It would seem that 2015 is the year when I visit all the least visited, most head-turning places. The reality is that 2015 Singapore public holidays were concentrated in the months when Southeast Asia becomes a huge puddle: the Monsoon season.
Left only with Indonesia and Malaysia, which I have visited numerous times, I felt pushed into looking for alternative destinations. Where else in the Southern part of Southeast Asia could I safely minimize the risk of rain for a long weekend trip? Brunei was indeed an option.
I had been trying to organize a weekend in the tiny Borneo jungle state of Brunei for some time but the high flight prices deterred me every single time. With the Hari Raya weekend approaching, Brunei offered something exciting: the opportunity to meet the very famous Royal Family.
Every year, during the holidays that mark the end of Ramadan, the Sultan and the rest of the Royal Family, open the doors to their palace, the largest palace in the world, with almost 1,800 rooms. All we had to do was queue up. Result! We could visit the tiny Sultanate and meet one of the richest men in the world, all at once. Only that, as women, we were only allowed to meet the Queen, not the Sultan.
Visiting Brunei at the end of Ramadan and during Hari Raya also had its disadvantages. As the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar, Hari Raya is an eminently family-oriented holiday so most of the stores and restaurants were to remain closed as locals stay in, visiting relatives and celebrating the holiday.
For starters, Brunei is not the most happening place. Sharia Law was introduced in 2014 and the country radically follows the Holy Koran. Adulterers and homosexuals may be stoned to death and thieves have their hands cut. Flogging is another physical form of punishment recently introduced and, missing Friday prayers may lead to imprisonment. The sale of alcohol is prohibited, to anyone. As non-muslim, we could bring in our own alcohol and pay for the taxes at customs on arrival but we did not know so we were mentally prepared for a holiday without any wine or cocktails by the pool.
Although this was not such an impediment to a good time what we could not fully anticipate was the quietness that ruled over life during this period. We found ourselves aimlessly trying to find a place for dinner, and failing miserably. Only KFC, Pizza Hut and Jollibee seemed to be open for business. On our second night we located a 24h cafe, the only one in the entire downtown area. It did not help that Brunei does not have taxis so exploring areas beyond the hotel’s neighborhood was extra hard.
Most people know little about this speck of a country made up of two unconnected parts fully surrounded by the South China Sea and by Malaysian Borneo. To avoid having to constantly cross into Malaysia and go through passport control, Bruneians use boats to cross via the sea between the two parts. Only about 10,000 inhabitants live in the Eastern district of Temburong which is largely made of pristine, untouched jungle. Brunei has been an example of conservation in the quickly disappearing Borneo jungle. Logging is forbidden and we saw the real implications of such measure in Ulu Temburong Park on our canopy walk. A tree had snapped and was about to fall blocking the path. As tree cutting is not allowed all we could do was wait for the tree to fall on its own at which point someone would come to move it away from the path.
Brunei enjoys the exact same temperatures year round. Being so close to the Equator means the thermometers never move. Expect high humidity and high rainfall with a marked drier season Feb-April and a wetter one from October to December. It was hot, hot, hot, and that is coming from someone who walks everywhere in Singapore, under the scorching sun. In the jungle, the humidity will turn you into a fountain of sweat.
The country is covered in jungle. The moment you step outside of the main downtown center all you see is thick forest and wildlife. Several endemic species, including the very funny proboscis monkey, live in the Borneo jungle. At night, we spotted fireflies. This was the best way to spend the evenings in such a quiet place. We paid a water taxi to take us around the river looking for these fairytale insects blinking in the darkness. Unavoidably, we also spotted too many crocodiles for comfort. In the darkness and stillness of these animals all we could see where their red eyes on the river banks. Nature at its best minutes from the capital and an example in conservation.
Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital and main urban center, is located by the Brunei River and faces the world’s largest water village, Kampong Ayer, where as much as 30,000 people are said to live. The village is modern and has all the facilities including schools, hospitals and mosques. The parking lot by the river where locals drop their cars is filled with luxury cars. Kampong Ayer is not the poor suburb but the choice of local Bruneians that value this heritage living.
Visiting Brunei feels like a quieter and cleaner version of Malaysia with low unemployment, virtually no poverty and virgin jungle. Locals are two-thirds from Malay origin and the rest is made up of a variety of minority groups including Chinese, Filipino, expats working in the Oil & Gas industries and Indigenous population.
Locals were kind, peaceful and interested in tourists. We were photographed several times, especially at the Palace, while waiting for a taxi by the main gates. There was a constant stream of onlookers asking for a shot until we had enough in the heat of the day, and we expressed our negative.
But what was it like to holiday in a country that has recently re-introduced Sharia Law and corporal punishment?
Brunei is officially known as “Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace” and it is one of the youngest countries in the world having achieved full independence from the British only in 1984. The country is known for its richeses. It is one of the few countries without any national debt and it has one of the highest GDP per capita at purchase parity ranking 9th in the world according to the CIA World Factbook after unusual countries like Luxemburg, Isle of Man or Qatar. Unemployment is low at less than 3% and the population is young with a media of 29 years, and well taken care of. Life expectancy, at 77 years old, reflects a healthy rich country close to Western Europe. Education and Healthcare are free.
Sultan Bolkiah, whose full name is Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, was once the richest man in the world. Today, his estimated fortune is worth $20Bn according to Forbes. Contrary to Gates, Ortega or Slim, the Sultan knows how to spend it and often makes the headlines for his excesses. He is said to have once spent $21,000 on a hair style. I wonder what that involved. Gold and diamonds may have been featured as these seem to be His Majesty’s choice of accessory.
The youngest son of the Sultan married a data analyst in April in a lavishly Aladdin-like ceremony completed with emeralds the size of golf balls, diamond encrusted golden outfits and a mind blogging gold extravaganza. The photographies of the ceremony were everywhere, from the Brunei Airlines in-flight magazine to every single restaurant. At first I wondered why everything was yellow until I realized it was gold. From shoes to outfits, chairs and flower arrangements made of gems rather than flowers. The bride’s shoes were a pair of incredible Louboutin jewel-encrusted heels.
It is believed that the Sultan may have over 7,000 rare and exclusive cars and that Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari, Bugatti and Rolls-Royce all make new cars exclusively for him. Australian TV program 60 Minutes exposed the Sultan’s hypocrisy in an undercover video complemented with commentary from one of his former Royal Harem members, Jillian Lauren, entitled “The Playboy Sultan“. While Sharia Law is slowly introduced in phases, the Sultan continues to indulge and seems to be above the law. Worse, his younger brother is renowned for his debaucherie and continuous sexual extravaganza.
On the ground people were contempt and conservative but without looking repressed. Women were covered in what felt a 50/50 ratio and we were the center of attention for being foreigners and rather blond and not because we were uncovered, or so it felt. I get the same across Southeast Asia irrespective of religion. Freedom House considers Brunei as “Not Free” and a score of 75, 100 being the worst, so hearing locals talk bad about the Sultan is uncommon. The internet is monitored and immoral content banned. The Government is also believed to read email exchange of citizens considered subversive.
As we finally managed to get to the end of the queue and greet the Queen, a lady gave us instructions to hang the handbag on our left so we could easily shake hands with the Royal Family. Photography is not allowed and we had to leave our cameras outside of the stately room where they were all standing.
“Where are you from?”, Exclaims Her Majesty.
“Spain and England!”
“And what are you doing in Brunei?” She insists, seemingly curious.
“On holiday, just visiting.”
As we went through the semi-circle line-up of Royalty members another woman mumbles to the one next to her, “Great shopping in Spain.”
We didn’t leave the Palace empty-handed. There was another queue, to collect a greeting card with a photo of the Sultan and his best wishes for the Hari Raya and a fruit cake tightly fit inside another yellow golden box with the Istana Nurul Palace relief on the top.
Awaiting at the newly opened Airport Terminal with barely any passengers in sight, I wondered what locals thought about the Sultan and whether the peacefulness of the country and the apparent lack of any necessities had created a nation filled with apathetic and robotic subjects that had forgotten to aspire to anything more than a quiet and mediocre existence. Money can surely buy it all, including an absolute Monarchy. Perhaps this was unfair but the entire country felt extremely quiet.