Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TRAVELOGUE

Brunei: An abode of PEACE

I think it is safe to claim that in this lifetime, my partner and I have successfully managed to reach new heights of insanity with every passing year. However, deciding to get dropped off at a never-been-before location, absolutely instigated by a whim, ought to be mention-worthy!
It was during our transit between Dhaka and Sydney, thumbing through a travel magazine in a hazy stupor that I happened to stumble upon this curious little country called Brunei Darussalam.
A fun (and rather silly) aspect about my significant discovery was the word “Darussalam” which rhymed and reminded me of one of my favourite cities, Jerusalem, but later to my disappointment I realised it had no connection whatsoever except that in both Arabic and Hebrew they mean “city of peace”. These remarkable mystic notions finally led to the unthinkable: I convinced myself to climb out of the plane and raise some havoc in this peaceful nation!
More often than not, adventures are overrated. When ground realities such as tourists having to choose from a range of three packages right at the airport desk is met, the glam factor may be slightly compromised. Having already embarked upon this journey in my mind, I delved deeper and went for the imperial package. Dressed in typical backpacking clothes and worn-out canvases, little did I realise then the literal implication behind the word ‘imperial’.
Having almost dozed off on the way, when the taxi reached our destination I had already missed half of my surprise. However, when our dusty knapsacks and dishevelled selves were transferred into a golf cart, driven by gloved porters, I could have killed for a deodorant!
To make matters worse, we were then ushered through gigantic, ornamented doors that belonged to another era altogether, to the concierge where we were greeted with a smile and service, fit literally for kings.
Needless to mention, it is rather difficult to act nonchalant surrounded by not only the daunting extravagance of the sights but also throngs of VVIP Sheikhs and their wives, laden with gold and Jimmy Choos! Relief came in the form of the elevator and we escaped to our rooms.
Being in the Bruneian Empire, flanked by heavily populated metropolises such as Malaysia and Indonesia, felt like being extracted from the most chaotic traffic in Dhaka under hot, humid temperatures to a secluded valley with only the hum of a coy waterfall accompanying you.
It was like being transported to a land far, far away where simplicity reigned over high-rises and the Spanish, the British and the Sultanate regimes all laid on top of each other.
Considering how the airport, serving as the entry point for the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, belies the rest of its grandeur, I think Brunei is one of South-East Asia’s most underrated holiday destinations.
A quick shower and change of clothes later, my partner and I were better suited to embrace what it had to offer.
Our first stop was the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque that dominated the skyline and could be spotted from anywhere in the capital. With the main dome made of pure gold and a unique mixture of Mughal and Italian architecture, it is considered one of the most beautiful mosques of the Asia Pacific.
Almost all of its raw materials are imported from overseas: marble from Italy, granite from Shanghai, carpets from Saudi Arabia and oh, turf on the sidewalks directly from Wimbledon! Reeling and gaping from the effects we decided to take a walk out on the streets with our tour guide for the day – Tony. It was amazing how despite the national language being Malay, we were greeted with impeccable English by Tony and most others in Brunei. Thus it was easy to converse while munching through the country’s spicy Malaysian-styled cuisine and immerse ourselves into the history of this Islamic sovereign state, without any fundamentalism, and really living up to its name of a “Darussalam” (city of peace).
The easy conversation that flowed amongst the tour-guide and us (the Australian-spoken Bangladeshis) almost made us forget where we physically were until of course an interesting spectacle befell us.
Walking alongside the pavement, we realised the traffic had come to a sudden halt and Alan, our tour-guide, stopped mid-sentence. We looked up to realise the reason behind this silent commotion was heralded by the arrival of the royal family.
In anticipation of running into the current Sultan and Prime minister of Brunei, I expectantly looked up to find a pair of curious heads sticking out of the limousine and waving at us furiously. Turned out they were two of the Sultan’s princes, on their way back from school, out of the five sons and seven daughters he has with his three wives.
Brunei had been a British protectorate up until as recently as the 1984s and bears influences like right-hand driving. However, religion perhaps commands more character as Islam arrived to its shores in the 14th century with Arab traders, and the sultanate is part of a dynasty that claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad (PBWU).
Yet Brunei has no fundamentalist backdrop as signified by the mix of western and Malay fashion in Bruneian women, peaceful co-existence of various religions and the most astonishing aspect of all — the prince and princesses educated at Catholic institutions! Also, the virtually non-existent crime rates let Brunei to really live up to its name of the “Abode of Peace”.
Apart from the beautiful mosques and the string of inspiring museums that tell tales of the country’s rich history, no visit to Brunei would be complete without mentioning Kampung Ayer, or Water Village, where almost 39,000 inhabitants representing almost 10 per cent of the country’s population reside.
This cluster of the population live in stilt houses and wooden walkways linked together by wooden footbridges, covering mosques, schools and even a hospital perched over the Brunei River, making it the world’s largest water village and “Venice of the East”.
While walking on the boardwalks, linking lives, we were regaled by a local family who invited us into their home and over a hot cuppa told us about this floating village that has been in existence for over a millennium!
On our way back we embarked on a water-taxi exploration of the rainforest that surrounds Brunei on all sides, to spot proboscis monkeys and macaques, swinging between branches. The next morning, our sleep was rudely interrupted as the tour guide collected us at an ungodly hour for a trek back into the canopy of the misty rainforest to treat our senses to the magical Borneo sunrise.
As we kicked back and rested on our elbows bathing in the sun, my partner and I toasted this little nation. Both parts of our identities, Bangladesh and Australia, were spoilt for choices in terms of a South-East Asian holiday and after already having taken advantage of most of these other options, it was refreshing to have been able to discover this little delight — in the form of Brunei!

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