With paperwork all completed to clear out of Malaysia, the rally fleet continued up the coast to Belait where we cleared into Brunei. This may be one of the smallest countries in the world, but Brunei has one of the world’s highest standards of living thanks to its plentiful oil and gas reserves.
Its ruling royals, led by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, possess a huge private fortune and its largely ethnic-Malay population enjoy generous state handouts, free medical for all residents and pay no taxes.
It seems a paradox that despite being such a modern, ostentatiously affluent country, in 2014 Brunei became the first East Asian country to adopt strict Islamic sharia law which allows punishment such as stoning for adultery and amputation for theft.
The Sultan of Brunei, was crowned in 1968, & is one of the world’s longest-reigning and few remaining absolute monarchs and is also one of the world’s richest individuals thanks to his country’s gas and crude oil exports.
Brunei’s capital, Bandar, is also a city of contrasts. Despite its impressive architecture and some of the most palatial buildings in South East Asia, nearly half of the city’s population lives in a floating village.
Kampung Ayer, meaning ‘floating village’, is home to an estimated 13,000 of the city’s 27,000 people, and houses, schools, restaurants, and police stations all rest on stilts in the middle of the Brunei River.
The streets of Bandar Seri Begawan (it’s full name) are ghostly quiet after dark, as there is no nightlife to speak of, and alcohol is strictly banned nationwide. One of the only places you’ll find a crowd after sunset is the local night market, where we tasted local foods at very cheap prices.
Our agent and amazing host during our stay, Alan Richies, gave the rally group a wonderful overview of Brunei- he took us out several times in a bus around the city, took us to the war memorial, showed us famous landmarks, the opulent architecture, and telling us all about life in this fascinating country. He spoke from first hand experience, having lived here as an expat for over 20 years.
The highlight of Brunei for me however, was our day trip to the Ulu Temburong National Park.
Whilst humans have already encroached far into the wider Borneo jungle, clearing land to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations, with devastating consequences, Temburong still offers an increasingly rare opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of flora and fauna found in a virgin rain forest.
It was a 45 minute ride in a water taxi past the water village and on through a network of waterways and mangrove islands, surrounded by napa palm plantations, to the small township of Bangar. the only town in the Temburong district.
We stopped at a longhouse at the tiny settlement of Batang Duri 18 kms further inland for morning tea before the road ends and we continued by longboat upstream through the Temburong River rapids. It was a 30 minute thrilling ride and we all marvelled at the skill of the boat handlers who maneuvered the long narrow wooden boats through winding river and boisterous rapids as we moved deeper into the jungle. They followed a precise path along the fast flowing river, judging where to steer the boat and often having to stall the boat and lift the 30hp engine free of the jagged rocks visible just inches beneath the keel. It was very exciting.
We all gathered at Ulu Ulu Temburong Resort, the closest hotel to the canopy trail before climbing the banks of the Temburong to the canopy walkway, a steady 1km climb along a steep jungle path in tiring and humid conditions.
However, once you have walked up the 1240 steps to the top, the toughest challenge still to come is the climb to the canopy walk.
At first sight, the 50m-high metal cage appears to be little more than makeshift scaffolding, and with only six steel cables supporting the structure, the sway of the platform is noticeable as you climb.
Our group all made the hard slog up the hill and braved the 20 ladders that reach to the top of the walkway and we were rewarded with a wonderful panorama.
We could hear gibbons screeching in the towering trees below, and we spotted horn bills flying overhead, their long beaks and colorful horns standing out against the surrounding forests. There was dense jungle as far as the eye could see.
I admit to having a fear of heights so I wasn’t sure if the canopy walk was shaking or it was my legs! I know I was happy to reach the ground again.
The walk back was not quite as arduous and after a refreshing lunch stop by the side of a small waterfall, we had another exciting longboat ride back downriver to Batang Duri. This time we were going with the current, but the free board was very low and quite a bit of water landed into the boats as we tilted precariously passing through the rapids. Great fun.
We stopped back at the longhouse for a wonderful afternoon tea and our hostess here encouraged one couple to dress up in traditional Sarawak costume. Liz and Chris are a really fun couple who enter into the spirit of every adventure, and they looked magnificent in their regalia as they posed for us all to take photos.
We were glad of the water taxi ride back to our boats in order to relax and chat about the incredible day we had enjoyed.
There were a lot of great events that our agent/host Alan organized during our stay in Brunei, from dinners and dances, sightseeing tours and watching the Sultan of Brunei’s birthday celebrations through the city.
Amanda, our friend on ‘Angel Wing’, organized for a whole bunch of us to have High Tea at the Empire Hotel one afternoon, believed to been of only two 7star hotels in the world.
As background information, during the1990s, at the height of Brunei’s building boom, an estimated U.S. $14 billion went unaccounted for, sparking allegations of misappropriation aimed largely at the Sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri who, as minister of finance for 13 years, helped diversify the nation’s economy and oversaw development of its infrastructure.
Jefri’s tastes became more and more opulent. The Empire Hotel, for example, was initially built as a royal guesthouse but wound up as a luxury hotel and country club that included its own signature Jack Nicklaus golf course and climate controlled stables for 200 polo ponies imported from Argentina.
The Empire’s hotel rooms are totally flamboyant, ranging from $400 up to the $16,600 nightly for the deluxe Emperor Suite used by President Clinton that features its own swimming pool and carpets flecked with real gold.
The hotel feature marble pillars, gold fixtures, a million dollar chandelier, and a ceiling that seems to rise heavenward offset the hotel’s lobby. At night, visitors can view stars through what must be one of the world’s largest picture window.
The most opulent edifice however is the 1788-room royal palace, the largest in existence, which the royal family opens to the public three days each year during Ramadan. It features a throne room that is overseen by portraits of the Sultan and his two current wives, and includes extra thrones for visiting royal couples.
Bruneians appreciate all the Sultan has done for them, and we are told he is often spotted around town in luxury model cars from his extensive collection of about 5,000 vehicles, including an estimated 350 Rolls Royce.
Due to the extravagant royal lifestyle, and Brunei’s dwindling oil revenues, the likes of Bill Gates have overtaken the Sultan’s wealth and yet he remains one of the world’s wealthiest men and his tiny Sultanate one of the richest nations on earth.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and were given a wonderful welcome wherever we went, from the nearby water village Sungai Bunga, to the Royal Brunei Yacht Club, which hosted a party with a live band for the yacht flotilla when we danced the night away.
After 10 days, we cleared customs and left for our next destination- Labuan.