Features

Cushioned in comfort

1 Jul 2005 by business traveller

From my balcony by the South China Sea I can see distant oil rigs. This necklace of lights is a sparkling reminder of tiny Brunei's enormous wealth. A Southeast Asian anomaly, Brunei is ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and as a result of the oil, its small but pampered population is cushioned in comfort, and political dissent is taboo.

The Sultan, one of the world's richest men, presides over his fairytale kingdom from opulent offices in the world's largest residence, Istana Nurul Iman, a palace almost half the size of a small country – some 200,000sqm compared with the Vatican City's 440,000sqm. The palace boasts more rooms (1,788 at the last count) than the Vatican. Original Renoirs adorn the walls of the greenery-shrouded palace, while Louis XIV furniture graces the reception chambers. The giant underground parking lot could service a shopping mall. The Sultan also serves as prime minister, defence minister and finance minister.

Brunei Darussalam (to use the country's full name) makes up less than one per cent of Borneo's land area, covering 5,765sqkm. Except for the sea and its 161km coastline, Brunei is bound on all sides by Sarawak, sharing Borneo with both that Malaysian state and that of Sabah, as well as Indonesia's vast Kalimantan.

Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, where about half of its 350,000 people live, could once have been called somnolent but this is no longer true. Bandar – as it is usually shortened to – may lack the energy of a city like Kuala Lumpur but it has its own level of bustle. Its small and compact downtown area, where tall steel-and-glass buildings sit alongside older-style two-storey structures, is a mere seven minutes from the airport along an uncluttered expressway..

If you ignore its lush tropical setting, Brunei seems like a scaled-down version of the Gulf's Oman or Qatar more than part of Asia, even though most people on the streets are Malay. This is reinforced by the street signs, which are in Arabic script (and occasionally Chinese) as well as Roman.

Nearly 65 per cent of people are Malay Muslims. Around 15 per cent are Chinese, 6 per cent belong to indigenous tribes and the rest, aside from other minorities, include expatriates from Asia and Europe. English is the preferred language of business.

The Sultan rules in consultation with advisors, though he always has the final word. But he's a popular monarch. One Sunday at the Empire Hotel and Country Club, I sense excitement among the Indonesian gardeners and Filipino swimming pool attendants.

"The Sultan will be here soon," they whisper. "Wait – you will see him!"

At around 9.30am, a group on horseback wearing polo gear trots through the gardens followed by a Mercedes saloon and a four-wheel drive. The Sultan is en route to Jerudong Park and Country Club – his weekly ritual – but first it's smiles for tourists' pictures.

Along with pomp and pageantry, the Sultan gives his populace a share in the prosperity. From downtown I skim along in a water taxi on the Brunei River for three minutes to reach Kampong Ayer, the capital's famed "water village" on stilts where 30,000 people live. From afar, it seems shabby, but these are large, comfortable dwellings with latest-model plasma screens and other electronics. Residents value their sense of community and oppose relocation.

"We're a 'Shellfare state'," quips an erudite old Bruneian named Ali. He, like several others who spot me ambling along over-water boardwalks, invites me in for mango juice.   "People are content," he insists, echoing a common view. "Oil pays for everything: free healthcare, education and other services, no income tax, interest-free housing loans, cheap cars and cut-price fuel." About 60 per cent of Bruneians fill well-paid government jobs. Many have made multiple pilgrimages to Mecca, often with government help.

Petrochemical wealth is the key: major exports are oil, natural gas and refined petroleum products. A GDP of around US$4.2 billion (£2.20 billion) ensures high living standards. Literacy levels are impressive, infant mortality rates low and life expectancy long. Infrastructure, including telecommunications, is highly developed. Criminals are few, making Bandar Seri Begawan one of Asia's most relaxed and safe capitals to walk around in.

This is a nation unaffected by either fiscal or political banditry. No panhandlers pester me and no one demands we visit his brother's shop. Malls, though not as glitzy as those in Singapore, are filled with fashion and food. Coffee shops abound and global fast food chains have moved in.

Nonetheless, the largesse isn't limitless. Asia's economic crisis of 1997 and a subsequent Bruneian financial scandal, involving the Sultan's brother Prince Jefri, wrought change. Most benefits remain but some belt tightening is evident. At the renowned Jerudong Park Playground where all rides – even the roller-coaster – were free, modest fees now apply, causing business to drop, because, as one resident sniffs: "We were never used to paying for things."

The Sultan is steering Bruneians toward planning for life after oil and gas run out, in about three decades. Diversification, in its infancy, is encouraged: more blue-chip investments overseas, development of sundry industries, promotion of Brunei as a business hub and an increase in long-overlooked tourism.The latter is most advanced, with Brunei Tourism and especially Royal Brunei Airlines increasing their profiles.
The two-pronged plan is this: visitors in transit between Europe and Australasia should spend a few days, perhaps with add-ons to Sabah and Sarawak; tourists from Asia should make Brunei a destination in itself. Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Southeast Asian package tour numbers are growing. Golf, with three excellent courses, is an important lure. Planners promote Brunei's own charms as well as its central location as a means "to enjoy unique attractions found in other parts of Borneo", says Sheikh Jamaluddin bin Sheikh Mohamed, Brunei Tourism's director.

However, until the expected crowds arrive, Brunei remains an accommodation bargain. There's the Empire Hotel and Country Club, an unexpectedly grand resort opening onto its own beach. (It is associated with the Sultan's other hotels, including London's Dorchester and Hollywood's Beverly Hills.) Spokeswoman Jennifer Kang agrees guests "are commonly surprised at such opulence in a place they overlooked". According to Nor Daud Durai, business development manager at tour agency Pan Bright Travel: "Golfers, in particular, are discovering Brunei in a big way."

Lavish Islamic architecture is immediately apparent in Brunei. "Visitors don't expect it," Haji Bujang Haji Masu'ut, the country's director of information, tells me. I explore the city on foot, starting at the grand-domed Royal Regalia Building with ceremonial exhibits including the royal chariot. The Brunei Museum subsequently supplies a cultural and historic context but still allows me time to gaze at two of the grandest places of worship: the awesomely large Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and similarly striking  Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. I had spotted both from the air, poking from the green landscape and demonstrating that Brunei is different from anywhere else (even Muslim countries) in the region.

Little more than an hour's drive brings me to the towns of Seria and Kuala Belait. They cater to a significant expatriate presence (with Body Shop and similar emporia) because they sit astride the heart of Brunei's oil industry and of the British military presence that helps protect it. The Billionth Barrel Monument, commemorating a milestone for Seria Oilfield, is a promenade heading towards the sea where, on each side of an Islamic-patterned tiled pathway, I read explanations of petroleum industry highlights. Beachside lawns are dotted with fenced-off  "nodding donkey" oil wells, so nicknamed because of their continual up-down movements as they pump subterranean black gold.

Gadong is an important commercial area, a few minutes' drive from the capital's downtown and one of several fast-expanding malled zones. Try lunch or dinner at the Seri Balai Food House (tel 673 245 6447) in the Kiulap area, a simple clean eatery showcasing ambuyat, a glutinous sago-and-hot-water substitute for rice that is a local staple. Generally, Brunei cuisine is similar to that found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. First, stick chopsticks into the concoction, which is like soft glue. Wind a mouthful onto the chopsticks and dip it into a sauce – mine was based on a type of rambutan, marinated in salt and chillies. Other unusual dishes include cow veins and offal in a hot sweet sauce, a Malay-style ikan patin asam rebus (spicy fish soup) and kolomee (a popular noodle dish).

Alcohol isn't sold; Brunei is pious but tolerant. Duty-free allowances are permitted and discreet consumption of alcoholic drinks at some hotel restaurants is allowed.

This usually means your drinks will be opened at a corner table. Noisy drinking at a prominent table would not go down well. Hotels provide ice for in-room imbibing and some serve "mocktails". They suggest delegates to small conferences hand over pooled duty-free allowances to be served at receptions in private rooms. The truly desperate can reach Malaysia's bars in just over an hour's driving.
Or, buy a tapai at the city's Tamu Market. A sticky-rice snack with sugar, wrapped in a pandanus leaf, its fermentation gives off an aroma similar to rice wine. A letter writer in the Borneo Bulletin swore a pile of tapai would make you tipsy. "Perhaps the religious authorities should advise us on this," he said.

Sober judgment, however, is that it would be churlish indeed not to visit this fascinating and friendly nation just because of its stance on alcohol.

Discovering wild Borneo

Over 70 per cent of Brunei's land area is protected forest so there's plenty to see in the wild. Take a boat (easily arranged through hotels or travel agencies) up the Brunei River into its tributaries — within 30 minutes you'll see dense rainforest, a backdrop for macaque monkeys, white egrets and small red kingfishers.

A coup would be to spot the rare proboscis monkey; the male of the species is visible by its orange-coloured, pendulous nose. Brunei is believed to have the largest number of these monkeys in the wild. To view orangutans, a side trip to nearby Sabah and Sarawak is recommended.

Another short jungle excursion, guided or independent, takes in a suspended tree-canopy walkway in Ulu Temburong National Park, after a 45-minute boat ride from Bandar Seri Begawan. The vessel heads through mangrove-lined estuaries, up narrow creeks and across open waters.

When visiting Seria and Kuala Belait, add a jaunt to Sungai Liang Forest Recreation Park, famous for its rainforest and waterfalls, or journey further to Luagan Lalak Recreation Park with a choice of easy or demanding forest hikes as well as Wong Kadir Waterfall, which is reached after an exhilarating 45-minute jungle trek.

Sultan number 29

Fifty-nine-year-old Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah — or, to use his full name, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien — is Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, the 29th ruler of a Muslim dynasty that began with Sultan Muhammad in 1405 AD.

At its height, the Sultanate controlled a vast swathe of territory encompassing Sabah, Sarawak and the southern Philippines. It slowly shrank, ceding Sarawak in 1841 to British adventurer James Brooke, who became the first "white Rajah". Brunei itself became a British protectorate seven years later, before independence in 1984.

The Sultan has four sons and six daughters. Eldest son Crown Prince Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah — an Oxford graduate schooled in international law, finance, politics and Islamic studies —  is destined to become the 30th Sultan.

The monarchy was widely disliked when the Sultan came to power in 1967, but he has worked hard to make the Royal Family popular not only in Brunei but also around the region.

BASICS

The Brunei dollar is kept on a par with the Singapore dollar. Many nationalities are admitted without visas or issued visas on arrival but check first with Brunei diplomatic posts or travel agents. If you need to buy a visa on arrival, only Singapore and Brunei dollars are accepted so make sure you have some cash handy, as if you do have to present a visa, you will be asked for it before the foreign exchange outlets in the customs hall. If you lack the right currency, immigration officials will hold your passport and let you go to the bank. Go towww.tourismbrunei.com.

Getting there

London-Bandar Seri Begawan Served by Royal Brunei (www.bruneiair.com) from Heathrow. Return fares: business class £1,595, £613 economy class. There is no first class available.

New York to Bandar Seri Begawan First class varies $14,634 to $5,266; business class varies $10,414 to $3,410; full coach $7,560 to $3,370; apex fare $1,230-low season; $1,315-shoulder; $1,555-high. No non-stop or direct service is offered. Best daily connection is via Singapore Airlines' non-stop flight from Newark to Singapore. Single connections also apply via Dubai using Emirates' non-stop from Newark (long layover in Dubai), or Thai Airways' non-stop JFK to Bangkok with an overnight. Best double connections are Malaysian's Newark–Kuala Lumpur flight that transits Stockholm or on Singapore Airlines either through Frankfurt or Amsterdam then via Singapore.

Los Angeles to Bandar Seri Begawan First class varies $12,262 to $4,206; business class varies $6,932 to $2,550; full coach $4,474 to $2,394; apex fare $1,050-low season; $1,270-shoulder; $1,520-high. No non-stop or direct service available. Best daily single connection is via Singapore Airlines' non-stop LA–Singapore flight. Single connections also exist using Cathay's LA–Hong Kong non-stop. Single connections exist via Sydney but are costly and lengthy. Best double connections are Malaysian via Kuala Lumpur (transits Taipei) or Philippine Airways to Manila (transits Honolulu).

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