The tiny Kingdom of Brunei is a bite out if Borneo sandwiched between Sabah to the north, Sawarak to the south and Kalimantan to the east – west is the sea.
The country which has a population if 400,000 is ruled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien. Imagine sewing his school name tags! More simply referred to as ‘His Majesty’ he’s now ruled for 59 years and with a cool $25billion in the piggy bank everyone’s expecting a huge party for his diamond jubilee. Schooled in Kuala Lumpur, university in Switzerland and then army training at Sandhurst he works hard to ensure his subjects enjoy a good quality of life making him very popular and he is also held in high regard amongst his peers internationally. The Sultan’s consort (3rd wife), when not looking after his 12 children, does lots of charity work and is also well liked.
Brunei is strict Muslim; no drugs (penalty for possession – death), no alcohol and a midnight curfew. Until last year the curfew was 10pm, which made it impossible for the large community of ex pats – mainly teaching in the international schools or working for the big oil and gas companies, to hop over into Borneo to let their hair down. Midnight now makes this possible.
Muslim women marry very young and have loads of children (no prizes for guessing why that is)11,12,13 children is not unusual. Men may take more than one wife, those who chose to do so tend to have two but some have three. The women told me that they have no problem with this arrangement and in fact they like having another woman to share the wifely duties. Some of the younger women are starting to wear western clothes and a few have even dropped the hijab but they are quite some way off being like the football-mad women I met in Malaysia.
My reason for stopping off in this bizarre state was to get a 60 day visa at the Indonesian Embassy. In Kuala Lumpur the embassy wasn’t issuing 60 days, making visitor purchase 30 days and then have to find an immigration office during their travels to apply for an extension. I called the Embassy in Brunei and they told me a 60 day visa was no problem so off I set. The crossing from Sawarak was a doddle and in the blink of an eye I was bombing down pristine motorways with herbaceous borders through the Shell HQ town of Kuala Belait with an hilarious ‘teapot’ roundabout, heading for the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). After months of traffic chaos it was somewhat surreal.
BSB boasts the worlds largest village built on stilts over the Sungai river where I had been recommended a traditional homestay. Kampung Ayer is in fact 28 continuous villages, each originally represented by a different craft or trade and quite fascinating to explore. The river is buzzing with water taxis darting from one side to the other, the journey to and from my homestay taking just 30 seconds, which wasn’t long enough for the boatmen to break into O sole mio!
My landlady Keminah had used traditional fabrics for the soft furnishings and hung locally made arts and crafts on the walls, making the homestay very comfortable and I had open access to the kitchen to make my own food. There were 3 big french doors opening onto a terrace looking across to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which I enjoyed looking at as I ate my dinner and lay reading a book on the sofa.
Kem was an interesting character. Related to the Sultan’s family on both her maternal and paternal sides, she is a well known figure in the water village, organising community events, giving guided tours and liaising with the media and film crews that regularly turn up to discover more about the 900 year old former capital. She took me on a fascinating tour, pointing out the different structures – some made of long lasting iron wood, some of crumbling concrete pillars and some of rotting tree trunks patched up a pretty unstable way. All the houses constantly need jacking up but unfortunately some have left it too late and collapsed and some wooden structures have gone up in smoke. Over time village life has naturally changed. Originally there were no boardwalks so everyone’s home was an open thoroughfare. Now with boardwalks people have become more insular and also modern condos are being built to house commuters who enjoy the water village atmosphere but work on the mainland, which alters the feel of the village. At the height of its power there were 280,000 residents now there are only 13,000……and about as many cats! Sadly there are mountains of trash in the inner areas of the village, mainly washed up from the river and as often as it gets cleared away, a few days later a new tidal wave appears.
Everyone jn BSB was super friendly and helpful, offering me lifts to and from the Embassy and invitations to eat with them. The women in particular were interesting to talk to and fascinated / bemused by this old women travelling the world alone.
Apart from my two trips to the Indonesian Embassy I visited the Royal Regalia Museum which houses the eclectic range of gifts given to the Sultan by visiting heads of state, predominantly from Asian and Muslim countries. I was told that Lizzie once gave a massive big beer mug or was it a teacup and saucer. Either way there was nothing from Blighty on display. I also checked out the Brunei History Museum but it had way too much text and not enough pictures so I sped through and headed to the only shopping mall, which was no great shakes either.
The main attractions in BSB are the two mosques. The one opposite my homestay was built by the current Sultan’s father. It’s very simple with a lovely old boat on a reflective lagoon in front of the main steps. The other, on the outskirts of the city was built by the ruling Sultan. It’s incredibly ostentatious (marble from Italy, stained glass from England and gold from I can’t remember where), but nonetheless serene and beautiful during the day and wonderfully bling when illuminated at night.
Istana Nurul Iman (Palace of the Light of the Faith), is the 200,00 sq m residence of the Sultan. With a mere 1790 rooms (255 bathrooms) it’s more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and three times larger than Buckingham Palace. Well if you’ve got $25b why not???
One afternoon I met up with an Aussie expat who has lived in Brunei for 14 years and who, as well as being known as ‘turtle lady’ because of her passion for collecting exotic species, is a legendary teacher – the only foreigner to receive the prestigious His Majesty’s Teacher of the Year Award. She took me to the 7-star Empire Country Club for afternoon tea which was very decadent and completely out of keeping with the prudent traveller lifestyle I’ve adopted but the rich chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea with a slice of lemon went down a treat.
And that my friends is the sum total of things to do in BSB!
I’m now in Indonesia so next up tales from Bali.