29 April 2015

The Empire Hotel and Country Club, High Tea on the Shores of the South China Sea

Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat

We found the Empire Country Club quite by accident.  Our moving and packing schedule from Miri to Ipoh was fairly rigorous and the move came as a short notice shock to the children who were just starting to settle in Miri.   A few months ago we read that there was an ASEAN dinosaur exhibition coming to Brunei just a short drive from Miri.  The children, who love dinosaurs, asked very politely if we could go to see it.  While we normally avoid this type of stuff like the plague we thought it would make a perfect treat to reward them for their good behaviour and excellent help with the packing.

Asean Dinosaurs
dodgy dinos
The exhibition was set a few kilometres from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan in the grounds of the Royal Brunei stables set in a park that is, for all the world, rather reminiscent of the Royal Parks of England and where the (beautiful) horses have a standard of living that many people in South East Asia would envy.

Asean Dinosaurs
Inappropriate  Pandas
The exhibition itself could have been viewed as a disappointment.  It consisted of a few animatronic models that looked as though they had been used for a 50s B movie.  They were, for the most part, anatomically incorrect and the information about them was scanty.  The children enjoyed the visit but saw it for what it was, a pastiche, and they pointed out more errors than they learned facts.  The displays were also, somewhat incongruously, peppered with pandas! We did not manage to work out why this was and everyone we asked just looked at us rather blankly.   Having paid more that US$60 to get in we stayed for an hour to try to get our monies worth before escaping to buy some food feeling that we had rather wasted one of our precious pre-move afternoons.  We were going to drive in to Bandar when we saw a sign for the Empire Country Club.

Mosaic Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
Mosaics in the most expensive hotel building in the world

We had both read about this place as it was infamous for almost bankrupting the oil rich state.  It was built, originally, as a private residence but when the costs of construction could not be met it had to be taken over by the state and turned into a hotel.  It is, perhaps, one of the most sumptuous buildings I have ever seen, rivalling the Hermitage  which is not surprising given the amount of money it cost to build.  It manages (just) to appear luxurious rather than kitsch but it teeters very close to the edge.

Wood Carving Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
Stunning Carvings
The main hall is an echoing chamber of marble with mosaics laid into the floor and the stairwells are studded with tiger eye.  Pavilions in the beautifully manicured grounds utilise some of the most magnificent wood workmanship and around every corner there is a new visual or tactile treat.  The grounds are extensive and comprise a number of different gardens, at least three (to our count) swimming pools and a number of alcoves and beaches.

Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
one of the many swimming pools

Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
The accommodation blocks were added to
make the residence into an hotel.  Rates are, we understand, quite reasonable.
By the time we arrived the hotel was serving high tea and Mr EE and I decided that we deserved a treat for putting up with the dinosaurs.  We have never eaten so prodigiously, for half the price of the dinosaur exhibition we were treated to tea, delightful sandwiches, petits fours, scones with cream and jam and sparkling juice.  As soon as a plate even looked like running out a replacement was magicked out of thin air.

Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
Traditional high tea...
After high tea we took a stroll around the beautiful grounds and enjoyed all the magnificent craftsmanship the hotel has to offer.  We watched the sun set over the South China Sea, one of the last opportunities we would ever have to enjoy such a view, and wandered back to the car through the complexes of guest rooms.  These were rather less spectacular (at least on the outside) than the original building and its annexes and looked for all the world like the university college accommodation annexes we had lived in during our undergraduate degrees.  We returned to the car for our 2 hour drive back to Miri and our rather denuded house.

Empire Hotel And Country Club, Brunei Ersatz Expat
...with more food than four people could ever eat.

The whole experience was unexpectedly delightful and an oasis of calm in what had been a hectic few days (I defy even the most seasoned expat not to be stressed by a move with three weeks from notification to completion). It left us feeling completely refreshed and recharged and we rather regretted that we had not visited before.  I suspect, however, that familiarity would breed, if not contempt, then diffidence.  Our unexpected traditional English treat in an unusual location was just what we needed at that time and it could never be as good again.

I have added this post to the monthly #ShowYourWorld link up run by Tiny Expats.  Visit it here for more interesting posts from around the world.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

9 April 2015


We are moving to Ipoh on the peninsula tomorrow.  Our stuff was packed last week so rather than sit around an empty house we have been spending the time out and about enjoying an explore of our portion of Borneo.

Mulu - cut off by the surrounding hills
One of the things we simply could not leave without going to see was the Caves in the Mulu National Park.  The only time we could shoehorn it in was in the last few days of our time - fly up on the Monday, back on the Wednesday morning before packing our final bits and pieces and sorting out the final admin for our move to Ipoh Wednesday afternoon and flying Thursday morning.  Hectic but we felt that we absolutely had to see Mulu.

The entrance to Lang's Cave
Mulu is remote, set in the far North of Sarawak not far from the Brunei border it is a short 30 minute flight from Miri, the maps suggest that you might be able to drive and boat up but knowing how the roads can peter out and how long a short journey can take in the interior we thought the flight was the sensible option.

Deer Cave with the famous 'Abraham Lincoln' Profile
Mulu is set in a huge natural amphitheatre in a range of limestone hills and as you land in you feel like you are entering a lost world. The World Heritage Site/Natural Park was only recently gazetted and although there are now permanent settlements the tribes in the area (mostly Penan) were nomadic until that time (1970s).

A small bat hole in Lang Cave

Bats Leaving Deer Cave at Dusk
The first day was spent enjoying a short 3km (I say short but it is so hot and humid that a 3km walk takes almost an hour) through the jungle to the Lang and Deer Caves.  The national park is designed to be completely accessible and the majority of the paths are along boardwalks.  This makes them safe for large volumes of people and allows motorbikes from HQ to go to and from places quickly if needed.  Although we had Mini EE in the baby carrier we could have used her buggy for a large part of the walks.  The older two children enjoyed the walk and our guide, Mr Rick was fantstic with them, taking the time to provide a lot of background information on the park, caves and wildlife.  It turned out that he had shared uni digs with some Kazakh students in KL and impressed the children by speaking to them in Russian for a while.

Amazing Formations at the Entrance to Clearwater Cave
Rock Formation in the 'Lady' Chamber of Clearwater Cave
There was plenty to see in the caves, Lang Cave has some beautiful rock formations and Deer Cave is absolutely huge, one of the largest caves in the world.  The floor is covered in guano from the huge bat colonies that roost in the ceiling (the colonies are so large that you can see them from the floor as they make the roof dark in comparison to the surrounding rock).  The guano attracted the deer who gave the cave is name.  The nomadic Penan used to come to the cave to hunt venison, sadly a treat no longer available today.  We walked through the cave to a second entrance called the Garden of Eden which is window onto an enclosed world hemmed in by the mountain.

Roof Collapse in Clearwater Cave
After the tour we returned to the entrance of the cave and the 'bat observatory' to wait for the famous change of the guard where the swifts who roost at night and hunt by day return to their nests and the bat colonies stream out to hunt for insects up to 100km away.  It had rained quite a bit during the day so it was too damp to tempt many bats out, we saw some swarms but nothing like the intense ones we had hoped to catch.  Following the bats we walked back through the jungle at night listening to the insects and frogs calling to each other.  At times we saw some cross our path and caught glimpses of glow-worms out in the bush.

Shards created by the action of bacteria
The following day we travelled by boat to a Penan village, here most of the homes enjoy satellite TV and concrete longhouses are replacing the traditional wooden varieties, a government clinic ensures that people get access to healthcare, vaccinations etc and that all births are registered so that children can work legally when they are grown (unregistered births are a big problem in Sarawak and there are significant Government initiatives to try to combat this).  While the villagers still hunt the local women sell handicrafts and many of the people work in the tourist industry - a big change from the nomadic life their parents and grandparents led.

The village is a mix of the old and the new
Tourism is big business for the local people
Villages along the Melinau River
The boat then took us on to Wind Cave, it was possible to walk here from the park headquarters as recently as a year ago but the boardwalk collapsed and is in the process of being re-built.  Consequently this cave feels more remote than the Deer and Lang Caves.  Wind cave is named for the breeze that flows through  and has caused the rock formations to bend.  The cave connects to the Clearwater cave but  it is not possible to go through except on an adventure tour (not suitable for small children).

Swimming in a forest pool
The main entrance to Clearwater is up a flight of 198 steps (Master EE and I counted) and this is yet again breathtaking.  Clearwater is the longest cave system in the world and it feels simply gigantic.  The main cavern was formed by a powerful river which still runs through the base of the cave.  It is deep and fast even in the dry season, adventure tours guide people through the system but it requires a swim of 1.2km, a huge distance particularly underground.  The river still floods and fills the cavern to about the half way point so in December, January on a small portion of the walk around the cave is possible.

It is possible to get very close to the local wildlife
After the tour of Clearwater and back at the bottom of the stairs we were treated to a packed lunch and an opportunity to swim before going back to Park HQ.  There we opted to climb a viewing tower to look out over the canopy, this is an alternative to the famous Canopy walk which was booked out.  We then took the chance to walk the Botany trail, a smaller loop off the main walk with excellent information boards showcasing the plants and giving detailed information on the biology of the rainforest, then back to the hotel and another swim before packing for the flight the next morning.

The park botany walk is a good way to see and learn about a lot
of forest species

Some of the plants are breathtaking
We stayed at the Mariott hotel which is the luxury offering in Mulu, we had hoped to stay in the park but all the accommodation was booked out for Easter.  The hotel were, however, very accommodating, permitting the five of us to share a max 3 occupancy room.  We ate at a little canteen across the river which has an agreement with the tour guide we used (you are required to have a guide for all visits to the caves, we had our own but it is possible to join a larger group if you wish).  The food was excellent and the welcome extremely warm.  As is usual in Malaysia our baby was taken off us and entertained so that we could enjoy our meal and, once they had finished, the older two went off to play with the children of the family.

Making friends
The guides were excellent with the children, they
were a goldmine of information and never once
talked down.
Mr EE and I had dreamed of going to Mulu for at least 20 years so this trip, a birthday present for me, was a bit of a trip of a lifetime.  The park itself is manicured and managed and is very tame, there is no hacking through the undergrowth needed.  While this is a shame in some ways it is wonderful in others, it meant that we could take not only the older children but Mini EE as well, she will not remember any of it but she loved going into the caves and was intrigued by the contrasts of light and dark.  The forest was also a completely new experience for her, of course because she will not remember it we have the perfect excuse to come back again in the future and hopefully next time take the 3 day hike to the famous pinnacles.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo

Ersatz Expat

1 April 2015

Driving - Sarawak Style

We love to drive and will use any excuse to spend the afternoon on the road.  Our ideal holiday comprises a car, the kids and the open road.  

Our Mitsubishi - in any one car-park there will be at least 20 other cars
just like it, same age, same colour.
After the hustle and bustle of the busy yet slow (60kph limit) Astana roads Sarawak is a little different.  Car's are not particularly varied here, you will typically see flocks of Perodua Myvi, a small but perfectly formed run around, and the ubiquitous Saga (Proton’s small saloon, we had a matching pair at one point) to trucks (Toyota Hiluxes for the most part) and 7 seater 4x4s (Toyota Landcruisers and Mitsubishi Pajeros).  There is so little variation in model and colour that it can be quite hard to find your vehicle in the carpark. 

Main roads are mostly excellent..
The roads in Miri can be a little congested at peak times but otherwise there is very little trouble with traffic.  The main problem comes with the driving.  Learners have to pass a written and a practical test and display P (probationary) plates for the initial period post-test but the majority of early lessons are taken in an off road learning centre.  This means that learners get very little exposure to real road situations. 
Slow cars are a nightmare on the single carriageway roads.
People are not aggressive drivers by any means, in fact I would go so far as to say they are dangerously passive.  The limit on dual carriageways here is 90kph but it is not uncommon for drivers to saunter along at 40.  Cars quite regularly pull out onto the carriage way with next to no acceleration in front of faster vehicles leading to urgent slamming on of breaks.  Lights (I have mine on to make my car visible at all times of the day, a legacy of my parents’ adherence to Norwegian rules of the road) only go on as dusk is well under way and sometimes (but not always) in periods of heavy rain.  When it rains here it does get really heavy, wipers on maximum and 5m visibility maximum type heavy which makes the roads dangerous, particularly as very few drivers choose to increase stopping distances

On many roads 4x4 is a must
Pedestrians jaywalk across dual carriageways with impunity and undertaking is frighteningly common.  It is wise to check and double check mirrors and over shoulders even on a clear road as mopeds and motorcycles appear out of nowhere and think nothing of sitting in your blind spot for long distances.  These mopeds and motorcycles are also quite happy to drive the wrong way down the carriageway so be aware of them.  Interspersed amongst all this you get the same speed demon idiots that are common worldwide – overtaking on bends, undertaking in traffic etc.  All in all, however, driving here is pretty sedate and well regulated.

Smaller roads can get damaged all too easily
Leaving town the main roads are decent but single carriageway  with few opportunities for safe overtaking so if you get stuck behind a lorry or a bimbler you have little recourse.   A few months ago we drove down to Niah to see the caves.  The 2 hour journey back was stretched to 3 hours as we were stuck in a long tailback behind a Myvi doing 40kph.  Our poor 6 week old baby girl was desperate for a change and a bottle but by this stage it was getting dark and we had nowhere safe to pull over until we got back to town. 

The further in to the interior you go the less solid the infrastructure...
In the rainy season the combination of heavy palm oil and logging traffic combined with torrential downpours take their toll on the highway and potholes, sometimes huge ones, appear at quite short notice. Once you leave the Trans-Borneo highway or the fairly decent coast road you end up battling on smaller and smaller roads which are highly susceptible to wash-outs during the rainy season and 4x4 cars with engine armour, snorkels and winches are a necessity rather than a poser' luxury.  A large portion of Sarawak is easily accessible only by air (for example Bario in the Kelabit Highlands near the Indonesian border and Mulu World Heritage Caves) or by fast boat up the river (for example Kapit, upriver from Sibu).  It is not unknown for colleagues from the interior to have to request a week's leave to travel home for an obligation like a wedding or a funeral because the journey there and back typically takes several days.  

At certain places the road just comes to an end.  The gravel in the
foreground is the end of the main carriageway, the only way across the river is by ferry
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo

Ersatz Expat