Published: November 26th 2010November 9th 2010
The country of Brunei is a tiny little Muslim country on the island of Borneo, sandwiched between parts of Malaysia. There's really no tourist draw or anything that we even wanted to see...but the plane tickets were about $20 and the flight only 20 minutes. We figured, when were we ever going to be able to visit Brunei again? So we booked an overnight trip to Bandar Seri Begawan on our way to Kuala Lumpur.
There were only about four hotels in BSB, so I randomly picked the Jubilee Hotel because they offered to pick us up from the airport. When we walked into our suite, we were transported back to 1970. It was so retro, which turned into a theme throughout our brief time in Brunei.
We set out on the streets, using the two pages in Lonely Planet as a guide. We walked past Dairy Queens and KFCs that looked like they had been frozen in time about forty years ago. Also, the Dairy Queen offered "tropical" blizzards in raisin flavor. Weird. We found a shopping center that had a bunch of crappy stores and an arcade that was straight out of 1983. When it came time
for dinner, we could choose between KFC and Jollibee (the Philippines' #1 fast food restaurant, which ended up being absolutely disgusting). We had now run into two KFCs in a little city...it was as if the Colonel was lurking around every corner.
Another person lurking everywhere is the Sultan of Brunei. Brunei is the oldest continuous sultanate in the world. The Sultan has done some great things for the country - he used the profits from their oil supply to provide everyone with health care and no one pays taxes - so I guess it comes as no surprise that posters of him are everywhere. As we ran back to our hotel in a downpour, we saw him staring at us from bus stops across the city and from behind the front desk of the hotel.
The next morning, we set off with three goals: visit the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and the water village....and kill quite a few hours before heading back to the airport. We managed to take care of all three AND avoid eating at KFC yet again.
The mosque is huge and beautiful...and looks straight out of Aladdin. Lonely Planet got my hopes
up because it said that you can go up the minaret and get a great view of the city. For some reason, we were only allowed to follow about thirty feet of a red carpet that randomly dead-ended at a wall. The man said it was absolutely forbidden to go up the minaret, so we were in and out of the mosque in about two minutes. We walked around the grounds, where they had some beautiful fountains and a replica of a 16th century royal barge. Unfortunately, the water level in the "lagoon" around the mosque wasn't very high and it smelled like sewage (which wasn't helped by the fact that it was probably 100 degrees outside).
In an attempt to flee the sewage smell, we set off for the water village. Kampung Ayer is the world's largest water village, and all the houses and buildings are built on stilts. At first glance, it seems sort of like a slum, but in fact, the inhabitants choose to live over the water because it's cooler to live on stilts. Plus, the houses are really well kept and you're just a few steps from the city on the mainland. We wandered
along the elevated wooden boardwalks, just exploring the villages. Over 20,000 people live in 26 villages making up the big Kampung Ayer. We saw schools, houses, restaurants - all on stilts, and we came across a mosque that was eerily deserted.
After our little jaunt through Kampung Ayer, we needed to find some lunch. Again, the choices were KFC and Jollibee. We figured Jollibee couldn't be THAT bad, so we ordered chicken sandwiches. Chris made faces like a toddler being forced to eat vegetables before he finally gave up after two bites. What a baby! We decided to see what was available at the airport. You guessed it - KFC and Jollibee. Fortunately, Chris managed to find a little cafeteria serving chicken rice.
We followed the signs for "Shops" and "Viewing Deck" and ended up at in a tiny room with little windows overlooking part of a runway. No shops in sight, and very little viewing going on, so we perused the souvenirs (all stuffed proboscis monkeys and poorly silk-screened Borneo t-shirts). We gave up and spent our last few Brunei dollars on the plane, though I still have a $1 bill in my bag. Of course, the
Sultan's face is plastered on it, so he'll be able to continue his watch over us.
Our next stop was Kuala Lumpur. Although it is in Malaysia, I'm lumping it in with this entry because we really didn't do much in KL. It was at the end of our trip, and we had gotten to the point where we preferred to relax by the pool instead of racing around to fit everything in. Also, KL is a lot like a dirtier, cheaper version of Singapore and we had less than two days in the city.
We went out to Batu Caves, which are 13km outside of the city. They house a very important Hindu temple (one of the most important ones outside of India, in fact) inside caves that we had heard described as "straight out of Tomb Raider." The caves were really cool...but the temples have been turned in a massive tourist site. It was more like Hindu Disneyland than Tomb Raider, and there was certainly no sign of Lara Croft.
The main temple is at the top of 272 steps, inside some pretty awesome caves. You could buy anything from purple sequin cowboy hats to
cold drinks to tacky light up paintings of Hindu gods along the way up, and there were monkeys roaming all over the place. Chris, in his infinite wisdom, decided he wanted to make friends with a monkey. While I was trying to take a photo and shouting "Don't you dare touch that monkey!" Chris was, of course, trying to touch the monkey. I had images of having to take him to a local hospital for rabies shots running through my mind. He assured me afterwards that he wasn't actually going to touch the monkey, he just wanted to make it LOOK like he was going to touch the monkey in the photo. (Ed.: It's absolutely true - I wasn't trying to touch the monkey! Besides, it was a dangerous monkey, and it nearly stole another tourist's Coke out of his back pocket. Kate also forgot to mention that a half-dozen monkeys nearly surrounded her and erupted into an impromptu street fight. She was scared, believe me.)
We climbed all 272 steps in the ridiculous heat only to find that inside the cave was more tackiness. You could pay about $10 to get your photo taken with a yellow snake
or about $3 to get your photo taken with an iguana. Chris, who is very afraid of snakes, was taunted by a Malaysian man sitting in the corner, saying "It's free to touch the snake. Go ahead, touch the snake." So Chris inched toward the snakes on the table and very carefully placed one finger on the snake, then immediately backed off. He retold this story rather differently last night at Thanksgiving dinner, saying that he had to touch the snake to get in the temple and it was really no big deal, hahahaha. (Ed.: The snake WAS terrifying and about 6 feet long. And, considering I was being taunted, I really did have to touch the snake before we entered the temple.)
We only had a few hours in KL the next morning before heading back to the airport (that's waaay outside the city), so we decided to try to go up the Petronas Towers. They are the iconic towers of the city, but you can't just buy a ticket to go up to the observation deck. You have to wait in line, starting at about 6:30am to get a ticket that Lonely Planet says is free, though
there are prices listed on the sign at the Towers. We didn't feel like dragging ourselves out of bed that early, so by the time we got there, all the tickets were gone. Instead, we spent the rest of the morning at the KLCC Suria shopping center. It was full of every high-end store or brand you could think of. Of course, we spent hours in the bookstore and returned to Japan with carry-ons stuffed full of new literature to read.
We've been back in Japan for a couple of weeks now, and at first it was same old, same old. Well, not for much longer. Chris will be shipping off to Afghanistan shortly, and I will be heading back to Ohio. I don't really know what I'll be doing with myself since it's only a temporary thing, but I'm considering spending a couple months in Guatemala studying Spanish. Stay tuned for more details. (Ed.: On my end, the deployment to Kabul should only last 6 months, and after that, I'm moving to Dayton. Kate will find something to do in the interim, but we're both really anxious for it to be next July so we can be together
ridiculous Jollibee dessert
ice chips, kaya, flavorless red jello, ice cream, nata strips, sago cubes, unidentifiable orange mushy thing, and beans
again in Ohio.)
There are more photos below