I went to Brunei to meet one – or hopefully two – education agents, as part of my recent swing through several cities for Australian Boarding Schools International – an Australian company representing a dozen or more schools in Australia and half a dozen in the US.
As fate would have it I met no-one, except Supi, the driver of my water taxi as I killed a few hours exploring one part of Brunei. More on Supi (or “Soupy”?) later.
Brunei is a small country – under 6000 square kilometres and with a Bruneian population of about 400,000, with another 400,000 guest labourers from nearby countries. Education plays a very large part in the life of the nation – in today’s Borneo Bulletin there are several pages on education policies, the results of school sports days, and photos of school alumni reunions. I visited two schools or colleges – well – poked my nose over fences and through gates – and saw well-maintained modern campuses with good buildings.
Not so fine are the buildings at the Brunei National Museum – closed since January 2014, as the “termite outbreak has spread to all five of the galleries affecting the electrical wiring and air-conditioning system of the building.” Wonder what the little critters have done to historical documents, artefacts and other national treasures?
Perhaps the greatest Bruneian treasure is its oil. There is no personal income tax and with oil revenues well invested by the Sultan no one really needs to work. The work day “starts” at 07.45 and ends at 16.30.
The Sultan, seventy years old this year, is formally known as His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairu Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalem, and his wife is Her Majesty Duli Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha binti Al-Marhum Pengiran Pemancha Pengiran Anak Haji Mohamed Alam.
And if all of that is a bit of a mouthful, just remember that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has a formal title of Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, as I was reminded when visiting the Sultan’s Royal Regalia Museum and saw the Royal Grant of an Honorary Rank in the Coldstream Guards (I think) by Elizabeth to His Majesty the Sultan.
Brunei is a very old country and has long been ruled by Sultans, which explains the huge range of swords, crowns, shields, ceremonial betel nut containers, golden umbrellas and processional chariots on show in the museum. My hotel – the Izqun International – is quite a new place (opened 2006) but tends to look a bit like a royal palace with seemingly endless corridors, gilt armchairs, crystal chandeliers dropping in here and there, and the most amazing crown mouldings and timber cornices, mirror frames and dressing tables one could wish for in a fairytale castle.
The Sultan’s palace is, by contrast, a bit more austere – at least what I could see of it from the air as we flew in, and as Supi (“Soopy”?) and I cruised past it on the river. Yes – there is the obligatory huge gold-covered dome or two, but quite austere plain concrete walls and roofs … but then I have not yet been inside … although a press photo showing Her Highness receiving a visitor reveals a certain taste for gold and flowers and framed family portraits and gold and deep green onyx and …
To see inside some of its 1788 rooms and 257 bathrooms I must wait until the next Hari Raya Aidilfitri (in June) when the gates of the Istana Nurul Iman (apparently the largest residential palace in the world) opens its doors to the public and His Majesty and members of the royal family greet every visitor during the three-day festival.
Festivals in many western countries are marred by the over-celebration of booze. No so here. No alcohol is sold in the country. Ever. Anywhere. But it is not a dry state (like Saudi Arabia – and even Saudi is not really dry I am told – except for the deserts) as visitors are allowed to bring in two litres of spirits and a dozen or so cans of beer every 48 hours … and consume it privately, out of sight of those likely to be influenced – or horrified – or shocked – or jealous.
It is a very Islamic State, with gilded and splendid mosques all over the city. I briefly visited the National Mosque and was quickly tossed out on my unbelieving ear. But then, although I had taken off my shoes and was treading quietly and respectfully … the place was closed (as I later found out) to non-Muslims at certain times of the day and week … and there I was plodding about in the middle of one of the quiet times when Muslims (all three of them) were praying.
A recent news story revealed that there is a growing number of converts to Islam: 110 last year and twelve so far in 2017, with Irish man Alexander Walsh – now known as Adam Alexander bin Abdullah Walsh, the most recent convertee.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, once again, women here seem to hold great power. It is very common to see a hijab-clad woman behind the wheel of the latest BMW or Mercedes, and in my hotel the Director, the General Manager, the Duty Manager and three-quarters of the front office staff were all women. Most are traditionally dressed but few men wear the usual cap seem frequently in Malaysia and some younger people – of course they may be non-Muslims – are dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
Other Western aspects are scattered pepper-pot style here and there throughout the capital, Bandar Seri Bagawan.
Here a KFC, there a Toys-R-Us, a Burger King, a Starbucks and here at the airport there is a branch of The Coffee Bean – an Australian company I think – and one of my favourites in Chiang Mai for a Saturday brunch with a glass or two of wine. At the Brunei Coffee Bean the wine is not an option and there are none of the usually ubiquitous garish duty free shops flogging Glenmorangie and Bombay Blue.
I spoke to the staff at the hotel:
- I have twenty-four hours In Brunei. What are the things I must do and must see?
- Yes, we eat all the time so go over that bridge there and in the market you can get great food from one dollar upwards
I actually visited a couple of markets and food courts and by Thai or Singaporean standards they were small, quiet (very clean) and not terribly exciting.
The most exciting thing I did was to spend half an hour with Supi. I could have gone ice skating at the place in Menglait Industrial Park or gone on a mangrove tour, but I picked Supi at random from many men and boys pulling their speed boats into the jetties at McArthur Road (there are also Elizabeth II Road, Roberts Road and Pretty Road – as well as Lebuhraya Sultan Haji Nussunal Bulkiah).
The water taxi drivers looked expectantly up at me (I was the only non-local on the wharf), made a sort of circular wave of their hand that I imagined was a digital equivalent of:
- Do you want to go on a round about water cruise of the river and the Kampong Ayer?
And not the less polite:
- Judging by the look of you buddy you must be round the twist to be walking our streets in the middle of the day!
So – a price was agreed and off we went. Supi is a third-generation dweller of Kampong Ayer – a huge settlement of several villages, a school, a fire brigade, a mosque, a police station – all built on stilts on both sides of Brunei River.
Families live in intimate proximity to one another in wooden houses, so it must have been particularly terrifying for some of them when at 04.00 in the morning a few weeks ago a fire broke out in one of them. It took the fire brigade or fire brigade boats three hours to extinguish the blaze by which time it seemed that four or five houses had been destroyed.
I asked Supi how much he and the other boat men made on an average day and was told about forty or fifty Brunei dollars – more or less the same in Singapore or Australian dollars and a bit less in US dollars. I imagine this was a bit of an exaggeration to save face as he added
- And some days if there are a lot of tourists I make $100
As he charged me twenty dollars for thirty minutes I guess he’d have to find quite a few similarly generous (or gullible) tourists to keep up his dreamed-of style of living. However his boat was comfortable, it had a sun canopy, he was chatty and had good English, and we did not sink, so we were both happy.
I called into the Tourist Information Office for a look – some nice historical photos of Brunei over the years – and a helpful woman who advised me on the bus routes back to the hotel:
- Yes, sir, you need the Number 55 bus. It is pink or purple in colour
That seemed easy enough, so off to the bus station where another woman greeted me and asked me where I wanted to go:
- The Rizqun Hotel
- Ah yes – you need the pink Number 55 but it has just gone. The next one will be in an hour or so
A bit of a stroll around and a very few minutes later a bright pink No 55 bus pulled in beside me.
- Aha! Thank you. Do you go to the Rizqun Hotel?
- No sir – you need the C01 bus …
Over to the other side of the bus terminal as a C01 bus pulls in.
- Hello – do you go to the Rizqun? Or Tha Mall?
- Yes sir. One dollar. Please have a seat.
And it was as easy as that. A rather surly young girl (the only person who was not completely warm and welcoming and friendly I encountered) took my money and gave me a ticket and we set off on the circular route that took us past the elaborately domed Prime Minister’s Office, a huge blue-domed building the hotel staff tell me is some sort of a conference centre, the Metropolis-styled futuristic and bleak grey tower that houses the Ministry of Finance and back to the hotel.
Everywhere you look there are new buildings going up and land being reclaimed from the river, superb highways peopled by courteous drivers in modern cars (they actually stop for pedestrians on zebra crossings and even for doddery old men like me illegally crossing six lanes of a highway on foot), and taxi drivers who assured me that there is no pollution and no crime in Brunei.
No education agents either
And no G&T
My twenty-four hours stretched out a to about thirty hours and I guess I could have visited those mangroves or gone ice skating after all.
- Journey: March 2017
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship