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Brunei – Arabian Nights to Postmodern

Rajen Bali

The Sultan of Brunei, Hossanal Bolkiah, celebrated the golden jubilee of his rule recently. The Sultan – his family has ruled Brunei for 600 years - ascended the throne in 1967. Let us also join in the celebration and re-visit Brunei.

I went to Brunei by ferry from the Lebuan Island in Malaysia. The boat journey was rather exciting with the powerful twin-diesels churning up the blue waters in to walls of white foamy twin-trails. After about an hour after leaving Lebuan, tiny black dots appeared on the horizon. In time, the tiny dots were transformed in to ships of various sizes. We passed these ships, our boat slowed and then gently stopped at the jetty. We had reached Brunei.

Seresa Ferry Terminal at Maura, was very orderly. There were no jostling crowds, no touts, no yelling or loud talk. The immigration and customs officials were very polite, friendly and efficient. One of them asked me to hurry up or I may miss the bus to Downtown and be forced to wait two hours for the next bus.

Before I talk about my rushing to the bus and the trip to Downtown, I must mention the Immigration Entry Card and the Liquor Policy. The Entry Card had a prominent warning in red printed on it “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER BRUNEI LAW.” As a result of the strict laws, no one dares to bring drugs.

While clearing my single bottle of whisky, it was explained to me that though alcohol was strictly prohibited, foreigners were permitted to bring in one bottle for personal consumption. But, drinking in public was not allowed and drink if I must, it would have to be in the privacy of my hotel room.

I also learned that Islamic Sharia Laws prevail in Brunei. Under these laws there are still penalties like death by stoning for adultery, and, chopping of limbs for other serious crimes. But there is hardly any violent crime in Brunei. I found the people polite, friendly, courteous and hospitable. They also had a strong aura of dignity.

I rushed and managed to catch my bus. As the bus rolled on the broad road, the character of the country started to unfold slowly. Streets branched of the main road on both sides in an orderly manner with neat numbering and prominent signage. There was much greenery and trees. The modern bungalow-type houses appeared freshly painted and well-maintained. That I was in a rich country was indicated by the fact that each house had one or two cars parked in front. In general, the atmosphere was of affluence, orderliness and tranquility.

There was not much traffic on the highway, vehicular or human, so we reached Bandar Seri Begawan in about one hour. The bus driver was kind enough to drop me bang in front of my hotel, The Brunei Hotel.

Though rather expensive, the Brunei Hotel was contemporary-modern, elegant and exuded an atmosphere of luxury and comfort. The staff was smart, helpful and efficient. My room was done up very well in good subdued taste. It was functionally efficient and offered a good, sweeping view of the canal running along the highway, the bridges and all types of motorized boats darting around.

I just could not resist the boats. Within half an hour of my checking in the hotel – after a quick wash – I was crossing the street and being welcomed by the broad smiles of two very smart policewomen. On asking them about a boat trip, they were kind enough to talk to a boatman and fix a two-hour tour for 20 Brunei dollars (16 US dollars).

But, before we explore Bandar Seri Begawan, a bit about Brunei history

”Brunei” may have come from the Malay word ‘baru nah’ (‘there’), or, it may have its roots in Sanskrit. The country’s official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam – ‘Negara Btunei’ means ‘the state of Brunei’ and ‘Darussalam’ is ‘Abode of Peace’.

Lying northwest of the island of Borneo in the South China Sea, this small country of around 400,000 people is surrounded on three sides by Sarawak and has a coastline of about 160 km. The capital – River Brunei flows through it – was once called Brunei Town or Bandar Brunei. It was renamed ‘Bandar Seri Begawan’ after the present Sultan’s late father, Omar Ali Saiffudien, in October 1970. Coming from the Sanskrit ‘Bhagwan’ (God), ‘Begawan’ is a name given to Brunei monarchs who have abdicated.  ‘Bandar’ like in Mumbai’s ‘Bori Bandar’ means a ‘port’ or a ‘haven’. In Malay, ‘Bandar’ has taken up the meaning of ‘town’.

It is interesting to note that even though Brunei is an Islamic country, there is still a continued use of words – like ‘Begawan’ - with their origins in Sanskrit.

Historical records show that there was habitation along the banks of the Brunei River since the 8th century A.D. Originally the area of Bandar Seri Begawan was only about 5 square miles. In 2007, the Sultan ordered the city to be expanded to an area of around 39 square miles.

Back to our boat trip.

As my motor-boat zoomed over the waters, the interesting panorama of sights began to unfold. Soon we were going along the vast Kampong Ayer Water Village with its houses built on stilts. Then we were in the city-centre area dominated by the minaret and the dome of the Sultan Omar Ali Saiffeduien Mosque.  Sunrays bouncing off the mosque’s golden dome and reflected in the river waters created a truly magical scene.

This mosque is considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. It has Italian marble interiors, carpets, tunnels and an elevator. It is one of the major attractions of the city. The huge dome is not just golden in color, it is covered with pure gold!

We took a fork in the river and all the gold-and-glitter et al was left behind. There was the huge palace complex on one bank but it was the opposite bank with its dense rain forest that drew all the attention. There appeared to be no one around and it was all so peaceful that one wanted to recite ‘Pippa’s Song’ – ‘God is in His heaven – All’s right with the world!”

We went around another bend and suddenly the boat slowed and then stopped. The boatman was excitedly pointing to a clump of trees. It took me a while, but then I spied a whole cluster of monkeys high up in the trees. These were the famous Proboscis Monkeys of Brunei.

The return journey was dominated by the drama of a glorious sunset.

The first day was just a ‘starter’. It was from the next day that one could dig in to the ‘main course’. The first item on the menu was Kampong Ayer, the Water Village – the largest of its kind in the world – built around 1,000 years ago. It is a complex of 42 contiguous villages, and has its own schools, banks, police station and almost all else – connected by wooden boardwalk ‘streets’. The colorfully painted houses, some modest and many smart-expensive, There appeared to be more dish TV antennae than houses in this complex!  Around 40,000 people live in the complex. Many have assorted reasons to live in the Water Village, rather than in a house on solid land.

Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta had visited Kampong Ayer in 1521, and dubbed it ‘The Venice of the East’. A bit far-fetched maybe, but the many arched bridges and the water-taxi boats do contribute to the allusion.

After a half-day spent in walking around, what hit me was the contrasts. If there is the clutter of houses-on-stilts in the 1000-year-old Kampong Ayer on one bank of the river, the other bank has the city-centre with its numberless high rises making you feel as if you are in Manhattan. If you gaze across the river from the futuristic ‘Mercu Dirghayu 60 Monument’ (a gift from the people to the Sultan to express their gratitude), you see washing hanging outside the Water Village houses. There were cars aplenty – many swanky/super-swanky – on the excellent roads, but no traffic jams. If there were enough taxis on the roads, there were many more water-taxi boats buzzing around like hornets in the river waters. You just caught the eye of the boatman and hailed a water-taxi as you would a normal one. They are an extremely popular form of public transport.

If there were impressive/expensive restaurants serving, say, Fish-n-Chips, next door would be a modest place serving the (Paratha-type) ‘Martbak’ , one of the national dishes of Brunei. Women walk about dressed in traditional flowing gowns and head-scarves, covered from head to toe. Still, these ladies are significant and stylish walking Fashion Statements.

Though dressed traditionally, the women are – in general – smart, self-possessed, educated, articulate and confident. Brunei perhaps grants women the highest status in society as compared to any other Islamic country.

Contrasts, contrasts, everywhere! This is a major reason for Brunei being interesting for a visitor.

No tour of Brunei can be complete without talking about its absolute monarch and religious head, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mui’zzadin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saiffudien Sa’adul Khairi Wadien. Once, the richest man in the world, he may have slipped a few places on the ladder, but is still a very, very rich man due to Brunei’s oil wealth. His palace, the largest and most luxurious in the world, has 1788 rooms - some furnished with gold and encrusted diamonds - 257 bathrooms with gold/silver fittings and a garage for 110 cars. There is also a two- aircraft-hangar sized ‘garage’ where his 7000 cars are housed. He owns a gold-plated Rolls Royce and a gold-plated Mercedes plus many cars made especially for him by famous car-makers of the world. Most cars may be used once in three years and if a car is parked at the back, it may take one and a half hour for the car to come up front. To cut the story short, it is estimated that the Sultan’s wealth increases by about 123 US dollars, EVERY SECOND.!

No wonder Brunei was a ‘rich’ experience.