I had to come to Brunei to learn what the fuss was not about, since everyone suggested I just skip it or spend, at most, 1 day in transit there. It’s a tiny little country, only a few thousand square kilometers of land, most of it covered with dense, lush, virgin rainforest. Still it has a slightly larger population than Iceland, in a country only 1/20th the size, but the amount of money being pumped in and out of the country makes even Iceland look poor. Still living costs are low, even though social benefits, wages and the standard of living are all high, so people have a very laissez-faire attitude to work and money, especially since there’s no income tax and everyone gets free healthcare, education and a pension.
The country is lined with perfectly constructed highways, some serious roadwork for a place with no traffic. Gas only costs $0.50 a liter, which is like 1999 prices, in 2014 – how is that possible? The city center is a couple of low-built shopping blocks, and ghostly empty after nightfall when the market, stores and boats stop working. There are a couple of museums, all with free admission, showcasing the complex history and wealth behind the Sultanate of Brunei. It’s a little bit like Singapore, minus the parties and alcohol, since its illegal to buy or sell alcohol (and cigarettes).
It was a big change to arrive here from the Philippines, where tobacco and alcohol advertising nearly covered every restaurant and corner shop front. Its kind of a stuck-up city, clean and nice and safe and all, but the no-fun attitude really came through with the “Drug traffickers killed” signage randomly posted around town. I’m not sure what constitutes as ‘drugs,’ but I ended up at an ex-pat gathering full of cigs, spirits and white people and wondered whether I would be willing to die for that night. The biggest nightlife I experienced here was at a night market, a fusion of fried foods and fresh vegetables for sale under shanty stalls in the Pasar Gadong parking lot. I saw fruits and veggies there I’ve never seen before, or at least never thought you could eat, but didn’t try anything too crazy. Tourists and locals alike wandered around for hot eats and local treats, but I lucked out with my own Indian kitchen for the entirety of my visit.
I couchsurfed with newlyweds from Delhi, who started by feeding me a picnic of daal-roti and chana masala at the ferry port while we waited for our boat back to the city center. We had tried (and failed) to go to Temburong national park, since there was a lot of confusion on whether or not there were any boats available to take us there, and if there were boats, was there a driver, and if there was a driver, did he have a park permit… and on and on the problems went. But our friendship blossomed over the hardship and we made it back to their cozy apartment to cook up some more daal and rice for dinner.
The 6 star Empire Hotel was a tourist attraction in itself, and many of Brunei’s nicest neighbourhoods and most expensive buildings are really accessible to locals and tourists. The over-powering mosques were the same way, and every museum I saw offered free entrance. There was once a free amusement park that one of the royals gave another for his birthday, but operating costs were too high to let all of Brunei ride rollercoasters day in and day out so they decided to start charging admission, and the parks been in decline (and decay – lots of rides are broken) ever since.