Overland border crossings suck.
They’re one of my least favourite aspects of travel in Southeast Asia.
Not only do they 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.
In the early days of my travels, I used to do everything I could to avoid overland border crossings — often opting to spend more money in order to fly over them.
After 12 years of near-continuous travel, however, I now take border crossings in my stride and know that they’re not all that bad. As long as you’ve packed a hefty dose of patience in your luggage, you’ll find yourself in a different country before you know it.
These days, I know to research any scams beforehand, to memorise the exact cost of the visa, and to blanket my skin in sunscreen.
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 my travel partner 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 running from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu, called the Sipitang Express; it leaves at 8 in the morning and runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I recommend buying your tickets several days before your departure date, as they’re slightly cheaper to buy online than on board.
In 2023, the cost of the bus is 135 MYR (28 USD/23 GBP) per person 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 cheaper 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, it also felt like poor value for money.
You can 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 to put me off, however; I’m particularly sensitive to movement. As of late-2023, the ferry is currently not running.
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.
As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, after 12 years of travel, it takes a lot to impress me. After all, if 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.
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, reminiscing on how it felt to arrive in all of those destinations for the first time.
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 been gobsmacked 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 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 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 to eat in town.
Overall, I was surprised by how easy this journey was, given how many borders we had to contend with.
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 plenty of space in your passport.
Related Posts on Brunei and Borneo
🇧🇳 How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Brunei?
🌴 Is Brunei Worth Visiting? My Experience in the Sultanate
🍜 Where to Eat in Kota Kinabalu
🪲 Catching Fireflies on the Kawa Kawa River
🇲🇾 The Cost of Travel in Malaysia: My Detailed Budget Breakdown