Archive for March, 2012

15 March 2012

It was a bright day awash with sunlight when we landed in Brunei (or more properly, Brunei Darussalam), which is located on the north western tip of the island of Borneo. This was a my first trip to this country, one which had made me curious for a long time because of its much talked about wealth. Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of the country and is a small town and so we reached the hotel very quickly from the airport.

Brunei was once a much larger country, which also included the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak which are now in Malaysia. It was ruled by the British as a protectorate and became a free country in 1984. It is now ruled by the Sultan and its rich petroleum resources have made the Sultan one of the wealthiest men in the world. The population is around 400,000 with more than half of the population living in the capital. Brunei is considered a developed country and ranks fifth among the countries of the world when measured by GDP per capita.

I had a couple of hours free between lunch and dinner meetings and decided to take a walk around town. The hotel was smack in the middle of town and so access was easy. My first impression of the city was that it looked like a mini version of Kuala Lumpur with smaller buildings and lesser crowds; possibly the language being Malay also contributed to this feeling of similarity. There were good many cars on the roads but very few people. In fact, I got a feeling that there are more cars in BSB than people; later, I was told that Brunei ranks first on number of cars per capita (but a quick look in Wikipedia puts Brunei in the 8th spot). I shudder to think what this must be doing to the environment. However, one has to also admit that they have done a very good job in maintaining the green cover in the city and one could see trees everywhere.

The city itself was very clean and it was a pleasure to walk around. The first location I got to was the Independence Square. This is where official functions are held and it is bigger than a football field. There is a lovely grass field in the centre and I saw a few people using the facility for catching up on their exercise.

A short walk from there brought me to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. This is named after the 28th Sultan and the hotel web site claimed it to be one of the most magnificent mosques in South East Asia. Unfortunately, I could not go in and take a look as it was closed to tourists on Thursdays and Fridays. The mosque does look quite beautiful from the outside.

Alongside the mosque is a lagoon and on it is a replica of a 16th century barge and there is a walkway between the mosque and the boat. It looked quite beautiful and I was curious about why there is a boat attached to a mosque but I could not ask anyone and so that remains unanswered.

My hotel was situated right next to a small canal and when one crossed the bridge, there was a market selling various items such as vegetables, fruits etc. I had noticed this when I set out from the hotel and had planned to visit it on the way back. On the way back, I popped in there and was surprised to find that most of the stalls had closed down even if it was still broad daylight. Even as I walked through the market, no one made any effort to sell anything to me; I mean even the stalls that were open. There were some water taxis available from near the market and they offered to take me to the Water Village, which, it seems, is called the Venice of the East. I was a bit suspicious of this claim based on what I had read on the internet and so declined the offer.

I wandered around a bit more and came to what seems to have been the old customs house and a jetty. The water village (called Kampong Ayer) was visible across the lagoon and it consists of small shops built on stilts. It reminded me of the sea village I had seen in Phukhet, but that was on a much larger scale than this.

By this time, dusk was setting in and I strolled back to my hotel. There were still many other points of interests like the National Mosque, Museum etc. but those will have wait for another day and another trip.

One point that struck me about the city was that it was very quiet and relaxed. There was no hustle and bustle and nobody seemed to be in any hurry. Everyone seemed relaxed and contented. Later on, when we went out to dinner with our host, Chin Toon, he told me that he found the quality of life in Brunei to be superb. He is a Malaysian businessman but likes the life in Brunei as it offers him “the best balance between work and family”. I could understand his point perfectly and anyone that visits Bandar Seri Begawan would have no difficulty in agreeing with Chin Toon.