From the ‘notes’ archives
The Sultan of Brunei – surely, stories of his legendary wealth precede him. His tiny oil-rich kingdom on the island of Borneo has a population of just over 400,000. The nation enjoys free medical, subsidised housing, higher education, and no taxes. I had known most of this when my husband suggested that I join him on a business trip.
I was also aware that in 2014, the Sultan had introduced Sharia Law to his kingdom and contradictory for someone who lived for seven years in the Middle East, I found myself questioning whether I wanted to go… to a country that I perceived as having oppressive and inhumane laws. Yet I also asked myself whether it was fair to be ‘judge and jury’ when it comes to human rights. Most countries have tarnished legacies in their history. In my country of Canada for example, it includes both the past and the present… including the treatment of our indigenous peoples, the Japanese, the Doukhobors, the Chinese.
Even though Brunei’s framework of law stood counter to my enduring, perhaps slightly romantic, belief in the universal hope for equality, I decided to accompany Bruce on his trip. I resolved to simply let the people and the place speak for itself.
Flying from our home in Bangalore, through Singapore, we were welcomed in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, with genuine graciousness. Airport officials met our eyes with smiles and casually chatted about our travel plans as we awaited our bags. In a somewhat chilling counterpoint, my gaze landed on a notice, ‘Death for all drug traffickers’.
Through our week-long visit I saw no outward signs of the law, which I soon learned was undergoing a ‘phased implementation’. It wasn’t necessary to cover my hair in public, fashion attire ran the gamut from revealing sundresses to full burka. Time enjoyed at a resort was like any other. Young romantics cuddled on benches as they took in the spectacular sunsets and bikinis were the norm around the poolside. And it shouldn’t have surprised us that the only wet part of the ‘swim-up bar’ is the water.
Brunei is a ‘dry’ country where no alcohol is served or purchased – although I don’t rule out the existence of the odd illicit ‘speakeasy’ with guarded door and secret knock, or so we were quietly told. Despite the warnings of drug trafficking, the authorities are more lenient on alcohol and we learned (too late, alas) that we could have brought a few bottles of wine into the country after all.
We stayed in the Bandar area and Bruce made the daily trip to his company facilities in Kuala Belait, one hour’s drive to the east. I admit, most days I luxuriated in the impressive Empire Hotel and Country Club. No expensive had been spared in creating the lush, sprawling grounds, complete with a golf course that meanders along the edge of the South China Sea.
Guests were sparse however, save for a few busloads of visitors from China and Korea, and young soldiers on leave for the weekend – British troops and Nepalese Gurkas stationed near the vast oil refineries. This is a remnant agreement between the Bruneian government and their former colonial masters. “Just in case of attack,” our congenial taxi driver informed us.
With a sense of humour and with a certain ‘joie de vivre’, the people of the small nation quickly chipped away at my preconceptions and reservations.
The nature of the residents is evident not only from the locals, but from other nationalities as well… those from the Philippines, India and Nepal. Working long hours in the service industry, we often heard variations of the sentiment, ‘It’s a good place to work. We work and save money, there’s not much else to do.’
Indeed, the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan does not take long to explore. There is an abundance of power-evoking government buildings situated on tidy, manicured streets. But its uniformity lacks exuberance and is somewhat of a bland experience for a traveller.
A number of side streets channel the characteristic Indian and Chinese entrepreneurial spirit; tailoring and barber shops, traditional medicine, spices and bespoke jewellery.
Along with grand mosques, red Chinese lanterns announced a traditional Chinese temple, while white crosses marked the ubiquitous St. Andrew’s Church. Yet I learn that strictly no religious celebrations other than Islam can be held in public. “If it weren’t for the children’s school life here,” an expatriate confides as we chat in a cafe, “life would get extremely monotonous.”
Still, I know from a previous trip to Borneo (an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) that there is much to explore. Borneo is home to the world’s oldest rainforest with unique flora and fauna and its fine white-sand beaches are breathtaking. It is the domain of majestic hornbills, four-hundred species of butterflies and the elusive proboscis monkey.
Back at the tame but salubrious Empire, we are told rather conspiratorially that the vast complex was built by the indulgent and profligate brother of the Sultan, now living in exile with his royal title intact. We are driven past villas that are maintained at-the-ready for the extensive royal family. A little digging on the internet reveals why indeed the family is so vast and extended. And dare I say, therein partly lies the source that fuels perceptions of hypocrisy underlies the nations’ laws.
The Sultan is a Bolkiah, a descendent of the long lineage of Sultans who have ruled over the Bruneian empire since the 1400’s. They controlled most regions of Borneo and Seludong, including modern-day Manila in the Philippines. An ambitious British adventurer would capitalize on the empire’s decline in the mid 1800’s, infringing on the Bolkiah’s long reign and ultimately usurping power.
That opportunist was James Brooke who would become known as the White Rajah. Arriving to Borneo in 1838 aboard his own trading ship, Brooke found himself at the right place at the right time. Helping quell a rebellion in 1842, Brooke was rewarded with his own sovereign state and would ultimately govern Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) as a British protectorate.
Brooke took naturally to island life and worked vigorously to not only suppress piracy in the region but to also eradicate headhunting, a common practice in Borneo. As intriguing as this story is, in short, Brunei became a British Protectorate in 1888 and did not achieve its independence from the United Kingdom until 1984 when development of oil and gas reserves spurred economic growth. The present day Sultan’s father is known as the Father of Independence. It’s clear he lived far more simply than his son.
We see evidence of this as a water taxi drops us off near a charming and homely former residence of the Royal family. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence, we’re still able to admire its simplicity; a sharp contrast to the present day palace complex the Sultan calls home.
We catch just a glimpse of the 1700 room residence, nestled along the leafy riverside. Naturally, the Sultan’s palace is off-limits, but its massive, opulent golden dome casts an imposing silhouette on the skyline.
The edifice is pointed out to us by the water taxi driver as we cruise the Brunei River. Did I detect just a hint of disdain?
Our destination, Kampong Ayer is said to be the largest water village in the world; it was referred to as far back as 1521 as the ‘Venice of the East’. It is an extensive community of wooden houses built on timber and concrete piles, connected by walkways to schools, mosques, a firehall, a police station and a recently added museum.
The village of roughly 3000 people was once a series of smaller settlements, named for the occupations of its settlers. Pablat for those who made fishing gear. Pagan where palm leaves were woven into roofs. Pasir where rice took the form of rice cakes and Pemriuk, the residence for the handicraft of copper pots. Up until the early 1900’s, the home of the hereditary Sultan was also in Kampong Ayer. Its watery channels and rough-planked sidewalks were home to almost half of Brunei’s population.
Above all, the village was known for padian, an integral aspect of life in the water village for centuries. Visiting in 1521, Antonio Pigafetta wrote, “When the tide is high, the women go in boats through the settlement selling all the necessities of life.”
Padian, a term describing how women glided through the narrow waterways in small boats or bancas, piled to the brim with goods to sell and trade. The sellers distinctive wide umbrella hats, woven from nipa leaves, shielded from the tropical elements. Still today, the locals are nostalgic about this bygone era. Speed boats now ply the waters and discarded plastic accumulates around aging stilted wooden homes.
As we stroll the boardwalks, we come across a generational family. Grandma lovingly cuddles her granddaughter and we make small talk and they pose for a photo. They eye my husband and express their approval. “Nice man,” they tell me and break out in fits of laughter.
Nearby we meet Rashme. A boat pulls up to her cafe and a young fellow hitches his vessel to a post for a quick takeaway. The shop owner obliges us with a smile as she holds up the order… two ABC’s, the shaved, flavoured ice, a cooling staple in this country that sits just above the equator. “My cafe here for twenty years,” Rashme tells me through her son’s translation. “Some years good, some years bad.” Her frankness, a reminder of what’s important the world over… that of providing for ones’ family.
Hopping into a water-taxi, the driver soon entices us to visit the nearby mangroves, “See monkeys, see monkeys,” he implores, pointing to his nose. I keep my fear of monkeys in check as I know we’ll remain safe aboard the small boat.
From Kampong Ayer we wend through narrow waterways lined with homes that perch tenuously on slender stilts. Once in the thick mangrove, the driver kills the engine and we glide into an inlet. We wait and it isn’t long before we hear them; a family of proboscis monkeys, peering down from high in the trees that fringe the mangroves. I catch only a glimpse of their distinctive noses and golden hair, but I hear them chattering and grappling with leaves as a late afternoon snack. The mangroves are also home to langur silver leaf and long tail macaques and even for someone with the dreaded pithecophobia, it was a precious moment to have seen a proboscis this close up. Borneo is their only home on earth – encroachment on their habitat threatens their existence.
It’s the end of the school day as we cruise back to one of Bandar’s main docks. A ‘water school bus’ passes and without hesitation, students in dazzling white shirts, black songkots on their young heads, shout hellos and wave eagerly. The many personal encounters and the openness of the people remind me of what I know to be true… to judge people by their leader or laws is ill advised and shortsighted, I know that my reluctance to visit Brunei was unfounded.
As a traveller who encounters people from all religions, ethnicities and cultures, it’s impossible to view the world in the black and white tones that certain leaders would have us believe exist. It is quite the contrary and what motivates me, time and time again, to keep packing my travel bags. It’s a privilege, it’s a joy, and intrinsically we are all very similar the world over.
Brunei is a microcosm of diversity – Ibans, descended from the original inhabitants of Borneo and mainly Christian, ethnic Chinese descended from early pioneers from the 6th century. Malays, the majority of whom are Muslim, representing about a quarter of the population, and a further quarter comprising a multiplicity of indigenous and ethnic groups including Indians and Europeans. Somehow it all seems to work, but the central contradiction is Sharia Law which seems anachronistic and out of place in such a culturally diverse society, favouring one world view over many others. As a visitor, I experienced openness and many beautiful nuances of culture nonetheless.
I’m proud to have a Bruneian stamp in my passport. To know the place in some small way is an enlightening experience. To know the people – the warm, engaging, beautiful people – yes, it’s always the people…