Brunei is just a speck on any world map but the wealth of the place well renowned. On our way up the coast of Borneo we passed through Brunei, spending a couple of days in the Sultanate's capital - Bandar Seri Begawan.
The bus to the capital was incredibly convoluted. We caught a bus to the border, got our passports stamped and then changed to get another bus to a town just inside the border. After that we caught a small ferry across a river, another bus to another town then a final bus onto the capital.
The ride in was scenic and noticeably different from Malaysia. The road we took followed the coast and trudged through small towns and suburbs. It also cut through oil refineries and offices where the usual natural jungle is swapped for a jungle of twisted pipes and large oil containers. Shell's logo is emblazoned everywhere, and they have sponsored many of the local schools and other community buildings.
Next to large green golf courses with expats enjoying the sunshine are random pumpjacks (nodding donkeys) relentlessly sucking up the shiny black stuff. There appear to be an abundance of these and they are
placed randomly where oil is to be found, be that in a park or somebody's back garden.
It is as a result of the discovery of oil that Brunei has amassed a huge amount of wealth, and is probably why they are still an independent country. Many allege that this small state would have been absorbed into the newly reformed Malaysian federate in the 60's if it hadn't been discovered. As a result the people here enjoy unprecedented wealth, free schooling and free healthcare. What happens when the oil dries up is anybody's guess.
As a result of the general wealth of the country, we found the jump in price of everything else more difficult than what we had experienced just across the border. We arrived in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) later that day and found a hotel. It was a pretty grotty establishment and still cost almost double what we usually pay for a decent place.
BSB is relatively small, and easy to navigate on foot. What struck us was how quiet it was, the capital city felt more like a half empty town adorned with large images of the smiling-moustache-clad Sultan gazing at
us in various locations. The main sight that people come to the capital to see is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Named after an earlier Sultan of Brunei, this structure really is a fantastic sight. It is a milky white building with a large golden dome that glows in the sunlight.
The surrounding grounds are tranquil and a lagoon area to the rear adds to the ambience. The gardens are manicured and fountains glitter in the sunshine in front of each delicate doorway. A minaret looms over the dome, lined with glimmering gold, and blasts out a call to prayer at various points in the day. At night the mosque is well lit in green and yellow light and looks fantastic as the reflection shimmers in the lagoon.
Despite the country's wealth, poverty exists in certain areas and communities in Brunei. A large area to the rear of the magnificent mosque, called Kampung Ayer is a huge area of stilt shanty houses built on a river and housing 30,000 people. Their houses are nothing more than shacks built on the river, with longboats providing transport for the inhabitants into the city centre. The interior of these shacks are
meant to be quite modern. We didn't witness this but the outside's were not a pretty sight with litter and rats running around the foundations. Still the location affords great views of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque from their front windows.
Apart from that we spent the rest of our time enjoying expat restaurants and paying double for everything that costs a lot less on the other side of the border in Malaysian Borneo! Many of the cafes and coffee shops around are open until really late - the early hours of the morning in some cases. We guessed this was because there are no bars, pubs or any drinking establishments whatsoever. Alcohol is illegal here as all of Brunei's subjects have to conform to a strict Muslim code which forbids its consumption. Still, we probably saved some money as a result.
After a couple of days here we were itching to move on and booked a ferry to Pulau Labuan which would then take us to Kota Kinabalu, back to Malaysian Borneo.
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