Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Brunei is a sovereign country of 400,000 almost completely surrounded by Malaysian Borneo but for its coastline on the South Chinese Sea. It was part of the British Empire for a century and only recently gained full autonomy in 1984. Large oil reserves have made the country very wealthy and its Sultan one of the richest men in the world.
Sarah and I had a few different options to route ourselves from Miri to our last stop in Malaysian Borneo but we both were interested in traveling through Brunei. When would we ever have a chance to come back? We paid a taxi $40 to drive us the three hours from of Miri to Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan(BSB). The road was smooth and the border crossing was a breeze. Our driver handed our passports to the border guard, they exchanged a few words in Malay, and we were stamped in without having to step out of the car.
BSB did not convey the riches of the country as commercial buildings were no more impressive than in Malaysia. There was no ambiguity, however, about the wealth of the sultanate. The father of the current sultan, Omar Ali Saifuddin, had a mosque built in his own honor in 1958 featuring marble and gold structures and surrounded by a man made lagoon.
The current Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, ascended to the throne in 1967 at the age of 21 and is currently the third longest reigning monarch in the world. His mustached (sometimes goateed) image appears on Brunei’s currency and his presence is felt throughout the city.
It was a hot day and tourist sites within the city were limited so after having seen the two mosques we relaxed during the evening before heading out to dinner. On our way back that night we heard yelling and cheering from a nearby field and found out that we had the fortune of being in town during the national tug of war championship! I had never known such competition existed but apparently the Sultan’s a big fan and awards $4000 to the winning team. Ten burly men in uniforms lined up facing ten equally burly men, the referee blew a whistle to start the match, and then the crowd went wild. Each team would jerk in unison under the instruction of a coach and inch by inch the center of the rope would move back and forth until finally one side was declared the winner. We were completely fascinated and stayed for several matches.
The next day we showed up at the Royal Regalia: a museum solely dedicated to the life of the current sultan. We had to remove our shoes and enter through the common, rather than royal, entrance. After locking up our cameras we were ushered into the first room which traced the sultan’s lineage back several generations and then showed the sultan smiling as a young boy. There were quotes from his elementary school teachers describing what a great student he was. Then more pictures of him growing up and golfing, riding horses and (of course) playing tug of war. Another room displayed behind thick glass all of the items used during his coronation including a golden arm for him to rest his chin, a golden tipped umbrella, a golden shield, and the throne itself.
The largest room in the museum had a full replica of his 25th anniversary procession including the float he was paraded on complete with dozens of headless mannequins soldiers pushing it and about a hundred cardboard cutouts of the common-folk who had lined the route.
With all of Brunei’s interest in their Sultan, Sarah and I decided that we should stop by his palace ourselves. We went to the bus station asked around before finding a bus going in that direction. We were dropped off literally at the front gates.
We decided to walk around to get a better look. We walked and walked and walked some more and finally got to the side where we could sort of see the top.
Then our luck ran out and it started to rain very hard. We spent a half hour ducked under an awning in the park waiting for the clouds to break until a coconut vendor who wasn’t getting much business in the rain took pity on us and drove us back to town.