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Published: February 6th 2010
Brunei Darussalam, which means Port of Peace (and apparently even though they have spotted great white sharks here, there is no recorded incident of anyone having been taken thus far which goes some way to supporting this notion) is ruled by, and let me try and get this straight…His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang-Di Pertuan of Negara Brunei Darussalam. Oh, and besides being the Sultan, he is also the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Finance. Which should simplify things considerably when dealing with matters of state. But apparently doesn’t.
Due to considerable offshore oil reserves, Brunei is doing very well for itself, although what they’ll fall back on when these run out is a bit up in the air at this stage. However, at this point, the country’s infrastructure is pretty well top notch - education and healthcare are provided for free. And there is no income tax whatsoever.
I’d gotten chatting to a wonderful local on the boat over from the duty-free haven of Labuan by the name of Mansour Sheikh Mohammed - poet, photographer, blogger and teacher
of formal Malay for those striving for official citizenship. After discovering that we hadn’t arranged transport into the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, he insisted on driving us himself in his Ford Falcon (one of only eight in the country) and we spent much of the afternoon with him, as he pointed out the sights and explained much of the history and culture. By pure chance, our first stop was the Istana Nurul Iman - the largest palace in the world (apparently it contains no less than 1788 rooms and a floor area of around 200 000 square metres) which is, of course, home to the Sultan. You can’t really see much from the front gates (and it’s not worth google-earthing it because it’s mysteriously shrouded under a convenient layer of dense cloud…)
However, just as we arrived, two policemen scrambled across the road blocking all of the traffic. After a momentary flash of panic that we’d committed some major faux pas and were about to be hauled off to some deep dark dungeon - although considering it was Brunei it probably would have come equipped with gold-plated cots and satellite TV, we realised that it was merely the cavalcade
of the Sultan on its way out. So there we were, having been in the country a mere half an hour, gawking and waving at one of the world’s richest men and ruler of all he surveys as he whizzed past in a flash of black cars. Fair’s fair though - he did have the good grace to wave back…
The next day was spent wandering around various stunning mosques, the most impressive collection of outrageously flamboyant gear at the Royal Regalia Museum and whizzing around in a motorboat at the Kampung Ayer, a collection of traditional villages built on stilts over the water. BSB was a beautiful, clean and modern city, but it did feel a bit bizarre. In an effort to inspire at least a bit of a nightlife (alcohol is not sold in-country which could go at least a little way to explaining this anomaly) the city has recently established a night market to provide some form of entertainment after the sun has gone down. However, on closer inspection this seemed to consist of a handful of stalls with a bunch of people standing around looking a little confused, bewildered and uncertain as to exactly what
they should be doing. The exception to this was four or five men dancing awkwardly on a stage. All in all, we did have a wonderful time and again, a big thanks to Mansour - the epitome of Brunei hospitality.
After a fleeting visit in the seaside town of Miri, we climbed on board a nice little twin engined plane (okay, not so nice for Jane) and made the forty minute flight to Mulu, a World Heritage listed National Park and a truly amazing place. Mulu is renowned for its caves and the next few days were spent wandering through beautiful jungle and checking out these massive yawning chasms that are scattered around. The long treks through the steamy jungle were occasionally rewarded with the most refreshing swim in the river before drying off and embarking home, only to be absolutely drenched with sweat again within moments.
Mulu is also home to the world’s longest canopy skywalk at almost half a kilometre long. And while the ones that we had trundled along previously were usually solid metal structures, securely fastened throughout, this little gem was constructed of wood and ropes. And while the vertigo didn’t really appreciate it,
it was truly a great experience swinging precariously through the jungle treetops. We didn’t see too much wildlife but heard the most raucous amount of chirping, chirruping and chattering to know that at least they were out there. Oh, and the menagerie of insects that made the most noise of all and when eventually spotted, were generally larger than your hand...
The Deer Cave is the piece de resistance - the world’s largest cave passage at a meager two kilometres and near on two hundred metres in height. (Although the local guide Roland did quietly mention that apparently the Vietnamese have discovered an even larger one in only recently, although this is yet to be independently confirmed and it isn’t open to the public.) It’s also home to three million bats who have managed to cover much of the cave floor with up to five feet of guano. And at sunset each night these little furry critters take flight for their evening meal, cascading out of the cave mouth and spiraling into the sky in an effort to stave off the hawks who see the daily event as a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet and hover overhead to help
themselves. It was a truly stunning spectacle though, thousands upon thousands of these bats streaking into the sky and one of nature’s little miracles that you feel blessed just to have witnessed.
We also met a great bunch of travellers at Mulu and a couple of nights were spent over-imbibing at a little local bar where the beer was cheap and the conversation flowed. We had a little chuckle as we started chatting to another group of Aussies, only to discover that they were basically neighbours from Brunswick. However that was nothing compared to when I noticed the lanky bloke with dreadlocks in the café one evening. Turned out that he was an old schoolmate from Adelaide that I hadn’t seen for sixteen years and was passing through with his girlfriend. There we are in a remote jungle lodge in the middle of the jungle in Borneo, catching up on mutual friends. A small, small world indeed…
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