My half-past five wake-up call comes at 5.20 am. Last-minute packing, and I finally have to face the impossibility of getting the geckos back in one piece. They will just have to go as hand luggage. A couple of taxis are parked outside the hotel; there follows a confusing series of arm gestures while it is ascertained which taxi I am to hire.
The ride to the airport is only about 15 minutes on the empty roads. I check in hopelessly early and sit waiting for the “Tropi-cool Café” to open. When it finally does, I purchase a vindictive-looking sweet roll and a large cup of watery coffee from the surly attendant and sit where I can keep an eye on flight BI828 for signs of movement. The roll is stale but edible. I think of the breakfast buffet at the Beverly Hotel that I am missing. Those waffles were good.
After a while nothing seems to be happening, so I wander up and down the airport and spend my remaining ringits on chocolate. There’s always a satisfaction in using as near to all of my remaining currency as possible, and I get close with just RM1.20 left over. I return to my seat to read. Bill Bryson is very entertaining, and when I next glance up, I notice that people are beginning to board the plane.
My seat is 26A, right at the front of economy class, from which I surmise that I was probably the first person to check in for this flight. The flight itself is barely longer than the Wright Brothers’ first bounce across Kitty Hawk sands, and I am soon filling in a health check form and landing card at Bandar Seri Begawan airport.
My flight for London doesn’t leave until 8 pm this evening, so there is nothing for it but to head into town to sample the delights of Brunei’s capital city. I clear immigration and discover that there is no left luggage facility for the geckos. I will have to carry them around with me all day. The next problem is to find the bus stop. Even after asking several different people, I am still not convinced that I am waiting in the right place. But no bus comes, and eventually a car park attendant volunteers that the first bus doesn’t run until about 1 pm. It is 25 Brunei dollars for a taxi into the city centre, a bit more than £3, which I pay grudgingly.
My first port of call is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, between the city centre and the water village to the south-west. It is an impressive structure, its golden domes reflecting in the still water, but I think nevertheless a little over-hyped. I am allowed to step inside, but I’m stopped with a quiet word before I reach the prayer mats.
On the way back to the centre, I drop in at the tourist office to check on buses for my return to the airport. (The taxi took nearly half of the money I changed at the airport.) I get the low-down on BSB’s hot spots from the friendly assistant there, but apparently I need to come back again when I have a bit more time.
I beg to differ. It doesn’t take long to see about as much of Bandar as I want to see. The Royal Regalia Museum has some amusing exhibits about the sultan, which seem to come somewhere between deity worship and an article in Hello magazine. (“His Majesty is a keen sportsman and used to run for his college cross country team.”) From there I walk slowly in the stifling heat to the open market. The entire extent of the city centre is about three blocks each way. It is kind of Kota Kinabalu without the excitement and razzmatazz.
By 3 pm I’ve given up and catch the bus back towards the airport. (Apparently buses run all day, but it is still a complete mystery where exactly at the airport they stop.) We meander through the suburbs, green expanses with well-hidden housing complexes. At an out-of-town retail park not far from the airport, I alight and browse through the music and video shops. They are full of bootleg CDs and DVDs. Matrix Revolutions DVDs are available for $3. I kill another half hour in a small café over an orange juice and then walk the half-mile to the airport terminal.
I’m still far too early for my plane, so I sit outside on the viewing terrace for a while before going in through passport control. Safely through, I go to freshen up in the gents, and – joy of joys – there is a shower cubical available and I have a wonderfully refreshing soaking. Playing the money game again at the airport cafeteria and shops, I manage to get it exactly right, with a piece of rather decadent chocolate fudge cake, a blueberry crumble slice, a couple of coffees and a packet of toffees. Only another hour until boarding.
The first leg to Abu Dhabi airport is predictably tedious. Abu Dhabi terminal is hideously gaudy, noisy, and reeks of cigarette smoke. I’m glad to be away after a relatively short stop. As the last few people re-board the plane, I have my eyes firmly fixed on four free seats in the centre two rows back from where I am sitting. The moment the plane starts to roll away from the gate, I make my move. It makes an incommodious bed, but is better than nothing and I snatch a series of half-hour naps as we pass over Turkey and Central Europe.
We land at London Heathrow on time at six in the morning. I step outside terminal three, geckos in hand, into a crisp, cold and clear London morning.