Bad Timing in Borneo

For most of our trip we’ve been lucky. Without much advance planning, things have gone our way. We were able to snag a bed in the refugios at Torres del Paine a few days before we set off on our hike. In Uganda, on less than week’s notice, we managed to get five passes to trek with the gorillas. Luck was being a lady to us, as these are things that people tell you you must book months if not years in advance. We were assisted by the fact that in South America and Africa we were traveling outside of the high season. Additionally, the global economic crisis was keeping a lot of travelers at home.

Advance planning is not a friend of the long-term backpacker. When you have months in a region of the world, you don’t want to tie yourself down to being in any one place at any one time. It limits you…forcing you to leave somewhere you love before you are ready or linger longer somewhere that doesn’t much interest you. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes that kind of planning is necessary.

When we entered Southeast Asia, we knew the game was going to change a little. It was summer, European vacation time as well as Australian winter vacation time, and SE Asia is a hotspot for these travelers. It’s also a backpacker haven with visitor numbers always hovering at a high number. But for the most part, things went our way. Crowds were bigger, but we weren’t kept from doing anything we wanted, as long as we maintained a bit of flexibility.

Then we hit Malaysia. Suddenly having the flexibility to wait a few days, or even a few weeks, wasn’t enough. Not only was it European holiday season here in Malaysia, which is buzzing with tourists who prebooked every little detail of their trip months ago when sitting in their offices watching the snow turn to mush outside their windows, it’s also school holidays for locals. Topping it off is the fact that it’s Ramadan.

I wasn’t aware of it but apparently Ramadanm, in addition to being a time of fasting and alms-giving, is a popular time for travel. (As a side note, Malaysia, though an Islamic nation, isn’t a difficult place to be food-wise during Ramadan. Thanks to the very multi-cultural population, lots of places stay open and serve food all day, in particular the Chinese and Indian restaurants.)

But back to the timing… It started on the Perhentian Islands, where we loaded a packed boat to arrive on an even more packed island. Every single accomodation option was booked. The room our dive shop had tried to reserve for us had been given away. People were sleeping on the beach, sleeping on the porches of already-full guesthouses. Our dive shop offered us a bed in a room behind the shop. It was literally nothing more than a bed next to a thumping bar, but it was the best we could do. The next morning we got up early to try to snag a room being emptied by one of the travelers returning to the mainland. We visited every single accomodation on Long Beach, Coral Beach, and every other foot-accessible beach. In the end, the best we could score was two dorm beds…as well as a reservation for a room the next three nights since someone at (the highly-recommended) Bintang View Cabins had had the courtesy to let the staff know when they were leaving.

You see, that was the biggest problem on the island. Bintang View was pretty much the only guesthouse that required guests to let the staff know at least one night before they departed. No other guesthouse knew what rooms they’d have available until the second the guest checked out. You had to be lucky and be there at that moment to snag that room, especially since nowhere took advance reservations. Why should they when they know they’ll have people begging at their door for a room?

From the Perhentians, our next stop was Taman Negara. Jerantut is the jumping-off point for Taman Negara, and where we found loads and loads of tourists securing boat tickets to the park. While Jeff joined the line, I went down the road to see if I could find another place selling the tickets. I wandered into an empty travel agency and when I inquired about getting to Taman Negara, the man who made a living by selling such tickets, advised me not to go to the park, to go far, far away in fact. He raged about crowds and told me to tell all my friends not to come. It wasn’t exactly what I expected from a travel agent.

And though we considered his advice, we were there and wanted to go, so we just tried to find a way to beat the crowd. Instead of the boat, we took the local bus, which not only got us to the park two hours earlier, it also cost us 1/5 of the price. There before the crowd, we were luckily able to get a room; the hordes wandering around after the boat arrived were not all as lucky. It seems all those “Malaysia Truly Asia” commercials all over television were too effective. The hordes were here; the accommodation options were not.

From the mainland we hopped over to Borneo, hoping that perhaps it wasn’t as crowded. No such luck. On a visit to the Tourist Information center in Sandakan, we were asked what we wanted to do on Borneo. Our answer was “dive Sipadan, climb Mt. Kinabalu, visit Gulung Mulu.” The very helpful lady there smiled and wished us luck, giving us a bunch of phone numbers to call to ask about cancellations. Getting a spot outright for any of these activities was not a possibility. And in the end cancellations weren’t to be found either. Diving Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world, would have to wait. For Mt. Kinabalu, we’d just have to be content with hiking around the base. And maybe Niah Caves would be as cool as Gulung Mulu. It wasn’t what we had planned (or, well, hadn’t planned) but it would have to do.

It looks like we’ll have to make a return trip to Borneo, but next time we’ll have it all nicely planned and booked up. Well, at least as much of it as we can. Seeing a rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, in bloom isn’t something you can nail down, but it didn’t work out for us and our non-planning either. To add insult to injury, we missed the blooming of one of these flowers by one measly day. As they say, when it rains, it pours (which it literally is doing here today).

One Reply to “Bad Timing in Borneo”

  1. Rotten luck. It’s always tough to strike that balance between overplanning and underplanning. You want to be able to be spontaneous, but you don’t want to end up with no place to sleep or shower!

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