My trip to Brunei started with the most uncomfortable overnight bus ride I had had in the entire trip. I was travelling from Seratok, the town where I stayed with my friend Galvin’s family at their longhouse. I picked up the bus from the side of the road, outside a small restaurant. To get the bus, we had to watch the road and flag down the bus when we saw it, or else it wouldn’t stop (I discovered this was common in East Asia). When the bus finally came at around 8pm, I was hoping it would be a comfortable sleeper bus, like the one I took to Tana Toraja in Indonesia.
The bus couldn’t have been farther from a sleeper bus. The interior was comprised of three seats to a row, and the seats were hard and did not recline. The bus was old with loose shocks, so I could feel every bump accentuated with the corner of the seat top banging into my head. I was the only foreigner on the bus.
I listened to podcasts and drifted off into a weird hallucinogenic sleep, as our bus bumped and jerked along the half-paved roads in the countryside of Sarawak. We finally arrived at the little bus stop at around 4am by Miri where I was transferring to a new bus at 6am.
It is a particularly vulnerable feeling when you find yourself alone in a foreign place, it’s dark out because the sun hasn’t risen yet, no one speaks your language, your senses are depleted, and your mind is foggy due to a sleepless overnight bus. Was this the adventurous travel I was looking for? – tests of vulnerability, and a need to rely on the foreigners and culture around me? I thought of my family and friends on the other side of the world, who were soaking up halogen lights in their office and counting down the minutes until they could go home for the day. If they knew the weird place and state of mind I was in now!
I went to the dimly lit hut where they were serving food and got some tea tarec – Indian style milk tea, and waited for two hours for the bus to Bander Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.
Surprising Discoveries -
- Brunei is a Commonwealth
- The country imposes Sharia law against all Muslim citizens
- There are no bars that sell alcohol (due to Sharia law), but there are places people refer to as bars, or, rather, coffee shops that are open until midnight, where you can, ya know, hang out
- No pork is sold since pork is not Halal (the name for Muslim dietary restrictions), and Halal is enforced since the country follows Sharia Law
- There are only 417,000 people living in Brunei, about 25% of which are ex-pats
- The geographic size of Brunei is just smaller than the State of Delaware
- Every residential building needs to be in "hearing" distance of a mosque
- Caning is still a legal form of punishment!
- The press is owned by the Sultan, and hence, there is no freedom of the press
- Male homosexuality is forbidden and there is no LGBT community
- It is the 2nd highest Southeast Asian country on the human development index, just behind Singapore
- Brunei has the lowest rate of crime out of all Southeast Asian countries
Brief History –
The country of Brunei today is what's left of an empire that encompassed most of the island of Borneo, including all coastline, and islands as far north as modern day Manila, in the Philippines. The empire's territory got chiseled away by colonialists and bad deals. It's peak of power was from the 15th century to the 17th century. By late 16th century, Islam was firmly rooted, and the country had built a massive mosque.
The Spanish, seeking to have a foothold in the spice-trade and spread Christianity, began colonizing the Philippines in the mid-16th century. In March 1578, a Spanish fleet sailed from Mexico and attacked Manila. The Bruneian Empire and The Spanish fought until June, in what is known as the Castilian Wars. The Spanish were triumphant, and Brunei lost its control over Manila and the surrounding areas. The Spanish proceeded to Christianize their new territory.
Following the conquer of Manila, the Spanish organized a fleet and attempted to take over the capital of Brunei, on the island of Borneo. After fighting on the island, the Spanish suffered high fatalities due to cholera and dysentery, and decided to leave, but didn't forget to burn down the city's Mosque on their way out.
The country recovered from the war, and was on steady footing until civil war broke out in 1660 and lasted for 13 years.
Fast forward to the early 19th century: In 1838 The sultan of Brunei was facing an uprising and piracy from indigenous people. Englishman and trader James Brooke coincidentally was sailing towards Borneo to see if he could setup a trading operation. When he arrived, he discovered the rebellion. Brooke met with the Sultan's Uncle, and agreed to help Brunei with the rebellion situation - as a result, the rebellion was crushed. What follows was a bad deal that greatly reduced the size of the Bruneian empire. In 1841, in return for his help, the Sultan's Uncle gave Brooke the governorship and control of Sarawak, a large swath of land south of modern day Brunei. What is unique about this deal is that it gave Brooke personal control over the land, not Britain or another sovereign country. Brooke became known as the White Rajah and he and his descendants controlled the land until the 20th century.
In 1888, the Sultanate of Brunei signed a protection treaty with Britain, and hence became a British Protectorate. The treaty was a standard play made by Britain: in return for Britain's protection, Brunei yielded control of its foreign affairs to the British, including land deals with foreigners. Despite this regulation, Britain did not stop Brooke and his descendants (the "White Rajahs") from engaging in deals and annexing more land, because the Brooke's were not considered "foreign". Brunei's land continued to get chiseled away.
Brunei's modern-day industry can be traced back to 1929, when petroleum was discovered. This led to multiple oil wells being drilled, and by the 1940s, oil production was more than six million barrels. The first offshore oil well was drilled in 1957.
Eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 16th, 1941, the Japanese invaded Brunei. 10,000 troops landed on the island, and after 6 days of fighting, they gained control of the country. While the English had anticipated a Japanese attack, their troops were concentrated in Europe, and hence the country was not well fortified. During the occupation, the Japanese language was taught in schools, and the currency was replaced by what became known as duit pisang, "banana money". Hyper-inflation caused the currency to have zero value by 1943. Consistent Allied attacks on shipping reduced trade and consequently food and medicine fell in short supply. As a result, the population suffered famine and disease. Japanese occupation came to an end on September 10th, 1945, after Allied attacks, and the British took back control of Brunei.
In 1959, a new constitution was written declaring Brunei a self-governing state, while its foreign affairs, security, and defense remained the responsibility of the United Kingdom. Finally, on January 1st, 1984, Brunei gained independence from Britain. It is now a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Today, Brunei is a unitary Islamic absolute Monarchy, ruled by Hassanal Bolkiah, a descendant of sultans who became Sultan in 1968 when his father abdicated. Like his father, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of the UK, since at the time, Brunei was still an English Protectorate. On October 23rd, 2013, Hassanal announced his intentions to impose Sharia Law, the religious Muslim law, on the country's Muslims, which make up about two thirds of the population.
Before I started traveling, I hadn’t even heard of Brunei. When I discovered the small country, it jumped up on my places to see. The pictures I had seen showed beautiful mosques and waterways. I was curious to know what a country would be like that obeyed the ancient Sharia Law.
At first blush, the country sounds like it would not be a welcoming place. It is intensely Muslim and non-progressive, and the King oversees much of the law. In 2014, the country passed a law making homosexual acts by men punishable by stoning death, although this has never been put into practice. Apparently, caning is still a legal punishment! Every residential building needs to be in “hearing distance” of a mosque, too. And alas, the press is owned by the king, and hence there is not freedom of the press.
Despite the harsh Islamic laws, the country boasts positive statistics. For instance, the country has the lowest rate of crime in Southeast Asia, and a high life expectancy of over 77 years. Perhaps this is because the sale of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products are illegal. It beats every other Southeast Asian country on the Human Development index too, except for Singapore. The literacy rate is 92.7% and the 2015 per capital GDP was 10th in the world, at $54,537, and 5th in the world after taking purchasing power parity into account. Over the course of my travels, I met a few expats who had moved to Brunei because it was “a nice place to live”.
Sites and Experiences -
The Water Village - Kampong Ayer
I finally boarded the second two hour bus ride, which took me to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. I got into town at around 10am – I had the rest of the day to explore. The city looks quite suburban. There are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and coffee shops, and most buildings look like they were built post WWII. I met two Irish girls on my bus, and we decided to check out the water village together.
People have lived in Kampong Ayer, the name of the water village, for over 1300 years! When Ferdinand Magellan's fleet arrived in 1521, it was dubbed "the Venice of the East". I don't think it quite lives up to that nickname today! Kampong Ayer currently houses 30,000 residence, making it the largest water village in the world. The buildings all sit on top of wooden stilts, and hence are not floating, like other Asian water villages. Kampong Ayer includes mosques, schools, a hospital, shops, and a museum. To get to the water village we had to hop in a water taxi.
Our first stop was the museum, which provides some history and culture. Following the museum, we walked around the village, which is connected by long wooden planks.
After walking around the village, we got back in our water taxi, and our driver drove us around the village and told us about the buildings.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque -
Following the water village, we headed over to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The building was completed in 1958 and is an example of modern Islamic architecture.
A friendly man greeted us at the gates and told us we could enter the mosque if we'd like, we'd just have to put on a black robe! There were several black robes hanging up on a pole by the entrance, so we all found one that fit and went inside. We had to take off our shoes, and unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside.
This was an interesting structure by the back of the Mosque.
Swimming in the water was a komodo dragon.
After exploring the Mosque, it was already dinner time, and so we walked to a food market about half a mile away. I decided to pass on hanging out at one of the bars, and went back to the hostel for the night. My next stop was Kota Kinabalu, a large Malaysian city in the north of Borneo, and to get there I had to leave early the following morning and take a boat to a Malaysian Island called Labuan, which is a duty free island where many people have boat layovers, and then another boat from that Island to Kota Kinabalu.
I got a kick out of the morning Muslim prayers that they broadcast on the televisions throughout the boat on the way to Labuan. This country is definitely the most Muslim place I've ever been!
The boat also went right by some offshore oil rigs. I've never seen one before, and the sight was surreal to me. The industrial, man-made contraption, with its legs planted in the sea and its tentacle-like wires dipping into the water, has a threatening look and contrasts with the meditating view of the blue ocean.
Overall, Bander Seri Begawan was a fun one-day stop that breaks-up a trip if one is traveling from south Borneo to North. It is not the most exciting or exotic place, but the Islamic architecture is pretty and it gives you a window into a unique and small country.
What's the Damage -
Brunei is an affordable place to visit. The most expensive item was my hostel, which cost $14.60. The only "entertainment" I spent money on was the water taxi around the floating village, which cost $7.30. Dinner, which consisted of a few platters of meat and fish, only cost $3.29. And, of course, no alcohol is sold, so that saves money!