NO CHAINSAWS OR CUTTING COMMENTS IN THE ABODE OF PEACE © Duncan Graham 2007
The official website of the Brunei government currently claims the country is hoping to attract one million visitors, doubling the previous year's arrivals. The problem is that the announcement is dated 2000.
That's not the only sign that Brunei isn't really in top gear despite the rhetoric. An e-mail to the tourist bureau seeking an interview with a spokesperson was bounced because the mailbox hadn't been emptied.
A visit to the office during advertised opening hours found the place shut.
All this sounds negative, but in fact it's a plus for those who want a relaxed crowd-free holiday. Make the most of the quiet because the tiny Sultanate at the top of the island of Borneo and hemmed in by the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, has much to offer that's easily accessible.
Not so much in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, usually known as BSB and where the attractions will take no more than a day or two to explore – but in the country.
For although Brunei (properly named Brunei Darussalam) covers less than 6,000 square kilometers split between two sections, most is the sort of jungle you won't see elsewhere without a lot of tedious tramping. While Indonesian farmers in Kalimantan have been slashing and burning the forest to make a living, the people of Brunei haven't needed to plunder to survive.
Reserves are really that, and the rattle and rasp of chainsaws can't be heard above the honking of rare and endangered proboscis monkeys.
This means that much of the country has been left in its natural state – or as natural as any Southeast Asian environment can be that was first occupied by our ancestors maybe 35,000 years ago.
Apart from greed there are few pressures to exploit. Certainly not population: The rugged east section, known as Temburong, has only about 10,000 inhabitants, the rest of the nation around 350,000.
For Brunei is an oil-rich state, as the tabloid cliché goes, so blessed by an abundance of fossil fuels that education and health care are almost free, basic commodities are subsidized and most public services are high quality. The ruling elite doesn't do so badly either. (See sidebar.)
Brunei is a compact, uncrowded and affluent nation, with good roads, disciplined traffic, an English feel and all the necessary infrastructure to make edgy visitors feel at ease. You can drink the tap water and not worry about malaria.
Most locals are well educated and high-level English is widely used. For almost a century Brunei was a British protectorate and the signs still remain, though often eclipsed by Arabic.
Although strictly Islam, with a more hard-line adherence than experienced in Indonesia and the west coast states of Malaysia, this is no sanctuary for terrorists. An attempted coup 45 years ago was put down by troops from Singapore, and if there are any dissidents left, they're keeping quiet.
Brunei Darussalam translates as the 'abode of peace' – which is certainly true if 'peace' means inaction backed by social control.
So visitors should feel safe and relaxed – provided they follow the rules. These include respect for royalty, no politics and no boozing. Or holding hands in public if you're a Muslim without a marriage certificate.
Loudmouth republicans advocating democracy are advised to keep away, and if you can't do without a regular sundowner then you'll have to bring it yourself and sip in secrecy.
There's one other minor offput – local attitudes. Brunei needs to borrow the TV campaign used by Singapore a few years ago. This had the sour features of a rubber-cheeked Chinaman being slowly transformed into a smiling Celestial as the voice-over instructed locals to be nice to visitors.
For financial, not moral reasons. Friendly faces mean satisfied customers, said the script – and shoppers are more likely to spend big when confronted by a grin, not a grimace.
The people of Brunei certainly aren't rude, or so sour as the folk in Singapore used to be – they're just indifferent. Which probably comes from living in a worry-free society awash with money.
Not surprisingly this has led to complacency. Don't expect the streets to be bustling at daybreak as they are in Indonesia; why bother to rise early when there's someone else to get the day going and do the menial tasks?
The saving situation is that many of these workers come from a few hundred kilometers to the south; once you meet expats from the Archipelago your day will brighten. The good times I've had in Brunei have been with Indonesians who know the best scuttlebutt, the cheap eateries and the secret spots you won't find in the guide books.
There's a lively underclass in Brunei made up of guest workers retailing some grand gossip about the scenes behind the well-polished respectability that the tourist authorities won't let on – even if they ever open their doors.
HOW TO GET THERE – WHERE TO GO.
It takes little more than a two-hour flight from Surabaya or Jakarta, with Royal Brunei the main carrier. Flights are regular and often full of Indonesian maids seeking Brunei bucks. Meaning cash, of course.
The local dollar is on a par with Singapore, with most shops happy to use either currency.
Indonesian citizens, and some other favored folk, can get a fee-free 14-day visa. Other nationals have to buy a B $10 (Rp 50,000) visa on arrival.
There are some basic hotels with room prices starting around B$40 (Rp 220,000) a night. These are clean and functional, but don't supply the matey service you'd get in Jakarta – unless the staff are fresh from Indonesia. Like Australian hotels they seem to be run more for the convenience of the employees than the guests. Maybe it's different at the Sheraton.
Because the locals are so well off few need public transport. On one visit I hired a bicycle to get around, collecting the sort of stares normally used at a police arrest scene. A foreigner without a Mercedes? Unbelievable. If there'd been a reporter on site I'd have made Page One as the weirdo of the week.
There is a bus service, but you could b standing for a long time. Metered taxis are available, but few. BSB can, and should, be explored on foot and on the river where the high-speed water taxis (also known as flying coffins) are a lot of fun and fumes.
They're also the best way to see Kampung Ayer close up and peer at the locals at their ablutions. This is the village on stilts above the dirty waters of the Brunei and Kedayan rivers. Use sunscreen by the liter – Brunei boils.
In the distance and above the spindly-legged shacks of 25,000 souls rises the splendid home of the sultan, His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah.
With a title like that there's no way commoners can get a gander at his personal goings-on. This is claimed to be the biggest residential palace in the world. Betty Windsor has to make do with a street name.
Better to settle for the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, a mightily impressive architectural triumph. It's a pity that these creative draftspeople didn't exercise their HB pencils on the drab shopping centers and apartment blocks once they'd topped off the turrets at the Big M where all that glisters really is gold.
Even though a kafir (unbeliever) I excited no concerns wandering around and meditating on the prayer hall's lush carpet to the hum of vacuum cleaners. That hasn't always been my experience in Indonesia.
Exploring outside BSB is not an easy DIY (do it yourself) tourist exercise. You won't be hassled; why bother flogging false Rolexes when the real ones are everywhere? Blondes won't get the hairy eyeball treatment from the leering lads, as in Indonesian bus stations. The main problem is being recognized as someone with a need to go somewhere.
If you want to see the sights in a hurry and some luxury best to take a tour. A three-hour countryside coach trip will cost US $40 (Rp 360,000) a person, taking a look at the oil refinery will double the bill. For an overnight trip to the national park set aside US $238 (Rp 2.2 million).
There's also a Brunei By Night tour. This comes with a guarantee that you'll get home stone-cold sober. This is categorically not a Soho or Kings Cross pub crawl.
For those with the time and tenacity it's best to negotiate with taxis (land and water). Consult the locals for the right price before bargaining.
Don't look to the English-language local rags for information – the Borneo Bulletin and Brunei Times. Both set high levels for blandness and are reminiscent of the Indonesian press under Soeharto. The local Tourism Board puts out a handy mag on what's on, but it's hard to find.
This is supposed to be the only country in the world that hasn't had an election since 1962. It would be a gutsy journalist who dared to ask about some members of the royal family's legendary squander of state riches overseas.
If you enjoy the accommodation and quiet, Brunei is also a good base for exploring Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). The attraction here is the Kinabalu National Park a World Heritage Site. The Royal Brunei airline (www.brueniair.com) has an office in central Jakarta with extra-cheery staff, and can organize bookings and arrange packages.
Assessment: Not bad for a cashed-up eco-minded couple's mid-life honeymoon if all they want is to be left alone.
(First published in The SundayPost 1 April 07)">Link