Cruising gives us great opportunities to see the countries we visit, but we rarely play tourist. Given our short stay in Brunei, we splurged on a car and driver to get an interpretive tour.
The duration of our stay falls within Ramadan, a month of spiritual reflection and fasting practiced by Muslims. This is not the time most travelers would choose to visit a country where Sharia law can supersede the base English common law, but there we are, in a little country that is not only one of the world’s smallest but also one of the world’s wealthiest. A monarchy heavily influenced by religion sounds like more than a little bit of an anachronism and makes us all interested to see and learn more about this curious place.
Our normal mode is explore by bike, bus, or on foot, but between the bus schedules, the distance between sights, and the heat, a car is the most practical option. Our guide is Muslim, but not Bruneian, so he can both help us understand aspects of the country influenced by Islam that might otherwise escape us, as well as share what stands out to a resident foreigner as interesting or unusual.
I bring a prepared list of places we anticipate visiting, but the first place he wants to take us isn’t one I’d even been aware of. It’s a hotel. A hotel? He’s insistent that this will be worthwhile, so we go along with it. Why not?
The Empire Hotel & Country Club turns out to be well worth a look as our first taste of the jaw-dropping wealth that exists in Brunei. Like many of the other buildings financed by the sultan there is no effort to understate the wealth, but here, there is ostentatiousness that verges on tactlessly gaudy.
The scale is massive: just one of the four pools appears to cover a larger area than the neighborhood elementary school at home. It’s in the grandness, but also in the details: the columns are really marble, not trompe l’oeil paint jobs, the gold accents everywhere are gold leaf, not just shiny paint. It feels almost cavernously empty, but other visitors are probably smarter about picking dates outside of Ramadan to plan their holiday in Brunei.
We drive around to see a few of the immense mosques that dot the capital, with lessons on the side in Islamic architecture from our guide: the roots of different designs, the role of different buildings in each complex. They are imposing but beautiful; impressively sized complexes that can hold thousands.
We hope to see several inside, but realize at the first one we visit that all are closed to non-Muslims during Ramadan. That’s OK. Our guide is very disappointed – especially when we visit the mosque he usually attends – and he tries very hard to talk us in, but we don’t mind. We can see and appreciate a great deal by walking around outside.
What trip to a monarchy is complete without visiting the castle? The sultan’s palace was hard to see, but we had a good sense of it at a river view some distance away. Meanwhile, the guard at the front gate let us take a few pictures. This is my forced grin, trying very hard not to crack up and lose it, because he’s decided to cop a feel in the bargain. Some palace guards are classy that way.
I’ve never visited a place with so many national flags flying. Commercial buildings have them by the dozen in roofline rings, flagpoles dot the front yards of private homes, streets are lined with flagpoles as well. It is over the top. This kind of ubiquitous patriotism has a false ring to it. The cynic in me assumes this simply speaks to the monarchy’s control, and near brainwashing to keep people content and complacent. In a sultanate that has been transferred nearly 30 times through a single family with a leader said to be “enshrined in the national ideology”- what’s the worry? Maybe because members of the royal family are individually among the wealthiest people in the world thanks to extraction of petroleum the nation’s natural resources. It is staggering wealth they seem to spend mostly on monuments or silliness (like a collection of 7,000 high end cars). Yes, there is free education, and very inexpensive medical care, but that just puts Brunei on par with many other developed countries. What happens when the oil runs out? It’s not clear that there is any fallback for the economy, no investments like you see in the UAE to diversify the economic base. Better keep those people content!
There’s a museum dedicated to the fabulous gifts given to the sultan by various other heads of state. Unfortunately, it’s the only museum that’s open. It holds memorabilia from the historically precious (a cuneiform plate) to the absurd (a portrait of the sultan in large scale cross-stitch). Cameras are only allowed in the foyer, which boasts the gold painted palanquin that carried him in…something. A coronation? I find I’ve started to tune out the over the top worship of the sultan. It all just feels like one big wank.
We check out the capital’s big public mall. It’s a Sunday, so everybody has the day off. It’s full of families shopping and gives us a welcome peek into middle class Bruneian life… a counterpoint of normalcy after touring through the monumental architecture we’ve done so far.
Our fashionista shops for new jeans. I love how the child-size mannequins behind her range from fairy fluff to full body coverage: something for everyone.
Many stores have specials running for Ramadan; Aidilfitri, the holiday which closes the month of fasting promises celebrations and gift-giving. There are special displays and contests- this supermarket has a Hari Raya (Celebration Day) giveaway of a cart full of groceries.
Driving back through the capital, our guide wants to know if we’d like to visit Kampung Ayer- literally, ‘water village’ a stilt village over the bay in the center of the town. We scope it out from the street, but decide not to bother with a boat ride over. It’s probably pretty interesting to the uninitiated, but we’ve seen a lot of stilt villages in the last year. If anything, these are impressive for their comparative development; power poles string the homes together, and concrete ‘roads’ run in lanes throughout. You do, however, still have to get in a boat to reach it. The water taxis look like speed bombs, but the drivers solicit with a friendly hail from behind their balaclavas.
We stop off to pick up a few last groceries on the way back to the boat. I don’t find the tortillas I’d been craving, but there’s a closed sized non-halal food retailer buried within a larger supermarket. It was a strange, illicit feeling to be in a windowless miniature store-within-a-store where the legions of expats living in Brunei can shop for verboten products as rum raisin ice cream, bacon, chorizo.
As the sultan ages, he is apparently becoming more devout, and his religious priorities influence new laws and directives. There’s a sign outside the grocery shop that speaks to the current trend.
On Fridays, all business is expected to close between 12 and 2, so that the faithful can focus instead on prayer. This didn’t work out the way the sultan intended initially; apparently, many services found the promise of emptier roads at that time a great opportunity to step up deliveries, and malls were flooded with people shopping. So now there are signs going up, and enforcement officers patrolling.
During our visit, Muslim restaurants were given the directive- by the religious council, at the order of His Majesty- that they could not serve non-Muslim patrons during Ramadan. The stated reason? To “encourage respect for those fasting during Ramadan.” I am not sure how forcing Muslim restaurant owners out of business for a month shows them any respect- just an excellent example of a kingdom under the ruler’s thumb. There are plenty of alternatives for non-Muslims.
We’re told that Bruneians aren’t happy with the current handouts from the government, and wonder why they don’t get more. Businesses apparently prefer hiring immigrants to locals, based on work ethic and different sense of entitlement. To the meritocracy minded, that entitlement rubs wrong, but so does the wacked distribution of wealth in this tiny country where the sultan ’s personal wealth – stemming from national resources – is said to be in the neighborhood of $40 billion. It’s a strange situation.
Leaving the questions of Brunei economics behind, we retreat to the expat haven of the yacht club and indulge in root beer floats.