We’d decided to get off the usual backpacker routes and head to Brunei, a country we both knew little about. At first you’d imagine it somewhere in the middle east, a rich well developed country with posh hotels, everyone walking about in long white clothing wearing turbans and sporting thick black moustaches and eyebrows. Wrong. Everything we thought about Brunei turned out to be totally wrong and i’m so glad.
After a little bit of revision from the bible (lonely planet) we learnt that Brunei, although extremely small, was in actual fact the second richest country in the world. Amazing considering that it only really discovered its wealth in the 30’s when they found the oil. Also we learnt that Brunei owns a cattle ranch in the Darwin, Australia that is twice the size of the its country and all the cows farmed there are shipped to Brunei so that they can be slaughtered in the Halal way. This country was certainly pretty rich. Pulling up along the docks in Muara it didnt look that way though, a tatty terminal barely big enough for us all to wait in whilst going through immigration. On the outside there was a few nice cars but nothing too flash.
Outside a little man started waving enthusiastically at us and so we walked over to see what was up, turned out he was the bus driver to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). The bus was nothing special, far from it, a beat up little thing which everytime he went over 30 made the most annoying beeping noise i have ever heard. After about 40 mins we arrived in BSB. It was nothing like we expected, parts of it were how we imagined, a few posh looking shops and hotels, but this was out weighed by the very average looking buildings everywhere. This wasn’t a country that was oozing wealth at all.
The lonely planet had pointed us to a youth centre on the way out of town where rooms were available for B$10 a night (approx 3 pounds). These rooms had air con and a pool outside. You definitely got the feeling you were in a youth centre though, it looked just like an english leisure centre only not as big. We checked in and wandered down the street in search of somewhere cheap to eat. As we were walking around a little guy strolls along next to me. “Hello”, “alright mate?”, “Where you from?”, “England, you?”, “Brunei”, “oh so you know any good cheap places to eat?”. “you like local food??”, “I Dunno until i try it,…. but yeah i guess”, “Follow me i show you”
With that we followed this little fella (we later found out was called Abdul) to this little area by the river that was full of places selling local food. “come, sit, I eat also”. At this point i’m getting a little suspicious thinking, whats this guy’s angle. He chose our dinner for us and then we sat chatting about Brunei asking qustion after question fulfilling our curiosity about a country we knew very little about. Dinner arrived eventually and it was delicious, great choice Abdul.
I then started to question his sexuality in my mind. He was very very touchy feely and walked with a little bit of a mince, you might say. Then i remembered reading that because Brunei was such a strict islamic country, homosexuality was illegal and that you could get arrested and fined up to B$30,000 if found to be ‘that way inclined’. I began to realax into conversation realising that he was just infact, a really nice bloke, who wanted to help out a couple of confused looking lads in a country where we really, really did stand out.
After dinner he walked us down by the river pointing out Kampung Ayer (water village) and then showing us the mosque before driving us back to the hostel. He said that if we were interested tomorrow he would meet us and take us around the water village and show us some places of interest. We agreed and Al and I went to bed laughing about how typical it had become of us two to land on our feet out of nowhere.
The next day we met Abdul by the river and he was sat there smoking a ciggy with a water taxi patiently waiting. We boarded the water taxi and we shot off down the river. He showed us the mosque from the river and then we went down into the mangrove jungle looking for probosics monkeys which are native to Borneo. Spending a while looking, we eventually found some but they were a little too far away to get a picture though. The mangrove jungle really was quite something though. Al and i both agreed that we felt like Indiana Jones whilst hunting out the monkeys. haha.
We then headed to Kampung Ayer, this is a water village where over 20,000 people live. All these houses sprouting out of the water on stilts. There was a whole community there, fire stations, police stations, schools, petrol stations.. everything. It was amazing. We spent a little while zipping underneath rickety walkways between houses whilst children ran about outside their houses waving and shouting hello to us. Abdul told us that we would be stopping to visit some friends of his and soon we were pulling up to some rather old concrete steps out of the sea to a rickety board walk. We walked to this house and were invited to sit down and enjoy a drink whilst we soaked up the atmosphere of the water village. These people have nothing really, yet they welcome us into their houses with great big smiles, sit us down and give us water and tea and make us sandwiches. I couldn’t believe just how nice they were. Their children, a little shy at first, became more comfortable and were soon running around us like crazed animals shouting and laughing. Their laughter was infectious and soon Al and I were both laughing, just because they were… whatever they were laughing and screaming about was obviously very funny. After we’d finished our food they told us to come inside and look around, showing us all the rooms and telling us to take as many pictures as we liked. It felt wrong to be in a strangers house but yet they seemed to love it. Soon the man of the house came strolling towards us, big grin on his face, “welcome, come, look around”, we introduced ourselves and shook hands and shortly after left. As we left they said ” Don’t forget this house, you come back again” all of them smiling and waving us off. I wouldn’t say i was moved by it all, but it certainly was lovely to be invited into a strangers house and looked after the way we were.
Later as we continued around the water village Abdul explained that they dont get many western tourists in Brunei, partly due to the fact it is so small, you can’t drink and that your not really allowed to hang around on the streets after ten. I guess this is maybe why everyone was so friendly. We we’re ‘different’ and it seemed like everyone wanted to say hello.
Arriving back at the city we got off the taxi and Abdul offered to take us to some more places that evening if we were interested. Next thing we’re in the back of his car and heading towards the biggest mosque in South East Asia. This was massive and very impressive, lit up and shown to all its glory in the night sky. We spent a little time walking around learning about how many times a day they pray etc before getting back in the car and heading to Gadong night market. This market sold allsorts of foods, some looked very interesting indeed. Feeling daring Al tried Chickens throat and i tried Chicken ass (chicken tail). I’m not going to lie… they weren’t great. Whilst ‘enjoying’ ahem, dinner Abdul turned to me and said ” Dave, you could not live here in Brunei”, “why’s that Abdul, because its 40c everyday and its too hot???”, “No Dave, its because there is no parties for you.”. I couldn’t believe it, i’d known him no more than 24 hours and he had decided i was a party animal. I don’t know where he had come up with that…. perhaps my reputation proceeds me!?!?
Unfortunately it then started to rain and so we were confined to the car as we drove around looking at the palaces of all the sultan’s family before going back to the hostel. It was time to say goodbye to Abdul. We couldn’t thank him enough really, he had seen us in the streets, randomly came over and started talking to us and shared all his local knowledge with us. He seemed to know everything about everything and it was very interesting to have a ‘no bullshit’ tour of Brunei. Too often in Asia you get the feeling that people are after your money in one way or another and it makes you question the truely decent people that just want to help you and share their country with you.
After all the questions from people saying why are we going to Brunei, there is nothing to do… my answer would be why not?! Turned out to be a very nice place with some of the nicest, friendliest people i have ever met. We had a truely unique experience in Brunei, one which i doubt you would ever be able to have in any other city, in any other country in the world.