The clouds are thick beneath me and you just know that they are suppressing the heat. It looks humid even before I have stepped off the plane. There are fields and fields of lush green with splatters of Malay style housing complexes.
Bandar Seri Begawan doesn’t look like a sprawling capital metropolis. It looks quite nice.
You don’t hear much about this country. You would never even think about coming here unless you were transiting through.
Brunei is a small country on the island of Borneo with just 5,765 square kilometers of land, which makes it the 172nd largest country in the world with a population of 429,000 with about 200,000 people living in the capital and largest city of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Famous for its Royal family and a harem of wives I didn’t know too much about this place until I arrived. The country’s fortunes changed overnight with the discovery of oil in 1929. The good times have rolled ever since, particularly after the former British protectorate gained its independence in January 1989. Today, Brunei’s people are free of income tax and enjoy free education and healthcare. A litre of petrol costs the equivalent of just 20 pence.
The Sultan lives in a palace with 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, five swimming pools, a mosque, a banquet hall that holds 5,000 people and a 110-car garage. When he turned 50 the Sultan built a stadium, invited Michael Jackson to perform in it and paid him $17 million for three concerts.
The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and his brother Jefri, 59, are notorious for their partying ways and squandering money often in ways against their own Sharia Law. Bad behavior is the privilege of the prince and the sultan, their escapades and extravagances are indulged by the people. For everyone else residing within Brunei’s borders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, freedoms are curtailed, and those limitations now enforced by brutal violence.
A classic example of their hedonism, Jefri maintains a separate pleasure palace and owned a 152-foot sex-party yacht called Tits; he named its tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.
So what would entice a transit passenger to take a few days to step of and explore this country? Judging by the international airport, not much. Not even working wifi! But you cannot always judge a book by its cover.
However it’s known for its beaches and bio-diverse rain forest, much of it protected within reserves. The Ulu Temburong National Park, accessed by longboat, affords canopy walks, glimpses of traditional longhouse culture and endemic fauna and flora, such as the proboscis monkey.
Travel guides are very mixed when it comes to Brunei with a lot suggesting that it be by-passed all together due to the strict religious rules, dry state and no entertainment.
In December the Sultan banned public celebrations of Christmas, warning that putting up festive decorations and singing carols could threaten the country’s Muslim faith. Non-Muslims were allowed to celebrate Christmas, but only within their communities, and they must first alert the authorities.
So perhaps this should remain, exactly as it is, a transit destination.