mosque Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Population: around 500 000
Official religion: Islam
State system: Absolute monarchy – sultanate
Citizens of EU have the right to enter and stay 3 months on Brunei”s territory. Our passports are stamped and soon we fly on the highway. It is always exciting when one enters a new country. As for most countries in the world, we have stereotypes for this one too – of course almost always they prove to be absolutely wrong and are far from the real life situation. We know very little about Brunei – it is one of the last sultanates on earth (together with Oman) and is the fifth most rich country in the world due to its natural gas and oil resources. We are eager to see what awaits us here.
Mr. Shushtari – private owner of an oil well
Michael decides to give us a tour around the main oil industry towns Kuala Belait and Serai. Exactly here was discovered the first oil field back in 1924. We pass by oil pumps following one after the other along the coast, but the real big oil wells are inside the sea and one can’t tell that there is a heavy industry here. Towns are small and sleepy and we see luxury buildings here and there but the atmosphere is no different than anywhere in Malaysia. Even the highway is not perfect and one cannot tell that this is the fifth richest country in the world. The capital is 130 km away from the border. There are almost no towns and villages on the road, all is jungle.
We are even more surprised when we reach the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. The town is even smaller than Kuching. There are several buildings and not so many streets. There are pot holes on the pavement and some of the blocks have their rendering fallen off. There are many village-style wooden houses. It feels like one is in some small Malaysian town – not at one of the richest sultanates in the world. We expected to see another Singapore or Dubai, but our notions are defied.
One of the main streets at the capital
There are three or four hotels and one hostel here. The hostel closed at 7 p.m. and Michael doesn’t want to leave us unattended. We tell him not to worry and that we will sleep in our tent, but he doesn’t want to even listen to us. Finally he takes us at “Terrace Hotel” and states firmly he will pay our stay. We refuse and oppose this with no result. We feel so bad that we can’t even enjoy the room. Sherleen tries to calm us by saying: “This is Asia, if someone treats you in any way you have to accept. Besides Michael is very rich”. We are not calmed by this.
Then we find out that Michael has payed 65 Brunei dollars (around 40 Euro) for the room and gives us 35 more dollars for the hostel tomorrow. Then Sherleen claps several bags of bananas and vegetables on to us and they prepare to leave chuckling. We are embarrassed and feel very uncomfortable. Seeing this Michael states: “I really, really enjoyed your company”. Then they take off with their car. This is how we were accepted in Brunei – sultan style. And we thought this could only happen in a movie 🙂
Gypsy baron 🙂
We accommodate at the room and as we aren’t adapted to living in one we have to make several gypsy-nomad tricks. We turn on our stove at the bathroom hoping that the anti-fire alarm doesn’t activate and cook a dinner.
Here is how we spend the first evening at the sultanate in a luxury hotel in the center.
We leave our rucksacks in the hotel and start walking around the town. We visit the free museum for royal artifacts, and go around the beautiful mosque “Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin”, pass through the so called water village Kampung Ayer where the people still lead a traditional way of life – in wooden bungalows on piles in the river. We enter the only shopping mall in the town while searching for an Internet cafe and are surprised to find out that it resembles more a market with a few shops in it than a 21-st century mall.
Finally we go to the alley by the sea and go around the local market. We can’t believe it that it’s cheaper than the markets we have visited in Malaysia. A meal with vegetables is just 3 ringgit – a price we have never seen anywhere in Malaysia. Fruits and vegetables have extremely low prices too – it turns out there was no need to buy lots of food for our stay here. We really expected it to be like in Singapore because in addition the local currency has the same value as the Singapore dollar.
The water village Kampung Ayer
The wooden bridges-streets of the village
A small street
We are impressed by the number of Brunei people who are not rich at all – on the contrary: locals work at the markets or as fishermen and the like. For example in Dubai the situation is quite different – all the workers are immigrants. Some of the wooden houses at the village look like gypsy dwellings. There is lots of garbage on the streets, some bridges are rotten, and all this is in front of the central mosque on the main street at the capital. The standard of life and the infrastructure is worse than in West Malaysia. We have rarely seen such shabby Malaysian villages.
Pavilion-boat next to the central mosque, at the left is the only shopping mall
There are many new, luxury cars on the streets though. Many western people work in the oil industry, receiving mind-boggling salaries. Why the country is so underdeveloped, having in mind its oil fields and very small territory, remains a puzzle to us. Probably the money goes to the sultan and the political elite. The sultan is one of the richest people on earth with a net worth of 40 billion US dollars.
The police station at Badar Seri Begawan
We take a glimpse of the sultan’s palace while being on the river. It is the biggest inhabited by people palace in the world called Istana Nurul Iman with 1800 rooms. Lamborghini and Ferrari used to make unique cars only for the sultan. He also owns a gold Rolls Royce and the biggest collection of expensive and rare cars.
The family of the current sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been ruling Brunei for 400 years. Recently the sultan started changing his policy and his recent laws were considered too Islamic and are quite debated. The population of Brunei consists of Malay (67%), Chinese (11%), Indians and others.
Istana Nurul Iman at the back, with the golden dome
It is interesting to note that the sultan himself is a doctor-lawyer and has studied in various western universities. This though didn’t stop him to enact the Islam law of Sheri-at in 2014, which includes a death penalty by killing with stones of all who have committed infidelity, are homosexual or blaspheme.
We also notice that the citizens’ freedoms are limited. There are no signs in Chinese at the Chinese shops and eateries; all radio stations play just prayers and sermons in the evening and not a single pop song. It is forbidden to put Christmas decorations on public buildings, to wear Christmas outfit such as red hats, costumes and the like. We also heard it is forbidden new churches to be constructed (except the two that have already been built). But religious oppositions abound in today’s world so this is obviously kind of “normal” 🙂
The Chinese temple at the central part of the town
An altar with Chinese deities
Brunei gives the impression of a beautiful and calm small town somewhere in the province. People here are smiling more and are kinder then these in Sarawak. All is sleepy and quiet. In fact we prefer this instead of some megapolis all in concrete and asphalt with tall buildings poking the sky. Because of the monarchy being a centralized system and the money the country makes from the oil, there are is no corruption and shady schemes for cutting the trees in the jungle and turning it into endless agricultural fields or oil palm crops.
The jungle in Brunei
After walking around Bandar Seri Bagawan where we visited all worth seeing, we head to the youngster hostel that our benefactor Mr. Michael recommended. When we arrive we are told that the price is 10 dollars per person, not per room as we thought and in addition we will have to sleep in separate rooms – I in the female part, Mr. Shushtari in the male. So we decide to sleep inside the beautiful park we already passed through in the morning.
We take our rucksacks from the hotel and head to the park. It starts raining slightly. Inside the park there is very clean bathroom and toilet. We have already spotted the perfect place for the tent beforehand. We start pitching our tent in front the the dumbfounded Chinese joggers in the park. There are not so much tourists with huge backpacks coming around obviously. We set the bivouac, Dieselito (to learn its story read this post) starts singing its song and we cook a delicious meal.
This is how the free public toilets usually look like in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei
We wash our clothes, cook, eat, prepare our luggage and leave. Again it is midday and the weather is hot. The sun is burning. We arrive at the market where we buy rice and curries, here they sell another types that we haven’t eaten up to now in Sarawak. While we search for a place where we can leave our rucksacks we spot an Internet cafe. We enter inside it and look up various information. What we learn for the sultan of Brunei shakes even more our desire to meet him. So we decide to skip the palace – people are not allowed to enter inside anyway. The sultan is obviously not worth of our attention so we head to the quay where the boats to Temburong Province take off.
We have decided that we will invest the money Michael gave us for a boat, not for a hostel. The price is just 6 dollars per person and in addition we skip our passports being stamped four times because of border crossing. Which is good because we don’t have many blank pages left in them.
Ready to get on-board the boat
The boat is with a roof, just like a bus. There are around twenty sitting places and it has two powerful Yamaha engines, 85 cc. Upon leaving we see beautiful picturesque villages on piles with wooden quay-streets. It is low tide now and the boats man drives among bright green mangrove forest and turns the boat with remarkable skill through the narrow branches of the river.
On the map it looks like we will sail for a kilometer and then go out in the sea to enter another river. In reality we are driving only through a labyrinth of river branches. Every time we take a turn the boat inclines to the left or to the right. The views are amazing and there are incredible clouds in the sky on top of all this beauty.
Traveling on the river branches to Temburong
Forty five minutes pass without us even noticing and we arrive at Bangar – a small village that is the capital of the province. We decide to skip visiting the famous national park Ulu Timburong because we have to catch another boat and that is out of our budget now. So we decide to hitchhike on our exit to Brunei. We install ourselves in a beautiful park next to the road. In just five minutes a nice guy stops. Later he bypasses his village just to drive us to the park where we want to go. This breaks another stereotype for Brunei that hitchhiking is impossible here because people are afraid to stop (a friend of us told us this before).
The mosque in Bangar
The park is awesome. Meadows, pavilions, giant trees, toilet, bathroom and a tree with ripen jack-fruits next to it with ten squirrels eating its fruits. It is time to rest.
A humming bird
05 – 06.05
We relax all day at the Bukit Patoi Recreational Forest. There are no people coming here during the day except several westerners, working in Brunei, most of them Dutch living at the Dutch village built by Shell in Kuala Belait, through which we passed entering Brunei. We feel some strange tiredness and spent this and the next day sleeping and playing cards 🙂 It’s been so long since we last stopped to do nothing all day…
Inside the forest
Strange looking boulder
On the second day we climb a hill in the jungle. There are many giant trees in it as well as lizards that look like iguanas. On the hill there is a nice view towards the valley that is basically all jungle without a single village in sight.
The view from the hill
We go to the road and in short the off-road team of Brunei themselves stop. The chairman and some of its members are going to a meeting in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, exactly where we plan to go. We hop on one of their powerful monstrous cars which tires have such an adhesion that cannot drive very fast on an asphalt road. They call themselves “men of the jungle” because they spend most of their time driving like crazy on the dirt roads inside Borneo. There is also a woman in the team, she is from Brunei, mother of five and became enthusiastic about off-road not so long ago. Now she proudly holds the title the first “jungle woman” of Brunei 🙂
The off-road team with the jeep they took us with
After 10 km we reach the border. Brunei Darussalam will remain in our memories as a sleepy downstate country with amazing nature, nice good people and calm atmosphere.