There are references to the presence in China’s trading documents during the 6th century, Brunei embraced Islam centuries later and then enjoyed a period of Golden Age when, under the rule of the fifth sultan, it dominated the whole of the island and parts of the Philippines as well. The Portuguese and Spanish colonizers attempted to force their way into the lucrative trade routes during the 16th century, but were successfully repelled.
Along came the British in the early 19th century and used a different tactic and eventually land in Sarawak was ceded to James Brooke, who became known as the first Rajah of Sarawak. He forced a series of treaties on the Sultan and gradually eroded his power. In 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate, and its territory was almost completely absorbed by Sarawak until oil was discovered in 1929.
The present sultan’s father managed to keep Brunei out of the evolving Malayan confederacy, keeping the oil revenues for the protectorate. The sultanate was passed from father to son in 1967, and the current sultan, who had been educated in British private schools and graduated from Sandhurst, would have liked to maintain his close links to Britain, but was forced into complete independence in 1984 by the opposition of the internal political parties.
The political situation in Brunei today is complicated and I won’t go into it here. Brunei’s oil riches have given its 400,000 citizens unusual benefits considering the standard of living in the surrounding countries. The workweek is short, there are no income taxes, healthcare, schooling, and leisure and sports facilities are free, and everyone is entitled to a pension upon retirement. The literacy rate is 94% and the average life expectancy is 77 years of age.
Based on these statistics, one would imagine a visitor to expect an opulent capital, filled with impressive modern buildings on the scale of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Islam is very well entrenched, alcohol is banned for sale and the dress code is somewhat strict, but there is no sense that this is a fundamentalist state.
Tourists are welcomed and the residents are warm and friendly. The dress code and ban on alcohol do not apply to visitors, who are allowed to drink discretely in private. Most tourists make a quick stop while changing flights to other destinations, but there is plenty to see and do, especially if time is allowed to venture into the national parks and forest preserves.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We wanted to stay within walking distance of the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. There wasn’t a lot of choice of accommodation there so we opted for the Radisson, which has only recently taken over the former Sheraton site. It was a little confusing, because our Lonely Planet guidebook still lists the hotel as the Sheraton Utama Hotel.
We had read that rooms at the Empire Hotel, the extravagant former playground of the sultan’s wayward brother offers rooms on the internet at comparable prices, but we didn’t want to be a distant taxi ride from the stilt houses of Kampong Ayer on the river.
There was still plenty of daylight left so we set out on the two-hour walking tour outlined in our guidebook. We were surprised to find we covered the distances rather quickly, and there’s no way the walking tour takes two hours unless one actually enters the buildings along the route. Our walk gave us a good overview of the city centre and we ended up near a shopping complex rather hungry.
David spotted a Korean stall in the mall’s food court and we happily ordered our favourite meal of stone bowl bi bim bap with all its accompanying side dishes. It would have been nice to wash it down with an ice-cold beer, but we had to settle for green tea because of the ban on the sale of alcohol. We did have a nice drink back in our room at the hotel, prepared using the Tanqueray gin we purchased at the duty-free shop, mixed with the tonic, limes and ice provided by the hotel’s room service.
The next morning, we set off to explore the local vegetable and crafts market but found the place surprisingly empty, with only a few stalls selling a meager amount of fruit and vegetables and here and there, some traditional handicrafts. We explored a small portion of the stilt village that hugs the shore of the river flowing through the capital, but after eating a quick lunch, we set off on the local bus to check out the infamous Empire Hotel. I’ve done a separate journal entry for the hotel, because the history of the place warrants and the photographs I took warrant separate billing.