Notes On Brunei

Brunei was almost swallowed up by Malaysia and the Philippines, areas that it used to control. The sultan gave Sarawak to White Rajah for helping quell a rebellion. Sarawak ended up being given to the English and became part of Malaysia. English had already wrested Sabah from Brunei and the Philippines had taken back the Sulu Archipeligo. It salvation came in the form of oil and it came in 1929. This places the development of the city of Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei, on a similar timeline to Canberra; the capital of Australia.

Because of this similar development the two cities share the same vibe. Everyone drives a car, there are no straight lines in how the city is laid out and the only public transport is via bus. The similarity continues with the architecture, it just feels like a small, urban, political city. Every building of self-importance is padded with green grass that sets it away from it’s neighbours. This makes the centre of town bigger than it needs to be. In Brunei, many of these official buildings had been tiled. The outside of the building covered in tiles from top to bottom. It gave the place the feel of a giant outdoor bathroom. The real differences between Canberra and BSB are two monumental mosques and the 30,000 strong floating village on the river.

1,800 - The number of rooms in the Sultan’s Palace.

The floating village is the biggest in the world and that population of 30,000. That’s 10% of the Brunei's population. It’s not stuffed with poverty either, there are schools, mosques, police, shops and houses with gardens here. A hundred of water taxis whisk around the river taking people to and fro. On the land there are only fifty taxis and most of then stop in the evening. The buses stop after six too. This almost was to be my undoing in Brunei.

The hostels were all booked when I looked online. I should have just gone to the hostel when I arrived as the city was devoid of tourists. So I booked a hotel that had been a bit cheeky and listed their location as BSB. When in reality it was a satellite town. It took 45 minutes by taxi to get to the hotel the night that I arrived. This didn’t include the 15 minutes spent trying to find a taxi driver. The taxi’s don’t really operate at night because everyone in Brunei owns a car. Everyone who visits rents one. I didn’t have an international driver licence so I couldn’t. Each day I went out I had to decide if I was going to take the last bus back to the hotel or whether I would hope for a taxi.

On one walk I ended up going through a graveyard. People had setup umbrellas over some of the graves.

B&w shot of floating city

One night, I wanted to take night shots of the mosques. They really are spectacular. I got to the location at dusk and needed to wait about an hour for proper darkness to fall. After about thirty minutes it started to rain. It rained the kind of rain you see in movies. The kind of rain that is really just someone upending a bucket. The kind of rain you’re not sure it will ever stop. It rained so hard the droplets merged together to make a wave of rain. I stood huddled in the mosque walkway. It was not designed for keeping out the rain. I stood there for about forty-five minutes waiting for the rain to stop. It rained and it rained. I was also about 4-5km from the city centre. If there were taxis, they would not be here.

A young man came out of the mosque and started chatting to me. His name was Ibraham. I asked him when he thought the rain would stop. He laughed. He convinced me to let him give me a lift. All the way back to the hotel. Along the drive he told me about his life. He worked in sales at a bank but felt the environment in which he worked was too selfish, too cliquey and found it difficult to make friends and advance. Eventually he got fed up and quit. He’s wife wasn’t impressed as they have a young daughter at home. They’re doing ok though, as his wife works and earns more than he did. He dropped me off and he went off to go to his final prayer session of that day. Within twenty minutes the rain had stopped and I had no way of getting back into the city.

when: Saturday, February 08, 2014