We flew to Brunei on a wing and a prayer — the “wing” being Royal Air Brunei with large seats, good food and excellent service; the “prayer” being… well… an actual prayer. As the jet pulled away from the gate, but before the safety talk of seatbelts and seat cushions that could be used as a flotation device, the video screens dropped down and there was a prayer chanted in Arabic with English subtitles. Nice touch.
We had reserved a room at an international meeting house and teaching/training center. Their drivers, dressed in their finest attire (gold brocade sarongs wrapped over slacks), drove us to VOTECH where we were greeted by the director, the director’s wife and several staff members. They were extremely welcoming and invited us to their Hari Rya celebration later that afternoon. We settled in and then set off to explore Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.
The center of the capital was less than half a kilometer from our accommodations but there were no clear paths or sidewalks and we had to cross over several busy lanes of highway. It’s not for lack of funding or planning. It’s just that no one walks anywhere! First of all, cars are cheap, gas is very cheap, so everyone drives everywhere. And, as we soon learned, it’s just too damn hot to be out walking.
We stopped for a fabulous dim sum lunch at one of Brunei’s points of pride — the new shopping mall. The staff was extremely friendly, the service perfect, and the food was some of the best we’ve had. The mall is… well.. a mall. A big, shiney, multi-story, new mall with big new expensive stores, multi-plex theatre, gourmet supermarket, Dairy Queen and ice rink..
From there we walked over to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque where we were the only visitors. The mosque-keeper let us in and showed us around. Exquisite stained glass from England. Wool carpets from Belgium. Chandelier from Venice. Lots of gold. As we were exiting this sacred, elegant structure, we spotted what looked like an ATM in the back of the nave. It turned out to be a video kiosk with FAQs about Islam. The mosque is surrounded by a moat and we were able to walk out onto the “island” that is used for ceremonial purposes. We had the entire place to ourselves.
From the mosque we strolled out to Kampung Ayer, the series of poor stilt villages on the water connected by kilometers of plankways and speedboat “taxis.” Again, we were the only people out and about except for a few groups of friendly young school children who came out to practice their English.
Kampung Ayer is touted in all the tourism materials as a “charming” place to visit. Granted, the kids were cute and the walkways are fun, but there is no charm to the poverty which is in stark contrast to the extreme wealth within easy view. I assume these are the people who scrub those hotel toilets and mop the malls after hours.
Finding a bus took some effort because, as mentioned before, it seems like everyone drives everywhere. We asked half a dozen people before spotting the stop ourselves. Eventually, we caught a bus to the national museum. There were maybe a dozen people in the entire place. The highlight was a spectacular display of illuminated Korans. Some of them were far more elaborate and exquisite than any illuminated manuscripts I had ever seen with unbelievable detail and nearly microscopic gold calligraphy on some of the borders. These alone were worth the trip to Brunei.
Finding a bus back into town proved to be impossible. We waited outside for about 45 minutes, (which, in the 110 degree heat, felt like days) certain we would succumb to dehydration and heat stroke, when a guy who said he was a tax driver offered to drive us. At that point, we would have paid anyone anything to take us anywhere. And, like everyone else we met in Brunei, he turned out to be very friendly and helpful.
I had wanted to see the Sultan’s palace and it was rumored that it might be open for Hari Raya. Our driver/new best friend drove us out to the palace, insisted on helping us cross the “busy” street (which we found very sweet), put us in a couple of those awful, boring poses in front of the locked gates and uniformed guards and snapped photos for us, then shuttled us back to VOTECH.
So we crawl into VOTECH, sweat gushing out of every pore, and are greeted, again, by the director and several staff members — all dressed in their holiday finery — who want us to join the Hari Raya party. We convince them that we really do need to change into something that isn’t dripping wet, and return to the party a few minutes later.
Men on one side. Women on the other. Two enormous tables piled high with food. (Coolers with Diet Pepsi for Alan.) Someone takes me by the hand (think Jewish mother only Muslim) and insists I start loading up my plate. “Take more, take more… Have you tried the satay?… Don’t miss the chicken soup…” I’m happy to oblige. I’m told that Alan and I can sit together since we’re “special guests” so I find a couple chairs on the “border” so as not to completely offend everyone. I make small talk with the woman next to me about the great food and stop myself just before blurting out one of my standard lines (Note to Nina: feel free to add this to your travel socializing repertoire) “The food here is so good. I don’t know how you stay so slim. If I lived here, I would weigh 100 kilos (220 lbs.)”
The problem is, most of the women did weigh well over 100 kilos, most of the men were huge, and many of the children and teens we saw were unhealthily overweight. It’s not that this is a country of large-statured, big-boned people. No, this is a country of mostly wealthy people who eat a lot of fast food, drive everywhere and get no exercise except, perhaps, strolling through an air-conditioned mall.
Back to the party…
Eventually, we’re introduced to some big wigs and try to be gracious and inquisitive although it is clear that the big-wigs are more interested in getting back to the food table for another helping of satay and fried noodles. We meet another Westerner who looks even more out of place than us — a young French woman with long strawberry-blond hair, wearing a short, sleeveless dress, who was just hired to teach there.
But it was the winding down of the party that was most amusing. Keep in mind that most of the attendees are teachers or administrative staff and probably not receiving the highest salaries. So, the party is over, the staff has to attend a meeting, and there’s a ton of leftover food. Out come the styro boxes and paper plates and people are just shoveling the leftovers onto plates, into paper cups, into Ziplocs, onto clipboards, into purses; wedging cans of soda under their arms, probably under their dresses. Within minutes, the food tables are nearly empty. It was just like any social service or teachers’ gathering. Nothing goes to waste.
We were urged to do the same but politely took only a small baggie of cookies and a can of soda. They were probably muttering to themselves, “No wonder those Americans are so tiny. They don’t eat anything.” Frankly, after looking relatively huge and not fitting into an XXL t-shirt in Malaysia, I was happy to be thought of as the skinny little tourist.
Later that evening, we explored the outdoor food market and the very indoor, air-con food court at the mall. Attached to the mall (did we mention it has a skating rink?) is a brand new, gigantic hotel — the largest in Brunei. As a result of Alan’s curiosity, Harriet’s unabashed willingness to ask anyone for just about anything, and the open, friendly nature of the Brunei people, we were treated to a private tour of the place. Pretty spectacular.
We never did get to see Michael Jackson (evidently he was in London that week) but we can certainly understand why he’s now calling Brunei his home. It’s a friendly, pretty, slightly weird place where excessive wealth is not such an oddity.
Brunei is a very Muslim country and it is nearly impossible to find alcohol anywhere. The souvenir I regret not having bought in the airport gift shop: A shot glass with a picture of the grand mosque on it.
Next up: Back to Singapore