Published: August 4th 2009July 27th 2009
“I hope you haven't got any bullets on you,” I said to Angela as we came in to land at Brunei's rather small international airport. “Because if you have, you're done for. You're not even allowed to have them on necklaces.” I'd just been reading the information about entry requirements to the country. Possession of a bullet was a serious offense; the punishment was imprisonment and a whipping of no less than three strokes. Possession of drugs was even worse. On the back of our immigration card, in large red letters, it read: THE PENALTY FOR DRUGS IS DEATH.
The tiny Sultanate of Brunei (only about twice the size of Luxembourg) is located on the northern edge of Borneo, and its capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, was where we were heading. It gained its independence from the UK in 1984 and the current ruler, Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th in long line of royalty dating back to the fifteenth century. The sixty-three year old Sultan (it was his birthday the week before we arrived) is famously wealthy, and one of his follies is cars. He is rumoured to have over three thousand of them worth an estimated $4 billion! The man
owns not one Rolls Royce but five hundred! When he tires of his cars he has his own private jet, a Boeing 747 with a gold-plated interior.
Apart from the current ruler, there have been some other memorable sultans. Take Abdul Momin (1852-1885) for instance. He was a man well known for his fairness and wisdom and, get this, his supernatural powers. What these 'powers' entailed is a subject of mystery, but I'd wager that it made him popular at parties. But the prize for most colourful ruler has to go to the 22nd sultan, Muhammed Alam. For a start he called himself the King of Fire, which didn't really bode well for his sanity, but he also had a peculiar habit at mealtimes. He liked the odd plate of liver. But this wasn't ordinary liver. In an attempt to keep himself young, the mad king would gorge on children's livers, some of which may have been served with onions. Perhaps because of his penchant for exotic meats, his sister tried to have him assassinated but she failed. His reign eventually ended when he was publicly garroted, which appropriately enough, was his own choice for execution.
start of our day trip, Angela and I boarded our Royal Brunei Airlines flight in Kota Kinabalu and just before takeoff we experienced something brand new on an airline flight - an announcement over the PA informing us that a blessing would be made for the upcoming flight. A few moments later a man's voice started singing a haunting melody in Arabic and I wondered if it was one of the pilots hogging the microphone. It wasn't, because as soon as the blessing finished, a well-spoken British accent came over the PA. “Hello, this is Captain Miles Branneth. I'd like to welcome you aboard this short hop to Brunei which should take just over twenty minutes. We'll be flying on a southerly routing and reaching a cruising altitude of ten thousand feet.”
The flight lasted twenty-two minutes, and we were soon through customs (where every official was wearing a face mask due to the Swine Flu pandemic) where we met our guide for the day, a local woman called Seri. “Welcome to Brunei,” she said as she led us to the air-conditioned 4x4 that would be our vehicle throughout the day. “Our first stop will be the Jame’ Asr
Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, built by the current Sultan in 1994.”
Within minutes of leaving the airport we had hit the outskirts of Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei's small capital. Our first impressions were that the city was extremely clean and well ordered (we didn't see a single piece of litter in all our time in Brunei), the traffic was light, and there were images of the smiling Sultan everywhere. They were on billboards, on the front of shops, and even on a gateway to a timber yard. The yellow flag of Brunei was flying everywhere too. “It was our King's birthday ten days ago,” explained Seri. “Everyone had to put flags up outside their homes.”
I asked if anyone had refused to put a flag up. Seri looked serious for a moment. “Yes this happened. Some people didn't display the flag but the authorities soon found out. A message was put on television asking everyone to show the flags and...well...everyone did.”
Brunei's wealth comes from oil, a fact that probably saved the country from being taken over by Malaysia, which totally surrounds the country. Sultan Haji Omar Ah Saifuddien III (the current ruler's dad) came to the throne
in 1950 and used money from oil to transform Brunei from a dull backwater into a thriving nation. A fair proportion of this wealth went directly to the Sultan himself, which has since passed down to his son. However the Sultan of Brunei likes to share his wealth. Free education and health care for everyone, and of course, no one pays any tax. But there are a few downsides; most notably that no one can vote.
That said, the Sultan was obviously a well liked and popular man, unlike his younger brother, Prince Jefri. Jefri had been placed in a position of trust as finance minister for Brunei, but had abused his power to such an extent that he was eventually sacked and sent to the UK. Prince Jefri had spent almost $4 million US dollars from the country's coffers on mostly frivolous items, including 2000 cars and a few gold-plated toilet brushes. To this day, the brothers do not speak.
The Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque was stunning; the most beautiful mosque I'd ever laid eyes upon. The massive exterior was finished in pastel blue and white marble, topped with twenty nine golden domes (because the current
Sultan was the 29th) and the whole building seemed to shimmer in the tropical heat of the morning. After we'd removed our shoes Seri led us inside, showing us the prayer rooms, indoor fountains and washing areas. The men's prayer room was particularly magnificent, all golds and blues with a huge chandelier from Austria dangling in the centre. “You know,” said Seri, “even though Brunei is a Muslim country, I am not a Muslim. In fact, my family were once headhunters. But do not worry, not anymore.”
Our next stop was the Royal Regalia Building, and on the way we passed the presidential palace which had three entrances: one for the Sultan, the other for his royal family, and the third for everyone else. We couldn't see much of the palace, unfortunately, because it was hidden behind fences and high ground, but I can honestly say that the golden dome looked nice and very golden.
As expected, the Royal Regalia Building was full of royal regalia. The outside was made up of a huge white dome topped with an impressive spike. The interior was full of royal clothing, royal carriages, royal pictures and royal cushions. Had we been
left to our own devices, we would have covered everything in about ten royal minutes, but with Seri giving us a guided tour, it took much longer.
One section did interest us though; it was an area full of gifts that Heads of States, dignitaries, and other important people had given to the Sultan. Some of these items were very impressive, such as a carved wooden lion given by the president of Senegal. The Emir of Qatar had presented a pair of oryxs made from silver and gold, while someone from the United Arab Emirates had offered a diamond encrusted ceremonial dagger. The Queen of England had given the Sultan a large crystal glass that must have cost a fortune, and the ruler of Cambodia had handed over an exquisitely made model of Angkor Wat. Other gifts from countries such as Laos, Bahrain, Vietnam, Canada and Thailand were also on show in their glass cabinets, looking resplendent and expensive. And then I arrived at the offering from Swaziland. What the Sultan thought when he'd received this particular gift was anyone's guess. It was a few beads tied together to make a necklace. It was obviously much more than that,
of course, perhaps an ancient necklace that a tribal chieftain had worn, but to my untrained eye, it looked like a child had made it.
After lunch we took a boat ride to Kampung Ayer, a collection of water villages with a population of 30,000. Hundreds of homes were perched on wooden stilts, some connected by plankways, others by small bridges, all serviced by a flotilla of water taxi speedboats. As well as residential houses, the water village, which was actually more like a town, had its own school, mosque, police station and petrol station. Seri informed us that the wood that made up the extensive plankways were paid for by the Sultan.
“He is a very generous man,” she told us. “Every year, after Ramadan, everyone, no matter what religion they are, can go to his palace and eat for free. Afterwards they can shake hands with him, that is, if they are a man. Women can meet one of his two wives. And every child receives a gift from the King as they leave. They each get five Brunei dollars.”
Unlike the floating village we'd visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Kampung Ayer 's buildings were
equipped with all the modern amenities needed for life. They had electricity for a start, and many had modern plumbing and even TVs. Our boat pulled up at a wide wooden jetty and Seri told us we were going to pay a visit to one of the actual homes. After negotiating our way across some planks we came to our destination, a large pale green wooden building. Our visit was clearly expected because a table had been laid out for us with various traditional sweet things for us to try. “This woman has prepared them,” said Seri, gesturing towards a middle-aged woman hovering nearby. Her husband brought us some tea as we sat down.
The room was spacious, filled with chairs and tables, clearly a place to welcome visitors. On every wall were pictures or photographs of either the married couple or of the smiling Sultan. “Please try these offerings,” suggested Seri. “This one is roasted banana, and this here is fried wheat.” While Angela watched, I selected an object wrapped in some sort of dried leaves. Seri told me to unwrap it so I could taste the sweet coconut inside. While Angela filmed me, I unwrapped the leaf
and found some sort of green jellified paste. It wobbled when I shook it which made me want to gag. With Seri, Angela and the woman who had made the substance all watching, I pulled a piece of the green gel off and popped it into my mouth. It was as bad as it looked, like eating a piece of inner tube. Next I sampled the fried wheat which was exactly how I imagined Shredded Wheat cereal must taste after being deep fried in oil. Next on the list of delicacies was a cube of yellow stuff which was a cross between a Victoria Sponge Cake and a bit of old, dog-eared carpet. “I will show you the kitchen,” said Seri. “Come.”
It was a bit odd wandering through someone's home, and as we were led to the kitchen, we passed a young man and a teenage boy slouched down watching TV. They didn't bat an eyelid as we traipsed past, clearly used to visitors invading their home. The kitchen was huge, with about five microwaves, a huge mixer, an endless array of pans, vats of cooking oil, and a large table set out with six chairs. This was
where the woman concocted her strange cakes, I thought to myself.
Back in the main greeting room, we said our goodbyes just as another family of westerners arrived for their cakes and tea. It was obviously good business for the man and wife team. In fact, as we headed back to our boat Seri told us that the woman would be baking for a thousand school children the next day.
To finish off our whistle-stop tour of Bandar Seri Bewagan, we drove to the centre of town to the majestic Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, commissioned by the current Sultan's father. It was a golden-domed building of sheer magnificence, easily the most impressive building in the centre of town. Built in 1955, it even had its own lake, complete with a replica of a 16th century royal barge. After snapping off a few photos we headed back to the airport to catch our flight back to Kota Kinabalu. Strengths:
-Extremely clean and tidy
-Very safe Weaknesses:
-Not really that much to see beyond the main sights
There are more photos below