A Kingdom of unexpected treasures (Brunei part two)

On our second day in Brunei we decided to get some culture and headed to the national museum. Buses in Bandar Seri Bagawan all seem to operate on a dollar each way basis which made getting there cheap and easy. We spent a couple hours checking out the history of the oil fortune that Brunei has created, ancient Islamic artefacts, being stared at by the ten or so soldiers guarding the place and doing a bit of this…

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Then we ventured out to wait for the bus. There are no timetables and the staff at the museum had no idea how often they ran. The best advice they could give us was to wave it down well in advance so that it would pull over. After 45 minutes of playing ‘guess the next colour car’ followed by thirty seconds of enthusiastic waving and yelling when the bus came into view, we were on the way back to the city.

The wait felt like hours in the Brunei heat.  It has such a different atmosphere to muggy Ho Chi Minh but is equally uncomfortable with no shade. Still, it reminds you that you’re in a different country which is always an exciting feeling for me. In Brunei it’s quite incredible because you really feel like you’re on a different continent. Wandering around BSB you could be somewhere in the Middle East. It’s really only the food that reminds you that you’re in Southeast Asia.

On our bus ride back I ended up sitting next to a Dutch girl who had sailed from New Zealand (!) with her kiwi boyfriend – such a small world. We were a little disappointed that the top floor of the museum had been closed due to water damage but apparently when they went, the museum wasn’t even open. They also weren’t allowed to walk in to the mosque in town so we’d lucked in! She’d been in Brunei for around six weeks but didn’t have many travel tips to offer. Mainly because there aren’t many ‘must dos’.

It’s quite handy really. Often when you visit a place you only have a certain amount of time to see the sights so there’s always that feeling of regret about the things you missed (as well as pressure to race around everywhere).  In Brunei, you can take a few days, wander around at a leisurely pace and still tick everything off the recommended list. Next on our agenda was the Royal Regalia Museum – the place where the Sultan stores his many gifts from other countries.

We spent over an hour perusing the various paintings, sculptures, plates, cups, weapons, jewellery and other offerings from around the world. Alas, we couldn’t find a single gift from New Zealand (even though apparently there is something in there). Maybe our Government had enough taste to get him something that he actually displays in the palace. Makes you wonder – wouldn’t you be just a little bit miffed if your gift ended up in what is essentially a storage shed? What a shed though. It’s worth a look if only for the grand entrance.

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Further inside there are scale models of the Sultan’s throne as well as the scene of his coronation (complete with slightly creepy cardboard cut outs of the crowd from the actual ceremony). Unfortunately no photos allowed!

Later that day we had a date with superman.

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There are loads of water taxis in Brunei and they are all hecklers. They’re pretty much the only people in the country who try to take advantage of tourists. All of them take the same route around Kampong Ayer, the water village and then out to see these fullas…

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Cute they are not but certainly intriguing to see these rare creatures in the wild so ofcourse loads of tourists go in for the rides.  Lucky that our new friend Sham had hooked us up with Superman as some drivers just want to take your money- this guy knew what he was doing and we had a great time.

First we took a tour around the village which really is a whole community on stilts. There’s loads of schools, a fire station, police station – everything really. At one point our driver pulled up to an unassuming place that must have been a café as he shouted his order and a can of drink was lowered down to him in a basket. He then popped some cash in the basket and we were off again.

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Here’s the mosque that the Sultan commissioned just for the people of Kampong Ayer:

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A school:

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The ‘cafe’:

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Some of the houses look a lot more modern than others and Sham told us that this was because many had burnt down recently. The Sultan paid for newer more modern houses to be built and the people who live in them are paying them off interest free.

After a tour around the village we were off to catch a glimpse of the monkeys. Maybe they’re a little self conscious about the size of their noses as these guys are very shy. It’s tricky to get to a good spot as there are loads of boats all doing the rounds. The other trouble was that because we had a driver that knew what he was doing,  once the other boats caught sight of us they followed and didn’t have the common sense to quiet the motor (or the boat occupants) when they got close. If you squint you can just make one out in these pics.

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We found something more impressive than the monkeys anyway. This was the lizard to end all lizards. I was so in awe seeing this guy in the wild, it was really exciting! He was about a metre long so the pic doesn’t do him justice. This was the only time we saw litter in Brunei – ironically the city is super clean but out in the jungle it turns into a bit of a dumping ground.

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Sunset is definitely the time to take a water taxi.

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After all the excitement of the jungle we had an evening at ‘The Mall’ (yep, it’s actually called that). The mall itself was a little underwhelming but I’m so glad we got to go there because we were able to meet up with Sham again and see both of his shops. The first we visited specialises in traditional Islamic head scarves for women. The range of material was just stunning. Sham really has an eye for picking colours and designs, so much so that the Princess shops there! It astounds me that even though this family has one of the most impressive bank accounts in the world that they are somewhat down to earth. Ok…well maybe not quite (the Sultan recently bought his five year old a Ferrari for his birthday) but I still find it pretty cool that they shop amongst the locals.

Unlike the English Royal family who are constantly being spied on by the paps and thrust upon by the public eager to get a closer look,  the Brunei Royal family are given the respect that they deserve and when the Princess comes to Sham’s store, the other visitors quietly step outside to let her have the first pick. A trip can turn out to be quite lucrative for Sham as he recalled the last time she was in. Apparently she saw a design that she liked and asked Sham how many other colours he had. He displayed 17 swatches of material that he had on hand and she ordered one of each. There is never a discussion of money, the ‘secretary’ who attends her simply steps forward at the point of sale and pays the full amount in cash. I want to be a Princess.

Sham wouldn’t let us leave the store until I’d chosen something for myself and after quite a bit of resistance (this kind of generosity is not what we’re used to!) I ended up choosing a beautiful pashmina with a zebra design. He then took us to his menswear store and gifted Tom a T-shirt. I think Sham is one of those people who would literally give you the shirt off his own back if it came down to it.

So there you have it, Brunei might not be the ultimate traveller’s dream but the country’s tourism tagline rings true – it really is a Kingdom of unexpected treasures. Our treasure was Sham who I can confidently say made our trip unforgettable. Without him, I really don’t know if we would have seen or enjoyed the country half as much as we did.  It’s not every day that you meet someone who is 100% genuine and when you do, it’s very special. The world could really do with more Shams.

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