Sunday, October 06, 2013


The tiny country of Brunei has always been presented as a fabulously wealthy oil-rich sultanate.  Kind of like the Mid East in the Far East.

But as we swooped into the modest little airport and were then processed through the modest little terminal, I thought, 'Gee, if these guys are super loaded, then they sure are, well, modest about it.'

I had gotten off an emergency email from Kuala Lumpur, so my hotel had been able to send a driver to meet me at my amended arrival.  As we drove through the modest suburbs of the capital, Bandar Sera Begawan, my initial impression held.  The place was not in any way bedraggled, but it wasn't nearly as fancy as, say, San Diego, let alone La Jolla.  Or put it this way: Almost everyone owns a vehicle, but there would be virtually no car I could find that was more flash than Toyota.

I was back to $75 a night for a hotel, and for that I got an older place that had reasonable accoutrements that mostly all functioned properly.  By now it was close to 5 PM and I still hadn't slept a wink.  I lay on the bed to relax, but then realized that I also hadn't eaten a bite that wasn't horrible junk.  So I forced myself up, then down the elevator and out the door.

What the hotel did have going for it was location.  It was only a block from downtown Bandar.  Which was about three small blocks square, so easy to navigate.  That area encompassed some nice, newer bank-type buildings, and even a moderate mall with an almost glitzy level department store.  But there were also a couple of streets that were, if not exactly down at the heels, weren't all that up at the heels, either.

The town fronted on a quarter mile wide river/estuary, on the other side of which was what is advertised as the world's largest stilt village and Bandar's biggest tourist attraction.  Really it is just a bunch of very substandard housing on pilings.  But I did find about the first Italian restaurant of my journey, and I was able to sit at a table on that waterfront and watch little speed boat water taxis zipping people back and forth in the gathering dark.

Then I barely had the energy and willpower to walk back to my hotel and collapse.

Next morning was my Big Brunei Extravaganza Day.  Actually, it being a somewhat small, obscure place, there wasn't all that much to do.  First I walked back down to the waterfront and turned left for about a block.  There a little jetty stood, and a little office window, where I bought a little ticket for a little enclosed speedboat ferry which held about twenty people.  When we were all inside, it then took off on what is undoubtedly the best $5 boat trip in the world.

The direct route to this other part of Brunei is through a finger of Malaysia, so I assumed that we would be heading out to the ocean and then over.  Instead we were soon traversing a maze of relatively narrow and ever-branching channels, the boat veering from one side to the other as we would turn left and right.  On both banks primeval jungle leaned out.

After about twenty miles of this we arrived at the small jetty at Bangar.  From here some people pay big bucks to take private tours further into the Brunei wilderness.  But this was plenty enough jungle fun for me.  So I walked around the townlet for a few minutes, then plopped down another $5 and headed back.

By now I had pretty much seen all of downtown Bandar, but I suspected that maybe all the slowness had to do with all the action being out in the 'burbs.  So I hopped on a city bus that was headed for The Mall.

I had kind of expected something along the lines of Dubai or Bahrain.  When we got there, though, my first surprise was that a siren was going off and everyone was being evacuated from it.  Once they were finally all out, the siren stopped and we were now allowed back in.  Now for some style and international signage!  But inside there were just small, local, lower middle class offerings.  Not even a Wendy's in the food court.

A little disappointed, but starting to understand Brunei even better, I took the bus back downtown.  I still hadn't caught up with my lack of sleep, so it was back to the hotel for a nap.  When I got up again it was 3:30 and time to head over to The Mosque.

The Brunei write-ups always mention the two humongous over the top mosques that the oil-soaked sultan has built.  One was out by the mall.  Trust me, I've seen some over the top mosques in Abu Dhabi, Morocco, and Yemen, and this wasn't one of them.  And the second one, which I was walking to right now, did indeed dominate the tiny downtown, but then anything would.  It certainly wasn't domineering.

In fact, it was modern, yet also clean and rather elegant.  And when I was hospitably invited inside, the interior was both uplifting and tasteful.  Back outside, there was a large reflecting pool around two sides of it. 

Speaking of reflecting, I could stop for a moment and reflect upon how Islamic this country was.  As I noted earlier, there's more of a South Sea vibe than a Saudi one.  And the women who do cover themselves do it in a Malaysian way, which means that their coverings are usually very colorful.  Nor do they hesitate to give you a smile.  Modesty thus becomes very attractive.

And a point about the friendliness of the natives.  In Bangladesh everyone is genuinely nice, but that niceness is colored by their painful realization that everybody else in the world thinks that the place they call home is a piece of crap.  The people in Brunei don't have that weight on their shoulders.  They just like being nice because it feels good.

Anyway, speaking of the reflecting pool, they had a walkway over it.  And then up and over a road.  And then into a small stilt village that was on this side of the river.  Up close the houses were even more ramshackle Caribbean.  But I got the feeling, given that the government covers all the necessities and that there were satellite dishes and a/c units in each residence, that people still lived this way because they wanted to.  And as I walked along the narrow wooden boardwalk towards the inevitable car park, I got the additional treat of seeing a troop of monkeys skedaddling back into the nearby jungle.

I then meandered down a few blocks to the Italian restaurant, passing smiling school girls coming home in their pure white school uniforms.  There I once again whiled away an hour watching water taxis zipping back and forth as the tropical twilight gathered.

It was up the next morning at six so as to catch the Sarawak bus at seven.  The stop was supposed to be around the corner from my hotel, but there was some confusion as I stood there in the light rain whether that was still the case.  Which was finally resolved when it appeared at 7:03.

Once on board it was only a few minutes before we had onramped onto the Brunei Freeway.  Rush hour was already underway, and the thought occurred: What, besides collecting oil royalties, does anyone in Brunei actually do?  Well, whatever it is, they were all up early doing it.

The suburbs petered out, but the well-traveled freeway kept going about eighty miles towards the border.  We mostly passed pleasant jungle, with the occasional construction site or small settlement.  As we neared the end we stopped at a town of a few thousand people.  There were several newish three story bank-type buildings.  Once again, not at all poor, but hardly rich, either. 

I dunno, maybe the sultan is salting it all away for himself.  Although in pictures he looks like a really nice, friendly guy.

But whatever is happening, as the old saying says, money can't buy happiness.  And it seems to me that those writers who are focused on a super-rich sultanate are missing the point.

Because for my money, more than anywhere else I've ever been, this place pretty much fits the description of 'Happy Little Kingdom'.



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