Due to my love of quirky travel destinations and my having no success identifying Parkinson’s focused groups to work with in the months leading up my travels, this post will be a Parkinson-free 100% travel blog. Now be honest….how many had never heard of Brunei. If you are in this group don’t feel bad. When I asked those that attended our event at the Parkinson Society Singapore, “Who had been to Brunei?” – not one person in the group had been, even though it is only a 2 hour flight from Singapore. I, on the other hand, have been trying to find an excuse to go there for over two decades.
I have always been fascinated by countries with small land mass. One of my most memorable days traveling was the day I spent exploring San Marino. When we traveled Europe as a family, I made a point to drag Lila and the kids to Luxembourg, Leichtenstein, and Andorra. I ran my only marathon in Monaco. Given that my wife’s hometown of Kuching is on the island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei, each time we have gone to visit her family I have unsuccessful tried to coordinate a side trip to Brunei. Today I finally made it here.
Despite my desire to travel to Brunei, I had no preconceived notion that I would like the place. I imagined an isolated, cold country with culture and landmarks dominated by Islamic religion and the king’s wealth. The type of country that makes a tourist uncomfortable being there. When I arrived at immigration I thought my apprehension about the country was about to be confirmed. There were 3 lines for arrivals. Brunei citizens (big line), other Asian countries (small line) and other Foreigners (nobody, I mean nobody...no travelers, no immigration officials at the desks….nobody). As I turned around to make my retreat and form a new strategy to enter this country that I just knew would be difficult to enter, a Canadian lady entered the line and told me, “you just have to let them know (that a traveler from outside Asia actually wants to enter their country)". After that a young lady waved me over, smiled, spoke perfect English and quickly stamped me in. I moved on to customs and started to put my backpack through the x-ray screening like everyone else, but the official said, "no need" and waved me though. Next I needed to check my email, so I found a place in the arrival hall where, if I sat on the floor, I could plug in my computer, but found no wifi networks. I then looked up and saw a Coffee Bean and Teal Leaf on the floor above which had electric outlets and wifi. Finally, I caught a ride to the hotel from a taxi driver, who was so friendly and knowledgeable that he was more of a tour guide. At one point, when there were FIVE cars ahead of us on the road into town he exclaimed “Oh, the traffic”, and then quickly apologized for his “outburst”. Once in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan, I was struck with how clean and neat the town was and again, how friendly and welcoming the people were - from the hotel staff to shop owners to restaurant staff to the barber, who gave me an outstanding haircut, shave and upper body massage for approximately $3 USD.
On arrival you can see how Brunei was carved out of the dense jungle of Borneo.
The history of Brunei is interesting. The nation gained independence from Britain in 1984. Today the country has just over 400,000 citizens, with over one-third living in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. The government is based on the traditional Malay Islamic Monarchy. Brunei is concerned the fifth richest country in the world, due to its petroleum and natural gas resources However, more than one person told me in a playful manner, “The king has all the money”.
The national religion is Islam and in some ways the country is strictly governed. Most notable for the tourist in the absence of alcohol. Although the sale of alcohol is banned, individuals are allow to bring up to 12 cans of beer and 2 liters of wine into the country every 48 hours. Apparently some of the higher-end restaurants allow one to bring in their own beer and wine, but it is done in a discrete manner. As with many Islamic countries, many of the most beautiful buildings are mosques. In Brunei, that applies particularly to the National Mosque in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Despite my glowing review of Brunei, I suspect that the general tourist would tire of the place quite quickly. The majority of the tours focus on the water village and the small city center of the capital. In fact, both of my taxi drivers offer the same review of Brunei, - "there is nothing to do in Brunei". However, after finally getting to Brunei after all these years it was particularly rewarding for me.