Mt. Kinabalu, at 13,435ft above sea level, was the highest point on the island of Borneo. The top of the mountain was seldom seen after early morning due to heavy cloud cover and rain.
Headhunters, snakes, bad roads, floods, and numerous border crossings. Deep in the lush green jungles of Borneo these elements equated adventure with a motorcycle. The motorcycle aspect was the biggest part of the adventure. The next element was my mentally and orally grumbling about motorcycle adventure being with rain.
February 2009 found me tiring of poking around Cambodia, Laos and Northern Thailand. My winter base for pushing and pulling motorcycles through tough spots, dodging errant farang (Westerners), over the last five years, has been Chiang Mai, Thailand, a winter home for exploring Southeast Asia while snow flies around my house in Montana. Twice I had done Vietnam, three times the Philippines, and once Myanmar. I was jonesing for some adventure in new places. A colleague had taken a guided motorcycle tour of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, and written of potentially interesting targets for my niche of motorcycling. I looked at the world map on my wall, and found Borneo.
I had wandered through Malaysia last year on my Kawasaki KMX200. Time and money limited my exploration to mainland Malaysia. Borneo, off mainland Malaysia, and being the third-largest island in the world, as well as the third-tallest, with Mount Kinabalu at 13,435 feet above sea level, presented some interesting riding options. In one day I could go from hot and humid green jungles or warm sea beaches to nearly the top of Kinabalu, and then back down. There were tales from Borneo of remote villages of headhunters, monster snakes, and an avid motorcycling community, but all were in vague enough terms to border on tall tales and fiction instead of fact.
To get myself and a motorcycle to Borneo from my base in the Golden Triangle of Thailand would take at least five days, and most of that was pretty boring riding if done quickly. Then there would be the other five or six more days of lost or boring time going back. In terms of dollars and time, minimally I was looking at two weeks and a couple of thousand dollars in travel costs, what I viewed as serious time and money, for a destination adventure.
The option of flying my motorcycle into Borneo was a zero option because the cost of the air cargo flight was four times the original cost of the motorcycle, and that money I would rather spend on travel in Borneo and not on freight forwarders, air cargo companies and handlers, plus the down time to clear the motorcycle through local importation offices in and out. Shipping by boat out of Thailand was a mental nightmare, given my boating experiences with motorcycle shipping paperwork requirements, and the uncertainty of my motorcycle arriving when scheduled, amplified by the mental anguish associated with transporting motorcycles across water by boat.
Not on the Internet was this small motorcycle rental shop. Even motorcycle travel websites declared no rental motorcycles were available on Borneo. The owner found customers through word-of-mouth and listings in print travel guides like The Lonely Planet.
Another option was to fly in to Borneo and pay for a guided tour. My moto-journalist-adventure-colleague opined this was a good option, which it was, given a starting base in the USA, then factoring in time and money. As I computed the costs for this option for my plan from Thailand, the numbers soared, not unreasonably, but far outside my usual budget. The other guided-tour-adventure-breaker was the area of the tour was limited to a much smaller section of the 287,000 square miles of Borneo to which I wanted to confine myself. It was a good option, had I the time and money.
That left another option, that of flying into Borneo, then renting a motorcycle. If I had confined myself to Internet research this option would have also come up a zero. However, one small sentence in a printed tour guide referenced a motorcycle rental agency. Some contact with motorcyclists in Borneo also led me to believe that cash, rolling the dice on availability of rental motorcycles, thinking small motorcycles instead of big motorcycles, and being flexible might find me riding around Malaysian Borneo on a rented bike.
If I could not find a rental there was the possibility of purchasing a motorcycle, using it, then selling it when done, or discarding it if the price was low enough. To this option I was told officially it could not be done. The government rule was foreigners could not purchase a motorcycle in Malaysian Borneo unless they had a Work Visa. Because I would be traveling on a Tourist Visa this option was supposed to be off the table, but my experience has been that sellers and buyers of motorcycles can often find a way to not break rules but still make a deal at the same time.
The first hurdle was to meet airline weight limitations, or pay a surcharge for excess baggage. 15 kg (33 lbs) was what I was allowed, and that had to include my tools and spare parts like universal clutch cable and tire repair kit. Carry-on baggage was my motorcycle helmet, boots and riding gear. It was a small load, but I was already thinking small based on what I had seen on the roads of Malaysia before, small motorcycles.
Riding through the sand tracks and palm trees along the coast of the South China Sea was something the lightweight motorcycle was ideally suited for versus a heavyweight adventure motorcycle.
The jumping off base was the most southwestern Malaysian Borneo city of Kuching, where had been sniffed out a motorcycle rental shop through The Lonely Planet travel guide book. What was not said in the description was whether I would be able to rent and ride from the Malaysian state of Sarawak where Kuching was located, then through the country of Brunei and finally into the neighboring Malaysian state of Sabah. The number of border crossings one way would require eight stamps in my passport and obviously the necessary Customs clearances for the motorcycle. . Because there is no road around Borneo I would have to return along much of the same route, so that meant more border crossings and repeated showing of ownership and transport documents.
My first rental was a 120cc Suzuki with a six-speed transmission. The daily cost was $10 with a $30 deposit. This motorcycle was enough to carry me at the speed everyone else was traveling as well as my luggage.
Riding in Malaysia was on the left side of the road. I was comfortable with that, living in Thailand where driving was on the same left side of the road, and having traveled extensively through countries like Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. In Kuching, and then out of the city through the countryside, I was riding at speeds seldom exceeding 60 mph, which the little Suzuki would easily handle.
Out of curiosity I asked the owner of a new motorcycle sales shop in Kuching if I could purchase a new motorcycle from them and was politely told I could not given my visa status. I was looking at a new Kawasaki KLX250 they had on the showroom floor that had a price tag of nearly 80% more than the same motorcycle would cost me in the USA. Then I asked if I could purchase it for cash, use it for a month or two, then return it to the shop and sell it back to them for a lesser price.
A new motorcycle shop offered a wide range of motorcycles made in Malaysia, Japan, Thailand and China.
The salesman and shop owner put their heads together and finally said, “Yes, that is possible, and we would not have to make the papers in your name.” I then asked if it would be possible to take the motorcycle out of the state of Sarawak, through Brunei, into Sabah and return, all on their paperwork. I was again assured it would be possible. In the end what I concluded was I would hand them about $8,000 for the new Kawasaki and they would let me use that motorcycle in their company name, much like a rental car. It would have insurance and legal license plate. When I returned the motorcycle I would be given some of my $8,000 back, somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000.
Next I went back to the rental shop and asked the same question about purchasing a new motorcycle through them, or one of their rental motorcycles for long term use. Again the answer was that it would be possible. A new $4,000 Japanese import in the 110-125 cc range for 60 days would cost me about $1,000-1,500 on a buy-back deal versus renting a well used motorcycle for $600 USD for the same period. Either way would be less expensive and time consuming than riding or shipping my own motorcycle into the country.
The weather each day went from rain to rain. There would be periods of clear and sunny sky and 90-degree heat with nearly the same humidity, and which found me dripping in sweat whenever I stopped. An hour later it would be raining heavily. I soon learned why the jungles of Borneo were so green compared to those of Thailand in the north where they were starting to turn brown. Equatorial Borneo was green and lush because the jungle was watered daily.
This photo was not blurred; the blurring was from the steady rainfall. The riders, from Brunei, were touring in the rain, which they said was the rule on Borneo and not the exception.
I started to grumble about the rain. My motorcycle riding boots were waterproof as was my rain suit, but I soon tired of having to carry an umbrella when walking anywhere, almost anytime. My grumbling about the rain got one group of motorcyclists in the town of Sibu laughing so hard I had to ask why what I was grumbling about was so funny. They said I had picked the wettest year they could remember to ride in their part of the world. When I asked them when the dry season was for riding, they laughed even harder. Their answer this time was, “never.”
One day I was sure I had seen more rain than my home in Montana had seen in the last year. I woke about 4 a.m. to the sound of a heavy downpour on the metal corrugated roof on my hotel. At 10 a.m. the roof music was still playing, as it did for the rest of the day. Streets in the city were flooded to one meter over the pavement and store fronts, hotel lobbies and restaurants at ground level had furniture floating. This was no time to be motorcycling. Kayaking would have been a better means of travel.
Road conditions varied from smooth super slabs to bombed-out sections that blew out car tires and caused motorcyclists to be wary.
Throughout Borneo traffic moved at a sedate speed with a few exceptions like when a big sport bike or expensive SUV would blast by, the pilot pushing his (I saw very few women drivers) personal survival envelope. Part of the reason for the slower speeds was the road conditions. The constant rain made patching potholes an almost impossible task. Filling a water-soaked pothole with steaming tar and gravel found it hammered out or washed out the next day. Some sections of the main road in the state of Sarawak were so potholed cars would blow out tires if they could not slow in time to swerve and avoid them, so everyone, including the motorcyclists, wove in and out of their lanes to avoid hitting them.
Reasonably priced rooms were found in all major towns. $20-40 would sometimes include breakfast, cable television and, for the Internet junkie, free Wi-Fi. Nearly all had safe and secure motorcycle parking, some with 24-hour security guards.
McDonalds and Burger King were present in the larger cities. I sometimes grew tired of jungle and Islamic food so vectored into these globalized places when I saw them. Prices were reasonable and I knew exactly what I would get.
Off-road and away from the major urban areas the roads were often mud tracks given that it was raining every day. These tracks led to villages where there would be no tourist facilities, and often gas sold by the liter out of plastic containers brought in by some village entrepreneur. The people of the villages were friendly. While my American English and their English English were sometimes difficult for each other to understand we were able to communicate well enough to get directions if I was asking. I also found the people quick to laugh and enjoy poking a little fun at me and each other.
Food was often a mix between western and Islamic. Sometimes a beer could be ordered with an evening meal, other times and in other restaurants it was clear alcohol was forbidden. None of the local food was too spicy for my western palate. When I did tire of the local offerings and was in a larger city I was able to get my western fast food fix at a McDonalds, Burger King or KFC. There was even a Pizza Hut in one city that had delivery service.
Bottled water was available for a minimal cost from gas stations to mini marts like 7/11. Even small food stalls along the roads offered bottled water as well as the usual soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi.
One evening a waiter brought a glass of near boiling hot water and set in on the table. I was having dinner with German motorcycle adventuress Kerstin Hassmann. She mistook the glass of hot water for tea and took a sip. When other tourists around us and the waiter gasped, we both laughed, realizing the hot water was for washing our knives, forks and spoons in, not tea for drinking. I could have as easily made the misstep had I not been enjoying a cold drink and not being much of a tea drinker.
A long travel day was in the 400 kilometer range, but this usually included some touristing and a food stop either in the morning or early afternoon. For the traveler interesting in eco tours or national parks there were numerous jungle treks that could be done solo or on a tour. I was happy to pass on the chance to visit the Deer Cave, known as possibly the longest cave passage in the world. Home to an estimated three million bats, the main tourist attraction appeared to be seeing and standing on the 100 meter deep guano pile below the bats. The three-kilometer hike through the jungle into and out of the cave also put me off, as did walking in the 90-degree heat and light rain. I was there as a biker and not a hiker, nor did I have any interest in seeing or stepping on bat droppings. I was also aware of the monster snakes made famous by lurking in the dark jungles of Borneo. No lover of snakes anywhere on the planet, big or small, I tried to keep my travels confined to where I was more at home, on roads or pavement.
Sibu, Sarawak was where I found this “big bike” motorcycle sales and service motorcycle shop, Kim Hock Motor Trading. The owner, Mr. Kim Hock, imported many large displacement motorcycles from the USA and Japan. He said I could order what I wanted and he likely could get it in two to three months.
In the entire nation of Malaysia there were registered 8,418,112 motorcycles as of October 31, 2008. Of these only 153,004 were registered in the state of Sabah compared to a total of 723,511 vehicles, or 21%, so about one in four vehicles on the road in Sabah were motorcycles. Of these very few were big motorcycles and if I did see one it was usually from the neighboring country of Brunei. While both Malaysia and Brunei have high import taxes on motorcycles, the difference was people in Brunei also have a far higher per capita income and therefore can afford the hefty taxes.
I located a motorcycle shop in Sibu that had an extensive display of large displacement motorcycles, the Kim Hock Motor Trading company. The owner, Mr. Kim Hock, and his partner in Penang, specialized in importing used large displacement motorcycles. For a daily rental rate of approximately $80.00 USD I could adventure cruise Malaysian Borneo on a Kawasaki Nomad, quite likely imported from the United States or Japan. Mr. Hock explained that imported motorcycles were taxed at nearly 80% in 2008. Added to that would be the cost of shipping and handling to get them into Malaysian Borneo, bringing the eventual sales cost to a perspective owner of over 100% the original used purchase price in the USA. He said that the import tax rate changed from year to year, sometimes being as much as 110%.
When I asked about a foreigner like myself purchasing a travel motorcycle through him he assured me it could be done in much the same fashion as was possible in Kuching. If I wanted a specific model and make, like a BMW R1200 Adventure or KTM Adventure he could get it for me, but that I would need to make the order two to three months in advance and most of the payment up front, and in cash. That would make a used $15,000 motorcycle worth nearly $30,000 to ride in Malaysian Borneo. At that price paying the $6,000-8,000 to fly my own in from the USA was more attractive, but far outside my personal budget for a month or two of riding.
In the jungle people were outgoing and friendly, asking me if I needed any help when I would stop and were quick to give advice and directions. Their English was sometimes difficult to understand as I learned was my American.
If you were an avid adventure motorcyclist looking for a remote place on the globe to do some exploring, Malaysian Borneo and Brunei made an interesting answer. Few Americans had been seen riding motorcycles in Borneo, although it was not unheard of. Two of my American acquaintances from Southeast Asia had traveled there on their own motorcycles and we all agreed the destination was worthy of the time and cost it took to get there.
The remote and lush jungles, friendly people, ease of communicating, clean and affordable sleeping and eating, plus the enthusiastic motorcycling community on the Malaysian and Brunei part of Borneo made pushing that adventure envelope fun and memorable. Also memorable was the rain.
My advice to a motorcycle adventurer considering Borneo as a destination would be take good rain gear, think “small” motorcycle, and then leave the mental baggage attached to large displacement motorcycling to places where big can be better. That was my grumble from the jungle.