My childhood encounters with royalty a black RollsRoyce proceeding at a stately pace with a shadowy visage in the back seat waving metronomically had plainly not properly prepared me.|
Passing traffic had stopped before the ornate gates of the vast royal palace compound, two policemen on motorcycles with red flashing lights stood ready at the bottom of a long driveway, and a guide told me that a member of the Brunei royal family was about to appear. I fully expected to relive my days as a schoolboy with a fluttering flag, broiling under a fierce Australian sun for a couple of hours as I awaited the royal cavalcade.
But they do things differently in Bandar Seri Begawan, the orderly, wellgroomed and prosperous capital of the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. For no sooner had I taken a position opposite the gates than a sleek, black Porsche appeared atop the drive. With a gunning of its fearsome engine, it swooped and screamed down and out of the drive and along the momentarily restricted road, with minders desperate to keep up.
It seemed to be out of sight in about a second and a half, though it took a little longer than that for me to recover my balance. that was the Crown Prince, the Sultan‘s son, the eldest of his 10 children,I was informed, as the road barriers were lifted and normal traffic resumed. he does that most days. He likes to drive.
A great many of his countrymen share his interest, as it happens. The population of Brunei, the tiny, oilrich state at the top of the island of Borneo, is just 330,000, while car registrations well exceed double that figure. Rare is the family that has but one in its garage even five being unexceptional.
As in so many things, the solid folk of Brunei, the Abode of Peace, take their lead from the Sultan, whose personal vehicle collection numbers in the thousands, with a reported 300 Mercedes. He has a standing order with Ferrari for one in every colour of each new model. Then there are the three 747 jumbo jets.
Rankings do have a habit of changing, but back at the dawn of the 1990s, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu‘izzaddin Waddaulah, the 29th Sultan of Brunei, Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and Finance, Commander of the Armed Forces, Chief of Police and head of Islam in Brunei, who has been on the throne since 1967, vied with Saudi Arabia‘s King Faid for the title of the second richest man in the world, with figures like US$65 billion being bandied about.
The sultan is a conservative man who consistently displays great concern and generosity towards the citizens of an almoststorybook realm. They pay no tax, earn high wages and enjoy free health care, free education at home and abroad, interestfree loans, subsidised holidays and trips to Mecca, and the annual distribution to the needyof gratis houses.
But he does like to use his money, which has flowed from the billions of barrels of black gold that has been pumped since it was discovered beneath what was then a British protectorate in 1929. Brunei which be he and he be it owns a cattle station in Australia‘s Northern Territory larger than its own area of just 5765 square kilometres. The nation, split into two irregular chunks of jungle terrain, is but 120 kilometres from one side to the other at its widest. Within those slender slivers are golddomed mosques, ornate and imposing museums and history centres, stadiums, rainforest retreats, luxurious palaces and houses, and a new hotel that is already the stuff of legend.
Built for nearly US$2.5 billion, The Empire Hotel & Country Club spreads over 180 hectares on a coastal point in Sengkurong. After five years of construction, it opened in time for the 2000 APEC Leader‘s Summit. When cost is no concern, this is the hotel where the term regal opulence rings true. With 360 rooms, 63 suites and 16 secluded villas, the Empire dazzles and startles, consistently.
The Sultan must have impressed the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, because he returned to Brunei in 2002, under his own steam. It is said that His Majesty was prepared to mothball the place thereafter but was convinced otherwise by those determined to have it recognised as one of South East Asia‘s most prestigious hotel properties.
Clinton, Putin, Ziang, Mori, Mahatir, Kim and Howard must have been impressed, even overwhelmed, as they strolled into a lobby slung inside a huge atrium with 30 metrehigh glass walls. And they surely must have enjoyed their suites with their silkclad walls, handmade carpets, bathrooms of walltowall marble, crystal chandeliers, roomy balconies and panoramic views of the South China Sea, the lagoon or the floodlit, 18hole championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, which overlooks the sea.
I couldn‘t resist a peek inside the 675 square metre Emperor Suite, available for a nightly tariff of around US$15,000, where Bill laid his weary head. Occupying most of the seventh floor, it delivers what one might expect a grand piano, movie screens, lapis lazuli faucets, a supersonic sound system, a private elevator and carpets woven with gold thread. But I wasn‘t expecting the fullsized heated swimming pool and Swedish sauna that lay before me.
The estate includes a threescreen cinema complex, a theatre for dramas and music with impeccable sound facilities, a bowling alley, eight swimming pools, a golf driving range, a gymnasium and four tennis courts. Not far away is the Trijaya Jerudong Equestrian Park, the sultan‘s polo club.
The Empire and its facilities meet the needs of both guests and locals. Certainly the city of Bandar Seri Begawan does not roar with nightlife. This may be because alcohol is not sold in the sultanate, although visitors are able to bring it into the country as a duty free allowance. This restriction, a minor irritant to some in a country where, conversely, there is no question about freedom of religion and worship, has given rise to one of the most engaging escapades of a Brunei visit the nightly Booze Run.
When the letters KL are spoken, do not automatically presume it to mean Kuala Lumpur. They usually refer to Kuala Lurah, a rowdy little town a half hour away across the border in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. With our passport stamped we crossed over into a jungle frontier town.
Rough canvas canopies covered some 30 busy, noisy eateries with dirt floors, and trestle or Formicatopped tables were heaped high with pork fried rice and the local delicacy of steamed swordfish. The feast was washed down with selections from some of most elaborate wine and drink lists I‘ve ever seen.
Those of wider or more curious tastes seemed to know where to find everything, from houses of questionable repute to cockfighting tournaments. As the 10pm border closure approached, a long stream of nearly bowlegged travellers and resident expatriates, all with a naughty look on their faces, struggled back into Brunei weighed down with cases, casks and crates, in what is a nightly ritual.
Foreign devils have got up to mischief in Brunei since the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. An Englishman, James Brooke, came along in the early 19th century. As the first white raja of Sarawak, he forced a series of treaties on the sultan of the day and spelled the beginning of the end of his unrivalled power.
A British protectorate in 1888, it was absurdly divided in half two years later. Yet Britain and its military might proved to be most handy when rebellious forces tried to force the sultanate into the Malaysian federation in 1962. Like Singapore it stayed independent, winning that status formally when the young sultan finally waved the British away in 1984. Prince Charles attended the independence celebrations, and some 5000 foreign workers built the sultan a new $300 million palace, the biggest in the world, with 546 chandeliers alone, to celebrate the day.
And so the palace stands today in its own rarified world. On Mohammed‘s birthday, the sultan strolls easily around the parade ground, greeting and having his hand kissed by many thousands of his subjects, a smile never leaving his face. He then leads, at an impressive pace, an eightkilometre run through city streets, with those same subjects panting behind him. Though Gurkha troops are stationed in the country, guards, weapons, snipers, pushy protection and paranoia is noticeably absent on the day. He may be one of the richest men in the world but he appears to have less security than Madonna.
Palace scandals or at least those of the sultan‘s spendthrift but apparently charming playboy brother Prince Jefri, a good friend of Michael Jackson and once owner of the yacht SS Tits and its attendant speedboats Nipple I and II and the royal divorce (from his second wife, a former Royal Brunei flight attendant) are fairly open affairs, discussed and speculated upon by the populace though always with a level of respect.
If the sultan represents an unbroken link to the past, then so too does the small floating city of Kampung Ayer, where thousands still choose to live. In 1521, Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed on one of Ferdinand Magellan‘s spicehunting expeditions, came upon a vast array of wooden stilt villages, with humble dwellings, palaces, royal houses and artisan guilds, all joined together by wooden walkways. He came up with a name that stuck The Venice of the East. Today, 28 kampungs sited along the Sungai Brunei and Sungai Kedayan Rivers are home to about 30,000 residents. Relatively modern serviced cement buildings, with schools, clinics, fire stations and shops, sit alongside surprisingly cosy homes. They still house those who keep the sultan‘s realm running, going about their daily business in fast speedboats that ply the watercourses to and from the main city in a few, brief minutes. All the residents are from Malay stock, and many keep expensive cars and launches over on the shore.
The waterways of Brunei carry most of the country‘s passengers and trade. During any day visitors can slip just out of town in anything much with a motor that floats and observe the entertaining antics of families of proboscis monkeys clumsily bashing and crashing their way through riverside undergrowth.
Alternatively, a swift, 12seat public water taxi will whisk visitors to the Temburong district in the eastern area of the country in about 50 minutes to the small town of Bangar. Situated on the banks of the Sungai Temburong, it is renowned for its roti bread and curry. An operation called Sunshine Borneo then transfers visitors to the Bengalong tropical rainforest. As visitors slice through river rapids in a temuai, the sleek, motorised longboats of the indigenous Iban tribes, they will grasp just how fortunate it is that the riches from oil and natural gas have kept these pristine forests safe from the logging that has so scarred the remainder of the island of Borneo in Indonesian and Malaysian hands.
The sultan has built Outward Bound lodges for the young of Brunei, along with Field Studies Centres, all carefully integrated into the oftendramatic landscape.
A ropeandslat swinging bridge leads to wooden steps cut deep into the ancient untouched forest to the base of a sturdy, towering steel canopy walkway. Visitors ascend in five stages more than 30 metres until they are above the forest roof, with views to the horizon that really are breathtaking.
In much of Brunei there is a sort of altered reality that sets it apart from the rest of the world. It is, as one writer termed it, a strangely fascinating anomaly in South East Asia.Coming back into the city late in the day from a jungle safari, I noticed men with hoses attached to taps or tankers at the junction of each forest feeder track with the main city roads.
Fines!explained my guide. there are fines for trucks if they leave mud on the roads, so they must have their wheels washed.It‘s that sort of place.