Saturday, 26 October 2013

BRUNEI Holidays : The Green Heart of Borneo

BRUNEI Holidays...ooooh, there’s the Brunei Darussalam airport! ..oh wait, I don’t see a runway… oh that’s the Sultan’s house…Ah Brunei.  Something about it makes me feel like it should be in the middle east, a desert country.  It’s the name, it doesn’t sound Asian.  When I pictured ‘Brunei’ in my mind, I pictured sheiks and camels and sand… until I went to Borneo.  

brunei darussalam location

I only really paid attention to the fact Brunei is in SE Asia the first time I went to Borneo, a number of years ago … there it was, a little blip on the massive island, wedged between the two Malaysian provinces on Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak.  On a piddly few-week holiday, there was no time to stop in Brunei! who goes to Brunei?  But I always wanted to. I always wanted to get to each province/ country on Borneo.
From the first time I learned about jungles, I just had to see them.  When I learned about them in school, I pictured these magical places of Borneo and Sumatra and believed they would be just like Jungle Book! (I later also learned how mean Disney movies were to animals!) Oh how wrong that is.  Sabah and Sarawak’s jungles are almostly completely gone, half to palm oil, half to population and development.  Kalimantan, the largest area of Borneo, belonging to Indonesia, is also teetering on disaster.
kampong ayer brunei
I mentioned before that it is very possible for people to actually live their entire life on Borneo and NEVER see jungle.  So different from what I learned in school.  I imagined these places to be full of Moglis and there would be animals everywhere. Not at all.  People who live in cities in Kalimantan, who may never have reason to travel off of Borneo, which is not unlikely, probably won’t have much reason to go too far out of their own city.  And unless you fly, or can travel for hours, and hours, and hours by bus or car, you will never see jungle, just buildings, and palm oil. It’s mind-boggling to fly over this island for hours, and only see palm oil. The jungle is hard to find. 
kampong Ayer in brunei
The small areas left can barely hold viable populations of what is left of animals like orangutans who need large, large areas to maintain viable populations. And sometimes you see plantations encroaching in from all sides on a patch of jungle, and all I can think is ‘what happened to all the animals that were in there?’  they were shot, poached, stolen and sold, or starved to death, or burned in the fires, and the ones left in the little patches must be absolutely terrified.
brunei signboards
In Sumatra I’ve mentioned this similar issue, although most who live outside of the city have at least seen the jungle-covered mountains, even if they have never actually touched them.  But those who never leave the city, would also never see jungle.  Imagine living on Sumatra or Borneo and never seeing a wild monkey in your life? The only ones they’ve seen are going crazy trapped in some tiny cage outside a ‘pet store’ or outside someone’s house, or in one of the many god-forsaken zoos they seem to love here. Or imagine living here and seeing a wild monkey for the first time as an adult and being terrified out of your mind?  (I see this all the time in Bukit Lawang when the city-dwellers make big daytrips to the wild west to seim in the cleaner rivers) I suppose I’m a minority, but I don’t understand how some people can’t feel the fascination with jungle?
SOAS Mosque BSB Brunei
But then, there’s Brunei, known as the green heart of Borneo, and rightly so.  Brunei, rich on oil, doesn’t look like what you expect an oil-rich country to look like. I picture oil-rich, and I picture dust blowing in the wind. But no, Brunei, is oil-rich and green, so green.  Brunei is still 70-80% virgin rainforest, the complete opposite of it’s non-eco-friendly neighbours.  Brunei’s development is all close to the coast, and it’s inland jungles are pristine.  There are NO PALM OIL PLANTATIONS in BRUNEI!  This may be the only SE Asian country that can say this.  If you are someone who is turned off by the idea of visiting a “strict Islamic state”, you are missing out.  Alot of the reason this country is so interesting is the strict Islamic code mixed with a love for the environment and a love for opulence, that somehow all works together.
clock tower of brunei
Even the city itself is a strange mix of modern and old, opulence and simplicity, seen in the water villages Kampong Ayer Brunei surrounding the  harbours, where thousands of people live in makeshift wood-huts on the water.
But these wood huts have electricity, satellite cable, a/c. These water villages also have mosques, schools, stores, fire departments, everything you’d find on land pretty much.  And when a fire burned down 50 plus homes, the government rebuilt what look like water condos!  The only thing is the people like the bright colours of the originals over the muted tones of the water condos.  But hey, free houses!
sightseeing in brunei
What a difference from it’s neighbours.  Kalimantan is also oil rich, but it’s a disaster of poor planning and management, well there is no planning or management.  Indonesia is a free for all.  You want to set up an oil well here? go ahead.  You want to put a palm plantation here, go ahead… and soon, thereis nothing left and the money?  it’s gone with the foreigners who saw a great place to exploit people and environment for huge profits.  And the people, still poor.
SOAS Mosque Brunei
Where’s the money in Brunei?  Most is with the Sultan, but the rest is with the people.  This country is nothing like anywhere else I’ve seen in SE Asia. There is order, there are rules, there is calm, there is quiet, there are procedures, there is space, there is cleanliness!  Everyone drives nice cars, there are no motorbikes (I saw 1!).  There is no alcohol (illegal to sell alcohol), very few people smoke, no one litters, and there are consequences, harsh ones, to breaking rules…. when you have been in the SE Asia mayhem for any length of time… Brunei is like a twilight zone. 
sightseeing in brunei
Brunei Darussalam is NOT set up for very much tourism, it only started promoting tourism within about the last 10 years.  And it is definitely not set up for budget tourists and backpackers.  My poor little piddly daily budget was blown to shreds here.  Luckily for me, my piddly budget is still way more than what I actually need to live on in Indonesia, so I had a nice fat surplus waiting to be blown in some exotic oil-rich country!
The thing is, after you pay for your hotel, taxi, food… there is pretty much ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do in the city.  The capital of Bandar Seri Begawan pretty much shuts down by 6:00.  It’s just office buildings and mosques, a few shops and restaurants.
Coffin Boat ride to Temburong brunei
Coffin Boat ride to Temburong Brunei
But there really aren’t any people.  They work, and go home, in their nice cars.  It’s hard to see people! You can wander around the wide clean streets, but during the day, you will soon notice, you are the only one wandering (if there are other tourists around, you might see them… otherwise it will just be you wandering).  Why? the local people are working, and they don’t wander around in the day, it’s too damn hot! they drive in their nice cars. 
brunei canpoy
climbing the 700 sweaty steps to the canopy view. ya this is Brunei, they give you steps!
I could wander for an hour or two and I’d have to go back to my room, or an a/c refuge, it was really spectacularly hot and humid on the pavement.  But also, after walking a couple of hours, you will have pretty much seen everything.
 There are other towns outside the capital, where you can apparently see some people, but again, trying to keep my spending down, I stuck to the city and spent my money on heading to the jungle.
Yes, if you were to come here from home, you would probably be bored, think it was very odd and strange, and basically want to leave!  But, coming from other parts of SE Asia, this is a miracle that has to be seen!  Apparently Michael Jackson hid out here for a while at one time, excellent choice
brunei canopy
then you climb up here on Temburong Brunei Canopy
So as for the Sultan, one of the richest, if not the richest man in the world, valued at approx. $25 billion, he seems quite personable and obviously prides himself on keeping his country green. During ramadan, the peops are all welcome to his home to meet and greet him.
So as for the Sultan, one of the richest, if not the richest man in the world, valued at approx. $25 billion, he seems quite personable and obviously prides himself on keeping his country green. During ramadan, the peoples are all welcome to his home to meet and greet him.
brunei canopy
So what’s different for a citizen of Brunei compared to their SE Asian neighbours?  well, cars, homes and even trips to Mecca are subsidized.  They don’t pay personal tax (well, neither do people in Indonesia, but that’s just because they don’t want to because they don’t trust their gov’t), and healthcare and education are free. Yes, everyone is educated, and well-educated compared to their neighbours. The Sultan himself is very well educated, receiving international education and obviously also very well travelled.  The Sultan has implemented a forest police program to combat the illegal logging happening at their borders with Malaysia (yep, they just NEVER STOP!) This police force actually does patrol the borders, and they arrest people, and they fine them, AND they FOLLOW-THROUGH!  Indonesia has forest police, no one knows what it is they do though, other than take payment to break the law.  Yes, so what a difference some leadership, education, and clear sense of priorities can make.
temburong brunei forest
And for such a small population, this country has their own airline (Royal Brunei Airlines) and their own television station.  You just get the feeling everyone must know everyone.
A little info about the Sultan.  His home basically looks like an airport. had I known when I flew over I could have had an amazing photo, shoot!
brunei fauna
His home has 1788 rooms, 257 bathrooms and a banquet hall for 4000 people. He spends 2.5 million a year on badminton lessons, the same on masseuses and acupuncturists.  He has 200 polo ponies that live in climate-controlled stables.  He has 5000 cars, yes, 5000, housed in 5 aircraft hangars.  He has 2 boeings.  He spends 100,000 per year on guards for his exotic bird cages.  And he has homes in Paris, LA, New York and London.  However, when I was in Brunei, he was there too because I saw him on TV!  It was the ASEAN annual meeting and Brunei was the host. (why is USA at this??)  I didn’t go to see his home up close because I’d have to take a taxi.. I just got a little peak from the water.   I had a great view from the plane coming in, but like I said, at the time I thought it was the airport!
brunei waterfalls
There is also a museum, which is pretty impressively large, in honour of His Majesty. no photos allowed, but it houses a mind-boggling number of lavish gifts to the sultan from other countries. It houses his winged chariot and coronation trinkets. There are many interesting photos of him with over the course of his privileged life with very flattering little comments. It was really quite an enjoyable museum.  Considering I’m not much of a museum buff unless they are for dinosaurs or ancient egyptian history… it was a thumbs up. But with all the goods in the museum, I can’t imagine what on earth he has left in his home? Perhaps his is more of a ‘minimalist’ when it comes to decor.
As for me, I mostly came to Brunei, well I ONLY came to Brunei, to see the jungle. 
Brunei has done such a good job keeping their jungle, it is just such a shame they are not a much, much, larger stakeholder of this island. These people know how to do it right and if they had more of it in their hands, the whole world’s lungs would be so much healthier.  But it’s not to be, so for now, at least there is something left.  Unfortunately, the surrounding devastation to the jungles in the Malaysia and Indonesia have done enough damage that orangutans were not able to survive in the jungles of Brunei, so you will not find them here.  However, the proboscis, also critically endangered, and found only on the island of Borneo, still live here.  The best fun for me in Borneo jungles, is you generally get to go by boat.  I hate boats, but I love jungle river boats! go figure.  The commuter boats are called coffin boats. They really zip around and do crazy 45 degree turns
I am happiest looking at jungle, I cannot get enough :) my jungle photos…
The proboscis still survive here, found only on Borneo. Famous for their big noses and fat bellies. Indonesians call them Monyet Belanda, or ‘Dutch Monkeys’. Pretty sure not originally meant as a compliment, but now said all in ‘good fun’ :o
 monkey of brunei
you can hire thes boats from the harbour. the drivers, some completely covered and madked to protect from the sun, will find you. tgey will give you the two finger circular wrist motion indicating ‘ I’ll drive you around for 20 dollars.’ good deal.
Brunei has a way to go to get tourists here, but I think if they promote eco-tourism, and just let people know they are here, people will come!  Jungle hunting has become a ‘thing’ for some.  It’s getting harder to find good jungle areas to visit, h and for those who want to see it, they will go.  I just think many people spending time in Sabah and Sarawak, looking for jungle, don’t realize they just skipped right over it!

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