Just when you think Malaysian public transport can’t get any worse… it does. I woke up to a beautiful day, packed my stuff and headed downstairs to my taxi. It took me through the busy streets of Kuala Lumpur, and I was surprised one last time by how weird the place was. A mix of first world and third world, eastern and western, good stuff and utter, utter shit. Of course, we got stuck in traffic, but I’d left myself over two hours to make the trip, which should be enough, right? After all, I can make it from Gosford to Sydney airport in less than that, and that’s twice as far and Aussie public transport is the drizzling shits.
The airport train was slower than a stoned turtle. I rolled through the outskirts of KL with one eye on the skyline and the other on my watch. It dropped me in the middle of nowhere (and, thankfully, nowhere near fucking Kepong) and I transferred to a run-down bus that was shaking and shuddering like a drug addict with no smack. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, before finally crawling off towards the el-cheapo budget airport where my plane sat. I made it to the check-in with only minutes to spare, and an hour later I was in the air, flying towards the tiny country of Brunei (or, to give it its full title – Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace. Fancy!).
I really had no idea what to expect with Brunei. I hadn’t even heard of the place until a few months ago, when I’d drunkenly booked a cheap return flight there after an all-day session at the pub. I soon found out it’s a pretty hardcore muslim place, and that alcohol is basically banned, which worried me. I had visions of a locked-down, militant country where I’d be under constant surveillance, and if I so much as farted I’d end up getting beheaded on the 6 o’clock news. I’ve never met another person who’s visited there, and every time I mention my trip there the response is, “Why?”
But just like that time I went out on a date with that chick whose internet dating profile looked suspiciously like Delta Goodrem, and who turned out to look like a fatter, hairier Ron Jeremy, things didn’t end up the way I expected.
Brunei and, more specifically, its capital Bandar Seri Begawan, is a delightful place. With only 400,000 people in the whole country, it’s very quiet, quite rural, and everyone seems pretty rich. The CBD of Bandar has maybe four or five streets and reminded me of a little Aussie country town, which was a refreshing change after the monstrous metropolises I’ve been to.
There are so many trees around, and everything is so neat and tidy. Every couple of hundred metres there’s a bloke trimming a hedge in the middle of the road, or chopping back weeds by the side of it. I suppose massive oil reserves coupled with a tiny population allows that sorta thing.
It really was a culture shock after the congestion and smog of KL. By the time I got to my hotel it was getting on towards four, so with the sun sliding down and less than 48 hours to explore this little country, I quickly got changed in my room and prepared to go out for a walk.
Not that I’d want to spend a lot of time in my hotel room even if I could. It’s tiny – far smaller than the bathroom I’d enjoyed in KL – and looks like it was last been renovated in the 70s. It’s not horrible or scary like the places in Beijing or Penang, but it’s not exactly a Ritz cracker.
The building is weirdly quiet, too. It’s four storeys high, with 15 or 20 rooms on each level, but I haven’t see or hear one other guest since I got here. That’s outrageous! Anyway, before I knew it I was strolling through beautiful downtown Bandar.
Sure, it was getting late on a Sunday, but I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. Only a handful of (shiny new) cars rolled past me as I walked past a collection of tidy if unspectacular buildings. There were a few temple-looking things here and there, and then I turned a corner and FUCKEN WOW! A massive, golden mosque stood in front of me, shimmering in the fading sunlight. The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque (snappy name!) was wildly impressive, and I spent plenty of time exploring it and taking photos. There was a weird concrete boat standing in the moat that surrounded it, so I walked out to it and danced around on it like a special person. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the whole time I was there I didn’t see a single other tourist.
You might think that would make me feel further from my own world than anything, but it hasn’t been like that at all. Brunei simply feels so close to ‘normal’ society, and so incredibly safe and tolerant, that I really do feel at home.
Bizarrely, right next to this wonderfully expensive and over-the-top temple was a collection of run-down little shacks standing over the water. I’d read about Bandar’s famous floating village, and decided to head into the slums for a geek. Only they weren’t slums at all. I only went a brief way into the maze of raised walkways and home-made houses, but it was enough to see that, even here, the people were well-off and healthy and happy. They wore decent clothes (almost exclusively English soccer shirts, for some reason) and each little shack had a satellite dish. Even the shitty areas of Brunei are better than the best bits of most Asian countries.
With the day drawing to a close, I decided to leave the rest of the village for tomorrow and find somewhere to get a feed. I took a stroll along the river and into Bandar’s main shopping distric, which consisted of 20 or 30 little shops by the water. Speedboats criss-crossed the river, and the water village took on an almost mythical quality across the water as the day gave way to night. I found a delightful little eatery overlooking the river, and ordered what I was pretty sure was a nasi goreng, along with a can of Sprite. My body was very, very happy that I wasn’t pouring anymore beer into it, and it was kind of a unique situation to not be on the piss.
My meal was great, and afterwards I explored a freaky-looking cemetary across the road. With that out of the way, there was nothing to do but take a very relaxing walk through the almost-deserted township back to my completely-deserted hotel. I booked a tour for the next morning from a handsome gay man, then took a refreshing dip in the pool, which was surprisingly nice. It wasn’t nearly as Austen Tayshuss as the place in KL, but was surrounded by tropical trees and plants and was very nice. I also didn’t have to put up with any aggressive barmen trying to cuddle me.
With the whole city basically asleep by 10, and not another person in my building, I watched a few episodes of Californication and turned in for the night. A whole afternoon without being offered sex, attacked, chased – I could get used to this place.
I wrote this back in May, 2012, while completely sober.