The Sultanate of Brunei is a very small country (approx twice the size of Luxembourg) and not one which is a major tourist destination for reasons which I shall explain BUT if you do make the effort to visit you can find a beautiful and extremely peaceful place. Nestled on Malaysian side of the Island of Borneo, Brunei is awash with natural rainforest, teeming with wildlife and stunning virtually empty beaches. It’s official title is Nation of Brunei, Abode of peace and it certainly lived up to its name. It was about as lively as Bare on a Wednesday morning in February.
We were visiting a former Shrewsbury colleague Gillian and her son who relocated there at the same time that I moved to Shanghai. Gillian works at The International School of Brunei (ISB) one of only two international schools in the whole country. ISB is known for being an eco-school and I was curious to see what difference that made.
All around the campus I found boxes like this which promoted eco issues and made information easy to access. The school has only two photocopiers and very few printers to cut down on paper consumption. Recycling was prominent and the school boasted an eco-garden as well as an area of rainforest behind the main buildings which it plans to use as an outdoor classroom.
Gillian has been given a 3 bed, 3 bath house. Yes, a whole house with garden and to say I had accommodation envy was true although as she pointed out there are more expenses like having to get the grass cut.
Brunei is an extremely wealthy county being an oil producer (petrol was cheap out there). There are places with extreme opulence such as the golden dome of the Sultan’s palace which we could only glimpse from a distance. He is building a second palace we saw under construction (obviously this one isn’t enough!)
Known for his extravagant life-style the eldest son of the royal family, Prince Jefri, built the much-marbled Empire Hotel with its own private beach and idyllic swimming pools.
In actual fact the marble floor are fantastic to scoot on if you are a three year old who is obsessed by things that go! What a lucky coincidence.
And the many golden escalators provide hours of entertainment!
We had a sumptuous buffet lunch there and fortunately the waiting staff were very good at chasing after a lively toddler who saw it as his mission to ‘escape’. At speed. As often as possible.
The beach was idyllic palm-fringed white sand but almost empty. I couldn’t understand why until Gillian explained that recently an off shore island had been purchased by some Chinese businessmen who had cut down all the mangrove to build something for the oil industry. The mangrove, however was home to all the crocodiles and they have been displaced to all along the shoreline! I stuck to paddling only after hearing that. How the natural world suffers at the hands of greedy humans.
Altogether I was surprised at how few tourists there were in the little piece of paradise until I remembered that Brunei was a strict Muslim country that operates under Sharia Law. As such the sale of alcohol is prohibited and it is pretty much the only country where the airport does not sell duty free alcohol!! So I can see why it wouldn’t attract western holiday makers who really want to relax by the pool with a nice cocktail or a cold beer!
Brunei also bans smoking (which I highly approve of) since 2017 when the Sultan decreed that he would give his people good health as part of his birthday present that year. I understand that some cigarettes get smuggled in across the border but you cannot openly smoke or buy tobacco here thus is a great improvement on China where cigarettes are routinely smoked everywhere… this is us waiting at a road crossing behind some Chinese.
But back to Brunei. Some other things which are banned include
- Unmarried couples sharing a room
- Being in close proximity to the opposite sex while not being married
- Defaming the sultan
Yes, celebrating Christmas or putting up public decorations carries a jail sentence. Private celebrations can be carried out by special written permission! The reason given is that it might ‘undermine’ the role is Islam.
The version of Islam practiced here is strict but not the Fundamentalism which requires full Burka. Women are dressed in beautiful colours and stylish hijabs
The first stop on our tour was the Chinese temple. This contained some beautifully decorated tiles which clearly told ancient stories in the same way that stained glass windows do in a church
The mosques are splendid and dominate the city
The water town is apparently the largest in the world and a fascinating place to wander around. The walkways looked as though they had seen better days and some of them even swayed (which wasn’t great if you have a bit of vertigo!)
This water town boasts 3 schools, a fire station and several businesses. We stopped at the prawn cracker maker where we sampled and bought the most delicious fresh crackers. They were so good the British royal family had been to visit too and they proudly showed us the photos on their phone.
After that we had a lovely boat trip to see the proboscis monkeys
Unfortunately our own little chap who had been so very excited all day promptly fell asleep and missed them all.
The royal regalia museum was free and very well done. It was a great place to spend a couple of hours.
After a good old ratchet among the royal stuff we set off across the country (it only took a couple of hours) along fairly deserted roads to the heart of the rainforest for a jungle trek to see a waterfall.
At first it was ok
The track was wide and clear as you can see. But it rapidly changed. We had to Ford this leech infested stream…
Kevin did get one in his shoe. It doesn’t look much but they can be the devil to remove once they have latched on. You literally have to burn them off which isn’t fun. Fortunately Kevin’s sock saved him. Thanks sock.
The path became narrower and less defined until we were scrambling over tree roots or over muddy swampy places all the time being careful not to grab onto the razor sharp rattan for balance!
I have to admit to being somewhat outside my comfort zone particularly when something landed on my ankle and either bit or stung me. I shrieked and jumped so fortunately it fell or flew off but it sure was painful at the time.
We decided to call it a day and head back for my sake (wimp that I am) and I have no idea how Gillian managed as she was also carrying Daniel!!!!
We had a lovely time exploring Brunei and want to say a huge thanks to Gillian for organizing everything and accommodating us. Everything was so peaceful and serene you almost forgot what was happening in the rest of the world… but more about that another time