Brunei is considered to be the most observant Islamic nation in Southeast Asia and the sale and public consumption of alcohol is illegal, although non-Muslims are allowed to bring up to two litres into the country. There are queues of people filling in the necessary declarations at the airport, when I arrive from Manila. It’s another late night, but although it’s 12.30 a.m. when I arrive the hotel receptionist is still happy to phone a tour guide and arrange a trip for me tomorrow morning. I’m hoping the tour guide is as happy about it.
Brunei is officially known as Brunei Darussalam in Malay, which means "abode of peace"
At the peak of the Bruneian Empire the Sultan had control over most regions of Borneo, including modern-day Sarawak and Sabah, as well as the Sulu Archipelago off the northeast tip of Borneo, Seludong (modern-day Manila), and the islands off the northwest tip of Borneo.
During the 19th century, the Bruneian Empire began to decline. The Sultanate ceded Sarawak (Kuching) to James Brooke installing him as the White Rajah, and Sabah to the British North Borneo Chartered Company. In 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate and was assigned a British resident as colonial manager in 1906.
Although the Federation of Malaysia -which includes Brunei's neighbours of Sarawak and Sabah -was formed in 1963, Brunei did not gain independence from Great Britain until 1984.
Brunei is a tiny, independent, oil-rich country wedged between the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the Malaysian side (northeast) of the island of Borneo
In 2015, Brunei ranked higher on the Human Development Index (31st overall in the index) than all other countries in Southeast Asia aside from Singapore.
Brunei has very low crime rates and is one of the safest countries in South East Asia.
Brunei is very small so it's easily and quickly navigated. The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) lends itself to strolling, with a boat trip thrown in to visit the stilt houses -if they still remain (they are being torn down and replaced with far less characterful dwellings). There's also beach and rainforest.
Check in is frustratingly slow as there are a group of Chinese tourists waiting. After that the airport is very modern, easy and quiet. There’s just me and five security guards. They won’t let me take my water through, but they count down from ten, laughing, while I drink it. Bangkok next.
I've flown into Bandar Seri Begawan from Palau via Manila. I don’t have great expectations of Brunei, so I’ve only allocated two nights. I’ve been told it’s very boring and quiet.
Mohammed, my guide, doesn’t endear himself to me right off as he refuses to let me sit in the front seat of the little bus (there’s only him and me). And then he tells me that I have obviously travelled a great deal. ‘How did you know?’ I ask. ‘Because you don’t listen to what I say, you ask your own questions instead and you look around a lot’, he says. ‘But that’s fine.’ I suppose that’s true and very astute and after that we get on like a house on fire. He turns out to be very sensitive, informative and friendly. There are three must-sees in Bandar Seri Begawan (as it’s almost part of Malaysia it’s known affectionately as BSB). These are the water village, the Royal Regalia Museum and the main mosque.
Kampung Ayer is (or rather was) a maze of ramshackle structures wobbling on the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan . It used to be home to nearly 30,000 people, dates back over 1000 years and is said to be the largest river village in the world. It’s now sadly being reconstructed, on one of the sultan’s programmes and the wooden structures replaced with concrete cubes on stilts. I can see the logic, especially the fire hazard issues, but the new buildings have none of the charm of the originals. I’m entertained to refreshments in one of the houses and ignored by the long suffering residents. They are watching TV, two different channels on two sets standing side by side. Then we tootle up the river on a water taxi, for views of houses, old and new, a pointy roofed jetty for each of the different villages, views of the mosques and a glimpse of the sultan’s palace (just the gold dome).
An additional mosque has been added to the programme, so I visit both the sultan’s mosque, the opulent Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah, with its 29 golden domes (one for each of the sultans so far), which is slightly out of town, and the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque built by his father, which is the one by the river. I think the latter is more picturesque, but I keep quiet about that. I have to wear a black gown to enter both, though no-one seems overly fussed about head gear.
En route to the museum we fit in the local market. Everyone has been very friendly so far and the stall holders here are remarkably so. They are very good natured about photographs. It's mainly fruit and vegetables on offer. The spiky durian is in season and the whole market reeks of the sour odour, which prevents many people (me included) from savouring this so called delicacy. Mohammed confides that he consumed six at one sitting (while watching football) and is now suffering the after effects. Too much heat in the blood has given him the sniffles. I think he’s lucky if that’s the only after effect he’s had. He goes on to report that his wife isn’t very pleased with him. He ate half their stock.
We divert into the jungle countryside a little and back again to try and disguise the fact that we have covered a very small area (BSB is tiny) and I could easily have walked to all these places from my hotel. However, I’m not unhappy. It’s more fun to be escorted, except I could do without Mohammed’s constant foot on the brake style driving. I’m decidedly queasy in the back (vomiting would at least make him think twice about passenger placement in future). The roads are in better condition than those back home, lined with trees and artistically clipped bushes.
Everything is neat and tidy (other than the ubiquitous plastic bottles floating in the water) and the infrastructure good. So it would appear that the Sultan is not to be compared with dictators like Kim Jong Un or Karim of Turkmenistan. But the Royal Regalia Building collection leans more in their direction. It is a vanity project that houses a large collection of sumptuous gifts given to the sultans over the years from various world leaders. (There’s a very ugly green glass urn from our queen.) Also on display are the fabulous carriages used at the gold and silver jubilee displays and coronation. (His father abdicated). There are a panoply of uniforms, umbrellas and so forth that were also at the pageants and photographs of the VIP attendees. Sophie and Edward Wessex represented the UK both times. Make of that what you will. There are also mock ups and photographs of part of the sultan’s palace, so that his subjects can see how he lives.
In the afternoon I take my camera out for a walk round Bandar Seri Begawan, just to check I haven’t missed anything. I haven’t. I wander the other side of the river from the water village and round past the public gardens. Sunday seems to be a proper weekend rest day here, even though it’s a Muslim country, and families are out renting bikes, walking or just sitting. My stroll is punctuated with calls from the boatmen to take a ride or, pleas from the locals who want selfies with me. There are very few tourists, just a few groups of Chinese at the mosques. The taxi driver assumes I’m here on business. So I’m mostly a novelty. Maybe, as I’ve posited elsewhere, that’s why the people are so welcoming. It’s 31 degrees and the humidity extremely high. I have my long top and ankle length trousers on, to comply with local custom, and an hour is as much as I can cope with.
I retire to my room in search of air conditioning and ice. The hotel staff are incredibly friendly and helpful here too. There are only two hotels in town and it’s good to be back in Asia. The buffet is a delicious fusion of noodles, sushi, local fish and marinated beef.
I’m delighted to report that Brunei isn’t boring at all. It’s astonishingly welcoming and pleasantly interesting. But it is very small and very hot…
Next stop Bangkok
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