A karate movie scatters yells, crashing, and thuds around us like the splinters of a chair smashed to smithereens. Between fight scenes, a man-sized eagle watches lingerie-clad women dancing on television. The English subtitles make no sense whatsoever. It is utterly weird. I watch it to pass the time.
We are on a one-hour ferry trip to Brunei. We just spent an hour on the island of Pulau Labuan for lunch after a three hour ferry from Kota Kinabalu. We left our guest house at 7AM; we will not finish travelling today until 4PM.
Finally, we arrive at the ferry terminal. As we stand in line at Brunei immigration, we watch as the official moves a family with four children to the front of the line. Later, he turns on the air conditioner and directs it the vent at us to keep us cool as we wait. We are not officially in the country yet, but already these simple gestures make us feel we are entering a kind, gentle place.
Outside the ferry terminal, we find a money changer with reasonable rates. 50 metres away, the express bus to BSB idles. The 40 minute journey only costs $2 each, the equivalent of $1.40 CDN. When we arrive at the bus terminal, I go in search of a pay phone to call a hotel. We place we plan to stay is 2 km outside of town and we don't want to make the trip if its full. I find a shop selling phone services. A woman points toward the phone I should use and says sorry. She then gets me a chair to sit in and apologizes again. After letting the phone ring for at least 4 minutes, I hear a click and then silence. I venture a "hello." A man murmurs on the other end. "Is this Apek Utama hotel?" I ask. He says it is. "Do you have any rooms?" "Take number 39 bus," he replies. I assume that means there ARE rooms. When I pay for the phone calls, the woman apologizes a third time, smiling. I guess Canadians aren't the only ones who say 'sorry' all the time!
The bus driver asks us where we're going and says the name of our hotel before I do. Does everyone stay there, I wonder?
A few minutes later (was that really 2 km?), the driver stops in front of our hotel. A passenger says hello to me in a squeaky voice. He waves, then says goodbye as I unload our bags. Several people on the bus look at us with big smiles and wave as we roll our bags toward the hotel. Wow, people here are friendly!
We walk through an empty parking lot to a lobby stacked high with laundry. Sheets and towels are piled on the counter, chairs, and the floor. After a few minutes, a man appears, apologizes, and asks if he can help us.
Our room is very nice with air conditioning, a comfortable bed, and little touches like art on the walls and a loveseat. The bedcovers even match! It is one of the nicest rooms we've had.
It doesn't take us long to figure out we're the only people in the multi-storey hotel. It feels a little eerie, but at least we should get lots of attention! I have to wonder, though, where all the travellers are?
We take a boat taxi back into town for dinner. The little speedboats shuttle people up and down between river jetties for a dollar each. Our boat bounces along the waves as the sun sets in the distance and wind blows in our hair. A pleasant trip. When we disembark, I notice Laura is not so enthusiastic: she looks shaken and a little nauseous. She likes boats less and less with every trip she takes, I think.
We find a table amongst an array of foodstalls, choosing one with the most people. An Australian woman nearby beacons us over to her riverside table. She's just leaving, she tells us, and can give us her table. She ends up staying, however, and we enjoy talking with her. She's travelling on her own to visit her sister, and she is eager to speak with another Westerner. We're happy to oblige
I enjoy my dinner, a large plate of thick rice noodles with seafood, and a platter of chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce. Very tasty indeed.
When the Australian woman leaves, a man approaches. He and his wife run the food stall, he tells us, and his daughter serves the food. We talk for a while and he is happy to give us some information about the city and how to instruct the boat taxi where we should be dropped off. He is a kind man who seems quite happy to visit with us and help us if he can. Like almost every person we've encountered since we arrived, he is friendly and cheerful toward us. Curious, too, about what brought us to Brunei.
The restaurateur gave us directions to the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, and we decide to walk the short distance to view it lit up at night. He tells us if we have any other questions, he will be at the restaurant until 9:30 and would be happy to help us.
We walk along streets almost empty of traffic and into a huge, very clean square almost equally empty of people. It is immediately apparent how small BSB is with its population of only 50,000.
The mosque itself is spectacular, rivalling the Taj Mahal in sheer size. The image of the massive mosque reflected in the still pool that surrounds it is impressive indeed.
Some photos and another boat taxi ride, and we are back at our very quiet hotel getting settled for the night. We're tired after a long day of travelling. In retrospect, this is probably the greatest variety in transportation we've ever had on our trip in one day: a taxi to the ferry terminal, two ferries to Brunei, a bus downtown, another bus to our hotel, and a speedboat back and forth to dinner!
With one day to explore the city of Bandar Seri Begawan (generally known as "BSB"), we wake early to walk the two km into town. We soon discover that this oil-rich country has lots of wealth for cars and not much interest in sidewalks. The roads aren't so busy to make teetering on the curbside anything close to dangerous, and we're soon in a coffeeshop eating breakfast, enjoying excellent coffee, and perusing the world newspapers. A very acceptable way to start the day!
Our first stop, after confirming bus transit information with the tourist office, is a daylight visit to the impressive Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Built in 1958, it is the tallest building in BSB (and the sultan ensures it stays that way). It is an incredibly elaborate building with floors and walls made from imported Italian marble, stained-glass windows made in England, and carpets brought from Saudi Arabia and Belgium. The inner dome is covered with a 3.5 million piece Venetian mosaic.
Upon entering, we are both given floor-length black robes to cover our clothing and are told to only walk on the strip of carpet laid down the centre of the interior. It is clear that our bare feet are not to step off that carpet!
It is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see the inside of a mosque, and we appreciate not only its grandeur, but also wonder at the meaning and purpose of some of the things we see. What looks like two large silver and white hookah pipes stand at the entrance. Large chandeliers hang overhead like the pendulums of giant clocks. I wish we could have had a guide tell us more about what we were seeing, but are glad to have had the chance to look inside nevertheless.
Outside, an artificial lake partly surrounds the mosque and a stone replica of a 16th century royal barge sits in the middle. It is a beautiful place, if hot in the midday sun.
Next we walk down the street to the Royal Regalia museum, dedicated to paraphernalia of and gifts to the sultan, the world's richest monarch. There are corridors of gifts from various heads of state to the king (Jean Cretien presented a rather out of place looking walrus carved out of green rock). There are gold and silver daggers, desk sets, extravagant crystal bowls, and even gold and silver models of mosques and other important buildings. This culminates in a room where the crown and coronation artifacts are displayed, including a solid gold arm on which the king can rest his chin during the ceremony, a solid gold umbrella with a canopy of gold thread to keep him cool, and other necessities. So this is how the other half lives ...
Most interesting is the well-presented section on the political history of Brunei as a British protectorate. As the documents on display spell out in detail, it was agreed that Britain would manage all of Brunei's foreign affairs, import and export goods, and use the country as a military base, all in exchange for keeping the waters around the country free of pirates. Not a bad deal for Britain. It wasn't until the 1970s that Brunei had a written constitution (there was an unwritten one before that ... which means it was whatever the king decided). Interestingly, the museum's quite thorough display says nothing of Brunei's current political situation: the 1962 rebellion when the sultan refused to allow the elected government to take power, the British-backed quashing of the rebellion, and the subsequent 42 years of 'emergency' law. However, the people of Brunei have many reasons to be happy: 94% literacy, pensions for all, free medical care, free schooling, short work weeks, no income tax, and the highest minimum wages in the region. Students are even paid a wage to attend university! All this is supported, of course, by the enormous oil wealth of the country.
After a very tasty lunch, we catch a bus to visit the Jame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah mosque outside of town. It is the largest mosque in Brunei and, if anything, architecturally more impressive than the one we visited earlier in the day. Once again donning black robes and leaving our camera and bags at the security desk, we walk up the huge marble staircase between marble pillars ... everything is white marble! Its huge spires, viewed up close, are covered with tiny tiles to form an incredibly detailed and painstaking mosaic. We are not allowed into the inner chamber, but we enjoy the views we have.
As we return to the security counter to retrieve our bags, the guard motions for us to follow him. He shows us a "general purpose" room with a ceiling made from what looks like teak beams. Then he brings us to the library. You can read, he encourages us, pointing to the shelf of English books. "Please ... this is the Quran," as he shows us the massive multi-volumed book. I'd just been telling Laura about how I know nothing about the Muslim faith! Soon we are seated and I am reading the introduction and some verses. Unfortunately, a half-hour later, the guard returns to tell us visiting hours are over: prayers will begin soon. He apologizes and encourages us to come back the next day if we are interested.
I leave marvelling at the experience I've just had: reading the Quran in the library of Brunei's largest mosque.
After a brief stop in an air-conditioned mall to cool off , we walk down to the river to hire a boat for a tour of Kampung Ayer, a series of water villages housing about 30000 people. Everything from schools, houses, shops, fire houses, and gas stations all exist in the huge villages of stilt houses perched over the river. Connecting them are walkways and water taxis. It is like an entire city on its own, except there is no land. Electricity, plumbing, and water is all provided to the buildings, and many have satellite dishes, beautiful gardens, bay windows, and are obviously very comfortable modern houses. Others are more basic, clearly belonging to the poor (usually low-income immigrant workers ... native Brunei-ians are rarely, if ever, poor).
As our boat idles past, children call out and wave to us. When they notice their children's waves, the parents turn, smile, and wave at us too. We see children walking home from school along wooden boardwalks, the girls' heads covered with white cloth. Kites fly overhead in the late-afternoon wind. I marvel at how many houses, schools, and other buildings there are perched over the water on long stilts. 30000 people seems too few a number for the amount of dwellings we see!
We stop briefly to look at Istana Nurul Iman, the sultan's massive palace. We can only see it from a distance and it is mostly obscured by trees. While it resembles an extravagant shopping mall from the outside, it apparently cost US$350 million, has 1788 rooms, 200 toilets, and a banquet hall that can seat 4000!
After an hour on the river, our boat drops us off downtown and we wander back to the nearby foodstalls for dinner. Seafood noodles, chicken satay, and mango juice are quite satisfying as we watch dark clouds gathering in the distance, flashing with lightening. A storm is brewing.
By the time we eat, stop by a grocery store for some breakfast things, and re-emerge onto the street, heavy rain has begun to fall. Our umbrella and rain ponchos remain back in our hotel room. We have only one choice: wrapping the camera and bread in plastic, we head out into the rain and onto a water taxi.
The rain slaps our faces as our boat bounces over the water in the half-light of evening. The air is warm; the water is cold. We are soon soaked to the skin. "You won't need a shower tonight!" the boatman calls to us as we leave. True ... nor will we need to do laundry!
The day ends with the typical pre-departure packing and organization. Laura makes us peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. It will be an early day and several bus rides to reach our destination, the Malaysian town of Miri.
In the morning, we quickly dress, finish packing, and head out to the road to catch a bus into town. When we are halfway across the parking lot, the manager emerges from the front door. "Sorry! Goodbye!" he calls to us, waving. He watches us leave, smiling and waving.
As we stand on the roadside waiting for our bus, a man motions to me from his house near the road. Unable to hear him, I approach. "Car, ride to town?" he half-asks, half-states. "No thanks," I answer, "we take bus." I guess he wanted to earn a little extra money by driving us into town. I'm sure the bus will be cheaper. A few moments later, a large Toyota Landcruiser pulls up beside us. A veiled woman rolls down the window and asks if we would like a ride. Confused, I ask how much she would like for the ride. "No no," she replies, "nothing, nothing!" she smiles. Surprised, we accept, loading our bags into the back and sliding into the pristine leather upholstery. The man who called to me earlier runs over to help us load our bags, looking very happy. Perhaps he had been offering to drive us to the station as well? The woman's car looks like it just came off the lot yesterday. She smiles, asks where we're from, and tells us she knows about Vancouver from television and from reading. Her English is perfect, and she has a refined way of speaking that underlines what we know already: we are being driven to town by one of Brunei's many ultra-rich citizens.
She drops us in front of the bus station, modestly accepting our prolific thank-you's for her kindness before driving away.
It is a fitting end to our time in Brunei, a place of beautiful mosques, pristinely clean public spaces, and extravagant shopping malls. In Singapore, this sort of wealth made me long to leave. Here, though, it is the people who are the country's greatest attraction. Kind, gentle, and generous, they made us feel welcome from the moment we arrived. Everyone was eager to help us and even more so when they learned we are from Canada. Perhaps it is because few tourists come here. Perhaps it is because it is so small. Perhaps the people are simply special. Whatever reason, the people have made Brunei one of the best experiences of this trip ... and alongside Amritsar in India for the most kind and gracious people we've encountered.
We spent only two days in this little country, but they were special.
Farewell Brunei! We wish you well.