“…I flew into Borneo direct from Bali. It was good to be back on Malaysian soil where things are a little more developed and go a little more smoothly than in Indonesia. Street lighting, an absence of nagging touts and huge craters in the pavement, hot running water, internet which works and internet cafes that aren’t split into convenient ‘masturbation booths’ (I’m not kidding – this is the set-up in Jakarta – and the fella running the place goes in with air freshener afterwards. True story.) Despite the relative comforts, you still have to go to Brunei before zebra crossings hold any authority and the toilets can handle toilet paper. I almost peed a little with delight when a car actually stopped at a crossing in Brunei – I thought it was coincidence at first, but he actually ushered me across with his hand and a smile. I also managed to hitch-hike without even holding out my thumb, such was the amicable nature of the locals.
Brunei Darussalam is indeed an odd little country – a super rich oil state of under 400,000 people ruled by the world’s longest running hereditary monarch, a somewhat eccentric multi-billionaire sultan. Life expectancy and literacy are excellent, health care, leisure facilities and education are free for all, there is no tax, many purchases – including cars and petrol – are heavily subsidised (petrol went up recently to 20p a litre – still 5x cheaper than a bottle of water.), the working week is comparatively short and in 1994 the sultan gave the nation a free theme park. The king himself is one of the world’s richest people (worth $55.63 billion) and he resides in the world’s biggest palace with between 5000 luxury cars (531 Mercedes Benzs, 367 Ferraris, 362 Bentleys, 185 BMWs, 177 Jaguars, 160 Porsches, 130 Rolls-Royces, and 20 Lamborghinis). At one point he was buying half of everything Rolls Royce manufactured. He has 3 wives to chase around his grand abode – which is bigger than Vatican City and features 1,788 rooms and 257 bathrooms – yes, he could do his business in a whole new toilet almost every day of the year. The king also owns six small planes, two helicopters and a Boeing 747-400 furnished with gold plated furniture with an estimated value of $233 million. Criticism of the big man is a serious faux pas, and compared to the Thais, there isn’t a constant outpouring of adoration for the guy – perhaps just a thankful tolerance of his extravagance.
Despite being known as the ‘Shellfare state’, Brunei is highly dependant on imports, unemployment is high, media tightly controlled, and it’s struggling to find itself a future beyond its unsustainable oil wealth. Plus although on paper Bruneians are amongst the world’s richest people, in reality – there is a large underclass of imported labour that are literally consigned to living on a lake. That said, inhabitants of the floating village (Kampung Ayer) are still far from poor compared to many Asians and they welcome tourists to explore their town complete with floating mini-petrol stations, fire houses, schools and clinics.
The village lies in the sleepy capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) – it has a similar size, feel and level of infrastructure as Vientiane or, say, Dudley, back in England (without the chavs or the castle). One big shopping centre, no skyscrapers, a few other shops, government buildings and mosques – and that’s about it. It’s a very expensive, humid but clean city and the locals are friendly, the museums are good fun and as long as you don’t disparage the sultan, you probably won’t go to jail. Such is BSB’s prosperity, that page 4 of the local newspaper (page 1 usually features the sultan) showed a picture of a single rogue pothole! It’s the only developed place in the entire state; the rest is just jungle, oil fields, roads, swamps and a few villages. It’s as if no-one can really be bothered – or is too rich – to make an effort and build up the country, but I suppose the populace is tiny. As a ‘dry’ country (no alcohol; suits me), there is little to do in the evening except go to bed (as I did at 9pm!), even the two cinemas have apparently shut down. During my last evening in Brunei, I made the error of strolling down a dark alley after the city went to bed at 9pm – I was accosted by a gaggle of prostitutes (yes, that is the correct collective noun), some of which were not quite women. It goes to show that sleaze and late-night ‘entertainment’ are still available even in the golden Islamic Kingdom – and if you want booze or gambling, Malaysia is a short boat/bus ride away. Suffice to say, I escaped the gender-ambiguous prostitutes and watched a dodgy horror film on my mini computer.
Though relatively light on the tourist attractions, the Royal Regalia Museum was good fun, as was a sunset boat taxi through the floating village to see the palace. The Regalia Museum is home to the most impressive collection of tat, junk and chintz you’ll ever see – a real assortment of crap collected from various world leaders and diplomats. Stuff the sultan is obviously too embarrassed to have around his palace. We’re talking wooden horse heads, a mini gold-plated oil drilling platform, tacky tea sets, figurines and other insanely useless rubbish. The least-worst stuff came from Africa but it was easy to see why the king had stashed it all in a museum rather than have to look at it….”