Published on October 12th, 20134
It was the very tail end of my 6 week wander around Nepal and Malaysian Borneo. 40-odd days of new sights and remarkable experiences ranging from enduring more than an hour of sheer torture getting “inked” in Kathmandu (I mean, I actually PAID for that pain – whatwasIthinking???), to batting off a slew of rare swallows (famous for creating the pricey nests for “Birds Nest” soup) in the dark of night along the Kinabatangan River – that were swarming out of a cliff cubby just 12 inches from my face!
Ah but I digress. The question remains: Why Brunei?
Simply put – much like a little hill called “Everest” (which, btw I sadly did NOT glimpse whilst meandering around Nepal):
Because it’s THERE.
While I knew Brunei shared a border with the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo (indeed, is one of few “single border” countries in the world – i.e. you must pass through another country to get in/out of it overland), I wasn’t especially interested in adding a third country to my little romp in Nepal and Malaysia. And I most certainly wouldn’t dream of hopping on a plane simply to add the little kingdom to some silly “life-list” of countries I’ve stumbled into.
But I WAS a tad curious to take a peek at a country dubbed “The Abode of Peace”, not to mention filthy rich in oil (indeed, a country that hosts a geocache hidden at a monument extolling the “Billionth Barrel”). And when I found out that I could get to Brunei by BOAT I was sold. Just a matter of a 3 hr. ferry to a wee Malaysian isle off the coast of Brunei, then another 1 hr. ferry to the kingdom. And even better – no visa required – yay!
So that’s what I did – ferried from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan Island, spent the night at a cozy homestay (private a/c room 50 ringgits – about $15: Siang Guesthouse, highly recommended), and then hopped on the 1 hr. ferry to Brunei the next morning (the cheapest option for a night in Brunei was more than a c-note). Arriving at the Muara ferry terminal, I hired a taxi (40 Brunei dollars – about US$35) to take me into the capital (Bandar Seri Begawan) to two of the most celebrated Brunei mosques (Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah and Omar Ali Saifuddien) along with a visit to the Royal Regalia museum.
The mosques were (as one might expect): op.u.lent. And the museum? Chock full of royal trinkets ranging from a miniature of the Taj Mahal to full-blown chariots – all made of solid GOLD. Most interesting was the exhibit of all the sumptuous gifts to his royal highness from most every head of state in the world (though strangely… I could find none from the United States…)
And though I don’t presume to have seen all that the sultanate of Brunei might have to offer the traveler, I must say, other than a handful of ever-more-gilded mosques and a few museums, the Brunei landscape, the architecture, the waterfront etc. – all struck me as rather bland. Fine highways, but otherwise mostly what appeared to be suburban sprawl. YMMV of course as I only had a single day there. But it was enough to satisfy my curiosity.
I might also be a tad bitter ‘cuz… after my cabby kindly took me to the city’s highlights (and patiently waited whilst I scurried around taking photos in the sweltering heat – I bid him take me on a wild-goose-chase – seeking a geocache of course! But that too proved disappointing – following the arrow on my GPSr, into one dead-end suburban cul-de-sac after another. Finally, with the distance on my GPSr showing just 500 feet to the prize, we bumped into yet another dusty dead end with a steep path leading into an uninviting parched grove of stringy weeds. Nope, said I. I’m done with this. No way am I going to risk dropping over dead from heatstroke just to find (or perhaps not find) some elusive bit of tupperware hidden amid a scorched thicket in Brunei.
That said, the return to my guesthouse on the island of Labuan actually proved one of the most memorable of the entire excursion. Like Brunei, there’s much oil and gas exploration on Labuan (indeed, en route to my guesthouse, I passed the notorious name of “Halliburton” – of tragically greedy, dontgetmestarted Dick Cheney fame). So not surprisingly, my housemates at Siang were all burly oil and gas workers, and we had great fun sharing a dinner cooked by the workers of fragrant fish soup, and a most delectable ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in lime juice) salad. As is so often the case in my travels, it is the simplest authentic experiences like this that hold the most lasting memories.
Location: The island of Borneo, bordered (in two separate chunks) by the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the west, south and east; by the South China Sea on the north.
Area: 2,226 sq. miles (a smidge bigger than the state of California – separated into two chunks.
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Per Capita Income: US$31,000 (second highest in the ASEAN region)
Government: Absolute Monarchy
Interesting anecdote: As per Wikipedia, according to legend, some lad (by the name of Awang Alak Betatar) upon first stumbling into the area, excitedly exclaimed, Baru nah! (loosely translated as “that’s it!”), from which the name “Brunei” was derived.
How To Get There:
Via air from Kota Kinabalu:
Else overland by bus/taxi/boat combo:
Else: the way I did it via rt. Ferry and overnight on Labuan Island: