By John S. Hamalian
Nestled in a cozy corner of the giant isle of Borneo, the tiny sultanate of Brunei is as obscure as it is intriguing. A less travelled destination, the country’s charms only reveal themselves upon closer inspection. Just twice the size of Luxembourg, Brunei’s small size belies its considerable history, power and wealth. Over the centuries, it has thwarted Spanish imperial aggression, withstood dominance by the White Rajahs, eluded absorption into Malaysia and endured British colonialism. This fiercely independent little nation woke up one fortuitous morning to find something that would dramatically change its course in history. The discovery of huge reserves of oil would turn Brunei into one of the richest countries in the developing world, and its Sultan into one of the wealthiest people on the face of the Earth.
The Other Side of Venice
My journey to Brunei, whose full name is actually Negara Brunei Darussalam (‘Abode of Peace’ in Malay) began in its capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan, mercifully relieving us with its infinitely less linguistically daunting nickname of ‘BSB’. Feeling more like a big town than a huge city, dominating Bandar’s modest skyline is not gleaming office towers but the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Although only dating back to 1958, the design is timeless. Its majestic Islamic architecture, absorbing Mughal and Malay artistic themes, is permeated with golden domes, grand arches, pearly white columns and beckoning minarets. I found myself mesmerized by this place, visiting more than once, silently gazing at its simple yet powerful elements.
Another prominent feature of BSB is Kampong Ayer, an offshore town built on stilts, said to be the world’s largest floating village. Amazingly, this amphibious abode was once home to half the entire population, even serving as the de facto capital of the erstwhile Bruneian Empire. Such were the early European travelers intrigued by its resemblance to a certain waterborne city that they nicknamed it ‘The Venice of the East’. While that now-cliché term is ubiquitous throughout the Far East, it is believed that here was the very first. Despite its seemingly humble origins, this aquatic community is actually a thriving miniature metropolis, complete with mosques, schools, cafes and gas stations. Its people scamper around town in little boats much the way others hop around in cars. Really more of a mini-city, sprawling Kampong Ayer is actually a village of villages, dozens of them; each one with their own village chief and even unique postcodes! One of the advantages of visiting countries with relatively few visitors is the ability to wander around these types of fascinating ‘living history’ sites with little fear of tourist traps. And while one can find many floating villages in Southeast Asia, this ought to be one of the easiest to access of them all.
Apart from mosques, aqua-villages and the impressive Royal Regalia Museum, the most renowned place in Brunei is the Sultan’s palace, Istana Nurul Iman. With an incredible 1,788 rooms, the complex is even bigger than Vatican Palace and is considered to be the world’s largest residential palace. Although normally closed to the public, once a year, at the end of Ramadan, the doors are flung open for three days for all citizens and visitors to enjoy. The Sultan himself, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, is the 29th ruler in an incredibly long-surviving dynasty that has endured for more than six centuries. This same lineage oversaw Brunei’s prosperity during its golden age from the 15th to 17th centuries. In those days, Brunei was a powerful sea-faring empire whose territory at one time included nearly all of Borneo, as well as large swathes of the present-day Philippines, before being eventually whittled down to its current diminutive state.
After fending off aggressive neighbors and foreign intrusions, Brunei had become a British protectorate in 1888, though it never lost its basic sovereignty, nor its Sultan his pride. In 1984, Brunei finally gained its full independence from the United Kingdom.
Nobody seems to know exactly how wealthy the Sultan of Brunei - at times rumored to be the world’s richest man - really is, though some estimates peg his worth at a not-too-shabby 20 billion dollars (ahh, the power of good ‘ole compounding interest). This good fortune mainly stems from the discovery of vast oil and natural gas reserves dating back to 1929, no doubt contributing to Brunei’s long tradition of autonomy. Some of this financial abundance has rubbed off on the people, with free healthcare and free education through university level available for all. Like a tiny bastion of prosperity, Brunei is somewhat of an anomaly when compared to its neighboring Malaysian and Indonesian provinces sharing the mammoth island of Borneo, third largest in the world, enjoying consistent economic success and high rates of literacy and life expectancy. Interestingly, Borneo is the only island on earth that is administered by three different countries. A strikingly beautiful place, Borneo balances natural splendor, amazing wildlife and tribal culture with critical environmental issues such as massive deforestation due to logging and palm oil plantations.
A Taste of the Locals
While exploring a fine little museum and ancient royal sites in the extreme outskirts of the capital, I decided it was time to take a bus back to the city proper. As I stood outside in the sweltering heat, sweat dripping down my tanned face, I was surprised as the approaching bus drove straight past me, despite my frantically waving hand to try to get the driver’s attention. Just then I noticed some locals who were watching me and seemed to be trying hard to control their laughter. One of them approached me and proclaimed in perfect English, “No, no, you must not use your hands like that – the driver will think you are saying hello to him!” My newfound friend then showed me how to outstretch the palm of my hand to properly gesture to the driver, although he and his buddy offered to drive me downtown in their car, saving me the trouble. Unaccustomed to meeting foreigners, while on the road they peppered me with questions, such as “Where do you come from?”, “What is your religion?” and “Do you like our country?” After arriving in the city, I departed with lots of thanks and a hearty exchange of smiles and well wishes.
During my brief stay in Brunei, my experiences with the people were similar to this – a curious, warm and friendly lot with a relaxed, content kind of demeanor. My few regrets on this trip were my choice in itinerary, clothes and footwear. I failed to suitably plan and pack for the wide variety of natural beauty Brunei has to offer, from unspoiled beaches to tropical jungles dripping with wild flora and fauna. If you are keen on a rainforest walk, this must be one of the most accessible ones in the world, and I recommend to anyone coming who even remotely enjoys the outdoors to bring a sturdy set of shoes and a strong sense of adventure. Brunei can be a refreshingly different, brief get-away from the typical big city grind – here in this tiny wonder one can do many different things in a very short amount of time.
On the Cusp of Fate
Brunei today is at somewhat of a crossroads, though only the latest in many it has had to face in its challenging past. Fully aware that its oil reserves will not last forever, perhaps only a scant few more years, the Sultan has been preparing the nation to be far less dependent on energy for its prosperity. Thus, the fine people of this petite nation, who for centuries have had every major decision made for them by a man descended from the same lineage, will have to increasingly learn how to act for themselves in an ever more complex and connected world. Like the Wizard’s curtain rising in Oz, the thin veil of civic solitude covering the land will slowly and perhaps reluctantly be lifted as this little enclave of humanity becomes more intertwined with global economics and affairs. Somehow, though, it is clear that the proud and independent people of Brunei will find a way to evolve at their own pace, in their own way, and all by themselves.