Brunei is one of the smallest countries in the world, as well as one of the wealthiest. It is a tiny Islamic sultanate presided over by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, the 29th of his line. The country's full name is Negara Brunei Darussalam, translated as 'Brunei, the abode of peace'. It is virtually impossible to obtain alcohol in Brunei, and there is barely anyone on the streets past 9pm. You can set your clock to the 5am prayer coming from a nearby Mosque, of which there are many.
Brunei economy is heavily reliant on oil, which is in finite supply. Some estimates project the oil reserves to dry up by 2020. Unlike in the neighbouring Sarawak and Sabah, the forest reserves of Brunei have been spared for the time being, and the rivers are clear and unpolluted. The government is actively trying to promote Brunei as a tourist destination - unfortunately, they are targeting only the very wealthy. Brunei residents enjoy free health care, education and guaranteed pension at the moment, but it may become a less sustainable system in the near future.
Since its independence, Brunei moved its policies closer to the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB) is the name given to the national ideology, and it stresses Malay culture, Islam and monarchy. It is propagated through the ministries of education, religious affairs and information. Stricter dress codes and alcohol ban came into effect in 1991, while the study of MIB became compulsory in schools in 1992.
We left from Miri (Sarawak, Malaysia) and headed for the Brunei border, a mere 30km away. The terrain was quite flat the entire way. We got stamped out of Malaysia, and stamped into Brunei without hassles. All they were interested in was whether or not we had any alcohol to declare. Literally as soon as we started to head away from the border, the ambience visibly changed. Cars were whizzing passed us at high speeds, and no friendly waves or honks to be had. On our way to Kuala Belait we passed some beautiful forests, and stopped several times to observe groups of monkeys in the trees and hornbills flying overhead.
Kuala Belait has many suburbs, however, the town centre is very small and compact. Many westerners call this place home, and most of them are employed by Shell in various capacities. There are many cafes and restaurants that lack that SE Asian feel, and they seem more western at least on the outside. The food is pretty much the same as what we've been seeing in Malaysia. Muslim restaurants are most common, with a couple of other interesting options, such as a Malay-Thai restaurant. The shops are more streamlined and specialized. Unlike in Malaysia where each shop will carry everything from food, to underwear to aircon units, here each shop appears to focus on just a handful of items. We spend a couple of hours at a café waiting out the rain and people watching. We did not see many signs of poverty. No "kampung feeling" in this place, as Myles put it. Many brand new cars, and almost no scooters, fueled by the rich oil economy. Most places close down early. We walked back to our room in late evening, with only a few teenagers out by the beach, looking extremely bored.
We started riding early the next day, as it was a long ways to Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei's capital). We stopped early on to be tourists, and took photos of the local mosque, while watching 100s of children making their way to school. Afterwards we rode passed fields of oil pumps, and oil rigs in the distant China Sea. Except for the enormous body of water the landscape resembled that of Alberta. We decided to stop near a couple of oil pumps, as the gate leading to them was open, and no warning signs in sight. We continued riding towards BSB, when the road got busy with traffic, and the landscape became less and less interesting. We stopped in a town called Seria for some tasty masala thosai, but not before being reprimanded by a security guard about getting too close to the oil pumps, and riding circles around the helicopter pads. Apparently we were phoned in by some worried Shell employees, and by the time he made his way to the site we were long gone. Only a tad embarrassed we consumed a couple teh tarik while having a good time with the restaurant staff. They were quite intrigued about our bikes - a first in Brunei. By the time we arrived in Tutong, a town similar in size to Kuala Belait, it became unbearably hot outside. We took our time eating our lunch in the shade, and then some ice-cream before continuing on.
For the last bit of our ride towards BSB (another 45km) we chose to follow the old road instead of the new highway. The road was narrow, and there was no shoulder, but it took us passed many little villages with colourful homes and interesting people we would have missed if we followed the highway.
Riding into BSB we passed the extravagant Istana Nurul Iman, the sultan's palace. It is apparently larger than the Vatican Palace and no expense was spared in its construction (US$350 million). It has almost 1800 rooms, 200 bathrooms, and a banquet hall that seats 4000. It is open to the public only at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, when the sultan is often willing to meet his people.
The traffic in BSB was horrendous when we arrived. Children were being picked up from schools everywhere, and 100s of cars were stopped in the most inconvenient of places. To make matters even more interesting we were tired, hungry, lost and it was beginning to rain quite heavily. Eventually, we found refuge in a Muslim-Indian restaurant in the downtown core, with friendly staff and tasty food. We were not in any particular hurry to find a place to stay, but as it started getting dark and the rain kept on coming we knew we had to make our move. Brunei is expensive, and there is no such thing as budget accommodation here.
Easily the most interesting part of BSB was the Kampung Ayer. Kampung Ayer is made up of 28 water villages built on either side of Sungai Brunei (river) and a population of nearly 30000 people (half that of BSB). Most of the villages can be reached by a water taxi, of which there are many. Once there you can get around by following a maze of wooden plankwalks that connect brightly painted shacks, shops, schools, clinics and workshops.
The golden-domed Omar Ali Saiffudien Mosque sits prominently on the horizon. The sounds of prayer echo over the speakers, reaching distant parts of the city before dawn and at dusk. Groups of Muslim men can be seen heading towards the Mosque for their daily prayers at those times.