My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.
So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.
What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.
If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.
It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.
An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.
But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.
He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.
The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.
This is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.
There are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.
Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.
When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me.
The kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.
After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.
Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.
Incidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.
After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.
This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.
What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.
The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters). They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.
The people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.
When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.
This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.
I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.
They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.
While Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.
Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.
Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.
Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.
Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.
Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.
They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.
Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.
So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.
Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.