Hello from Brunei. Brunei Darussalam is one of the smallest non-island countries on earth. It is one of the most ancient sovereign states in South-east Asia and references to Poli, Puni or Bunlai, believed to be Brunei’s early names. Brunei is situated between Sarawak and Saba and is its own country and has its own currency - the Brunei dollar. Brunei was the seat of a powerful sultanate that wielded power over the whole of Borneo and the southern Philippines in 1888, it became a British Protectorate and a British resident was installed in the country in 1905. The country gained full independence on January 1, 1984. The current Sultan, his majesty Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the 29th descendent of one of the oldest continuously reigning royal families in the world, ascended the throne in 1967.
Its extensive oil fields have made a significant contribution to the financial wellbeing of its people. The country boasts a well established state education system, technical colleges and a state university. Healthcare is provided practically free of charge and the government runs a housing scheme which aims to provide all citizens with affordable homes. Schooling is also free here. Oil and gas, the country’s underground source of wealth, have also had a beneficial impact on its treasures above ground - the rainforest cover which has been kept largely free of logging activity. Brunei has some of the most intact primary rainforest in Borneo, teeming with a variety of colorful flora and fauna. Shell owns all exclusive rights to the oil and gas and the only stations you will find here in Brunei are Shell. Shell logo’s are everywhere and on everything. The minute we crossed the border into Brunei we could clearly see the difference between areas of Sarawak and the richness of its people. The housing structure is way different, the homes actually look like homes you would find back in Canada rather than metal pieced together.
Brunei has a population of 400,000 people, is strictly an Islamic country with Islamic customs, has an average temperature of 28 - 32 degrees Celsius all year round, is 443km north of the equator and is surround on three sides by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Alcohol, sale and public consumption is forbidden.
We arrived just shortly after 6pm, we found a youth hostel about 3 minutes down from where the bus dropped us off. Men and women are separated in dorm rooms and there are areas where both men and women are not allowed to enter. Because they couldn’t find a female dorm room to accommodate both Delphine and I they ended up putting us together in the same room as Jason and Nick. They said their room was a ‘family room’ anyways so it would be ok if we stayed in it with them. It contained two sets of bunk beds and had air conditioning. Only rule was that we used the women’s facilities to shower in. After getting settled into our room we decided to go walk around town and head towards the water village jetty.
We strolled the streets of downtown Brunei, very clean and a buzz of activity taking place all around you. Everyone is very friendly and offering you directions if needed or even a car ride somewhere if you are too far away from your destination. This is something we are not used to so it comes as a breath of fresh air for us. The streets are lined with Christmas lights (although not on) and mosques can be found at almost every corner. Once in a while you hear the speaker, calling everyone to prayer.
We found a group of men and boys racing remote control cars on an actual well laid out race track. Turns out that yesterday there was a two day remote control race car championship here. We got to talking to some of the race car owners, one was entered in and came out in 5th place overall. He let both Jason and Nick take his car for a spin around the track a few times. They took us up on top of a building that overlooks down on the track to get a better vantage point for the guys. Pretty fun. We hung out for a bit and headed on back to our dorm room to retire for the night.
Dec. 14th: Today we took a water taxi ride over to Kampong Ayer. Brunei's famed Water Village, it is a preserved national heritage site and the largest of its kind in the world with approximately 30,000 residents. It is over 1,000 years old and stretches about 8km along the Brunei river. Self-contained, it is equipped with schools, police stations, clinics, a fire brigade and mosques. It truly is a 'water world'.
Kampong Ayer has existed since the 10th century A.D, and is actually a cluster of villages each with their own village leader and the villages are connected by a complex web of walkways and bridges. Its historical importance lies in the fact that Brunei's civilization started here with fishing as the one main livelihoods of the villagers. There was a concentration of skilled craftsmen producing handicrafts from brass, silver and wood were traded within the region, hence granting the water village a status of commercial and social importance.
We walked around the water village, stopping to talk to a few locals along the way. Saw some children playing and swimming in the waters below. It is like a little city of its own, we passed by colorful schools, a modern looking police station, the fire hall is very nice and the water taxi's don't stop - they are picking up and dropping off local villagers constantly. Very cool to see.
We walked to the mall and look around a bit. Headed towards the information center and met a Chinese/Islamic man by the name of Rudy. His mom is Chinese but his dad is a born and raised Islamic from Brunei. Because of the mixed marriage, Rudy cannot be a legal Brunei citizen. Rather he has an 'immigrant' status and does not receive any of the free healthcare or free schooling like the others. Rudy is quit the character, he was very good with his information and supplied us with a lot of good places to go and see along our travels in Borneo. It was just a little after 12 noon so Rudy invited to take us to the local food market for some Malaysian food.
We filled our plates with three main ingredients and rice for a total cost of $1 Brunei, cheapest and best lunch we have ever had. Delicious! Rudy is very camera shy but we managed to capture a photo of him eating with us at the food stall. Most of these stalls were of Malaysian or Indonesian descent, the Islamic Muslims do not care for them and do not recognize them as citizens. They do not even enter or agree to be in the same food market as them so there is a 'Brunei' Muslim food market located just outside the town center.
We made arrangements with Rudy to call an express bus for us to pick us up early in the morning (6am) to take us to the boat/ferry that crosses over to Kota Kinabalu. First it stops at a tax free island called Labuan where we will have two hours to have a quick bite to eat and shop for tax free alcohol and chocolate. This island is a favorite for the inhabitants of Borneo Malaysia as the alcohol and chocolate is extremely over priced here for them. From Labuan we take another ferry to Kota Kinabalu where we should arrive just shortly after 5pm.
We walked around town taking more pictures and saying our final good-byes to Brunei. We are very glad we decided to come to Brunei, initially it was for the extra stamps in our passports, one more country to add to our count and it was cool to know that Brunei operates as its own country within Borneo. Now we have experienced a country that is rich in culture and money but also rich in its citizens. Very warm and friendly people abound everywhere here, it is not touristy and we were never hassled or ripped off in any way. Brunei is a beautiful place.