It seemed easy enough to get there. It seemed simple to get in. It seemed small enough to see everything in two days. So why was I a bit nervous? Perhaps because I didn’t know what to expect from a country I’ve never heard much about and don’t know a soul who’s been there. I assume your Brunei knowledge is about as extensive as mine was, so here’s a few fun facts about this tiny Southeast Asian country.
The Nation of Brunei Darussalam, Abode of Peace as it is officially called, is a small yet wealthy nation located on the northern coast of the island of Borneo, which is also shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. It was a quick four-hour bus ride from the Malaysian city I was visiting, so I thought….meh, why not. And so the researching began….
Brunei has a population of only 500,000, and it is roughly the size of Ottawa. It has one of the highest GDPs in the world largely due to its extensive petroleum and natural gas reserves. Almost 70% of the population is Malay and predominantly Sunni Muslim. And the country is ruled by a Sultan, whose family has been in power for six centuries. I take it they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
I’ve only been to a handful of Muslim countries, so I was quite excited as they are always so much safer, kinder and welcoming than most of the world wants you to believe. However, it’s the rules that freak me out a little. Not because I’m a hell raiser who plans on breaking them, but I’ve never been fond of rules. Just knowing a place or a person or an institution has set rules makes me want to disobey them. Don’t tell my students I said that…
Even though Brunei practices Sharia Law, I was told that it would not apply to me as a western visitor; however, I still wanted to know all I could so that I didn’t offend anyone or make myself look like a complete arsehole. I learned a crucial one just by looking at the visa form I filled out on the way. Yikes.
The immigration routine and passport stamp was easier and quicker than filling out a prescription at a pharmacy. There was no fee, no line up, and I don’t think the agent said much other than “how long are you staying?” With my uber-polite response of “two days, Sir!” the guy gave me an unenthusiastic “Welcome to Brunei” and I was on my way. Once I boarded the bus along with the other six passengers, a second immigration officer got on to ask us all if we had any alcohol or drugs in our bags. I wanted to give an emphatic “Hell, no! Have you seen the damn entry form?!” but instead I meekly said “No, ma’am” and with a nod she was on to the next person.
After crossing the border to Brunei it’s another 3.5 hours to get to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city that attracts tourists. The landscape on the drive there was not much different than the beauty on the Malaysian side, relatively flat, green, lush and forested. I remember thinking that there was an abundance of beautiful white loons or some type of bird similar to a loon, in many of the fields we passed. I also remember thinking every small town we entered was inundated with little subdivisions, likely to accommodate the high number of temporary workers in the oil industry. And every one of these small cities also had an oddly high number of small roundabouts. A green country of loons, oil and roundabouts, I thought. I suppose there are worse things.
We rolled into BSB just before dark and my bus driver was nice enough to let me off about a block from my hotel instead of the final stop which would have made for a very tiring walk with my backpack(s) since there are no taxis there. As in, not one taxi. My hotel wasn’t great, which was surprising for what I paid for it, but then I remembered when I booked it how crazy expensive all the good ones were, so I shut my whiny trap rather quick.
I went to the attached cafe, and the sweet Philippino woman working there gave me the skinny on all things Brunei. She was classified as a foreign worker, which prevented her from ever gaining citizenship despite living there over 20 years. Nonetheless, she said the country was generally very safe, clean and a great place to live in general. She said I’d have a great time and people would be extremely friendly, it was just too bad I was there for Eid al-Fatr which meant everything would be closed.
“Wha???” I said.
Sure enough, she explained it was Eid the following day which marks the end of Ramadan and is an important celebration for Muslims. This also meant that everything in the city – all stores, shopping centres, and restaurants – would be closed. Ouf!
There was nothing I could do to change the situation, so I thought I’d just starve or dehydrate the following day as I toured an empty city. Thankfully, my hotel still served breakfast, but with no other tourists at my hotel, I was literally the only person in a large breakfast hall save for the sulky woman who took my order and whoever managed to botch ‘toast and fruit’ in the back.
I then set out in the sweltering heat to explore this strange little city that looked like it had been abandoned. It was funny that in the 10 minutes it took me to walk downtown I passed two western couples asking me if I had seen a store open. Seems I wasn’t the only moron who timed their visit to the country well.
I visited the incredible Sultan Omar Mosque, Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, and the Royal Regalia Museum and then walked along the beautiful waterfront that was as neat and manicured as a fresh haircut. Eventually I found a coffee shop that was open, so I wolfed down a sandwich and bought out the place in water and snacks before heading back out to brave the heat. Soon, I saw people streaming out of mosques and banquet halls, wearing their best clothes and smiles. It was not long before the waterfront became packed with joyful families and rambunctious children – all with full bellies and hearts after the end of their holiest month.
There was a family close to where I was standing and when the mother made eye contact with me I had to tell her how beautiful I thought they were. She immediately responded that I could take a few pictures of them if I liked, so I happily took advantage of the offer. All of a sudden she stopped me in mid-snap to say that I had to be in some pictures with them too. This was a warm gesture that turned into a great opportunity for me to chat with all of them about life there as well as mine back in Canada. Not much different, I realized.
And everywhere after that the kindness continued…people greeting me, coming up to welcome me to Brunei, asking me where I was from and how I liked the country. It ended up being a great day which made me forget all about the 40+ degrees I was walking in as well as the crappy hotel I had to go back to.
The next afternoon as I boarded my bus to leave, I was surprised when I noticed a Canadian flag on a building less than 50 feet away. The bus agent who was chatting me up told me it was the Canadian Embassy and “it even has a funny looking car with the steering wheel on the wrong side”. He then told me that he’d wait five extra minutes if I wanted to get off and snap a few pics, so I took him up on his offer.
“No worries”, he said. “It’s not every day you see your flag fly in a country on the opposite side of the world. We’re just so happy you chose to come.”
“Yeah, me too.”