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Living in a Muslim Paradise – Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam

Living in a Muslim Paradise
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque by Night
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque by Night
The ride into Bandar Seri Begawan from the city of Miri in the neighboring Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo was almost ludicrously convoluted. Five different buses and one ferry just to cover 100 freakin’ kilometers. Moreover, the roads were in surprisingly tatty condition considering that Brunei is one of the richest countries in the world and the Sultan routinely drives 120 MPH through the jungle in the middle of the night in $150,000 cars. To make matters worse, I had only managed five hours of sleep the previous night, due to being glued to a re-broadcast of the Oscars until 1:00 a.m. in my hostel’s TV lounge.

Brunei is best known for its Sultan, Sir Hassanal Bolkiah who held the title of Richest Man in the World for a good stretch until a combination of Bill Gates, the Asian economic crisis and the Sultan’s ne’er do well brother Prince Jefri’s out of control personal expenditures dropped the Sultan to number three. The country’s rich, but rapidly dwindling oil deposits are the source of the Sultan’s fortune and the resultant trickle down that has made this tiny dimple on the island of Borneo so affluent and the largest per capita consumer of cars in SE Asia. The entire country is a mere 5,765 square kilometers (slightly smaller than Delaware), smaller than its own cattle station, located in Willaroo, Australia (5,986 sq km). As if being one of the smallest countries in the world weren’t enough of a geographic anomaly, strangely, Brunei is actually split in two. The eastern Temburong district is cleaved from the rest of the country, separated by a finger of Malaysia, as a part of a dubious treaty forced on the Sultan in 1890 by the British adventurer and self-appointed raja of Sarawak, James Brooke. Alcohol is banned, dress codes are enforced and there’s no political accountability – the Sultan’s rule not only encompasses religious affairs, but he additionally holds the cabinet positions of prime minister, defense minister and finance minister – yet, there’s virtually no crime, unemployment or organized social discontent. It’s all roses right now, but it remains to be seen if this atmosphere can persevere as an economically questionable future without oil resources looms.

I was in Brunei for two reasons: Reason One; it was directly on the overland path between Miri and Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. Of course, I could have taken a painless flight from Miri to Kota Kinabalu for something like US$30 (by the way, Air Asia rules!), but that would have conflicted with Reason Two; passport stamp bragging rights. Now, by and large, veteran travelers unanimously stress that traveling is all about the quality and depth of experiences at each destination, not about how many places you’ve visited and how many stamps you have in your passport, but let’s be honest, it kinda is a little bit about the number of places you’ve visited and the stamps in your passport – FYI, my current passport, barely two years old, is going to need additional pages glued into it right around Thailand. Supa Star!!!

So there I was in Bandar with a fresh passport stamp and a decidedly thin number of offerings on hand. After having visited the tourist office twice, poured through my Lonely Planet and spontaneously consulted with an amorous restaurant manager who invited herself to join me during lunch (“You know something? You look like David Beckham!”), the list of genuine Bandar attractions that I had collected seemingly fell into three categories:

1) Boring
2) Over-hyped
3) Closed

It’s not as if the people of Brunei weren’t trying, they were just the unfortunate victims of circumstance, that being, as a rule, the Brunei establishment is not overly encouraging of fun. Indeed, it’s deeply devoted to anti-fun. The opposite of fun. Negative fun. And the leaders of devout Muslim countries do not burden themselves with trifling details like “amusement” and “pleasure,” unless you are the Sultan’s hedonism-happy brother (“Sixteen billion dollars? What sixteen billion dollars?”), then of course it’s game on. There are numerous, devastatingly strict social rules – e.g. boys and girls can’t hold hands – which is ludicrous when you consider that in many Muslim countries (India, Morocco) men can often be seen holding hands and even engaged in a loose embrace as they walk down the street together.

Women are socially handicapped and further restricted from the already conspicuous subjugation of fun, down to a strongly encouraged dress code where every bit of skin, aside from the hands and face, should be modestly covered. The iron grip on Girl Power is even enforced on foreigners at the border, where single females traveling alone are curtly turned around and sent back the way they came, lest they introduce any anti-establishment ideas into the local consciousness during their stay – or worse still, incite a sexual fervor among the men with their gratuitous displays of their naked calves and shoulders. However the biggest setback to a good time in Brunei is the delicate matter of adhering to one’s debilitating religious obligations. I quickly learned that Muslims are worse than the Spanish when it comes to business operating hours. Though with the Spanish, at least this lackadaisical approach to business is slightly forgivable as it revolves around relaxation and gratification, two values dear to my heart. In Brunei it’s all about prayer and when it comes time to pray everything screeches to a halt in a cloud of blue smoke. In my admittedly limited experience, Brunei businesses and attractions open roughly as follows:

Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday: 8:00AM – 8:40AM, 11:45AM – noon, 2:30PM – 2:35PM, 4:53PM – 4:57PM
Thursday: Closed
Friday: Closed
Saturday: Open at whim
Sunday: Closed, you idiot!

That’s it. Suffice to say that seeing Bandar’s precious few engaging sights was going to require exquisite timing and, as always, I sure didn’t have it.

The upshot is that Bandar is tiny. You can walk the length of the city center in just a few minutes. Plus, orientation is a breeze, which is effectively unheard of when you’re me, with the ocean bordering the south side of town and an eye-catching reservoir running down the street that fronts both the bus station and the Youth Hostel. I was never lost even for a second in Bandar.

Upon arrival I lingered in the ratty bus station for a few minutes. Lonely Planet had devoted a full sidebar to a legendary guide and all around savior of tourists named Danny who, when he isn’t leading tours, usually loiters in the bus station, accosting travelers and assisting them with anything imaginable. If no assistance is needed he just hangs out and keeps you company until your bus arrives, giving you a full rundown of every minute step of your upcoming journey, where to stay at your next destination and how to get decent weed anywhere in Asia. OK, I made that last one up.

Danny was nowhere to be seen and my random wandering of the bus station had already elicited queries from two helpful people wondering if I was lost. I headed for the Youth Hostel, the only budget accommodations option in Bandar, adjacent to an athletic facility just five minutes walk from the bus station. The rooms were grimy, the sheets were possibly unwashed and there was a micro-ant infestation, but it was air conditioned and it was only B$10 (US$6) per night. The next step up was B$35 per night and three kilometers out of town, so it was a gimmie. The beds in the hostel were the smallest beds meant for adults that I have ever seen. I’m a mere 5′-9″, but inconceivably I could not completely stretch out on these beds without both head and feet hitting the frame. I had to sleep at an angle. And it didn’t end there. While I am barely average size everywhere else in the world, I was one of the biggest people on the street in Bandar. With a little work on my hook shot, I could probably land a spot as the starting center on the Brunei national basketball team.

After the first of two friendly visits to the tourist office I stopped at a food center on the second floor of Bandar’s tallest building (17 floors). This is where I was accosted by the Philippine restaurant manager, Lasha, who in addition to being obsessed with my resemblance to David Beckham was quite friendly and an excellent host, going so far as to sneak me up to the top floor of the building for the best high-view of Bandar. She also did me a solid the next day and hooked me up with her friend Hanif, an Indian guy working in Bandar, who took me out to Bandar’s swanky new mall.

Bandar shuts down early. The sale of alcohol was banned in 1991, so there are no bars or clubs. Lasha conspiratorially told me about a secret bar that one might go to if one wanted to get their swerve on, but I wasn’t interested as I was still reeling from the long day of travel and poor sleep from the night before. I turned in soon after dinner.

My first full day in Bandar started out smoothly. I took a walk down to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, built by the previous Sultan, on the west side of town. It being a Friday, it was closed for the requisite Friday prayer-athon, but I was content with taking several satisfactory pictures of the exterior. From there I ventured out onto the bay, crossing two rickety bridges before submitting to one of the seven or so water taxis that were slowly tailing me, vying for my business for the trip out to the Kampung Ayer Water Village. This giant three-part collection of 28 villages is home to 30,000 people and built entirely on stilts connected by wood plank footbridges out in Sungai Brunei Bay. It’s stunningly enormous and robust. Like any sprawl of neighborhoods, there are rundown, slummy parts with deteriorating walls and trash floating in the water underneath, but there are also surprisingly swish sections with gleaming houses, well-tended gardens, satellite dishes and flashy motor boats moored to private docks.

The largest subdivision of Kampung Ayer is only accessible by boat (B$2 if you are a Rube Tourist traveling alone or 50 cents of you are in the conspicuous company of locals). I was the only tourist in the villages that morning and little kids constantly ran out of their homes to wave and yell ‘hello’ to me. I did my best to wave back to all of them, but I was busy keeping a vigilant eye on my footing. Many of the footbridges in Kampung Ayer could benefit from a little structural reinforcement. There were spots where support beams were failing and you could feel yourself perilously sink a few inches if you carelessly put your full weight on one single beam. Worse still, there were a couple spots where one or two beams had collapsed entirely, leaving a gap large enough for a distracted tourist to fall clean through into the murky waters below. Inevitably, there was always two or three people sitting on a nearby porch doing absolutely nothing near these precipitous spots, undoubtedly waiting in perverse anticipation like the crowd at a NASCAR race for some doofus to have an accident.

Kampung Ayer Water Village
Kampung Ayer Water Village
Back on the proper ground of central Bandar, I hustled through the intensifying mid-day heat up to the frigidly air conditioned Royal Regalia Museum, which as you might have guessed, is one big Sultan-loving, butt-kiss-fest. The opulently decorated, marble floored museum documents the Sultan’s birth, schooling, sporting achievements, sultan training, coronation, his 25th anniversary celebration as Sultan and all the schmoozing he’s done with various foreign dignitaries along the way. There was a lavish display of all his gifts, medals, ceremonial souvenirs and swimsuit calendars of his harem for 30 years running (I wish). My enjoyment of the almost comic levels of shameless demi-god-like worship of the Sultan was slightly overshadowed by the pleasurable sensation of padding around the place in my bare feet – everyone is required to leave their shoes, or in my case sport sandals, at the door – on the mirror-finish, cool marble floor which was pricelessly refreshing after a morning in Bandar’s punishing heat. I actually meandered through the medals display twice while I waited for my sweat-soaked shirt to completely dry off.

The day went sour from there. After a quick snack I high-tailed it to the bus station to wait for thirty minutes for the #39 bus which, despite the posted schedule, runs whenever the drivers feel like it, for the twenty minute ride out to a spot on the side of the road 500 yards past the Brunei Museum and adjacent Malay Technology Museum, because the questionably dedicated bus driver didn’t seem to understand that when someone gets up and stands next to the door of the bus and urgently shouts “stop!” three times after the he bypasses a stop without so much as slowing down that it means that the passenger wants to get off the bus (the driver spoke perfect English, as most people in Brunei do, in case you were thinking “lost in translation”). As I struggled with the door to the Brunei Museum, a guard came running up from deep inside the lobby and shouted through the door that the museum had closed 15 minutes earlier and would not open again for 2 and ½ hours. He went on to yell that I should come back after 2:30. I yelled back that I would sooner shove chopsticks up both nostrils until the tips touched than go through the process of traveling out to the museum again. He smiled and waved and I headed back into the city muttering darkly about the confounding state of Brunei’s business hours.

Back in central Bandar I walked a circle looking for something to do, but it was prayer-black-out time and with the exception of the Chinese temple, nothing was open. I took the opportunity to do some wi-fi abusing at a western coffee place. I ordered a giant slice of chocolate cake and sat there for four hours doing Internet business and then arbitrarily screwing around until I had killed both laptop batteries.

That night, I briefly entertained the possibility of heading out to Jeruddong Park Playground, a “gift” to the people of Brunei and questionably billed as the biggest amusement park in the world. Lonely Planet reported that it was usually next to deserted (I guess the novelty ran out pretty fast) and the sensation of having most of an amusement park to yourself was bizarrely memorable, but bus service to the park ceased at 5:30 p.m. and finding a taxi back into the city later in the evening, nevermind stomaching the fare, was no easy task. Not only do I not particularly dig amusement parks, but I definitely don’t dig amusement parks alone, so I passed.

That night I returned to Lasha’s restaurant to whine about how half my day had been wasted due to the damned Muslim devotion to praying. She introduced me to Hanif and demanded that Hanif take me to the new Setia Kenangan Mall, purportedly a happening place where all of the local young people went to hang out and not have fun on a Friday night. Being a grizzled veteran of malls (my home town of Minneapolis has the Mall of America, the largest mall in the US and second largest mall in the world), I wasn’t too enthused, but she insisted. So we went and boy was she right.

First off, true to Brunei’s devotion to overt displays of wealth, Setia Kenangan is by far the most extravagant mall I have ever seen. I wish I had brought my camera. Everything is done in gleaming tan marble and gold trim like the lobby of a five star hotel, with huge mosaics covering the ceiling. Apart from its appearance, it was business as usual for a SE Asia mall, particularly in the realm of nonexistent restrictions on noise pollution. All of the shops were trying to outdo one another with the music volume. It was like walking down the hall during the first week of classes in a freshman dorm. The music overlap was so thunderous that you couldn’t make out any one song unless you walked into a store and then it was so utterly deafening that you couldn’t even lean over to your buddy and say “Jesus, it’s loud in here!”

Shopping in SE Asia always has its surprises. Nearly all of the shops in this trendy mall seemed to have stacks of questionably cheap, but apparently legal DVDs with whole sections devoted to two-for-one DVDs, where they somehow crammed two movies on the same disk, often with a theme like Tom Hanks (“Castaway” and “The Terminal”) or a series (“Rush Hour” and “Rush Hour II”). A two-for-one DVD was going for about B$6 (US$3.50). Then there was something called VCDs which weren’t exactly DVDs, but simply seemed to be a disk with the movie burned onto it, no menu, no extras, just the film and nothing else. Purportedly VCDs will not play in all DVD players, but for the price of B$3 each (US$1.57), I was willing to take the risk.

We hooked up with some of Hanif’s friends and walked around observing the very, very subdued atmosphere of a Friday night at the wildest mall in town and the laughable mildness of what passes for “risqué” fashion in Brunei. Although the Muslim dress code for women to cover up from the toes to the neck and wear scarves over their heads is a mild constant in Singapore and Malaysia, I had not seen this practice at such intensity before Brunei. Scarfed women are in the majority here (but only just). Everyone else, mainly the Indian, Chinese, Philippine and Indonesian transplants, stay mostly covered up in deference to the comply-or-else country-wide dress code. The lack of skin on the street in Bandar is so pronounced that a woman in a skirt that shows knees and a tank top is enough to stop traffic. At the mall, we saw a Chinese girl in a skirt that was scandalously half way up her thighs. Hanif nudged me, smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I shook my head said “Dude, you have to get the hell out of Brunei as soon as possible. If you want to see some skin, go to Australia. And bring lots of clean underwear.”

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Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque
The next morning I resisted the urge to leap onto the first bus out of town and instead took one last whack at seeing a tourist sight in Bandar. The current Sultan woke up with mosque-envy one morning and ordered his own grandiose mosque to be built. I can’t find any numbers on the Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, but suffice to say the same money could have covered nearly a month of Prince Jefri’s living expenses. In lieu of an over-priced taxi ride, I braved the bus system once again to get myself to the mosque (you have to tell the driver that you want to go to the mosque or he’ll just turn right around and head back into town after he’s finished his swing through the suburbs. Honestly, this should have been a no-brainer. Let’s say you’re driving a bus in a place where western tourists stick out like a 12 foot, talking donkey and your route takes you past one single place of undeniable tourist interest. If you saw an obvious tourist get on your bus what would you conclude? That he was just there for the thrilling tour of the apartment complexes in the northern suburbs and wouldn’t mind if you truncated your route and headed back into the city at the three-quarters point? Well, if you did, you and my bus driver would have been a match made in…in whatever Muslims have. I finally got the point through to him when he and I were the only ones on the bus and I intervened just as he was preparing to swing onto the thoroughfare heading back to the city center).

You can see the Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque coming from quite a distance. It’s palatial, humongous and imposing. It gets better as you get closer. The mosque is completely covered in Italian marble, even the walkways out into the parking lot. The gigantic gold center dome is surrounded by a forest of smaller gold domes and four spires. I took a few longshot photos and then moved in for some much anticipated interior shots. I was intercepted by security almost immediately. They led me to a processing area where I had to sign in, surrender my bag (and camera, sniff, sniff) and don a black robe before I was allowed to climb the gorgeous twisting white marble staircase to the prayer area. With no photographic evidence, you’ll just have to believe me when I say it was appropriately decadent. Chandeliers, gold trim and mosaics decorated the walls and ceiling. Custom-made carpets with the image of the mosque woven into them covered nearly the entirety of the gorgeous marble floor. What a waste. Truthfully, aside from ogling the intricate gold ornamentation of the front, prayer area, there wasn’t a heck of a lot to look at. There was an unlabeled glass case off to the side with what appeared to be a massive, aged book written in Arabic (the Koran?). On the opposite side of mosque there was a similar glass case that was empty with a note saying that the book had been removed to fix “errors of interpretation” from the 11th century. I wondered if these were true interpretation errors or if the Sultan had decided that he didn’t like some of the stuff in the book about good Muslins not owning a fleet of luxury cars.

Although I haven’t been able to confirm this, rumor has it that years ago “Car & Driver Magazine” once printed the following (paraphrased) story: One night while the Sultan and a gaggle of his cronies were out tearing through the jungle in a few of the Sultan’s much loved Aston-Martins (he’s said to buy a dozen at a time), one of the Astons suddenly stopped dead for no apparent reason. The Sultan got on the cellular horn right there to the Aston-Martin home office, “requesting” that they attend to the issue, like now. The company, wanting to keep their best customer happy, leapt into action and chartered a cargo plane, filled with mechanics and a fully outfitted Snap-on Tools truck loaded in the hold, and broke a few aviation speed records jetting to Brunei. The truck raced to the scene of the breakdown and a team of men got to work troubleshooting. The problem? The car had run out of gas.

After admiring the very small library on the first floor of the mosque, I was offered the opportunity to climb the steps inside one of the four giant spires to take in the view. I did this, but the view was disappointing. The Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque is waaaay out of town and you can’t really see much more than trees and scattered apartment buildings from the spires. I eventually climbed down, returned my black robe and started the long and tiring ordeal of getting back into town from a neighborhood that is apparently not serviced by its appointed buses unless they have been commandeered by earnest tourists. After a futile wait for a bus, a lot of walking and a short ride from a stranger, I happened on a water taxi which ferried me back to the center for an inflated fee. I retrieved my bags from the hostel and headed for the bus station where I finally encountered the infamous Danny of Lonely Planet fame and passed the time talking with him about the attractions waiting for me in Sabah before I boarded my bus for the ferry dock.

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