What to give a man with more than 100 luxury cars?

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Asia » Brunei » Bandar Seri Begawan
October 23rd 2008
Published: May 5th 2009
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We didn't have much luck with transport or bureacracy in Brunei. The ferry from Limbang wasn't running and the taxi drivers wanted ridiculous sums of money at exchange rates that didn't make sense. We eventually made it to the border, and were pleased to be finally assigned transit visas - a short-term visa for those moving on in the next few days which costs about half as much as a 30 day visa.

We were in Bandar Seri Begawan by mid afternoon, sweating our way from the bus stop to our hotel. We spent the afternoon in air-conditioned comfort, washing ourselves and our dirty hiking gear and resting our weary bodies while watching Star Movies. The sunset looked spectacular, but it was all we could do to watch from our window, not having the energy to venture out and walk to the waterfront.

After a big sleep, we headed out in the morning to take in the riches of this oil-wealthy nation, starting at the spectacular Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which has a minaret that stands 44m high made of tiny gold tiles. According to our guidebook, you can go to the top for excellent views of the town, but this certainly wasn't on offer that day. We made do with a look around the inside - donning robes to further cover our already covered limbs - and a wander round the grounds, heading out to where a replica of a 16th century royal barge sits in the adjacent water.

Next stop was the Royal Regalia Museum, which is basically a homage to the much-loved Sultan of Brunei. The main features (I am loathe to call them highlights) were a life-size replica of the Sultan's coronation parade complete with Royal cart, horses, flags and onlookers, and scores of presents given to the Sultan by other world leaders. What do you give a man who is wealthy enough to own over a hundred luxury cars? The criteria for such gifts are clearly 1) kitsch 2) ugly 3) something to do with the leader's country, which I imagine is why they've all ended up in a museum. Still, it made for amusing perusing...

Brunei had seemed somewhat sterile up until now, so our trip out to Kampung Ayer (water villages) was a welcome surprise. The buildings on stilts a few hundred metres from the shore were originally built for local fishermen and now house over 30,000 people. The colourful houses, cafes, schools, mosques and fire stations are joined by walkways which our boat zigged and zagged through at high speed. Around every corner were signs of life and people cheerily waving, as the photos will attest. Each building had a large TV aerial and often a boat, but it was clear that these people are not otherwise materially wealthy. The view of the villages juxtaposed against the opulence of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque provides an interesting contrast between the wealth of the Sultan and that of his people. We finished off a lovely afternoon with a seafood dinner and ginger beer - the closest we could get to a quiet drink in a dry country!

We were at the ferry terminal early the next morning, planning to head to Kota Kinabalu via Labuan Island. Again, there were problems with the ferries - all the morning ferries were cancelled. We gratefully accepted a lift from a guy living in Brunei who runs tours throughout Borneo. He was also hoping to go to KK, so called his wife's driver (she works for a large bank in BSB) to collect us, drop us all off at their house to pick up his car, from which point we headed to the border thinking we had scored a very comfortable and easy ride. Our excitement lasted only to the border about an hour away - we weren't allowed out of the country as our transit visas said we planned to leave from a different port! If only we'd not been stingy and spent an extra $15 to get the 30-day visa!!! It was with disappointment that we said goodbye to our generous driver, and got the bus all the way back to the ferry terminal. Our ferry eventually departed, thankfully arriving safely in Labuan an hour later. I'd been initially quite excited about a ferry ride, but I'd never get on one of these boats again - they are enclosed death traps, seating about a hundred people in cramped confines with only one small door at the front. There would be no getting out if it sank. From Labuan, we got a speed boat to the mainland (with a brief stop for the boat to be searched by the water police), and then a minibus up to Kota Kinabalu.

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