Serasa Ferry Terminal to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Negara Brunei Darussalam.

I managed to have lunch (though I barely touched it since my tummy is kind of revolting from seasickness(?) plus the fish dish is dry and spicy) and chatted with the Filipino couple mentioned earlier (they’re the ones at the back in the arrival photo). They are just doing a visa run and would take the 4pm (or 430) trip back to Labuan. They advised me to change my USD to BND (Brunei Dollar, 1:1 with the Singapore Dollar) at the port already. So I did and had the first glimpse of the Sultan–he’s in all of the notes!

Are you ready, Brunei?!
Are you ready, Brunei?!

We then went out to take pictures of ourselves and the terminal. So typical of Pinoys! :pI wasn’t able to smile to the fullest though. I still preferred to have my shot taken via the timer function. So, there I was, in an almost deserted ferry terminal, ducking/squatting so low on the floor that the attention of the guards/ferry personnel was caught. Before they start thinking that I’m a loony and retract the visa I got, I settled in the waiting area already. :p

I then received a message from Zaza asking if I am in her country already. I tried to reply and call her using the Maxis SIM card I got in Kota Kinabalu but it won’t work in Brunei. Only for incoming and roaming messages back to Malaysia. So, I tried to look like such a damsel in distress and asked the help of one of the young officers inside the arrival area.

He handed me his phone so I was able to call Zaza, who at the time was already on the way (her class finished already) to the terminal. Actually, I don’t know what I would expect of Zaza, or Brunei for that matter. But, I think one of the few reasons why she accepted my couch request was exactly that–there is very little I know. Actually, I only know of the Mosques and that’s it. Everything else was boring, said the other travelers at online forum sites.

I guess Zaza wanted to prove to me how not boring Brunei is, or at least how not boring Bruenians can be. Well, when she arrived in her not-an-ordinary convertible Mini Cooper and told me that she’s not any typical Bruneian I’d ever meet, I believed her. Not instantly of course. But I think the multiple piercings had me. 🙂

And the events that followed can make me say: NO. Brunei is NOT BORING. At all. Watch out for the next posts on my Brunei adventure! Happy wandering!

Sorry guys it’s taking me a long time already to add posts. I wan to share many things with you. I thought I’d be able to blog frequently coz you know, I expected to be a bum for at least three months. But nah, after vacay, I started working as online writer and editor and now as a local consultant for a survey on ICT support for agricultural development here in the Philippines. So, yeah. Please bear with me if I’m too slow!


4 thoughts on “Backpacking South East Asia: Onward from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei”

  1. Thank you for this blog. I’m in kk now and I’m inspired to take a ferry to Brunei. Thank you again 🙂

    1. Good luck to you! There are stuff to do in Miri too. I was only there for a few hours as it took about half a day to cross from Brunei. Best advice is to go to the tourism office as they will be able to give you a map and the places to visit. I remember the Miri Fan (park), the huge Library (although I was only outside), and a major Mosque. There’s a also a place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs. All of these I learned from the tourist center. 🙂

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