“Wait…you want to send me where?” comes my somewhat shrill response after my boss reveals my newest travel destination: Brunei.
Unsure even of where Brunei exists on the globe, I research online about the country, and my findings alarm me. Located on the northwestern edge of the Malaysian island of Borneo roughly two hours by air from Singapore, Brunei is a small Islamic nation that boasts tremendous oil and natural gas wealth. The ruling king, or Sultan, has a net worth exceeding $40 billion US dollars; and with a total population of only 400,000 persons, the country possesses one of the highest per capita GDP figures in the world. These data account for my boss’s interest in the market, but my mind dwells on other aspects of the country: namely, its recent implementation of hardline Sharia Islamic law, its geographic proximity to known jihadist organizations in Indonesia, and its constant 100% humidity level. Nevertheless, because the US State Department lists no specific travel advisories for Brunei, I pluck up the courage–or, more accurately, rely on an abundance of hopeful naivete–and board my plane at Singapore Airport, and prepare to depart.
I say “prepare to depart” because that is all the initial flight achieves. Shortly after the passengers have boarded, the jetway malfunctions and wedges against the side of our plane’s fuselage. The captain immediately cancels the flight and orders the disembarkation of all crew and passengers. We climb down stairs on the undamaged side of the aircraft and return to the airport terminal, where complimentary lunch and gift baskets placate us until Singapore Airlines can scrounge up a spare plane, a 777-300. I try to imagine what it costs the airline to do this, for our entire host of passengers totals scarcely 100, yet we are to make use of a aircraft intended to carry nearly 400. The boarding process this time proceeds uneventfully, and each passenger gets an entire row of seats to himself or herself. Shortly after takeoff, I stretch my frame horizontally across three adjacent berths and promptly fall asleep, thinking to myself, “Well, one could imagine worse beginnings to the trip.”
Evening approaches as we descend towards Brunei International Airport, and I peer out the window to catch my first glimpses of the country. Instead of the urban megalopolis to which I have grown accustomed in my five weeks in Singapore, sparsely settled jungle spreads inland from turquoise waters of the South China Sea. At irregular intervals, golden minarets of mosques rise above the treeline. The few small office buildings of the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short, are visible for just a moment before we land. Entering the airport, I receive my first exposure to Brunei’s wealth and to its paradoxical lack of development. The terminal building is luxurious–with marble floors, mahogany walls, chandeliers, brass balustrades, and sharply liveried attendants who greet disembarking passengers–yet lacks a bit of practicality. The arrivals area has a KFC and a Burger King serving halal foods but lacks any service desks for arranging hotels or transportation or local SIM phone cards. The information desk is unattended and, indeed, appears as though it hasn’t been attended in many months. Because of my late arrival, the airport shuttle from my hotel is no longer available, and thus, unable to call the hotel, I find myself standing at the terminal exit and facing the country, without any idea of how to proceed and with a constant expectation of being attacked, abducted, savagely beaten, and held for ransom by some rogue militant group.
That is when I begin to notice the local Bruneians around me. Aside from the Islamic dress worn by both women and men, their most immediately obvious feature is a relaxed and friendly demeanor. No one seems in a particular hurry. They stare at me, as is always the case in my Asia travels, but smile warmly when I meet their eyes. Most speak only limited English, but none are unwilling to try to help me; one man even offers me his cell phone to call the hotel, but the number I have is incorrect. They eventually direct me to the taxi stand, where I meet John.
John and his colleague Brandon will become my personal cabbies for the duration of my week-long stay. Brunei has a grand total of 30 taxi cabs in the entire country, and therefore, visitors grow to know the drivers personally. John is sixty-ish, a native Bruneian, married, with three grown children–two in the workforce, one still in college–and has an unerring knowledge of every street in Brunei. His favorite vacation spot is Singapore, but he says the cabbies there are unhappy because “they’re chasing after money.” Brandon, whom I meet the next day, is in his thirties, less experienced but enthusiastic, newly married, with a three-year-old daughter and a desire to one day visit NYC. As John takes me from the airport to my hotel in BSB and en route points out distinctive buildings and explains local traditions and customs, I consider his frank kindness and that of the strangers at the airport, and I begin to question my fears about Brunei.
I will not bore the reader with details of my business experience in the country. In short, I visit with many local doctors and quickly learn that the native population, though happy and given access to free public healthcare and subsidized housing, does not share directly in the abundant oil money. The private physicians charge only $20-30 Bruneian dollars, or roughly $15 USD, for a typical consultation and cannot possibly afford the exorbitant costs of my company’s services. Curiously, though, they seem more peaceful and contented than the overworked, highly paid, highly stressed doctors back in Singapore or back home in the States.
On Thursday, I have no physician appointments, and I decide to explore. In the morning, I go to the Royal Regalia Museum, which chronicles the history of the Royal Family, uninterrupted rulers of Brunei for more than six centuries. At the museum entrance, visitors must remove shoes and relinquish their phones and cameras, but the marvelous contents of the museum more than justify this slight inconvenience. The museum’s many rooms contain priceless artifacts such as gem-studded ceremonial crowns, a gold-flaked chariot used in the current Sultan’s coronation, and dozens of silver and gold trinkets he received from world leaders for his Jubilee celebration. Countless portraits and photographs praise “His Highness,” and for someone from a country established in large part in protestation against the tyranny of royalty, I find both interesting and slightly nauseating this unreserved adoration of a mortal man.
Later in the afternoon, I call Brandon and ask to go on a city tour. For two hours, he takes me to various notable buildings and sites, and also serves as willing cameraman to take the obligatory cultural immersion photos of me standing in front of famous structures. The first place we visit is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, located in downtown BSB. Constructed by the current Sultan’s late father, the mosque boasts an exterior facade of gleaming, unbroken white stone and minarets topped with domes of, I’m told, actual gold. A moat surrounds the facility, and in the moat floats an enormous ornamental barge-like vessel, the purpose of which I do not know. As a non-Muslim, I initially feel rather nervous about approaching the temple grounds, but the few worshipers I encounter react to my presence by waving cordially and by offering to answer any questions I may have. I find myself once again disarmed by the Bruneian hospitality. Brandon and I proceed next to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, located further from the BSB core and built by the present Sultan. This structure dwarfs its predecessor, and is stunning. Whereas the father’s mosque is notable for its seamless white exterior, the son’s mosque is a splendid panoply of colors and patterns: jade, white marble, ebony, copper, and of course, gold. The building spreads across several acres and boasts a massive dome plated with 24-carat gold; four giant minarets hundreds of feet tall and also gold-topped guard the four corners of the temple. I take photos, knowing well that they will not capture the true presence of such a majestic structure.
After these religious sites, we visit several government buildings, beginning with the Royal Palace: the Istana Nurul Iman. Unbelievable is the only word appropriate for this structure. A sprawling estate located just outside of central BSB, the Palace is closed to the public and lies largely hidden behind hills. From the front gates, where one can stop to take photos, only the–predictably–gold domes are visible, but one can nonetheless appreciate the enormity of the residence. Some stats from Wikipedia will prove helpful. The building, which cost upwards of $1.4 billion USD, has 17 floors, more than 1700 rooms (no, I didn’t insert an extra zero), a banquet hall capable of accommodating 5000 people, and an overall floor plan of more than 2 million square feet. All of this for a single family. Standing at the gate, I simply shake my head in wonder. We then follow the Palace with a few civic buildings, such as Parliament House, but none can compare. The Prime Minister’s office is approximately the size of the U.S. Capitol Building, and occasions an illuminating conversation with Brandon:
I ask Brandon, “Does the Prime Minister live at the office? It’s huge!”
“No, he lives at the Palace.”
“I thought only the Sultan lives at Istana.”
“…I don’t underst–oh, wait. The Sultan is the Prime Minister, isn’t he?”
“Yah, yah,” Brandon responds, chuckling, “He’s the boss.”
The remainder of my time in Brunei passes largely uneventfully. Sure, some hooded men in a water taxi down by the riverfront badger me to go on a sketchy “river cruise”; and, a creepy man in an alleyway near the same waterfront asks me if I “need a girl”; and, the heat and humidity exceed any I have ever faced; and, vegetarian food does not exist in the country except in my hotel cafe where I eat every single meal. But otherwise, I experience no difficulties. Some visitors might object to the countrywide ban on alcohol, but I don’t mind. All that matters is the BSB business district has a Starbucks, though my usual order of a “light roast cafe misto with extra soy” requires several minutes of explanation to the barista. As already noted several times, the people are uniformly amiable and inviting. Not once do I have cause to fear for my safety–until I attempt a jungle hike, that is.
On Saturday, acting on Brandon’s recommendation, I set off on foot from my hotel towards a nearby nature park, Tasek Lama, where one can see a waterfall and, on occasion, the famed proboscis monkey found only on Borneo. What begins as a leisurely stroll becomes, after I take a wrong turn, a harrowing trek across abandoned jungle in sweltering heat. For what seems like days, I clamber along poorly marked footpaths, surrounded by thick vegetation and with nothing but my own footfalls for noise. I find the waterfall, which is lovely but not exceptional, and meet no monkeys (I did encounter monkeys on a shorter trip elsewhere the next day). My imagination, however, provides me with plenty of lurking jungle creatures–mostly large, carnivorous cats–with which to contend. Eventually, after what was in reality probably only 90 minutes of wandering, I happen upon on Australian expat family out for exercise.
In as parched and scratchy a voice as I can manage, as though I just finished traversing the Mojave, I plead, “Waater, do you have water?”
“Sure, mate,” replies the father, “but you can also get some right there.”
He moves aside a palm frond to reveal the park’s main car lot and concession stand located about 50 yards away. His nine-year-old daughter, who just completed the same hike as I did but without so much as even a flushed face, is cheerily bounding up the path while carrying a couple of bottles of water.
“Oh. Yeah, right, of course,” I respond with breezy unconcern.
My sweat-soaked T-shirt belies this nonchalance, and the couple–undoubtedly fearing my immediate collapse from heat stroke–offers to drive me back to my hotel. I shamelessly accept.
Two days later, John takes me back to the airport for my return to Singapore. Along the way, in what was a first and will undoubtedly be a last for a taxi driver of mine, he treats me to a local breakfast: noodles and “kopi O,” a type of sweetened coffee also popular in Singapore. He adamantly refuses to allow me to pay for the meal, though I, even with my meager salary, probably make in a month what he earns in a year. This final stroke of kindness by John convinces me that my negative preconceptions about Brunei were, like many stereotypes and snap judgments, unfair and ungrounded. For the record, though, my fears about finding any veggie food and about facing a humidity level matched only by underwater volcanic vent plumes were entirely valid.