The Daily Explorer

August 11, 2010

Borneo Uncovered (Part Two)

Borneo, Malaysia: August 2010

MOZZIE BYTE (Editor): A warm welcome back to all our Daily Explorer readers and greetings to those of you who are joining us for the first time. For new readers, Ray has been living nomadically for over four and a half years since he left England in November 2005 and has visited or lived in 16 countries. We have been publishing news and stories about his journey throughout that period. You can find all of these in our Previous Issues archive. Our aim at The Daily Explorer is to create a great publication for you to enjoy, so please keep sending us your comments and suggestions as to how we can improve what we are doing. You can use the comments box on this site, or email Ray (ray@thedailyexplorer.com), ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at mozzie@thedailyexplorer.com

Our latest issue has been put together by Po Scard, our cultural correspondent (above), who has been following Ray as he explores the island of Borneo. In the second part of our three-part feature, Ray makes a brief but long-awaited visit to the micro kingdom of Brunei.

In case you missed our last issue, Ray began his exploration of Borneo in the East Malaysian province of Sabah. There were highlights from his visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, the Kinabatangan River and his memorable two-day trek to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, which is Borneo’s highest peak. You can read it now at: Borneo Uncovered (Part One)

Above: In our last issue, Ray summitted Borneo’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu (4,095 metres) during his visit to Sabah in East Malaysia. If you missed it, you can read the full story at: Borneo Uncovered (Part One)

The sovereign state of Brunei, located on the north coast, comprises about 1% of Borneo’s land mass. More than three quarters of the land in Brunei is considered tropical rainforest. The official name of Brunei is Negara Brunei Darussalam which means “Abode of Peace”. The tiny sultanate shares Borneo, one of the largest islands in the world, with Malaysia and Indonesia. It is just 443 kilometres (277 miles) north of the equator in the northwest corner of Borneo, bordered on all landward sides by Sarawak (Malaysia), which splits Brunei into two parts. The state is made up of four districts: Brunei-Muara (the capital district), Tutong and Belait (Brunei’s centre of oil and gas exploitation, in the west of the country); and Temburong, the eastern district, which has large areas of virgin rainforest. The islands in Brunei Bay fall within the Brunei-Muara or Temburong districts.

Ray gave me a brief historical overview: “In the fifteenth century, present-day Brunei was part of an empire which included Sarawak and Sabah and reached almost as far as Manila in the Philippines. Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese navigator, was one of the first Europeans to visit “Brunei”, which was also visited by Dutch and Spanish explorers in the early sixteenth century. In 1841, James Brooke, an Englishman born in India, was given the region now known as Sarawak in return for helping to put down a rebellion in Borneo. Towards the end of the 1880’s, Brunei became a British Protectorate and administration by a British Resident began in 1906″ explained our well informed traveller.

Oil was discovered in Brunei in the 1920’s. During the Second World War, between 1941 and 1945, Brunei was occupied by the Japanese and in 1959, a written Constitution gave Brunei internal self-rule and allowed a legislative council. The Constitution was amended in 1971 to give the Sultan full control over internal affairs; the UK remained in control of defence and foreign affairs. Brunei gained independence in 1984 and became a member of ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand).

Above: Map showing location of Malaysia; Brunei can be found on the island of Borneo, which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia

Below: This map shows more detail as to how the island of Borneo is divided politically (left).  The one on the right shows how the tiny country of Brunei is split into two parts, with the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan highlighted with a red star (right) – “I flew into the capital from Kota Kinabalu with Royal Brunei” said Ray

So what were Ray’s first impressions of the country? “Arriving in Bandar Seri Begawan, which is in the Brunei-Muara district, the overall impression is just how spotless the place is” observed our global explorer. “Although it is quite charming, it does not seem as ostentatious as I would have imagined, like Dubai or some of the other Emirates and compared to those places, it feels relatively undeveloped. And despite the fact that the country has tremendous wealth, there are signs that Brunei is not the model state it once was, with growing unemployment and a disaffected youth population amongst its problems” added Ray. “Having said that, Brunei feels like a very safe place to visit. I have always wanted to come here as my brother Paul used to live and work here back in the 1980’s as a pilot for Shell Oil. Unfortunately, I never made it while he was here so part of my reason for coming now is to see what life here would have been like for him” explained Ray. “The timing of my visit is slightly unlucky in that it is the Sultan’s 64th birthday in a couple of weeks and the capital is gearing up for some serious celebrations” said Ray. “Sadly, I will only be in the country for 5-6 days so will miss them” he told me. “My research identified that the capital city has many attractions for visitors, including the stilted village at Kampong Ayer, the Royal Palace, various mosques and museums as well as a couple of the biggest ‘white elephants’ in the world!” said our eager traveller.

Ray also pointed out that the sultanate is considered an absolute monarchy set in a strict Islamic country. “You must take special care to avoid violating any type of religious law or custom while you are visiting” he said, “which includes the following”:

  • Never wear revealing clothes (stick to loose, cotton clothing to help you deal with the heat);
  • Never point your finger at anyone or anything;
  • Never say anything ill-willed or negative about the royal family; and
  • Never use your left hand to handle food!

Above: The Legislative Council building on one of the capital’s many pristinely clean streets. The Council was restored in 2004 after 20 years of emergency law. So far,the 29 incumbents are all royal relatives or cronies, but the constitution has been amended to allow publicly elected members in future

Above: This short video clip, taken from one patriotic residents blog, will give you a good idea of what Brunei is all about

Below: The Sultan of Brunei – “There were posters and banners everywhere (left) pronouncing the Sultan’s 64th birthday” said Ray. “Brunei is a monarchy and a member of the Commonwealth, and has been ruled by the same family for over six centuries” he told me. The Sultan’s main residence when he is at home is the stunning Nurul Iman Palace, or Istana Nurul Iman (right) – “The royal palace in Brunei-Muara is one of the largest residential palaces in the entire world” said Ray. It not only serves as the home of His Majesty, but also houses the government offices of the Prime Minster. The palace was built on a series of hills near the river, in a plush atmosphere full of thriving plant and wildlife, with an incredible combination of Malay and Islamic architectural design” added Ray. The Lonely Planet Guide says this about it: “The best way to measure the grandeur of a structure is by counting the bathrooms and this palace has 257 of them! Costing over $350 million to build, it has a total of 1,788 rooms, is four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and three times larger than Buckingham Palace”. Unfortunately for Ray and other visitors, the palace is only open to the public for three days every September, at the end of Ramadan, when the Sultan shakes hands with and dispenses goodies to his faithful subjects

Above and below: The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is located in the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan. Completed in 1958, the mosque isn’t one of the oldest in the area, but it is certainly one of the most impressive. “Inside the mosque are a number of materials, all of which were imported from different areas of the world” said Ray. “Amongst other things, the architects imported granite material from China, special carpets from Saudi Arabia, and incredible pieces of marble from Italy. Sadly, visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside” he told me (Photo: David Cameron)

Above: Ray checks his watch at the rather unusual Tugu Clock, the ‘ground zero’ from which all distances in Brunei are measured

The Royal Regalia Museum in Bandar Seri Begawan is the most famous museum in all of Brunei and one of the most culturally significant places too. The museum is located right at the centre of the city and was constructed back in 1992 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sultan of Brunei. The hall was built on the site of the Winston Churchill Memorial Building which has been renamed, modernised and considerably extended. The hall’s central feature is a spectacular new circular gallery topped with a mosaic-tiled dome which sits in the cup of the original crescent-shaped building, constructed in 1971. “I am not a big fan of museums, normally speaking” said Ray, “but the reviews of this place sounded so compelling, I just had to go and I am very glad I did” he admitted. “Anyone who does will definitely learn more about the history of Brunei’s constitution.  There are featured exhibits about Brunei’s government along with other valuable treasures that Brunei is known for. Towards the left side of the main entrance of the museum, there is the Constitutional History Gallery which was put together in 1984. This area was prepared in time for Brunei’s celebration of its independence and features the country’s development from 1847 when the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed by the British government. The exhibit is accompanied by photos, documents, and even film features on the proclamation of Brunei’s first constitution in 1959” recalled Ray.

Visitors also get to learn more about the life of His Majesty, the Sultan. Exhibits allow visitors to get to know the Sultan from the time of his childhood, to his school days in Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia and until the time when he joined the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Many of the different valuables that were owned previously by the Sultan and his entire family are on display. “It would be difficult not to be impressed with the Royal Regalia Museum” said Ray. “The entire building is divided into several floors and sections. In the areas which we were allowed to explore, we saw a huge collection of different antique items from Brunei’s royal dynasty. One of my favorite items on display would have to be the grand royal chariot that was gleaming right at the centre” he told me. There are also a wide assortment of jewelled crowns that were used by previous sultans during coronation ceremonies. A duplicate of the throne of the sultan used during state occasions was also on display complete with ceremonial armour made of silver and gold. The best thing for visitors is that the museum is open to the general public and entrance is free” added our budget traveller.

Above: On the left are examples of Lembing (spears) and Taming (shields), and on the right are forty cubic umbrella’s, all of which were carried during His Majesty’s official coronation ceremony in 1968

Below: The centre piece of the museum – the royal coronation carriage

When Ray sent me pictures from his visit, he included a few from the village of Kampung Ayer, which he tells me is another incredible site to see. “The people of Brunei refer to the area as the “Venice of the East,” and for good reason. You can only get to Kampung Ayer via a small footbridge or by boat. The community which comprises of 28 water villages is home to more than 30,000 people, many of whom live on small houses held up over the Brunei River with stilts. I chartered a local boatman for a couple of pounds to explore the fascinating architecture and the maze of wooden walkways which bring this incredible historic community together” he recalled.

The community of villages consisting of over 4,200 structures including homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, and a hospital are linked together by wooden foot-bridges. In all, 36 kilometres of board walks connect the buildings. Private water taxis resembling long wooden speed boats provide rapid transit. “From a distance the water village looks like a slum” observed Ray. “On closer inspection, I saw that the area actually enjoys modern amenities including air conditioning, satellite television, internet access, plumbing, and electricity. Some of the residents keep potted plants and chickens!” he told me. “The district has a unique architectural heritage of wooden homes with ornate interiors. I found out that the history of Kampung Ayer goes back to at least the 16th century -written documents by an Italian traveller have been found describing a village living on water. For many centuries, this community is believed to have been the centre of a thriving trade in goods in the region” said our knowledgable visitor.

Above: The stilted water village at Kampung Ayer, believed to be the largest of its kind in the world, is referred to by the people of Brunei as the “Venice of the East” (Photo: David Cameron)

Below: Our global traveller gets out on the water for a closer look, assisted by one of the friendly local boatmen who operate the water taxis to and from the city

There are fears that the younger generation will desert Kampung Ayer. Some of the residents are keen to build a museum here to educate them about its rich history, as well as encourage the government to build more modern housing in the water community. “Before the discovery of oil in 1929, Bruneians were involved in trading, fishing and other marine activities and settlements were confined to ‘water villages’, which were compatible with these activities,” Zarina Abu Adenan, head of the valuation section of the Lands Department, observed in a recent paper. “Back then, Bruneians did not own land. They owned rivers, where certain classes of people have rights to collect revenues from land near these rivers or from inhabitants along the rivers,” she added. “Some of the rivers can be passed down to heirs and some people living near the rivers became slaves, as they were considered part and parcel of the land”.

Today, people who live in the houses built on stilts do not own the river, but they do own the houses they live in. “How can we own water which is flowing underneath?” a resident who gave her name as Liza said when we put the question of ownership to her. Another resident, 22-year-old office worker Fatima, added: “Even though we can become landowners (if we shift), we prefer to live here among our friends and relatives”. Many Kampung Ayer residents own cars. But what is parked underneath their houses are boats that they use to cross the river to reach these cars, parked in spaces allocated to them along the riverbank. They then drive to work and run errands in the city.

Above: Examples of typical housing found in the water villages that make up Kampung Ayer, with the spectacular Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque visible in the background (right)

Below: These children attend school on the water, travelling each day by boat to get there

Population growth has also meant that Kampung Ayer has had to catch up with the times. It used to be that when children grow up and live on their own or marry, they could just build another house on stilts next to their parents’ – they did not have to get anyone’s permission to do this. But today, there are laws that govern the building of new houses on water. “Now we have to get the permission of the government and for that we have to get five neighbours to support our building application” said one resident. Since the 1960’s, the government has been providing infrastructure and services to the water villages such as piped water, sanitation and sewerage facilities. For these, residents pay 15 Brunei dollars (about six pounds) a month. The government also provides daily garbage collection among residents, who have to drop off their trash at a certain point in the village. Still, many residents throw garbage out their windows and into the river, which at high tide deposits them back on the riverbanks. In the olden days when most rubbish was organic, this did not create such a health or environmental risk. But now, the authorities are now cracking down on the practice while ensuring that the subcontractors do their job of cleaning the river properly. In recent years, there have also been a number of major fires – one government official said there have been at least eight in the past 10 years – that have destroyed many wooden houses. “Since many people in Brunei still prefer to live on water, the government has decided to build them concrete kampungs (villages),” he said in an interview. Three such communities have been built since 1994, funded under a programme of the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation, which is named after the country’s reigning sultan.

 

Above: Our traveller was interested to see this Shell petrol station (left) on the water, as he was planning to visit the town of Seria, which is the centre of the company’s oil producing activities in the region. As Brunei embarks on developing a tourist industry to bring in revenues in once its oil resources begin to deplete (estimates say this is expected to happen from 2020 onwards), Kampong Ayer is seen as a potential tourist attraction in the region (right). Thus, Brunei’s government is making use of the country’s resources in preserving Kampung Ayer and planning to introduce a major redevelopment scheme to “beautify” the community, which according to government officials will include building more concrete pathways to replace the rickety wooden one, the setting up of “fire breakers”to prevent fires, clean water and telephones

Below: After a long day on the water, what better place to go than the local food market, where Ray enjoyed a traditional Malaysian delicious chicken and rice dish for around one and half pounds

Just outside Bandar Seri Begawan, in nearby Jerudong, are arguably two of the wealthy state’s largest “white elephants”, and I am not talking about pale pachyderms! Both the Empire Hotel and the Jerudong Park Playground have fascinating stories, as I discovered when Ray sent me his notes and pictures for this issue. “The hotel resembles those which I saw in Las Vegas attached to the large casino’s but that is not what I found most interesting about the place” he said. “I discovered that it was originally commissioned by Prince Jefri (the brother of the sultan) as – and this is hard to believe – lodging for guests of the royal family!” said our flabbergasted traveller. “According to the Lonely Planet, construction costs were estimated at a staggering $1.1 billion, which is astronomical when compared to the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur with a price tag of $1.9 billion” he told me. “And then there is the Jerudong Park Playground, which is possibly the biggest birthday gift ever!” said Ray. “It is a huge amusement park, like Disneyland, that was built as a private playground exclusively for the royal family. Now in a semi-dormant state, most of the rides have been sold off to other amusement parks and those that remain are ‘closed for maintenance’. This gives the park a rather bizarre air in which a mixture of tourists and locals wander around slightly aimlessly, looking at the defunct attractions with a mixture of awe and bewilderment” explained our global nomad.

By way of explanation for our readers, Prince Jefri’s was the ultimate bored little rich boy. His appointment as finance minister was like putting a kid in charge of a candy store and his financial flights of fancy were truly epic. His acquisitions (through the Amedeo Development Corporation) included five luxury hotels overseas (including the Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles). “We heard that by the time the sultan cut him off, the Prince had spent almost $4 billion on himself, with personal possessions including 2,000 cars, nine private jets, multiple lavish residences worldwide and some much discussed gold-plated toilet brushes!” Ray told me. “Although Prince Jefri left Brunei for London in 2004, on a $500,000 per year allowance, to support his five wives and thirty five children, he somehow managed to continue to enjoy an outlandish lifestyle, prompting the sultan and the Brunei authorities to pursue him again through the courts for an estimated $16 billion in missing funds. In 2006, the British press reported that the sultan had unexpectedly agreed to drop the charges. Attempts have been made to mend the dent in the sultan’s bank account, hence why many of the rides from the park were sold off and Jefri’s ultimate beachside residence was turned into the luxury Empire Hotel” added Ray.

Above: What was once Prince Jefri’s ultimate beachside residence and built exclusively for his guests at a cost of $1.1 billion, has now been turned into the Empire Hotel – “To experience a bit of luxury (for a change), I went there one lunchtime for some very expensive fresh coffee and a smoke salmon sandwich on rye bread, served with silver cutlery on a fine white tablecloth in the beautiful grounds overlooking the artificial beach” said our traveller. “Ah – I remember those days so well” he said

Below: The inside of the hotel is just as stunning and lavish as the outside, with excessive use of gold and Italian marble clearly visible

Above:  “It is hard to believe that so much money was spent on something that was basically for fun” said Ray. “The hotel was sold off to recover some of the enormous construction costs, although they still have a long way to go. I am told that thanks to Prince Jefri, there are still dozens of buildings around Brunei that sit empty and unkempt as they are slowly reclaimed by the unrelenting jungle” he added

Below: Clearly, no expense was spared when this place was built, with every staircase (left) in the hotel made from gold and embedded with huge Tiger Eye (semi-precious) stones, as well as a pair of camel shaped lamps, made from pure Baccarat crystal, topped with solid gold accoutrements costing over $500,000 each (right)

Above: Another one of Prince Jefri’s excesses is the Jerudong Amusement Park. Now in a semi-dormant state, most of the rides have been sold off to other amusement parks and those that remain are ‘closed for maintenance’

Below: Ray sits atop one of the camel statues in the grounds of the park and tries to take it all in – “It has got to be one of the most bizarre and inexplicable things I have seen on my travels” said our nomad, who has been on the road for four and half years

Above: Having visited both the Empire Hotel and the amusement park, Ray made a flying visit to the Jerudong Park Medical Centre – “I did not go there to check if I had lost all sense of reality, as the picture might initially suggest” joked Ray. “I actually went to get some tablets from the pharmacy and had to have my temperature reading taken at the entrance, which is how they can see if anyone coming in might have a fever of some kind” explained Ray

Another compelling place to visit near the capital is the Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which also happens to be the largest mosque in Brunei. “Ironically, it is located adjacent what turns out to be Brunei’s biggest roundabout” Ray told me. Considered as one of the grandest monuments to Islam in the whole region, the magnificent mosque is the brainchild of His Majesty the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah and Yang Dipertuan Negara Brunei Darussalam. Known locally as the Kiarong Mosque as it is situated in Kampong Kiarong, a few kilometres from the capital, it was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of His Majesty’s accession to the throne. The mosque was officially opened on 14th July 1994. The fine artistry of the structure’s basic design as well as the interiors shows the meticulous attention to detail and reveals the depth of the love that inspired the vision to build this splendid symbol of devotion to Islam.  “The stunning edifice with its artfully landscaped gardens and fountains that add to the serene ambience, is a memorable place to visit” confirmed Ray.

Above: The stunning Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. For more images, visit the Mosque photo website

Below: A close up picture of one of the mosque’s four minarets (left). Afterwards, I met with Ray who was very humbled by his visit! (right)

The day after I met Ray, he left the capital to visit Seria (see map at top), which is close to Sarawak and the Malaysian border. The name “Seria” comes from the river located very near where oil was first discovered in the area in 1929. Official correspondence by the people who made the oil discovery stated that it was found in “Seria”, and thus the name of the area was created. “For a long time, I have wanted to come to this tiny place as my brother Paul used to work here in the eighties as a helicopter pilot for Shell Oil” explained Ray. “I never had the chance to visit while he was here so part of my reason for coming now is to see what life here would have been like for him” explained Ray. “Of course, a lot may have changed in the twenty years or so since he lived here, but I think I will still get a sense of how things were. I will head for the airfield at Anduki when I arrive and hopefully, the people there will let me have a look around. Then I will go and visit the rest of town, which is entirely owned and maintained by Shell for its employees and associates, and see where Paul lived” said Ray.

Above: “Does this bus go to Seria?” asks Ray (left) as he prepares to make the two hour journey from Bandar Seri Begawan. The helicopters have changed a bit since his brother Paul worked as a pilot for Shell in the 1980’s. They now operate Sikorsky S-92 aircraft like this one (right) – “When I arrived at Anduki, one of the aircrew, David Cameron, was kind enough to show me around” said Ray. “He looked through some of the pictures of previous pilots that have been stationed at the base to see if we could spot Paul. Alas, we couldn’t find him” recalled Ray. David was very hospitable and also provided me with one or two of the photographs for this issue” acknowledged Ray

Below: The airport at Anduki was opened in 1951, when a Supermarine Sea Otter owned by British Malaysian Petroleum (the joint ventrure with Shell is now known as Brunei Shell Petroleum) was the first airplane to land at the aerodrome. BSP replaced the grass airstrip with a sealed instrument runway in 2008 (Photo: David Cameron)

Above: Seria is the heart of the oil industry in Brunei, and also the site of the first commercial onshore oilfield discovered there. The town sits atop the Seria Field, which was discovered in 1929 and has been continuously in production since then with the exception of short periods after the Japanese invasion and Allied liberation of Brunei in the Second World War. There are numerous nodding donkeys (left) in and around the town and this has become the unofficial symbol of the town. Brunei benefits from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields, the source of one of the highest per capita GDP’s in Asia

Most employees of BSP in the region enjoy tremendous benefits by working for the company. “Speak to anyone there and you soon realise that 98% of the people who live in or around Seria work directly for or are involved in supporting the business of the company” said Ray. “As well as quite desirable accommodation, everyone has access to numerous schools for their kids, a hospital and many social and sporting facilities, like The Panaga Club, which is the main BSP sports and leisure facility located midway between Kuala Belait and Seria. Paul had often spoken about the club as he would hang out there quite a bit in his time off, and now I can see why! The facilities there are really good and it must be quite seductive for employees – I can see why some people would not want to give these kind of perks up easily” said Ray. “Although the facilities and life here seem very good indeed, I must admit that I love being independent and free from the corporate world. After nearly five years of living nomadically, I don’t think I want to trade lifestyles just yet” added our traveller.

Above: With over 1,200 members and 40 social and sports sections, the Panaga Club is unrivalled in Brunei in the breadth and quality of the facilities it offers

Below: These superb facilities would almost be enough to have our global explorer trade his independent, nomadic lifestyle – but not quite!

Editors Note: Our thanks to Po Scard for the second installment of his excellent feature issue! The third and final instalment covering Ray’s visit to Borneo, in which he explores the caves, national park, wildlife and cities of Sarawak, not to mention his challenging two-day hike to reach the The Pinnacles in Mulu, will be online in a few days. Our aim at The Daily Explorer is to create a great publication for you to enjoy, so please keep sending us your comments and suggestions as to how we can improve what we are doing. You can use the comments box on this site, or email Ray (ray@thedailyexplorer.com), ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at mozzie@thedailyexplorer.com. We will keep you posted!

MOZZIE BYTE

Above: In our next issue of The Daily Explorer, Ray completes his six-week tour of Borneo by visiting Sarawak, which includes the stunning Bako National Park. Read all about it in a few days from now!

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1 Comment »

  1. Amazing read Ray… fascinating! Look forward to the next instalment!

    Comment by Susie Moberly — August 13, 2010 @ 8:28 pm


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