Brunei - misunderstood paradise or just unknown?
Day 2,108 since October 10th 2013: 185 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
What should be our focus?
For more than five years I have been defending and highlighting the positive attributes of every country I have reached. It does not mean I do not see the dark sides. However who am I to focus on the bad when all I am is a guest? And doesn’t media already have the negative aspects covered?
Brunei Darussalam literally means: Brunei the abode of peace. And that is simply too much for some people as they went straight for the throat. I keep the Saga highly active across social media and I have for the past week been posting plenty of photos along with some information regarding Brunei. And in all fairness most people have reacted positively to all the information. However a few keyboard warriors immediately had to point out that Brunei was some unsafe hell on earth. And I suspect that those people have spent more time soaking up media input rather than actually experiencing Brunei first hand. Isn’t that always how it goes? Who could imagine that people live normal lives in North Korea? Most people have never been to that country and yet they have much to say about it. I am not advocating that every opinion should be based on first-hand experience. That would be silly. However if your opinions arise from second hand information then I sincerely hope your information stream is balanced and broad. From my time in Brunei I have seen, heard and experienced nothing which would make me think that this country is anything but pleasant. And here we go…
In last week’s entrylast week’s entry I left you as I had just arrived to Brunei and met with Joanna, who introduced me to a lot of her friends and brought me along for the Hash run. Joanna is an expat in Brunei and works in connection with Brunei’s greatest source of income: oil. And as long as you are in the north west of the country it is hard to forget. The industry is visibly wherever you look. Oil derricks dot the landscape and jack up rigs are visible offshore. Workers in overalls and training centres are a part of the landscape too and the general outline of many expats living quarters resemble those of army barracks. Meanwhile Brunei is astonishing green and lush as you would expect of any tropical country. The coastline is a mere 161 km (100 mi) and you can drive from one side of the country to the other in 90 minutes without speeding.
Having dinner with Joanna's friends and colleagues.
Joanna was just amazing. She took really good care of me and left me with the key to her apartment on the morning she flew to Singapore. In connection with the Sultan’s upcoming 73rd birthday Brunei had a long weekend and Joanna saw her chance to head across the pond and see her friend. On that same day I was meeting up with Azim who has been following the Saga since April 2019 and reached out to hear if I was planning on coming to Brunei. He offered the hospitality of his home and to show me around. I took Azim up on that not knowing exactly what I was getting into? Azim had written that his mother was looking forward to meeting me which had me wondering how old Azim might be? Azim arrived to pick me up and was cool right from the beginning. He is the youngest of four brothers and lives with his parents in Kuala Belait which is the second largest settlement in Brunei after the capital. We had the chance to talk about this and that and I was fortunate to meet a lot of his family along with friends who were all full of hospitality and delight.
Kuala Belait is a small calm place and home to about 40,000 beating hearts.
The intention was originally that I would stay in their guestroom but it was taken so to my surprise I ended up in a hotel room. I did not need to pay anything as the hotel was owned by a friend of the family. That night I had dinner with Azim, his brother and his father who was a very kind and soft spoken man. His father, Musa, found it amusing that some people around the world would think Brunei was anything but peaceful. The main reason why some people now suddenly think Brunei is unsafe stems from the recently adapted Sharia Law which took effect in Brunei earlier this year. Sharia Law is rooted in Islam and is based off a variety of sources and interpretations. In my personal opinion most religion is intolerant of certain people, lifestyles or actions when you follow them to the letter. That is also why most people fall short of following every word of the Quran or Bible. Modern society all around the world adapts certain parts of religion into their lives and leave other elements out. In my opinion many people let religion guide them but still think for themselves.
Is it getting lighter or darker? ;)
Sharia Law comprises of a great many things but what it is openly criticized for are the aspects which punish sexuality if the law does not agree with it. Personally I think it is wrong to punish anyone for love. However it is surely not my place to criticize a country which I am a guest within. And there is much more to the story than most people know. Same sex relationships could already be punished by law in Brunei even before Sharia Law was implemented in the country (it exists in 15 other countries). The most important thing to know is that capital punishment has not been practised in Brunei since it gained independence in 1984 and both the public as well as official statements from government voice that it is highly unlikely that it ever will. So what are we dealing with here? Well, the law is certainly in place but it is not being used. In other words it is theoretical at this point. Something which is not theoretical is the kindness I have been shown in Brunei. So why is the law there? Well anyone can speculate. Brunei has always been seen as the region’s most observant Islamic nation and as such the adaptation of Islamic law might just be a natural step. The official statement is that Sharia Law in Brunei is meant as a deterrent and will help guide people on the right path. Well…apart from a few online voices my experience of Brunei has been one of peace, kindness, beauty, hospitality, smiles and a REALLY easy going lifestyle…
That's Azim next to me and friends and family all around us. Great people. Thanks for everything!
Azim and his family decided to drive to Bandar Seri Begawan the next day. It is Brunei’s capital city and home to about 140,000 beating hearts. I managed to find a $9 USD hostel but Azim told me that his family had already booked a hotel room for me. They were heading to the capital to receive their mother who was returning from her travels. She loves to travel and has been to some really cool destinations such as the western part of China close to Kirgizstan and she is looking into visiting Uzbekistan next. She has something to look forward to!! However her flight wasn’t due to arrive until midnight so I wouldn’t meet her until the next day. We drove straight to The Empire which is a five star luxury resort in Bandar where the cheapest rooms go for about $200 USD. I joined Azim, Musa and everyone else for dinner before I headed to my hotel late at night.
Brunei has more cars than people. Not all look like this...but some do ;)
The next morning I got up, checked out of the hotel and headed out to meet with the Brunei Red Crescent Society (BRC). They were originally established in 1948 as a branch of the British Red Cross and became BRC in 1984 when Brunei gained its independence. I joined them at their General Assembly at Brunei Stadium and afterwards for a light lunch were I got to speak with Faizal who operates their Social Media. I also had the opportunity to shake hands with Hj. Muhammad Suhaimi Ibrahim, President of BRC, who said: “Our Movement here is very unique. We are totally 100% volunteer staff from the school cadet and even up to the council members. We do not even have any paid staff to run and manage our movement here”.
The BRC were in the final preparations for the parade which was to take place for the Sultans 73rd birthday the following day. Counting BRC I have now had the pleasure of linking up with the Red Cross or Red Crescent in 181 countries around the world. The RC movement began in 1863 and has spread all around the world to nearly every country (191) and I encourage you to donate, volunteer or in other ways support the humanitarian efforts and alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people. You matter and so do your actions.
Faizal taking a selfie with me. Great guy! :)
Afterwards I reached my hostel which was a nice little place with a few guests apart from me. I barely had time to drop my bags before I was picked up to go and have a late lunch with Azim’s family where I finally got to meet his mother. She was a delight however understandably very tired and looking forward to heading home and sleep in her own bed. That is a luxury I have yet to come. Suddenly the rain hammered down and we all had to seek cover inside the café we were seated at. Once the rain calmed down we all headed out in separate directions. Azim and his brothers were about to challenge themselves with the allegedly hardest escape room in Bandar. I was invited but was frankly too tired and needed to rest up. So we said farewell :)
Azim is a really cool, calm and collected student. Thanks for inviting me into your home :)
Back at the hostel I ran into Kristina from Germany who had just arrived on her way to the western part of Borneo where I had just come from. We clicked and decided to get up the next morning at 06:00am in order to see the parade and celebrations for the Sultan’s 73rd birthday. His birthday is celebrated publically every year and is a national holiday. We were told to get there early as there would be many people present. All branches of the military had suited up as well as the fire department, officials, scouts, the Red Crescent and more. It got hot as the sun rose higher into the sky but fortunately free cold chocolate milk was handed out to those who wanted it. A true birthday party! ;) We got there around 07:00am and the Sultan arrived around 08:25am. Canons were fired, a brass band played, people in uniforms marched and we took some photos.
Afterwards Kristina and I headed out to Kampong Ayer which is a historical settlement area in Bandar. It literally means ‘water village’ and consists of a large cluster of traditional stilt villages built on the Brunei River near the city centre. We only had to stand at the riverside for a minute before a smiling man in a boat appeared to ask if we wanted to purchase a river tour. He offered it at $14 USD and we joined him for half of that. It was well worth while it! Great value for our money as our smiling new friend took us all over the settlement and pointed out various buildings for us. Schools, clinics, fire department, hotels, markets etc. Everything you would expect of a village. When we asked where the sewerage from the estimated 15,000 villagers went our friend gestured that it drops into the river. Alrighty then! I’m not going swimming near the village ;)
Kristina was good fun to be around! Thanks for hanging out with me! :)
Kristina and I kept exploring throughout the day. Bandar is more like a large town than a small city. It is easy to walk about and explore. Traffic isn’t too dense and people are ridiculously friendly. A lot of people of all ages would smile at us, wave and ask us where we were from. When I replied “Denmark” Kristina would quickly say “not me, I’m from Germany”. Yeah Kristina…you wish you were from Denmark ;) We had to do a selfie with three elderly men who were decorated with medals in connection with the Sultans birthday. Or who knows – maybe they always wear them? ;) ‘Bandar’ just means ‘city’ in Malay but I really can’t be bothered writing Bandar Seri Begawan all the time. I hope you will bear with me. Abbreviations are pretty big around this part of the world. Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia becomes KL, Kuala Belait is mainly just KB and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia is simply KK. However I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say BSB? It just becomes ‘Bandar’ for most.
Bandar Seri Begawan possesses a lot of beauty.
That evening Kristina and I set out to explore a night market and we had some great food at low costs. I was heading east to KK the next day and Kristina was heading west. She was intent on hitchhiking if possible and I happened to know Saiful who works for Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP). Saiful is Bruneian and offered me a ride from KB to Bandar a few days earlier but I ended up staying with Azim and his family instead. I still had his contact details though so I asked if he would be willing to bring Kristina from Bandar to KB? He was happy to! That is the Bruneian spirit in a nutshell! Always kind, accommodating and helpful. Saiful lives more than 30 minutes from the hostel but volunteered to drive to the hostel in order to pick Kristina up. I would not have done that no matter how nice Kristina is :) But you get that in some cultures and so definitely in Brunei. On the evening Kristina and I were looking for the night market we stopped at a café to ask for directions. The guy at the café just left his customers and walked us a couple of minutes on our way to ensure we got there.
In my opinion Brunei possesses a strong kind of “Caribbean laidback lifestyle”. Maybe it is the tropics but Singapore is far more orderly in comparison and not so far away. Having met with so many Bruneians and long term expats I find it hard to imagine that harsh laws would ever be strictly enforced. I would certainly be surprised if Brunei would discontinue its current path of tolerance and hospitality, which I have experienced. I mean…some women here show plenty of skin while others cover up. Alcohol and tobacco is not sold in Brunei but it is accepted and legal. You will often see someone smoking a cigarette in public. What I have really been pondering a lot about lately is what the essence of a country is? Is it the laws which govern it or the people who live in it? It is probably a bit of both and far more than that. But what I am getting at is that quite a few keyboard warriors have been willing to condemn Brunei, which consists of about 430,000 beating hearts, based off the government’s choice to implement certain laws. It would be healthy to keep in mind that the people, and the way they chose to live, is far more powerful than the laws which they are governed by. After all…people are just people.
The next day it was time for me to leave. I originally had thought I would have left much earlier but it proved hard to schedule a meeting with the Red Crescent and I decided to wait for it. As such I also got to experience more. Last Tuesday I got up at 05:45am and left the hostel. A bus brought me to the terminal where I ran into Clement from France. He was heading to KK too so we teamed up and caught a bus to Muara where we had the world’s fastest lunch before hopping onboard another bus to the jetty. We arrived just as the ferry was about to leave and quickly managed to secure to tickets and board seconds before it left. It begs the question about what is better: to prepare well or to just go with the flow? It seems intuitive to me that getting up early, making arrangements and preparing in advance is the best way to ensure success. But how often have I by now found that things just seem to work out. It would be interesting to see a ratio between the success rates of the two. Where do we encounter the highest success rate: when we prepare and take our precautions or when we just “wing it”. I would still think that preparation provides for more success but the gap between the successes of the two methods might not be as great as one would think.
Reaching KK with Clemens :)
Anyway, Clemens has been traveling without flying for ten months and intended on reaching Australia completely without flying but recently boarded and airplane from Jakarta to Pontianak. I could sense that it really annoyed him that he had to do that. We had a good time together going through immigration and buying tickets. It is far more tolerable when you are two than by yourself. The ferry brought us to an island known as Labuan Federal Territory. It is a Malaysian island from where we needed to board another ferry in order of reaching Kota Kinabalu (KK). All in all it took three buses, two ferries and nine hours for me to reach KK. I could have taken a bus from Bandar to KK but if you take a look at the map then Brunei actually consists of two small pieces of land which are separated by a little stretch of Malaysia. Those borders are remnants of colonialism in the region and Brunei will finish a bridge this year which connects their two territories. But for now you need to leave Brunei and enter Malaysia in order to enter the “lonely state” of Brunei which is called Temburong. As a traveller going between Bandar and KK this means you will leave Brunei, enter Malaysia, leave Malaysia, enter Brunei, leave Brunei and enter Malaysia again. That is a lot of stamps in your passport not to speak of the potential queues which can occur at borders. It however takes about the same time to go by ferry or by land. Once Brunei finishes the bridge later this year it will be the longest in South Eastern Asia.
One of my rooms at Mercure on the 23rd floor ;)
Clemens and I reached KK and said farewell to each other. Traveller’s meet and traveller’s part. Such is the life. I headed straight for Hotel Mercure where I had been offered a complimentary stay in four start luxury. Just perfect as the location of the hotel was within a few minutes walking from the ferry. Within the confinement of my quiet luxury I got a lot of work done and set up arrangements for reaching the top of Mount Kinabalu. I really NEED that mountain right now!! I need to walk. I need to be physical. I need the fresh air. I need the calmness. I need to leave the Saga for a few days…I can’t really describe it. However this Saga has been living and breathing for five years and nine months now and I can’t escape it. It is like swimming in an ocean and taking a break does not make me any less wet. 18 countries left…let’s keep on keeping on people…
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Sharing niceness.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga