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A visit to Brunei
Kuching (Malaysia), July 23rd 2009

For some countries it is really difficult to imagine what you can expect from it. Brunei is such a country. We saw this little country already many times in our atlas, sandwiched between the Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, but we never knew what we could really expect from it. But now the time had come; we have brought a visit to this small country, officially called Brunei Darussalam.

Brunei is a Sultanate. This means that the country is not ruled by a king or parliament, but by a real sultan, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in this case. This may sound really romantic to many of us, but the hard reality is that Brunei is still a dictatorship. A dictatorship in where the sultan, together with a clique of family members and friends, has the absolute power in this small country. But the sultan isn’t doing a bad job. Most dictatorships are characterised by violence, abuse of human rights, oppression and self-enrichment. But none of this is true in Brunei. At least, not visible for us as visitors. So, there is no democracy in Brunei, but luckily enough for the sultan there is a lot of oil. And it is this black gold that is used by the rulers to keep the population happy. Because, to be honest, who wouldn’t be happy to pay no income tax, to make use of free medical care, to send their children for free to school, to get subsidy on many goods including cars and gasoline, to have short work weeks and to cash in the highest incomes of the region. You would be stupid to send these rulers home. Isn’t it?

Edwin is filming the Omar Ali Saifuddein mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan

Only in 1984 Brunei gained its full independence from England. The present sultan got his (military) education at one of the most prominent military academies in England. As of today, the relationship between Brunei and its former coloniser England is still very close. And that is a little bit strange, because England, and also all other western countries, normally only want to be real friends with countries that are democracies. Because democracy and an open market economy is the backbone of every modern state, is what they always say. Unless of course, if there is oil. In case of oil, other rules are valid. In that case the western countries are looking through the fingers and really don’t care anymore about their principles. And maybe that’s ok in this situation. The people of Brunei seem to be happy with it.

We used the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan as base for our visit to Brunei. It is a small and orderly little town and most attractions of Brunei are within a daytrip distance of Bandar Seri Begawan. The people of Brunei are very friendly and the pace of life is even less that it is in neighbouring Malaysia. In our opinion, the people of Brunei are what we call ‘luxury horses’. That means that they prefer the nice and relaxed jobs and that they use migrant workers to do the less attractive jobs. Most migrant workers in Brunei are from Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These people take the low-education jobs in the oil industry, but they also occupy the petrol stations, do the maintenance of the roads and mow the grass along the highways.

In many respects Brunei looks like Malaysia. The landscape and people are similar and also the way of living looks alike. But it is clearly visible that the people of Brunei are much richer than the Malaysians. The gross national product of Brunei is more than twice as high as that of Malaysia. The houses are big and nice, the highways are of western standards and there are many luxury cars. Brunei is one of the countries with the highest average number of cars per person. And they are proud of it. And all of this is thanks to the huge oil fields that are present within the land and sea border of Brunei and the fact that they only have to share these incomes with 400,000 people. But what will happen when the oil fields dry up somewhere between 2020 and 2030, is the big question. Many other industries, like for example agriculture, are not available in Brunei.

One of the beautiful lit streets in Bandar Seri Begawan
The people of Brunei are outgoing people. Especially during the night, when the sun went down and the temperature is bearable again, people go to the streets. Squares and streets change into open air markets and restaurants, attracting a lot of people in search for cheap products or a good meal. Children and their fathers play football on the central parade ground of the city, while the prayers come from the speakers of the Omar Ali Saifuddein Mosque that is beautifully lighted at night. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon is also the best time to visit the water village of Bandar Seri Begawan (Kampung Ayer), the picturesque suburb of the capital city that is completely built on poles in the Sungai Brunei River. You can reach this village, which occupies fifty percent of the population of the city, by one of the many speed boats that travel between the village and the shores of the river. When you are there, you can stroll through Kampung Ayer by using one of the many boardwalks that connect the buildings of the village.

Another great thing to do is to hire a car for one of two days to see the attractions in other parts of the country. The public transport is good in around the capital city, but the more remote parts of Brunei are not served. You can still use Bandar Seri Begawan as your base. With a car, you can for example visit one of the nice nature parks that offer beautiful and well guide rainforest trails. Another option is to visit the oil town of Seria where you can still see the oil production happening within the borders of the town. Closer to Bandar Seri Begawan you can go to the Jerudong Park Playground. This amusement park, given by the people of Brunei to the sultan for his 48th birthday, is a once in a lifetime experience. The park was fully operational till the year 2000, when the management decided to ask for an entrance fee. Till that year, a visit to the park was free. However, since the introduction of the entrance fee, the visitor numbers dropped dramatically almost to zero, forcing the park to close all of the bigger attractions. Only the playground for children survived. However, it is still possible to wander around the defunct, deteriorated and often demolished attractions, which is a surreal experience. So, in our opinion Brunei has some nice things to offer to travellers and for that reason it should be a destination on every trip to Borneo …. even though it is just for a couple of days.

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