No Room at the Inn

Published: October 10th 2009
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Kinabalu NP, Borneo
It’s official.

Malaysia is full.

I’ve been to some pretty crowded places in my time, but never before have I come across an entire nation which was sold out.

Admittedly we hadn’t done ourselves any favours by arriving in late July, slap bang in the middle of peak season, but even so, you’d think there’d be at least some chance of somewhere to stay.

Travelling used to be so easy. Any idiot could do it.

Ironic, then, that now that so many idiots are travelling, it’s suddenly become so hard.

In times past you could just mooch around to your heart’s content, go wherever you pleased and still rock up at midnight and have your pick of places to stay. What’s more, all were cheap as chips and you could stay for as long as you liked. After an indeterminate number of days you’d ask around, before clambering aboard some rickety old bus with several hundred other folk, their dogs and their chickens (and yes, some of the dogs really did seem to have their own chickens!) and wobble off to wherever it was you fancied for your next choice of hovel. It was like one continuous travelling road-show for Prisoner, Cell Block H.

Then along came a couple of guys who changed all that. The first was Tim Berners-Lee, who one or two you may have heard of, but the second, Tony Fernandez, you've probably not. Anyway we’ll come back to him later.

Tim thought it would be a great idea if a bunch of his pals, who liked to whiz their tiny toys round in Large Hadron Colliders, could link their computers together to swap results. They could also send each other endless crappy jokes, infect each other with viruses and swap pictures of their ex-girlfriends naked. He justified this spectacular waste of time by renaming it cyberspace. The only flaw was that, amongst his friends, there was only one who claimed ever to have had a girlfriend. He even swore he’d seen her naked briefly, but sadly didn't have a camera to hand. Then again, he also maintained he’d once been abducted by aliens!

Luckily Tim pressed on regardless, the only one to realise that unlocking the secrets of time and space were as nothing compared with the ability to order pizza online.

Eventually he was lauded as a visionary, the inventor of a whole new world, even if he himself had never really cottoned on to its potential.

In later years his ex-colleagues would have many reasons to thank him. Not only could they now chat to, or even marry, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of willing young ladies from all around the globe, they could also irritate their friends with annoying ring-tones or even chat up burly policemen pretending to be thirteen year-old girls.

Anyway, back to Malaysia, as I seem to have surfed off on a tangent.

Among the more practical things the internet allows you to do is book ahead your accommodation, or even your whole holiday, without ever having to leave the comfort of your own sofa.

What this means is a) you’ll pay through the nose and be disappointed when you get there, and b) the folks actually over there on the ground no longer have a hope in hell of finding anywhere to stay.

As a consequence you are forced to join this mugs’ game, and end up spending half your ‘adventure holiday’ sitting in dingy darkened rooms trying to find your next digs.

For what you do the rest of the time we need to go back to Mr Fernandez.

Nobody any longer catches rickety old buses full of chickens and dogs. They don’t have to. These days there are swanky air-conned coaches for tourists only which go here, there and everywhere. But if you’ve any wits about you, you don’t take one of them either.

There’s only one way for the self-respecting 21st century backpacker to travel from A to B.

You fly.


Everyone’s at it.

I used to think Easyjet and RyanAir were cheap, but Tony‘s Air Asia make them look like business class.

We flew to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur for 25 ringgit. That’s A$8, and yes, that’s including taxes. Four quid, the same as they charged us for one stop on the London Underground!

Can someone please explain to me how that is possible?

And that wasn’t some super-deal; it was the same price on every flight that day. As their slogan says, ‘Now Everyone Can Fly.’ Indeed! The flight was less than half the price of the taxi to the airport!

Here’s the only way I can make sense of it.

Thailand’s always been famous for dodgy Rolexes and rip-off Louis Vuittons. Maybe some bright spark’s got a factory banging out replica 737s made entirely out of recycled Coke cans and sticky-backed plastic, as they used to say on Blue Peter.

‘And here’s one I prepared earlier!’

They look the part, work for the first few months, and when they go wrong, well, you just throw-em away and buy another. None of your friends will know the difference anyway! Let’s just hope they’re not all piloted by John Noakes and Shep.

I’ve since learnt that Tony himself bought Air Asia for the princely sum of one ringgit shortly after 9/11, so I suppose he makes a twenty five-fold return on his investment with every passenger. Even so, you have to suspect there must be secret compartments in the hold somewhere, chock-full of illegal drugs.

And in short, that’s how we found ourselves on the Perhentian Islands with nowhere at all to stay. There was No Room at the Inn. I’m sure it’s not the first time it’s ever happened, but it’s the first time it’s happened to me! I’ve heard tales of this kind of thing before, of course. Generally the Innkeeper apologises for his lack of lodgings and offers you the stable out the back, where you’re wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. You’re then visited by angels and offered expensive gifts by wise kings. Well that doesn’t sound too shabby to me!

Thing is, I reckon those folks must have been on the pop, because what happened to us was nothing like that at all.

Perhaps it was just bad timing. As it turned out there was one room left, but only in the most expensive hotel on the island, and only for one night. And what would this set us back? Just half a year’s salary and the life of our first-born son. However the only other options were a night on the beach in a thunderstorm or paying the boatmen to take us back across the Styx, and I heard he charged an arm and a leg and a hair from your head each day for the rest of your life. And let’s face it; I need all of those I can get!

So we forked out for some luxury for a change, and then, the next night, were charged exactly the same for some grotty little dump as they knew we had no choice. Basically the Perhentians are going the same way as Koh Tao, for which see my last blog. Their demise is only slightly delayed by the fact that the booze is much harder to come by round these parts which, when you think about it, is something of a mixed blessing.

Suitably chastened, we left and headed back to the mainland, down to Taman Negara National Park, the oldest expanse of untouched rainforest in the world. Surely things would be quieter here?

They weren’t.

Part of the problem is that Malaysia has only a few recognised hotspots, none of which are hugely developed. Now that Air Asia have well and truly opened the floodgates, offering flights cheaper than a steak sandwich, every man and his dog are coming over.

Fortunately dogs aren’t allowed in Taman Negara, but even so the place was packed out. Times were you could go to pretty much any National Park in the world and see no-one except a few weird beardy-folk, who looked suspiciously like the same weird beardy folk you’d seen at the last one. And that was just the women! These days plenty of otherwise ordinary souls can type ‘Attractions’ into Google, see the word ‘Park’ and think, oooh, that might be a good place go feed the ducks or ride a rollercoaster! Most of ‘em don’t even have the decency to bring an anorak! They descend in their thousands, shocked to find nothing but a stretch of untouched wilderness. And so it was that we found ourselves in a small scruffy town way out in the boonies, full to bursting with punters who had no interest in being there whatsoever.

Luckily this time even the poshest place was booked out, and I briefly thought that for the first time in my entire back-packing career we were going to be left homeless and have to catch the next bus straight back out of there. Indeed we were actually sat forlornly on the coach as it pulled out of town when a lovely German couple chased after us in their car and announced they’d found a broom-cupboard free at their hostel, bless their little cotton socks!

It turned out that most of town, and almost all the posh resort were occupied (and you’re not going to believe this!) by the cast and crew of Indian ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here!’ Now it might just be me, but I’d have thought they’d have plenty of jungles of their own to clog up with their D-grade celebrities. Apparently they’re so keen to be shot of them that they ship them over to Malaysia instead. And they’re not the only ones. For six months a year nobodies from all around the globe are flown in and tortured in this 5-star tropical concentration camp. Finns, Danes, Swedes, Kiwis, and some other God-forsaken hellhole I can’t even remember; could well have been the Afghans for all I care. I wonder what your average Afghan Tara Palmer Tomkinson would have to say for herself? Might even be worth hearing!

What they and the other visitors find when they get there is that if you’re not actually very keen on nature, there’s not a whole lot to do.

Boring, innit?

Apart from swanky breakfasts, lunch and dinners, the only attraction offered by the resort is going for a walk. Through the jungle. With creepy-crawlies n’that. Do I look like a nutter to you?

In an effort to placate them the locals have come up with some new diversions to separate them from their hard-earned, such as shooting the rapids on the river (in powerboats, for Christ’s sake! Kind of takes the skill out of it, don’t you think?) or, would you believe, Paintball! Now you don’t have to be a bush-tracker to know that animals don’t typically like much noise. Don’t you think they could do these things somewhere else, maybe even somewhere away from one of the last remaining habitats for the world’s endangered species?

In truth nobody seems remotely interested in the actual jungle at all. Despite town being packed, it was a piece of cake to book into one of the hides deep in the forest itself. There are but five of these, each sleeping twelve. At the first we were joined for the night by just one other couple, while at the second we had the whole place to ourselves. We were left alone all night in the tropical chorus, and in the morning watched troops of monkeys pass by through the tree-tops. You couldn’t reach these spots by boat, bus or plane. The only way in was to trek all day through the majestic rainforest.

Well, who would want to do a thing like that?

I have to give a big shout out here to Debbie for indulging my whims and gamely putting up with somewhat less than luxurious conditions for a full 48 hours, but, then again, who can beat waking up in tiger-country and going for a morning dip in your very own rainforest stream?

Well, according to Debbie, Mr Hilton and Mr Sheraton can come pretty close, and I think the implication is that I owe her Big Time. Personally I can’t really see the appeal, but I suppose I could give it a whirl if the room came complete with fireflies.

These days, I can’t help thinking that the world and I are on ever-diverging paths.

For a start, I’ve no desire to watch a bunch of nobodies being tortured in a jungle. My idea of fun would be to gather a bunch of contrasting nature guys, say David Attenborough, Bear Grylls, David Suzuki, Bill Oddie, the late Steve Irwin (God Rest his Soul) and, ideally, my Dad, and send them off on a 2-week package holiday to Ibiza, see how they coped. Now that would be great telly! The public could vote on who’d be last to go extinct.

Having fulfilled our eco-desires and lived to tell the tale, we skedaddled to the big city, which now felt distinctly strange. Less than 24hrs after peering through the creepers hoping a leopard might return my gaze, I was leafing through shirt racks at Marks & Spencers in the Petronas Towers. Things turned even more surreal next door in Burger King, sat opposite a quartet of burkha clad teenagers chowing down on Whoppers with Cheese. Three of them did so somewhat surreptitiously, but the fourth simply whipped off the face panel and stuffed herself, before glancing in my direction, licking her lips and giving me a distinctly flirtatious smile. Well, I think I may even have blushed!

Curiously, neither of us could remember seeing anyone at all in burkhas on our previous visit to KL only two years ago, but now they were everywhere. I was somewhat rattled by this, until Debbie pointed out that should it catch on worldwide, it would mean the instant death of the fashion, hair and make-up industries, and with them the immediate demise of both Cleo and Cosmopolitan.

Well, all things considered, I think that might just be a fair trade!

Another 24hrs on, and once more with the help of Mr Fernandez, I was sitting in the back of a taxi in Borneo listening to Tom Jones. It’s Not Unusual, apparently.

We’d booked to stay in Borneo for five weeks but ended up leaving after just two. I’ve never walked out of a film halfway through before, let alone an entire landmass! Of all the places I’ve been, this is the one that least lived up to expectations. I was hoping for an unspoilt eco-paradise of endless lush rainforest as far as the eye could see. What we got instead was Peninsular Malaysia all over again, but with inflated prices, never-ending vistas of palm oil, and a complete lack of traditional culture. From what I could work out, local culture in Borneo consists solely of pimping up your Proton.

All I can say is if you must go, be prepared to book everything way in advance and pay through the nose. Here, more than anywhere else, just rocking up and mooching around is no longer an option.

Okay, so the diving at Sipadan was pretty good, and we had a couple of great days at Sungai Kinabattangan at the Sukau B&B, but three days out of fourteen is not exactly stellar. For the rest of the time we just sat around trying to find anything at all to do which wasn’t completely booked up. By the end of it all we were both completely burned out.

What we really needed next was to calm our frazzled nerves in some charming little backwater that nobody had ever heard of. There we could escape the pressures of this frantic busy world, relax, sit down for a while and just chill.

So we flew to Beijing.

Well, we had to.

The flights were ridiculously cheap!

Thanks again, Tony!

Oh, and Tim, a little tip before I go.

Next time, why not think about filing for a patent?


10th October 2009

Great entry
Great writing, and I love your photos too!
10th October 2009

An informative blog
You maintain your diverging path from the rest of the world - it's an excellent course to take. We need more bloggers who ride on the cusp of good taste. Three cheers for tangents!
24th November 2010
Petronas Towers

Fantastic picture!

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