Sunday, March 18, 2018

March 12th – Uncovering Brunei’s “Soul”

There are some places that I lecture about, whose story is more interesting than the reality of actually visiting them. That's not quite the case with Brunei – a place where you pack a lot of sights into just one day – but it's not far off. In fact, one day here provides you with a range of interesting sights, but after much more than one day, I think the place could get a little boring and stifling.

Over the course of the day, we busily ticked off all the Brunei greatest hits – starting off at the Royal Regalia Museum, which celebrated the super-rich Sultan's royal extravagance. As a Brit, I'm hardly in a position to carp at another monarchy's showy opulence, given the magnificence of the British crown jewels, but those have been amassed over so many centuries. Here in Brunei, what we were seeing pretty much all dated from the current Sultan's lifetime – the result of an incredible rags-to-riches history, as enormous oil wealth has enabled the Sultan to amass a fortune in excess of $20 billion. Sadly, no photos were allowed of the best bits.

Actually, the levels of excess were fairly turned down in the Royal Regalia – to see the real levels of opulence, you'd need a personal invite to the huge Royal Palace, the largest residence in the world (with over 1,700 rooms), where the Sultan keeps his collection of 500 Rolls Royces, so many other super cars, and anything else that he likes to spend his loose change on. We had to settle for just peering in through the gates.

It's pretty difficult to detect much soul in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, however we then went to visit the slightly more lively suburb of Gadong, home to this tiny nation's biggest shopping mall. Even this was fairly deserted and lacking in character – even if there was no sense of an oppressive atmosphere that you might associate with a place that introduced Sharia Law four years ago.

After lunch, we were taken along the Brunei River to see if we could find any wildlife. There's not many national capital cities that can boast untouched rainforest so close to the city limits, so it was great to get to see some rare proboscis monkeys crashing around in the trees, just a few minutes upriver. Then, as we boated back, we passed a crocodile sunning himself on the riverbank, right outside the royal palace – all that oil wealth has enabled the Sultan to make sure that his domain is about as unspoilt as any country in the world.

We stayed on the river to see the "other" side of Brunei, to see some of the huge stilt village that sits on the river – home to 20,000 people, complete with shops, all the modern utilities, and of course, plenty of obligatory mosques. Given how much wealth there is, and how much the state (or the Sultan if you believe the hype) doles out to the people (free healthcare, free education, free housing, free anything you can think of), it's a little surprising to see these fairly rudimentary houses surviving into the 20th century. Certainly, the house that we were able to look around was pretty basic (the toilet flushed straight into the river) – although this may not have been very representative of the stilt village experience (how many wealthy people are willing to have groups of 30 foreigners traipsing through their house?).

In the evening, I joined the ship's tour to the lively Gadong Night Market – a place where finally I felt like this was a real, living, breathing place, where the locals hang out, ate and chatted in an informal, relaxed environment. The air was thick with smoke from the various food stalls, and the food was tasty (if not very healthy). The only thing missing was a beer to wash it down with – of course, not allowed in this dry country.

I might not want to live here myself; but if you're a local who's happy to keep up with Islamic teachings, then Brunei must be a pretty good place to live. Life is good in this oil-funded world…….  if you play by the rules.