It was a very early check out of the pristine comfy little youth hostel in BSB, necessitated to catch the 7am express bus for a cheap as chips 2 dollar transfer 25Ks north for port town Muara. It was from this promontory which jutted out into the South China Sea that Brunei's major ferry services inconveniently operated, but we were soon negotiating a scruffy immigration hall unbecoming of an oil state, even the farewell sign was rusty and faded, barely legible for the want of a coat of paint. It was only an hour and a half on a typically super swift ferry connection before a second small quirky enclave came into view, though this one certainly had its contrasts. Labuan was an island with a distinct history, a political and economic character of its own, and if Brunei was the stereotype of conservative restraint then I was soon to appreciate that Labuan was at least in part the antithesis. Though part of Malaysia, the island was a distinct political entity independent from Sabah and Sarawak, a federal territory ruled directly from KL and a duty free destination. That rather held the promise of at least a limited culture of drunken debauchery then, sitting too close to boring old Brunei to escape the draw of cheap booze, cigarettes and women. The duty free shops and cheap car rental advertised immediately upon arrival were certainly telltale signs at an unusually modern and well kept terminal which put Brunei to shame, but retreat into a cheap bottle of San Miguel had to be adopted in frustrating at all of the acknowledged cheap hotels proving to be either full, shut down or not cheap at all. In resorting to sign spotting, I had to point out to lesser experienced Roberto that where there was a bed to be had it was alas a knocking shop, and so we surprised ourselves perhaps prompted by a tight schedule to simply forego Labuan and pass straight on through that afternoon to Sabah.
The longer ferry trip all the way up to Kota Kinabalu was only available in pricey first class but that still looked a good deal compared to Labuan's overpriced accommodation, a few hours later we unexpectedly found ourselves happily ahead of the game even if we did feel a loss at missing out on Labuan's considerable points of interest. I resolved to return, this time with a reservation. It proved to have been an inspired decision by me in the end, rewarded with the news that our impending appointment with the city was actually a day earlier than expected, it was that very night we had arrived. For the last while it had always been a presumption and then a necessity to ensure that we passed the end of the month in a major population centre, since the 31st August was Malaysia's independence or Merdeka Day. And this was no ordinary one either. Having broken free from the UK on 31st August 1957, this was Malaysia's 50th anniversary, and along with the Visit Malaysia Year marketing extravaganza, a major party was guaranteed to mark the historical occasion. Imagine what a bonus it was then to discover that the main celebration was actually to take place unexpectedly early that very night on the 30th, our frustrations in Labuan had served to save us from a much greater disappointment.
We had just enough time to trace a hostel a short stroll along from Kota Kinabalu's small but trendy arcade lined jetty, and though we then took the time to check out the majority of the cities sizeable backpacker scene, the North Borneo Cabin proved to have been as good a choice as any and available whilst many others werent. It was perfect timing then to arrange to hook up with Alex and Melanie who had arrived a couple of days ahead of us, and so together it was only a matter of yards to find ourselves engulfed by a sea of people instead now for a party on the Padang.