I was terrified; frozen with fear. My knees were beginning to wobble. My vision blurred.
Standing on an aluminium platform a little thicker than a dirham, on a scaffolding 60m up – that’s 20 floors high – in the Ulu Temburong National Park in Brunei, I braced myself, not looking down. When I did finally steal a glance, all I could see were the tops of rainforest trees and the few wires that tethered the scaffolding in place.
The structure, built for research purposes a decade ago, had since been converted to a viewing platform, and is a popular tourist draw. Keen to follow in the researchers’ footsteps I, in a moment of macho bravado, had volunteered to climb some 100 steps up to the sky bridge leading to four seemingly flimsy towers, each taller than the last but with platforms that offer spectacular views of the forest and the surrounding areas.
‘For the best views you need to be on the tallest tower,’ our guide had said. So here I was now, on a 2mx2m platform, dizzy with acrophobia. There was no harness, no safety wire – just me and my darned bravado.
Taking a deep breath, I gripped the waist-high handrails, only to realise they were becoming slippery… and it wasn’t just because of my sweaty palms. I was precariously walking along a bridge high above the forest floor, hyperventilating, and now, to top it all, it was raining.
‘Awesome view, huh?’ shouted out Cristina, one of the women in our group, ahead of me.
‘Yes,’ I croaked, blinking in the drizzle, trying not to lose consciousness.
Then, abruptly, a light breeze began and the walkway began to sway.
It was day one of my five-day trip to Brunei and Malaysian Borneo, and here I was stuck on the top of a rainforest. Desperate to make my way down before the sharp drizzle graduated to a downpour, I wondered what other adventures lay in store for me.
The previous day, we – a group of seven journalists and three tour coordinators – had landed in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan bright-eyed despite the eight-hour flight from Dubai, thanks to the swanky new Royal Brunei Airlines’ Dreamliner aircraft that offers much more leg room than many regular flights, allowing even economy-class passengers to stretch out and relax.
A 15-minute drive took us to the glitzy Empire Hotel & Country Club. ‘If you like, you could enjoy a round of golf tomorrow on the hotel’s 18-hole green,’ the duty manager had suggested. ‘And tonight you can watch the premiere of Spectre at the hotel’s private 100-seat cinema.’
I’d decided to give the movie a miss. After all, our trip’s itinerary looked as exciting and adventurous as any of James Bond’s dangerous missions. So, instead, I relaxed in the plush deluxe room, recharging my batteries to get ready for the day ahead.
Post a fabulous breakfast at the Atrium, we’d set off for the jetty – 20 minutes away – from where we would take a longboat ride down the 15km-long River Sungai Temburong to Ulu Ulu Resort.
Ulu, in Brunei Malay, means far, and Ulu Ulu means, back of beyond. Clearly, the longboat appeared to be from there too.
Basically a canoe, it held five people and once we were on board, the vessel sat barely 7cm above the Bournvita-coloured water – a result of the overnight rains that flooded the river with muddy water from the adjoining forests.
Strapping on a life jacket, I’d clasped the sides as the boat man – or kid, he looked not a day over 16 – had yanked the outboard’s zip cord and the motor had spluttered to life. A twist of the throttle and the longboat took off, its prow slicing through the brown waters.
Gunning the engine at around 20 knots (around 35kmph) down the swift and winding river, the skipper had then proceeded to make sure those sitting at the rear got drenched by the boat-churned spray every time it negotiated submerged boulders and huge logs.
By the time he’d deftly brought the vessel to a stop near the resort’s jetty half an hour later, I realised my morning shower in the hotel had been an utter waste of time. A refreshing drink later, we’d set off on a trek into the forests. The overnight rain had left parts of the trail slushy, and climbing the steep slopes saw us slipping and sliding.
A one-km near-vertical climb later we’d reached the Canopy Towers where I’d challenged myself to climb the shaky scaffolding.
Now after a nerve-wracking three minutes on the viewing platform, which felt like an hour, I gingerly began making my way down. Perhaps it was the joy of knowing that I would be touching earth soon, but I was down in half the time it took me to climb up.
While the others who had made it to the top were oohing and aahing about the once-in-a-lifetime experience, I admitted that I felt ‘right on top of the world’. It was the truth and quite literally, too.
Back in Bandar Seri Begawan after another wet longboat ride – thanks this time to a thundershower aiding the boatman – we were off to Kota Kinabalu or KK, in Malaysian Borneo, a 40-minute flight from Brunei.
A former British colonial trading post, KK, the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah district, is a bustling sea port and one of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It was past midnight when we landed and a fleet of luxurious cars drove us swiftly from the airport to the Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal 20 minutes away – the entrance to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
A cluster of five islands that’s a haven for water sport and beach enthusiasts, the park also hosts Gayana Eco Resort and the Bunga Raya Resort – two high-end hotels where we would be spending a couple of days each.
Usually busy during the day, the terminal at 1am, however, was desolate, and a 40-minute boat ride later we dropped anchor at the award-winning Bunga Raya Island Resort and Spa.
Situated in Malaysian Borneo, south east Asia’s biggest island and made up of two Malaysian states of Sabah and Serawak, the property boasts fabulous facilities including three restaurants and the Solace spa. But tired after the previous day’s adventures, I stumbled into the feather-soft bed and was asleep within seconds…
Up at 7am, I stepped out on the balcony of my luxurious villa on stilts to a view so spectacular it looked like one straight out of a travel brochure. On the one side were thick rainforest trees with birds chirping away, while down below was a fairy-tale-like pathway from the resort’s lobby winding up to the 47 luxurious villas that dotted the mountainside. Barely 50m away, waves of the South China Sea gently lapped a crescent-shaped white beach.
Meaning hibiscus in Malay, Bunga Raya stands on a pristine coral reef that boasts lush tropical vegetation and natural wildlife and is a magnet for tourists who prefer enjoying nature with a dollop of luxury. From snorkelling and underwater fish feeding to sea-walking, sunset cruises and coral planting, there are loads of things to do in case you get bored lazing on the snow-white sands.
I wanted to do all of them, but first, I had to have breakfast at Koi, one of the three restaurants. ‘We get a lot of couples who prefer to spend their honeymoon here,’ said the manager of the hotel, during breakfast. As if on cue, a couple walked by, hand in hand, the man whispering some joke into the ear of the woman, who began giggling.
After tucking into, among other things, delicious Malaysian delicacies such as nasi lemak – a rich creamy rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fried anchovies, cucumber, a hard-boiled egg and a slightly sweet spicy sauce called sambal – I perused the list of the day’s activities. There was jungle trekking and zip-lining in the morning. I, of course, signed up for both, although I had no idea what zip-lining was.
‘Since you loved the sky walk in Brunei, I’m sure you’ll enjoy zip-lining,’ Amir, the trip coordinator, said to me. I gulped.
After a 30-minute exciting trek through the thick forests of Borneo, with the guide stopping regularly to identify plants and insects, including at one point a monitor lizard that was motionless on a tree, we reached the zip-line area. Rising 35m above the jungle floor, the zip line stretches 60m to the first platform on a tree, and from there another line snakes 80m to the final landing platform.
As I looked down from the take-off platform, butterflies took wing in my stomach. But I’d decided – I would do it.
The first woman to go screamed as she raced along the wire to the landing platform. ‘It was awesome,’ she said afterwards, still trembling with excitement.
‘You next, sir,’ said the zip-line guy.
I went meekly, a grin plastered on my face while he triple-checked the clips and hooks.
‘Ready?’ he asked, and when I gave the thumbs up – whoosh I went, zipping down the line. The feeling of wind in the face as my feet skimmed the tops of the trees was breathtaking. But the around 10-second first ride was over too quickly.
The second leg was longer, and this time I savoured the ride and shrieked in excitement looking down at the treetops. ‘Awesome,’ I agreed.
On the way back, the guide said the resort also offers snorkelling, kayaking and diving options, but I decided it was time to head to the spa, where I signed up for a bamboo massage.
‘Do you know what it is?’ asked a friend, intrigued by the name.
‘I will in a few minutes,’ I grinned.
Ninety minutes later I could tell him that it included a soothing massage followed by a gentle stroking and rolling with a length of bamboo. Awesome.
A sumptuous lunch at Koi later, I scouted the hotel. Thanks to its offshore location, there is little by way of typical city nightlife and entertainment options at Bunga Raya. ‘But we can arrange boats to take you to KK,’ offered the manager. ‘There’s a quaint Filipino Market on the mainland, which is a popular draw.’ And those keen to do some beach-hopping can check out the five islands of Manukan, Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug – each ideal to spend time on the sand and in the sun.
But I preferred relaxing in the fabulous resort, looking forward to the next day. On the agenda: a visit into the jungles to meet a headhunting tribe. This is no recruitment agency, but descendants of a tribe that up until recently used to collect the heads of their enemies to prove their strength and bravery.
‘Really?’ I asked Amir. ‘We’re meeting a real headhunting tribe?’
‘Yes,’ he said, earnestly.
We headed to the Mari Mari Cultural village, in Kionsom, Inanam, about two hours away from the hotel.
A touristy museum of sorts, deep in the forest about 18km from KK, Mari Mari showcases traditional homes, culture and rituals of the five major tribes of the Sabah district – the Kadazan-Dusuns, peaceful rice farmers; Rungus, who live in quaint longhouses; Lundayehs, hunters and fishermen; Bajau who raise cattle; and the Muruts, the famously fierce headhunters.
‘Call me Rik,’ said a young man who belonged to the Rungu tribe. ‘I’m your guide for today. But first your team needs to choose a leader.’
Almost instantly I heard several in the group shout out my name, and was secretly pleased to be so popular, until Rik said ‘Good, you will be the first to meet the headhunting tribe.’
Tales of headhunters have always fascinated me. Muruts, I’d read, were fierce warriors. A young Murut man had to bring back at least one head to his tribal chief to prove he was grown-up enough to get married. The more skulls he collected, the greater his prestige in the tribe. The number of skulls displayed outside the huts in the village was an indication of the strength and bravery of its inhabitants. ‘The skulls also served as a warning to raiding tribes not to mess with them,’ said Rik, a pleasant chap, always smiling. ‘It was common for bachelors to conduct regular headhunting raids to prove they were ready to marry.’
Headhunting was reportedly practised up until the Second World War when the Japanese occupied Borneo. ‘But you don’t have to worry,’ assured Rik. ‘Since you are the leader, I’ll give you some tips.
‘One, don’t laugh or look them in the eye. They consider that as aggression. Two, if they ask you questions – I shall of course translate for you – answer clearly and without fear. Three, don’t put your hands in your pockets or behind your back because it indicates you could be carrying a weapon and they might attack you.’
I nodded and set off a tad reluctantly behind Rik into the forest, with the others following. Suddenly from a tall tree, two tribal men, bare chested and with huge spears, leaped in front, shrieking loudly.
For the second time in less than a week I froze. One of them then came up and placed his hand on my shoulder, barking out a warning. ‘He’s asking where you are from?’ translated Rik.
I answered. Another command. ‘He wants to know why you are here?’ said Rik.
‘To meet them. We come in peace,’ I offered, like a modern-day Indiana Jones. Rik mumbled something in headhunter lingo. The two men circled our group menacingly, then, as swiftly as they appeared, they melted into the forest. The mock – or at least I hoped so – threatening welcome over, we headed into the area.
Part of the tour included using a blow pipe to shoot arrows – I fared well enough to be offered an honorary membership into the tribe – tasting indigenous culinary nibbles such as steamed rice and chicken cooked in a bamboo, and seeing up close how they lived not so long ago.
‘Very few tribals continue to live like their predecessors did,’ Rik said. ‘Development has reached even the remotest area in this region. Tribespeople today go to schools and colleges and are employed in the government and private sectors.’
A short tour of the area later, it was time to head to Gayana Eco Resort – our second destination.
Resting on the edges of a lush coral reef island off the coast of Borneo, the resort boasts 52 villas all built on stilts and resting above the pristine blue waters of the South China Sea. The villas offer fabulous views of the 4,096m Mt Kinabalu – from where the city of KK takes its name.
Borneo is one of most important biological sites in the world, home to around 6,000 species of plants, over 300 species of birds, and more than 100 species of mammals, including the world renowned orangutan. ‘The resort was built on stilts over the sea to preserve the eco-sensitive mountainous area while causing virtually no damage to the water,’ I read in the hotel catalogue.
The award-winning five-star resort is also home to the Marine Ecology Research Centre (Merc), which is passionately involved in propagating the endangered giant clams and restoring the natural coral reefs.
With four restaurants including a Chinese seafood one named Alu Alu, this luxurious pearl in the ocean is just perfect to relax in.
The next day after a short educational session at the Merc on how giant clams are being cultivated – a tad boring, particularly when the luxurious villa, the placid blue waters and exciting water activities were beckoning – we headed off for lunch at the Macac restaurant.
Later that evening, thick dark clouds started gathering and before you could say Kota Kinabalu, the skies opened up. Seated on the villa’s balcony with a coloured umbrella-dunked beverage for company, it was sheer bliss to stare out at the sea. But it was getting late. The boat to KK was leaving in a few hours, from where we would fly back to Brunei and then to Dubai.
Hours later, snuggled under a warm blanket in the plush business class of Royal Brunei Airlines, I relived the most exciting moments of the trip. From the heights of the aluminium towers to the boat rides on the water to relaxing and dining in the award-winning resorts... the five days had been mind-blowingly awesome.
‘Would you do it again – the canopy sky walk?’ asked a friend.
‘Umm yes,’ I said. ‘You know what? This trip has cured me of my acrophobia.’