Brunei – Land of Riches

“Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty-his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” – Aldous Huxley

Brunei both is impressionable and forgettable, I believe attributable to the fact that it’s a momentary stop, a blip in a traveller’s consciousness. When people hear of Brunei it is often associated the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, the 3rd richest head of state and government in the world, with an estimated worth of $20B. Also associated is the Sultan’s notorious younger Brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah who was charged with embezzling $14.8B from his brother and is known for his lavish lifestyle, harems, three wives and eighteen children. For an excellent account of his life and luxury I recommend reading Vanity Fair magazine’s June article, http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/07/prince-jefri-201107. His notoriety has made many curious, me included, and so like many travellers I headed that way for a day or so to see what the fuss was all about and add a stamp to my passport.

Originally I was to arrive in Brunei on October 30th in the evening but I had extended my stay in Semporna and so I flew on MAS Wings from Tawau (45 mins from Semporna) to Kota Kinabalu and then connected to Labuan Island. From the Labuan airport I took a ten minute taxi ride to the ferry terminal and within fifteen minutes I had my ticket for the ferry to Brunei, changed some money and was on my way. Already I observed some differences in the attitude of the people, the ferry employees were very helpful and their English skills definitely helped; I was exhausted and the sun was beating down, sitting outside on the ferry was not an option. The ferry ride was short and sweet, just over an hour and I had arrived in Brunei.

The difference of Brunei was immediately clear. It was cleaner, more spacious, and beautiful in a different way and the difference in manners, personal space was appreciated. It was quiet and serene and was something I needed at that moment. I had contemplated, in fact had planned to stay with someone on CouchSurfing but it just wasn’t sitting well with me so I chose to find a hotel/hostel for the night. Also, often with travelling you sometimes find you just need to not talk to anyone because people always surround you. Diving is a whole other realm with the dive boats and surface intervals and you’re always comparing stories. The Bruneian silence was golden. I asked my taxi driver to take me to a hostel and as a friend later remarked and confirmed on Facebook, there is only one hostel in Brunei, a government-run, and YMCA sort of thing. It was very clean, I had a room to myself, women were in one building and men in another and it was $8 CAD, and I couldn’t beat that. I settled in, got my things together and walked around, finding myself a Pizza Hut where I ate and wrote for the night.

The next day was my only and last day. I went to the bank, had a quick breakfast and walked around Brunei taking some photos and writing and sending postcards. I then met up with Jenny for lunch, a girl from Edmonton, Alberta who lives and works in Brunei. It was so nice to meet and socialize with a fellow Canadian. She so reminds me of me, travelling the world, lived in Europe, still can’t find a man to settle down with, etc. Lol. I originally met Jenny on CouchSurfing and would have loved to stay with her but she lived out in the “jungle” near her school so for my limited amount of time in Brunei it just wasn’t feasible. However, she kindly graced me with her presence and we had a great afternoon visiting the mosque and the Royal Regalia Museum finishing our visit with a trip to Dairy Queen, perfect!

The mosque we visited is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and it “is one of the most spectacular mosques in the Asia Pacific and the mosque’s most recognizable feature, the main dome, is covered in pure gold. The mosque stands 52 m (171 ft) high and can be seen from almost anywhere in Bandar Seri Begawan. The main minaret is the mosque’s tallest feature. In a unique way it mixes Renaissance and Italian architectural style. The minaret has an elevator to the top, where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The interior of the mosque is for prayer only. It has magnificent stained glass windows, arches, semi-domes and marble columns. Nearly all the material used for the building has been imported from abroad: the marble from Italy, the granite from Shanghai, the crystal chandeliers from England and the carpets from Saudi Arabia.” 

We also visited the Royal Regalia Museum, a free museum highlighting the narcissism of the royal family. It was entertaining, I mean, how many photos of him and his family do we need to see? Photos of him signing every document he has ever signed, photos of every procession through the city streets, photos of him growing up and in classrooms where teachers would be quoted saying what an incredible child he was. Um, yeah, of course he was. Most was about his coronation and an entire floor exhibited each gift from countries around the world. Jean Chretien gave him a walrus made of green granodiorite, also known as Arctic Stone. The gifts for the most part were cheesy, and most from Asian countries were swords and daggers. Seemed to be a lot of “mine is bigger than yours” going on. My favourite part of the museum was the 24K gold palm (hand)/arm/elbow that would hold up the Sultan’s chin at coronation or perhaps at every royal event. I really wish I could have taken a photo of it. I was able, however, to take photos in the lobby and these children reminded me of  bunch of little Casper the Friendly Ghosts. So damn cute. As for the museum? Another hour I’ll never get back. Interesting. 

I didn’t get a ton on the low down of Brunei but I did notice a few things and Jenny also helped me out. One of the coolest things the Sultan has offered its residents is interest free car and home loans. Interestingly enough, although Jenny has been there for only four months, she too qualified for an interest free loan. The Sultan has also offered free education to all citizens of Brunei including studying abroad where most choose to go to England. But what this means with these benefits is that there is a huge interest in being a citizen and therefore each person, whether born in Brunei or not is required to take a written exam to become one. One exception being children born to female citizens, “The requirements to attain Brunei citizenship include passing tests in Malay culture, customs, and language as well as the national Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) philosophy. Stateless permanent residents of Brunei are given International Certificates of Identity, which allow them to travel overseas. The majority of ethnic Chinese in Brunei are permanent residents, and many are stateless. An amendment to the National Registration and Immigration Act of 2002 allowed female Bruneian citizens to transfer their nationality to their children. In May 2006, the law changed to allow citizenship to permanent residents who have contributed to the country’s economic growth, to women married to a citizen for 2 years, to women married to permanent residents for 5 years, and to children of permanent resident fathers after the age of 2 years and 6 months. According to unofficial sources there are approximately 20,000 “stateless” persons in the country, including persons born and raised in the country who were not automatically accorded citizenship and its attendant rights but were granted permanent resident status.”

I did notice/learn the following things to be interesting:

  • There seemed to be Wifi everywhere, every restaurant, and every café. A traveller’s dream.
  • Bruneian men are allowed to have four wives, the Sultan has two.
  • I have never seen so many SUVs in one city a ton of gorgeous, expensive sedans, classic styling in every way. I saw a car I haven’t seen before. I believe it was the Lexus  I SF, which isn’t all that special. What would make sense in Brunei would for it to be the new Lexus LFA supercar which runs for $375K. What got me was the exterior, it was stunning, a matte black finish in a carbon/bat mobile shield type of finish (see pics). Gorgeous! 
  • Jenny mentioned that it is frustrating to her that with as many programs and benefits for the citizens of Brunei and as rich as the country is, that many of her students still live in one/two room houses with 5-6 children in each and only a generator for electricity.

In summary, I’d recommend Brunei, for a day. It’s expensive in comparison to what you’ll spend in the Malaysia and other countries nearby. There are not a lot of tourist attractions and although Brunei has a gorgeous national park with one of the world’s largest suspension bridges, the real place to go for adventure is in Borneo. Also, the Sultan’s palace is not open to visitors and so the only photos of it can be taken from the river. I chose to not take a boat ride to see it and took a photo from far away. It is also an unattractive concrete monstrosity built in the early 1980’s, the largest single family dwelling in the world at a cost of $400M.

I enjoyed my time in Brunei, it relaxed me and was an excellent transition between Borneo and the Philippines – a bit more of the civilization I am used to. Personally I couldn’t live in Brunei; I mean what fun is there with no pork or alcohol? But it seems to work for many and in the evenings you’d see people my age congregating on café sidewalks with their lattes and computers; definite boredom would ensue for me but fun is subjective with what is available to us and what we’re used to doing.

Next up my journey continued to the Philippines to visit the Unesco World Heritage site of the Batad/Banaue Rice Terraces and, more trekking!!

What Was Spent In This Post: Flight changes RM377, shared airport transfer to Tawau from SJ Semporna RM20, a mask from an airport shop (I collect masks from my travels), RM58, lunch in KK airport RM 19.30, gifts for friends RM50, shirt from KK airport store RM69, taxi to Labuan ferry terminal RM12.50, ferry to Brunei RM35, taxi from Brunei ferry terminal to hostel in Bandar Seri Begawan $30, hostel (2 nights) $20, Pizza Hut (2 nights) $20, croissant at coffee shop $4.50, postcards and stamps $13.80, lunch with Jenny $20, taxi to airport – hostel manager and his family took me, $16, airport tax $12 – I gave him 5 English pounds and $5 US – told him it equaled $12 which it did, lol, only in Brunei.

Total: RM 640.80 / CAD $207.11

Total: BND $136.30 / CAD $107.79

TOTAL CAD: $314.90

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