19 July 2009

Bandar Seri Begawhaaaaa?

Some languages make me laugh - Bahasa is one.

I will be honest. Until approximately 2 years ago, if you had asked me to point to Brunei on a map, I would have squinted my terrible eyes and flipped to the Middle East section of my atlas. So it is one of life's little quirks that I found myself on a plane heading from Kuala Lumpur to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei's capital.

The Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. A mouthful of words, words that evoke gently swaying palms, smoke filled souks and robed men on camels. Except not at all. Brunei is actually a teeny little country sandwiched between 2 chunks of Malaysian Borneo, a strict Islamic nation awash in oil money. Ruled by the Sultan of Brunei, one of the world's richest men (and friend of Michael Jackson's, until he sued him and claimed songwriting credit for many songs....) it was once a very powerful state stretching across much of SE Asia, was then incorporated into British Malaysia until winning its independence in 1984.

We arrived at 9pm and checked into the Pusat Belia (youth hostel) the only affordable place in a town where most visitors are oil barons staying at the Sheraton. July 15th is the Sultan's birthday and a weeklong celebration normally occurs - but not this year.

Every country we have been to has screened us for swine flu at the border, but Brunei was like, unreasonably scared. Every second person wore a holier than thou 'do not infect me with with your porcine flu breath' face masks (another Michael Jackson reference - Brunei is rife with them ladies and gentlemen!) and businesses have large posters in their windows reminding you to not contract H1N1.

This was at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a Western coffee chain. There were signs on the door letting us know that it was safe to come in.

It is the IMMINENT THREAT OF DEATH by H1N1 that led to the cancellation of the Sultan's grand bash of 2009, but the streets were still carnival-esque, glittering with candy coloured lights and huge posters of the man himself. We headed to the night market for some hawker food and fresh orange juices (no beers, remember?) The sizzling sounds of sates and fish hitting the grill filled our ears and the meaty smelling clouds of smoke from the barbecues (a bad time to be a vegetarian) wafted into our noses. BSB seemed quaint and charming.

And it was, I found out the next morning as we toured the streets of the tiny downtown area. After a big Indian breakfast of roti and channa masala, we wandered the streets, which took us about 10 minutes... Once we had seen the grand mosque and the colourful stilted village that lies beyond it we were kind of at a loss of things to do. Brunei has a wealth of exotic wildlife, dense rainforest and traditional tribespeople but as we were set to explore those things in Borneo (for cheaper) we settled into a coffee shop (again, no beer) and watched the world go by.

Channa Dahl - one of my favourites.....

Malay women in colourful headscarves, Indian men in Muslim skullcaps, young Chinese guys with fashion haircuts - it was a varied mix of Bruneian life on the streets. As night fell, the muted celebrations picked up once more and scores of children flooded the huge football pitch in front of the grand mosque. The evening seemed to be about family fun and the children's enjoyment, and with no alcohol or 'nightlife' to sway it otherwise the people seemed happy. So was I... a bit bored, but happy.

Palm trees and Islam - the comparisons to the Middle East are many

I had been expecting BSB to be filled with glittering skyscrapers and the hustle of a fast paced oil economy, but the streets were sleepy and modest - impeccably clean, but sleepy. People were friendly and cars stopped -they actually stopped - at crosswalks (the fact that there were crosswalks at all baffled me - this ain't your mama's Southeast Asia.)

The standard of living is incredibly high compared with the other Asian countries (bar Singapore) due to all that fancy oil money, but I couldn't help but wonder at what cost? The streets, sanitized to the point of sterile, seem to lack the vivacious life and chaos that I love about Asia. That, and the relentless Sultan worship kind of rubbed me the wrong way (just gotta rearrange a few letters there....)


That is a lot of Sultan photos. Happy 63rd, dude.

So would I recommend a stay in Bandar Seri Begawan? For one day, absolutely. There is always something special about seeing a new country and how its people live - it's what drives us all to travel. But any more than one day, and you'll probably be craving excitement right along with that prohibited beer....

33 comments:

Jason said...

Nice post. I too recently figured out that Brunei isn't in the Middle East thanks to a Facebook geography quiz ap...otherwis I'd probably still be in the dark today.

jono said...

Well you learn something new everyday. I too have always assumed it was in the Middle East. Congratulations on becoming "Blog Of Note" by the way. I envy you.

Emm said...

What a lovely blog you have! I'm going to spend lots and lots of time here, I can tell.

Congrats on the "Blog of Note!".

Escapist said...

Hiya !

Congrtz fr being "blogger of the day"


jolliiieesss:-)

Ami Lee said...

I love the photos! Very nice :)


http://www.champdorestate.com

jociegal said...

Congrats on being a blog of note. I just had myself a nice look through your site and I am hooked. There is nothing in this world I love more than a new experience, and it looks like you are having yourself quite a bit of those. Have a great one and enjoy every moment.

Kim said...

I was in Sabah earlier this year. Still have to visit Borneo. Loved your photo's.

CrazyPeopleI'veWorkedWith said...

Nice blog and pics....

Enjoyed the 'sanizitized' one!

Marie said...

Congrats on blogger of note!!!You write an interesting one. I'd love to travel.

Id it is said...

The cleaning and scrubbing almost anesthetizes life doesn't it? Reminds me of Singapore minus the Sultan propaganda of course.
Very interesting write up.

Rosenfee said...

MMmhh jammi.It looks like very delicious, the channa dhal.I love indian kitchen.
Greetings from Germany
Patricia

Xander N' Dante said...

what a wnderful travel find... asia here i come
!

Juan Pablo said...

IT looks beautiful!!
I would love to go there... although trying the food would require some bravery on my part haha.

Congratulations on being a blog of note! I'll be following!

Check out my blog if you ever have the time!
www.vidajuanpablo.blogspot.com

Allablog said...

Hello. :) I enjoy all of the photos you have here. I am looking forward to reading more. Stay safe.

R2K said...

: )

Rosemildo Sales Furtado said...

Ola amiga! Tens um espaço maravilhoso, com lindas fotos, porém se colocasses um tradutor ficaria mais fácil para entender e comentar.

Beijos,

Furtado.

charmedwishes said...

Your blog is cool, I am so glad I happened to visit it.Please visit my blog too, charmedwishes18.blogspot.com thanks!

kristine said...

oooh so glad you are a blog of note so i could find you. love it. i am an indonesia junkie so i know all about bahasa making one smile! also i am a huge fan of channa dahl, so i alreay like you a lot.

Chillaxin' said...

I'm like you.I love to see how others live. The picture of the city reminds me of a Dr. Seuss' village. Very clean and almost cartoon like. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

lovexsteph said...

Beautiful pictures!

kristine said...

oooh i am glad you became a blog of note so that i could find you! love it. I am an indonesia junkie and know all about bahasa making one smile. I am also a big fan of channa dal so I already like you a lot.

Dawn (dandy) said...

OK I'll admit I had no idea where Brunei was... and I hope I spelled that right. I'll be coming back to catch up on this blog. thank you for letting us experience your travels with you!

Oh and I voted for you... I hope you win the expedition! I hope! I hope!

ilhamsyah metharani said...

just wondering, are you gonna visit indonesia too?:)

greetings from Bontang city, East Borneo Province, Indonesia :)

Maynard said...

Wow, fascinating blog. An excellent read. Congrats on the "blog of note!"

timexwatch said...

good information and nice photo

Łucja Kryształ said...

nice, very lovely ;)

livenomad said...

Congrats on being blog of note. I read your post with interest, considering I grew up in Brunei and my family lives there. Its interesting to find out how things have changed (or not). Hope you do not mind my linking your post to my blog, thought my family and friends will be interested in your post as well. Thanks for sharing. :)

blessingsgoddess said...

Great blog........well done !

Julie said...

This is a great blog. Your writing and experiences are so interesting. I'm hooked!

Violet Dear said...

Thanks so much for all of the congratulations and comments!
Ilhansyah - I am heading to Indonesia for the full month of August. I am excited!

Laiza said...

Love your blog! I'm from SE Asia also--Philippines. Hope you'll also have the chance to visit our country and feature it in your blog.
Congratulations for being in the BON! You truly deserve it.

Joyceee. said...

Yea, i'm a bruneian, and everything you wrote up there is TOTALLY true. Though despite the fact about Brunei being sleepy, and a bit dull, it's still a place i call home :) great article you wrote and congrats on being a blog of note.

Oh and one more thing. If you think Bandar is boring, you should check out Kuala Belait or Seria. ;)

Behan said...

I'm enjoying your blog so much.
Your perceptions on life and humanity are quite poignant.

One thing that I think is sad about
"oil economies" is their lack of
aesthetic beauty...it seems the
pattern of human behaviour is very similar in different countries that are oil based -be it Brunei or otherwise.

Your blog is "smashing" - and Chana Masala is one of my favorite dishes- I make it myself often.

Your witticisms are causing me to giggle so hard that the wine I'm drinking is coming out of the wrong place- hee hee!

You can have some of my wine if you so desire-

 
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