After spending a couple of days in Brunei, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s somewhat of a strange country. It’s one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but the culture and religion of the people leaves little fun to be had. There is plenty to keep you occupied touring around for a couple of days, but the nightlife is nonexistent. The main nightlife area in the city, Gadong, is nothing more than (in my opinion) a very depressing mall. The whole country is comprised of less than half a million people, and they are ruled by a very wealthy sultan and very strict religious rules. In fact, even stricter Sharia laws have just been passed by the sultan (which have caused much controversy as of late – the sultan, however, has always been a bit controversial with his spending habits and his contradictory lifestyle as a playboy), which limit the people’s rights even further. These laws include forcing Muslim women to wear head covers, no public eating during Ramadan, no gay behavior, etc.). The penalty for breaking any of these laws consist of hefty fines (in the thousands of dollars) or even cutting off of fingers/toes or death by stoning, in the most extreme of cases (I assume). Alcohol has never been legal and even though you can cross any border and buy it duty free, upon re-entering the country you are checked by the police. If it’s found that you’ve been drinking, you are fined $1,000.
That all being said, Dave and I had a really nice time in Brunei. The people we met there were very friendly and we had a couple great days of sight seeing. But, as we spent more time there, we began to notice some of these strange things and even had several locals discuss them with us.
To get into Brunei, we took about a 6-hour ferry from Kota Kinabalu. With a 2 hr layover in Labuan (a duty free island off the coast of E. Malaysia), the whole trip took about 8 hours. At the ferry terminal, we met a US professor traveling with 3 of his students throughout Borneo doing research on deforestation. The whole group was coincidentally from Illinois. After waiting for almost 30 minutes for the bus to the city, the 6 of us all decided to share a taxi to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. The school group hadn’t booked a place to stay yet, so they ended up coming with us to our hotel and then we all spent the evening together. Our hotel was about 2km from the city, but the best part about it was that it was just a few minutes walk from the river, where there are water taxis (which cost $1 per person per trip). We were able to get to and from the city center extremely easily for cheap.
As we started walking around, we immediately all noticed how empty the city seemed. There was not a single soul walking around and no restaurants seemed to be open. We assume this was because of Hari Raya, but after a couple days, I got the feeling that the city is never very crowded. We walked past the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which was beautiful right at sunset, and then to Taman Salera hawker center. Again, the whole center was pretty dead, but we sat down at the most crowded spot and introduced our new friends to all of our favorite Indonesian foods (nasi goreng, mie goreng, gado gado). It was a great night and very interesting to hear how about all of the opportunities that the professor had created for himself to live and travel abroad with students to do research. He spent a semester in Africa, had traveled all over SE Asia, and was planning another semester in Mauritius all through research grants that he’d proposed.
I mentioned earlier in my post about the sultan of Brunei. His palace is one of the largest residences in the world – it’s 3 times the size of the Buckingham Palace and worth $350 million. For 362 days of the year, it is closed to the public. For the other 3 days, however, during Hari Raya, the festival that celebrates the end of Ramadan, the sultan invites everyone into his home and provides a free giant feast for them. It just so happens that we were there during 2 of the 3 days that the palace was open. After talking to several people in the weeks before, we had thought that Hari Raya would fall during the exact three days we were going to be in Brunei. So, we booked a tour during our 1 full day in the country and planned to go to the palace on the morning of our third day since we weren’t leaving until the late afternoon. When we got in, however, we learned that the palace would no longer be open on our last day there. We had already booked and paid for our tour to the Temburong District (the jungle in Brunei and also the # 1 tourist attraction in Brunei) so we didn’t think there was any way we’d be able to make it to the palace in time (our tour was supposed to end at 4:30pm and the palace was only open until 4). We had been very excited about seeing the inside of the palace, especially once we learned that you could actually meet the sultan AND that he served a huge feast so we were pretty devastated when we learned we probably wouldn’t be able to make it.
In the morning, we were picked up at 7am by our tour company. We thought about asking them to make a pit-stop at the palace but we didn’t think that would fly, especially since there were 2 other people in our group and they had gone to the palace the day before (we didn’t have time to go the day before since we didn’t arrive until the evening). We took a 45 minute boat to Bangar, the city closest to Brunei’s national park in the jungle. From this boat we took a 25 minute van ride (stopping along the way for coffee and roti for breakfast) to another boat, a 45-minute ride, which is supposed to be the best part of the whole tour. And, it was! It pretty much felt like we were white water rafting in a little speed boat. The water in the river was very low, which made it even more difficult for these expert boatmen to navigate. Several times, the guy in the front had to get out and push our boat up-stream.
Finally, we arrived at the national park and got out to hike up the 600 or so stairs (though I counted more than that) to the canopy walk. After climbing the stairs, we ended up at the bottom of a huge metal tower with ladders going all the way to the top, about 50 meters. When you get to the top, there are several viewpoints connected by a metal bridge, where you can see some great views of the miles and miles of jungle that surround you.
After the canopy walk, we went for a swim by a “waterfall” (it wasn’t much of one but the swim was great) and then to have a great lunch (which even included a glass of wine!) at our tour company’s camp. There was a little more swimming time after lunch, but when it started raining, we decided to head back a little early. As I mentioned, we were supposed to get back from our tour around 4:30pm, but after our boat ride (this time in the rain) and van ride back to Bangar, we realized we’d be getting back to the city about an hour early. We thought that this may give us a small chance to make it to the sultan’s palace before it closed! Of course, we wouldn’t be able to meet him (people wait in line for about 2 hours to do this) but we could at least see the inside of the palace and sample some of the feast.
The other two people in our group who had been to the palace the day before didn’t think we could make it. When we got back to the capital and asked our driver to take us to the palace instead of our hotel, he said we definitely wouldn’t make it. But, we had him take us there anyway (we had to at least try) and guess what… we made it with about 30 minutes to spare!!
We ran (literally) from the palace gates to the main entrance. Not only did we get there in time to see the inside of the palace, there was still plenty of food left to go around. The feast is catered by the Hyatt and they are definitely serving some 5-star food. Even though we were still pretty full from our lunch, we had to have a sampling. There was lamb, chicken, pasta, shrimp, and even chicken nuggets. There were several huge dessert stations set up. There were soda fountains, coffee stations, and craziest of all, even a station with fountain chocolate milk (they love chocolate milk in these Muslim countries). Looking around, you could tell that the people here had been fasting for a month (or maybe this was just the best meal they were going to get all year). People walked around with plates piled higher than I would have ever thought possible. The servers would put a helping of chicken or lamb on their plates and they would tell them to keep piling it on. People were pouring extra food into tupperwear containers that they’d brought with them. They were filling up their own water bottles with chocolate milk. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
In the three days that the palace is open to the public 100,000 people (one quarter of the country’s population) come through in their best and fanciest clothes to meet the sultan and feast. The party costs the sultan over a million dollars, easy. He even gives away gifts to every single visitor (a really nice box filled with different kinds of cakes, muffins, etc.). Though we haven’t heard the best things about the sultan of Brunei and how he rules the country and behaves in his personal life, he definitely knows how to throw a good party. I guess we caught him on his 3 good days of the year.
In Brunei, the tour that we’d done in the morning to the Temburong district is the number one tourist attraction. It was a great tour (though a little expensive for what it was; $100 pp) and we were very happy we did it, but really it was our visit to the sultan’s palace that made our day. We’d been so disappointed when we thought that we wouldn’t be able to go so it was a very pleasant surprise that we made it in the end.
We’d been planning to go to Gadong in the evening (the main nightlife area that’s really just a mall) for dinner, but after our “sampling” of food at the palace, we knew we wouldn’t be hungry. We still went to Gadong, but then came home early to relax after a great but very long day.
On our last morning in Brunei, we went to check out Kampung Ayer, the largest water village in the world. About 20,000 people (approx. 1/5 of the capital population) live in the village, which is just right across the river from the capital. We took a water taxi over there and walked through the whole village. From there, we took another water taxi over to the city and went to the Royal Regali Museum, which is pretty much a museum honoring the sultan. It has information about his life and then also a lot of his things – from clothes to artwork to the many gifts he’s received from other countries. They even had a carriage that carries him through the city. It was a nice museum (and free) and a great last morning in Brunei. All in all, it was a very interesting country to visit. I don’t think it’s worth coming here as a stand alone vacation (frankly, there’s just not that much to do here, especially at night), but it was a great 2-3 day add-on to the rest of our Borneo trip.
Next, we’re off to see more of Western (aka Peninsular) Malaysia and then in just 9 more days, we head back to Thailand. It’s so hard to believe that we’re already on the last part of our RTW 2.0:(