For today’s post I thought I’d write a bit about our few days in Brunei. Brunei is an interesting little country, which most folks don’t seem to know much about. That seems to be representative of the way of things in Brunei: get on with enjoying life and living a very peaceful lifestyle, and let the rest of the world do whatever it wants to do. Indeed if I hadn’t been going to Brunei, I wouldn’t have had a clue where it was (though my geography is notoriously awful). If you’re in the same boat, why not check out my snazzy “map of Dave’s travels” so you can find out where it is?
We ended up travelling to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu by boat (via Labuan), as we’d heard there was a bit of flooding on the road, and the bus to/from Sepilok had not put long bus journeys top of our agenda. Though we had originally planned to spend a night in Labuan (a tax haven island off the west coast of Borneo), one visit to a hostel which was recommended at the tourist information, which was twice as expensive as KK and involved a soiled looking mattress on the floor, quickly led us to the decision to move on to Brunei that day instead of stopping over. And a ruddy good decision it was too.
Brunei is a country where the sultan (king) is utterly loaded (a bit of googling tells me he’s worth approx £10billion…which is quite a lot) and much of the rest of the country seems to be significantly less rich. Therefore while there are expensive aspects to the country, we found food for around $4-6 per person including drinks, water taxi fares for $1 per person, and quite a few free museums too (though as you can’t take photos inside museums, you’ll have to take my word for that).
As a brief bit of Brunei background, it is a Muslim country, following Sharia law. As far as we could tell, this pretty much means the big differences are that you can’t get pork anywhere, and you can’t get alcohol anywhere. Aside from this, we couldn’t really see a difference between general operations in Brunei compared with Malaysia or Singapore. When reading up on Brunei we found that you’re supposed to wear trousers (rather than shorts), however as it turns out, many of the locals were wearing shorts, and this didn’t appear to draw any sideways glances at all.
When we arrived we set about finding a hostel to stay in, and chanced upon one of the two hostels which exist in Brunei (to this day I don’t know what the name of it was, maybe like that stage at Glastonbury they refer to it as “the other hostel”), which was approx $10 (£5) per person for the first night, but then due to some odd maths seemed to be $18 (£9) for the second (possibly because it was a Saturday night?).
Wandering the seafront, we found some delicious satay chicken and beef, and this rather tasty ” glass” of “fresh coconut” (which still only cost $1 or 50p).
Getting into coconuts in Brunei seemed to be a case of:
1. Pick up coconut in one hand
2. Pick up giant meat cleaver in other hand
3. Without bracing the coconut, hack away at it until you’re in
4. If 3 fails, go to local hospital to re-attach hand
We consider going to visit Brunei’s rainforest or going to see the oil fields (the source of much of Brunei’s wealth), but unfortunately (or unorganisedly) we had left it too late to book any of the tours which all leave early in the morning, so instead spent a day touring free museums and checking out Brunei’s water village.
The “Royal Regalia” museum, is almost certainly the best free museum I have been to. It is full of assorted paraphernalia used on royal occasions (coronation, weddings etc) ranging from clothing through to a big solid gold hand which the sultan can rest his head on when he is crowned. It also has a vast array of gifts, given to the sultan at various occasions and when people visit. These seemed to range from incredibly delicate ornaments and exquisitely sculpted swords (a lot of swords), through to paintings which looked like they’d been painted by a 5 year old… But we didn’t say that too loudly. This was also one of the few places we went to where you aren’t allowed to wear footwear, so you leave your shoes outside and walk around barefoot, though this is commonplace in people’s houses in Asia (and rightly so).
The water village was a fascinating experience. It is a huge area (at one stage, half of Brunei’s population lived there!) of houses built on stilts over the river, with board walks running all over the place. The only way to get there is by water taxi (speedboat), and there are jetties all over the place where you can hop on and off them. While the taxi drivers (who all live in the village) offer to give you a boat tour of the place, we opted to just get a lift to one of the jetties and walk around the village.
While this was an amazing experience, we were quite aware that we were walking along taking photos of people’s houses, so we kept our photography to a minimum. On that note there are also some water villages which you need a permit to enter so that the residents aren’t constantly pestered by tourists, which seems an excellent setup (I know I would get irritated if there were constantly tourists outside my house. That being said, after asking around a bit, we did discover that Brunei is never “busy” with tourists.
As a final trip, we decided to hop on one of the water taxis, and head up river to see some proboscis monkeys (we’d seen them in Malaysian Borneo, but you can never see too many monkeys right?). On the way we saw a couple of adult crocodiles (briefly, before they dived into the river), and my first bits of mangrove forest (I may return to mangroves in a future post, as that’s what Dan is currently studying). The real fascinating bit though, was when we actually found the monkeys. We were under the impression that proboscis monkeys were quite rare and secretive animals, however in Brunei we found a hareem group (one big male and lots of females) in a tiny group of trees (perhaps 10 trees) surrounded by a very active village (and the river). This then led us to tons of questions about how rare they are, how habitat specific they are, how useful they are as an indicator of a “healthy” ecosystem etc. I guess that’s what happens when you let two ecologists loose in biologically interesting areas.
Well I think this post has gone on long enough. I’m now at the end of my stay in Singapore (and indeed Asia), and will soon be off to Australia. How time flies when you’re having fun. I may need to speed up writing blog posts to prevent a backlog… Or maybe I’ll just embrace my backlog, we’ll see.
Until next time