Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam

Posted on March 6th, 2005

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque by night

People, I have an earth-shattering announcement! I have only just recently learned that at some point in the past two years I suffered a blunt head trauma that resulted in some very bizarre, selective amnesia. It turns out that I am, in fact, David Beckham.

Not buying it? Well you should, because four out of five Asians will testify that I am indeed Mr. Beckham, or at the very least his long lost Siamese twin. That explains the giant scar on my back. (Needless to say that I’m going to have a sit-down with my mom as soon as I get home.) It all started in Singapore. I got it a few times on the streets and laughed it off. It got more frequent in Kuching; guys would yell “Hello Beckham!” from passing cars. And today just an hour after arriving in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, I had a star-struck Philippine restaurant manager keeping me company as I ate my lunch, fixated on my Beckham-good-looks. Needless to say, I have a new air-tight, Asian chick pick-up line; “Hi, I’m David Beckham, when was the last time someone gave you a good bending?”

I had two days in Miri before my much anticipated trip to Brunei. Miri turned out to have very little to offer tourist-wise. It mostly exists as a place for loggers and off-shore oil workers to congregate and redistribute all of their earnings on hookers and blow during their off days. Miri’s saving graces were limited, but noteworthy. A few excellent restaurants, a god-send of a hostel (The Highlands Hostel) and some convenient free wi-fi spots. The hostel situation was fantastic, actually. It was by far the cleanest and best equipped hostel I had stayed in since New Zealand. Laundry was cheap, coffee was free, there was an archive of pirated movies - some that had just been released in the US a few weeks before - it was fully air conditioned and the kicker was that I had it all to myself. Not just the room, not just the floor, I had the run of the whole goddamn hostel. I was the one and only guest for both nights that I stayed at the Highlands. It was glorious! I caught up on movies, abused the facilities, worked without interruption in my perfectly cooled 12 person dorm room, I flounced around half naked, much to the delight (or possibly revulsion, I couldn’t tell) of the kindly, female Malaysian clerk and I was the beneficiary of the generous assistance of the hostel owner, Captain David. Captain David was a Kiwi transplant, married to a Kelabit tribe member (from Bario, of course) who managed the hostel in between his day job of flying commuter planes around Sarawak, like the one I took to Bario. Several days earlier, just as I was getting comfortable in my new room in Gem’s Lodge in Bario, I reached deep into my pockets to check the accumulated contents and do some cleaning, only to come out with my room keys from the Borneo B & B in Kuching. My heart sank, here they had shown me the world’s greatest hospitality and I had rudely walked off with the keys to room seven. I resolved to send the keys back ASAP. This wasn’t possible in Bario (no post office), but I was on-task immediately upon arrival in Miri. Captain David advised me to screw the post office, saying that they would probably lose the keys, and instead gave the keys to one of his buddies who was flying into Kuching that night who would deliver the keys in the morning. Thank you Captain David!

So, although Miri was loud, dirty and dull, I had a magnificent time, so the Karmactic Rules of the Universe required that things get evened out, meaning I had to get bitch-slapped with a major disappointment of some kind. Bandar came through like a champion.

The ride from Miri to Bandar was rough. Five different buses and one ferry in just over 100 kilometers, over surprisingly bad roads considering that Brunei is the richest country in SE Asia. To make matters worse, I had only managed five hours of sleep the night before, due to being glued to a re-broadcast of the Oscars until 1:00AM in the Highlands’ TV lounge and then suffering from the usual, atrociously timed bout of insomnia until well after 2:00.

I was in Brunei for two reasons; Reason One; it was directly on the overland path between Miri in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Of course, I could have taken a painless flight from Miri to Kota Kinabalu for something like US$30 (BTW - Air Asia rules!), but that would have conflicted with Reason Two; passport stamp bragging rights. Now, by and large, veteran travelers unanimously stress that traveling is all about the quality of experiences and level of enjoyment at each destination, not about how many places you’ve visited and how many stamps you have in your passport, but let’s be honest, it kinda is a little bit about the number of places you’ve visited and the stamps in your passport – FYI, my current passport, barely two years old, is going to need additional pages glued to it right around Thailand. Supa Star!!!

So there I was in Bandar with a fresh passport stamp and a very thin number of offerings to entertain me. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it may come as a surprise to learn that Brunei is not about fun. Indeed, it’s deeply devoted to anti-fun. The opposite of fun. Negative fun. It’s a devout Muslim country and serious Muslim’s do not burden themselves with trifling details like “amusement” and “pleasure,” unless you are the Sultan’s hedonism-happy brother, Prince Jefri “16 billion dollars? What 16 billion dollars?” Bolkiah, then of course it’s game on. There are numerous, strict social rules, e.g. boys and girls can’t hold hands, which is ludicrous when you consider that in many countries (India, Morocco) Muslim men can often be seen holding hands as they walk down the street together. Ultimately, for me, the attractions in Bandar fell into three categories:

1) Boring
2) Gay
3) Closed

I arrived on a Thursday and quickly learned that Muslims are worse than the Spanish when it comes to business operating hours. With the Spanish, at least this tendency is slightly forgivable as it revolves around relaxation and gratification, two values dear to my heart. In Brunei it’s all about prayer and when they pray everything screeches to a halt in a cloud of blue smoke. In my albeit limited experience, Brunei businesses and attractions open roughly as follows:

Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday: 8:00AM – 8:40AM
11:45AM – noon
2:30PM – 2:35PM
4:53Pm – 4:57PM
Thursday: Closed
Friday: Closed
Saturday: Open at whim
Sunday: Closed, you idiot!

That’s it. Suffice to say that seeing Bandar’s precious few engaging sights require exquisite timing and, as always, I sure didn’t have it.

The upshot is that Bandar is tiny. You can walk the length of the city center in just a few minutes. Plus, orientation is a breeze, which is effectively unheard of when you’re me, with the ocean on one side and an eye catching reservoir going down the street bordering both the bus station and the hostel. I was never lost even for a second in Bandar.

Upon arrival I lingered in the ratty bus station for a few minutes. Lonely Planet had devoted a full sidebar to a legendary guide and all around savior of tourists named Danny who, when he isn’t leading tours, usually loiters in the bus station, accosting travelers and assisting them with anything imaginable. If no assistance is needed he just hangs out and keeps you company until your bus arrives, giving you a full rundown of every minute step of your upcoming journey, where to stay at your next destination and how to get decent weed anywhere in Asia. OK, I made that last one up.

Danny was nowhere to be seen and my random wandering of the bus station had already elicited queries from two helpful people wondering if I was lost. I headed for the hostel, the only budget accommodations option in Bandar, adjacent to an athletic facility just five minutes walk from the bus station. The rooms were grimy, the sheets were possibly unwashed and there was a micro-ant infestation, but it was air conditioned and it was only B$10 (US$6) per night. The next step up was B$35 per night and three kilometers out of town, so it was a gimmie. The beds in the hostel were the smallest beds meant for adults that I have ever seen. I’m a mere 5’-9”, but inconceivably I could not completely stretch out on these beds without both head and feet hitting the frame. I had to sleep at an angle. And it didn’t end there. I was one of the biggest people on the street. With a little work on my hook shot, I could probably land a spot as the starting center on the Brunei national basketball team.

After a friendly visit to the tourist office I stopped at a food center on the second floor of Bandar’s tallest building (17 floors). This is where I was adopted by the Philippine restaurant manager, Lasha, who was obsessed with my resemblance to David Beckham. She was quite friendly otherwise, taking me to the top floor of the building for the high-view of Bandar and also eventually hooking me up with her friend Hanif, an Indian guy working in Bandar, who took me out to Bandar’s swanky new mall on my last night in Brunei.

Bandar shuts down early. The sale of alcohol was banned in 1991, so there are no bars and no clubs. Lasha told me about a secret bar that one could go to, but I wasn’t interested, as I was still reeling from the long day of travel and poor sleep. I turned in soon after dinner.

My first full day in Bandar started out very well. I took a walk down to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque (see pic at top of page), built by the previous Sultan, on the west side of town. It being a Friday, it was closed of course, but I took several decent pictures of the exterior. From there I crossed two rickety bridges and then caught a water taxi to get out to the Kampung Ayer Water Village. This giant three-part collection of 28 villages, home to 30,000 people, is built entirely on stilts, connected by wood plank footbridges out in Sungai Brunei Bay. It’s stunningly enormous and amazing. Like any sprawl of neighborhoods, there are rundown, slummy parts with deteriorating walls and trash littering the immediate area, but there are also surprisingly swish sections with gleaming houses, well-tended gardens, satellite dishes (of course) and flashy motor boats moored to private docks. The largest subdivision of Kampung Ayer is only accessible by boat (B$2 if you are an obvious tourist riding alone or 50 cents of you are in the conspicuous company of locals). I was the only tourist in the villages that morning and little kids constantly ran out of their homes to wave and yell ‘hello’ to me. I tried to wave back to all of them, but I was busy keeping an eye on my footing. Many of the footbridges in Kampung Ayer could benefit from a little reinforcement. There were spots where support beams were failing and you could feel yourself dangerously sink a few inches if you carelessly put your full weight on one single beam. Worse still, there were a couple spots where one or two beams had fallen out entirely, leaving a gap large enough for a distracted tourist to fall clean through into the murky waters below. Inevitably, there was always two or three people sitting on a nearby porch, doing absolutely nothing, near these precipitous spots, undoubtedly waiting in perverse anticipation for some idiot to have an accident, like the crowd at a NASCAR event.

Garbage removal is not an issue in parts of Kampung Ayer.

Back on the proper ground of central Bandar, I walked up to the Royal Regalia Museum, which as you might have guessed, is one big Sultan-loving, butt-kiss-fest. The museum documents the Sultan’s birth, schooling, sporting achievements, sultan training, coronation, his 25th anniversary as Sultan and all the moving and shaking he’s done with various foreign dignitaries along the way. There was a lavish display of all his gifts, medals, ceremonial souvenirs and swimsuit calendars of his harem for 30 years running. (I wish.) The best part, the whole place was air conditioned. I went through the medal display twice while I waited for my sweat-soaked shirt to completely dry off.

The day went sour from there. After a quick snack I high-tailed it to the bus station to wait for 30 minutes for the #39 bus, which runs completely at the whimsy of the drivers, out to a spot on the side of the road 500 yards past the Brunei Museum and adjacent Malay Technology Museum, because the bus driver didn’t seem to understand that when you get up and stand next to the door of the bus and shout “stop!” three times that it means that you want to get off the bus (he spoke perfect English in case you were thinking “lost in translation”). As I struggled with the door to the museum, a guard came running up from deep inside the lobby and shouted through the door that the museum had close 15 minutes earlier and would not open again for 2 and ½ hours. He went on to yell that I should come back after 2:30. I yelled back that I would sooner shove chopsticks up both nostrils until the tips touched than go through the process of traveling out to the museum again. He smiled and waved and I headed back into the city muttering.

Chinese Temple

Back in central Bandar I walked a circle looking for something to do, but of course it was prayer-black-out time and with the exception of the Chinese temple, nothing was happening. I took the opportunity to do some wi-fi abusing at a western coffee place. I ordered a giant slice of chocolate cake and then sat there for four hours doing work and then arbitrarily screwing around until I had killed both laptop batteries.

That night I returned to Lasha’s restaurant to whine about how half my day had been wasted due to the damn Muslim devotion to praying. She introduced me to Hanif and demanded that Hanif take me to the new Setia Kenangan Mall, purportedly a happening place where all of the local young people went to hang out and not have fun on a Friday night. Being a grizzled veteran of malls (Minneapolis has the Mall of America, the largest mall in the US and second largest mall in the world), I wasn’t too enthused, but she insisted. So we went and boy was she right.

First off, Setia Kenangan is by far the most extravagant mall I have ever seen. I wish I had brought my camera. Everything is done in gleaming marble and gold trim like the lobby of a five star hotel, with huge mosaics covering the ceiling. Additionally, like much of SE Asia, the mall has little organized restrictions on shop standards. Noise for example. Every shop was trying to outdo one another with the music volume. The place was absolutely thumping, but you couldn’t make out any one song unless you walked into a store and then it was so damn loud you couldn’t even lean over to your buddy and say “Jesus, it’s loud in here!” Shopping in SE Asia always has its surprises. Nearly all of the shops in this trendy mall seemed to have stacks of criminally cheap, but apparently legal DVDs, with a whole section devoted to two-for-one DVDs, where they slapped two movies on the same disk, often with a theme like Tom Hanks (“Castaway” and “The Terminal”) or a series (“Rush Hour” and “Rush Hour II”). A two-for-one DVD was going for about B$6 (US$3.50). Then there was something called VCDs which weren’t exactly DVDs, but simply seemed to be a disk with the movie burned onto it and nothing else. Purportedly VCDs will not play in all DVD players, but for the price of B$3 each (US$1.57), I was willing to take the risk. (Get your orders in now people.)

We hooked up with some of Hanif’s friends and walked around observing the very, very subdued atmosphere of a Friday night at the wildest mall in town and the laughable mildness of what passes for “risqué” dressing in Brunei. Although the Muslim dress code for women to cover up from the toes to the neck and wear scarves over their heads is a mild constant in Singapore and Malaysia, I had not seen this practice at such intensity before Brunei. Scarfed women are in the majority here (but only just). Everyone else, mainly the Philippine and Indonesian transplants, stay mostly covered up in deference to the strongly encouraged country-wide dress code. The lack of skin on the street in Bandar is so pronounced that a woman in a skirt that shows knees and a tank top is enough to stop traffic. At the mall, we saw a Chinese girl in a skirt that was half way up her thighs. Hanif nudged me, smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I shook my head said “Dude, you have to get the hell out of Brunei as soon as possible. Go to Australia and bring lots of clean underwear.”

The next morning I resisted the urge to leap onto the first bus out of town and instead took one last whack at seeing a tourist sight in Bandar. The current Sultan got a little crazy one day and ordered his own grandiose mosque to be built. I can’t find any numbers on the Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, but suffice to say the same money could have covered nearly a month of Prince Jefri’s living expenses. I braved the bus system once again (you have to tell the driver that you want to go to the mosque or he’ll just turn right around and head back into town after the most popular stops. This should have been a no-brainer. Let’s say you’re driving a bus in a place where tourists stick out like a 12 foot, talking donkey and your route takes you past one single place of tourist interest. If you saw an obvious tourist get on your bus what would you conclude? That he was just on for the fricking ride? Well, if you did, you and my bus driver are meant for each other. I finally got the point through to him and we were on our way).

You can see the mosque coming from quite a distance. It’s humongous and imposing. It gets better as you get closer. The place is covered in Italian marble, top to bottom and out into the parking lot. The gigantic gold center dome is surrounded by a forest of smaller gold domes and four spires. I took a few longshot photos and then moved in for a few interior shots. I was intercepted by security almost immediately. They led me to a processing area where I had to sign in, surrender my bag and don a black robe before I was allowed to climb the gorgeous twisting white marble staircase to the prayer area. Sadly, like virtually everything in Brunei, cameras were not allowed inside, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say it was appropriately decadent. Chandeliers, gold trim, mosaics and custom-made carpets with the image of the mosque woven into them covered nearly the entirely of the gorgeous marble floor. What a waste. Aside from ogling the gold ornamentation of the front, prayer area, there wasn’t a heck of a lot to look at. There was a glass case off to the side with what appeared to be a massive, aged book written in Arabic (the Koran?). On the opposite side of mosque there was a similar glass case that was empty with a note saying that the book had been removed to fix “errors” of interpretation from the 11th century. I wondered if these were true interpretation errors or if the Sultan had decided that he didn’t like some of the stuff in the book about good Muslins not owning a fleet of fast cars.

After admiring the very small library on the first floor, I was offered the opportunity to climb the steps inside one of the four giant spires to admire the view. I did this, but the view was disappointing. The Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque is waaaay out of town and you can’t really see much from the modest height of the spires. I eventually climbed down, retuned my black robe and started the long and tiring ordeal of getting back into town in a neighborhood seldom serviced by buses like the one that took me out there. After a lot of walking and a short ride from a stranger, I got a water taxi back to the center, retrieved my bags and headed for the bus station.

In the end, with it’s determined subjugation of anything remotely cool, irritating working hours and over-priced, mediocre food, Brunei came within an eyelash of earning an unenviable spot in my infamous “Don’t Go There” series of articles. The only thing that saved it was that it wasn’t outwardly hateful. Dull and irksome, yes, but hateful, no. While dull and irksome go a long way, hateful is arguably the top criteria for the “Don’t Go There” designation, so I couldn’t slap them on the list with a clear conscious no matter how annoyed I was.

So it was with profound relief that I headed to the bus station, where I finally encountered the infamous Danny and passed the time talking about the attractions waiting for me in Sabah before I boarded my bus for the ferry.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012