Overland border crossings suck.
They’re one of my least favourite parts of travel.
Not only do they usually mean dealing with hours of queueing beneath a scorching hot sun, but scams are rife, directions are non-existent, and nobody ever really seems to know what’s happening. And yes, I’m mostly referring to Southeast Asia as I write this.
In the early days of my travels, I used to do everything I could to avoid overland border crossings. I flew from Budapest to Kiev to avoid crossing the border by train, then did exactly the same from Kiev to Moscow five days later.
These days, I’m less of a wimp and take border crossings in my stride.
I know to research beforehand to ensure I’m aware of any scams that may befall me, to memorise the exact cost of the visa, and to prepare for hours of waiting in the hope of being pleasantly surprised.
Despite this, overland borders are never the highlight of my adventures.
Why, then, did I find myself sitting in my guesthouse in Brunei, attempting to convince Dave that we needed to take the bus to Kota Kinabalu? A bus that takes you to eight separate immigration officials, no less.
Four border crossings.
Eight new passport stamps.
For the story, essentially.
I wanted to do it for the story.
Because there aren’t many places in the world where you can score eight new passport stamps within six hours of travel.
So, four borders? How is that even possible?
Well, the geography of Borneo is a little unusual, as Brunei is split up into two slices of land. Here’s a photo:
There’s just one bus each day from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu, called the Sipitang Express, and it leaves at 8 in the morning. We’d bought our tickets several days before our departure date, as they’re slightly cheaper to buy online than on board, and paid 100 MYR (24 USD) each for the trip.
Our guesthouse was a little way out of the capital, so we were up at 7 a.m. to catch a local bus into town. Taxis are rare and expensive in Brunei, so the cheap and least comfortable option was once again my exhausting jam.
There are three ways to get from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu, 250 miles away.
The first is flying, which I try to avoid for short distances, if at all possible. At $100 for a one-hour flight at the time, it felt like especially poor value for money.
You can also take a ferry from Brunei to the Malaysian island of Labuan, spend three hours having a look around, and then continue onwards by ferry to Kota Kinabalu. This would potentially be the most comfortable journey, but would still take most of the day. The thought of potential seasickness was enough, though, to have me running for the bus.
The Sipitang Express leaves from Jalan MacArthur, directly in front of Joy Guesthouse, and there was a queue of around a dozen people waiting for it, letting us know we were in the right place.
I wandered into a nearby grocery store and reluctantly bought a tube of Pringles — the official snack for long and boring travel days. I wondered if this was going to be a frustrating journey.
We handed our passports over to the driver as we stepped on board, and awaited instruction.
There was none.
This wasn’t exactly a shock, given that we were in Southeast Asia after all.
An hour later, we arrived in Kuala Lurah for our first border crossing of the day. Fortunately, it was still early, so we were right at the front of the non-existent queue. Dave and I collected our passports from the driver, got them stamped within around 10 minutes, and then jumped back on board
It did feel a little pointless to be getting back on the bus, given that 50 metres later, we were stopping at the next immigration post to get stamped into the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
So far, so good. These had been two of the most efficient and least scam-filled border crossings of my travels.
Long-term travel can result in jadedness if you do it for long enough.
I know that when I’d been travelling full-time for five years, it took a lot to impress me. After you’ve seen a hundred beaches, some of them in places like the Maldives and Bora Bora, the stretches of sand that would have once had you swooning are now pitted against the prettier ones you’ve seen in the past. It’s one of the reasons why I decided that having a base to return to between trips was a good idea for me — taking breaks helps me appreciate the beauty in every destination I travel to.
One thing that’s never left me jaded, however, is a new passport stamp. There’s something about a fresh pattern of ink in those battered pages that fills me with joy. I’ve had this odd little ritual from day one of my travels, where as soon as I enter a new country, I sit down and look through my passport from page one until the end.
I’ve had my current passport for five years now, and 36 pages are crammed full of stamps, so it always takes several minutes. But as I study each memory, a rush of euphoria floods my brain, and I think of how the pre-travel version of myself would have fainted at the prospect of having one day been to so many countries.
The stamps remind me of the ridiculous bribe attempt I encountered in Guatemala, of how terrified I was to be entering the D.R.C, of the panic to get my visa in Tanzania.
As I flicked through the pages now, I had a feeling that at some point in the future, I would find myself pausing on this page of Borneo-themed stamps and smiling as I remembered this ridiculous travel day.
An hour later, we were at our next border.
We passed from Pandaruan, in Malaysia, to Ujung Jalan in Brunei within 20 minutes, and I giggled at the knowledge I was back in Brunei. In an hour, I’d be back in Malaysia again.
Dave was bemused by how much happiness he was witnessing as I repeatedly told him how fun!!! this was.
We spent the 60 minutes cruising through this small sliver of Brunei, and I gazed out at the scenery, knowing I’d likely never return or see these towns again. I had little reason to return to Brunei in the future, so I tried to memorise as much of it as possible.
When we passed back into Malaysia, our driver announced that we were going to be stopping for lunch.
I was excited.
Malaysian Borneo is split into two states: Sarawak and Sabah. Over the next month, Dave and I were planning to travel across the latter. Sabah sounded more interesting to us, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t sad to not be spending time in Sarawak. Simply stopping in a random town in the state to have lunch felt meaningful to me, in some way.
We stopped into a small cafe filled with locals, with a menu entirely in Malay. I ordered a nasi lemak from a smiling woman, because that was the only dish I could recognise and remember.
After a surprisingly delicious meal, we had one final border crossing to deal with. You might wonder why, given that we were already in Malaysia.
Both Sabah and Sarawak retain control of their borders, due to a fear of locals from peninsular Malaysia coming to Borneo to work. These citizens from West Malaysia can’t legally work in Malaysian Borneo, and the strict immigration rules of the island means that travellers have to pass through a border to enter either Sarawak and Sabah.
Once the final crossing was out of the way, we had just a couple of hours in rush hour traffic to get through, and then we were taking our first steps in Kota Kinabalu.
Next up: eating everything we can get our hands on. You can see my Kota Kinabalu food guide for my recommendations on the best places in town.
Overall, I was surprised by how easy this journey was, given how many borders we had to contend with.
When we did this trip, back in March 2018, the roads were reasonably quiet, the borders had little traffic, and the crossings themselves were highly efficient. We never spent more than 20 minutes at each immigration office, and the bus was air conditioned and comfortable.
If you’re considering making the journey, I’d recommend doing it overland.
Just, uh, make sure you have a lot of space in your passport.
[photo of thai-cambodia border crossing via; Alexey Stiop]