Brunei (a side trip from Hong Kong )

Originally from an email sent on Nov. 30, 2012:

Dear Stacey, 

I’ve finally managed to find time to write something, so as not to disappoint you :-), after finishing reading all (4) books borrowed in Hong Kong and attending to all the social activities.

This is mainly about my Brunei trip.  I didn’t take too many photos but there are a small no. of them (of not very high quality) :

Subjectively (and everything is subjective here of course !), the people in Brunei (even they may not be as rich as one might think) seemed nice and didn’t cheat.  After reading my Hong Kong passport,  the immigration officer said “Welcome to Brunei” to me.  A nice surprise !  I don’t remember any immigration officer anywhere in the world said that to me.   No US immigration officer had said “Welcome home” to me yet (with my US passport of course).  {  In HK, with my HK ID smartcard and finger(print), I don’t need to talk with any immigration officer to enter/leave HK. }

Some people may think that Brunei is a rich country but it’s generally not true based on  my limited observation and experience (people say things even without observation … so I don’t worry about what I’m going to say).  The super-rich ones are those of the Sultan royal family but the general public on average cannot be described as “rich”.  Nevertheless, the Brunei citizens are completely taken care by their ruler/Sultan, ranging from medical care (BS$1 only each time,  US$1 ~ B$1.2),  schools, jobs … to burial after death.  Yes, it’s literally free to die in Brunei as the govt.  pays for the burial etc.

The situation is a bit like in China I guess that the govt. uses economic well-being to exchange for their right to govern.  The Sultan is said to be the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Defence Minister… everything !   Even in the museums, one can see that the Sultan family is a big part and is the elegant part.  The cultural part or the living of the Brunei people shown in the museums are relatively more primitive and seemingly poor, but may be more genuine.   Maybe, it’s not only my own feeling that everything seems to be about the Sultan.  I guess, however,  the Sultan is not too oppressive and the not-very-demanding citizens don’t show their discontent all the time 🙂

One personal experience may illustrate my point.  In the van thru’ the Temburong area, the young Brunei girl told us that there were a lot of sandstone (and then cement etc.) business which were all in the hands of the Brunei Chinese — 10% of Brunei population — who are probably the richer population. {  My mom (who was born in Indonesia) had kept indoctrinating to me the idea that the ethnic Chinese were the people who have worked hard in Indonesia but the Malays/Indonesians were lazy.  Racial bias was not a problem in her time …  }  The girl told us that the sand may be B$25 a truck and the cement may be B$50 a truck (the truck I saw are all quite big ) !   She then said “it’s very cheap to you, but not to us” 😦    In some GDP(PPP) per capita statistics, Brunei may rank ~5th (in the world) — just a bit higher than Hong Kong and US, but it probably doesn’t reflect the wealth of the general public.  Most of the GDP is probably concentrated on a small no. of population, esp. around the Sultan family, but just that GDP divided by the population of ~400K is still very high.   The size of Brunei is more than 5 times of Hong Kong though HK has >7 million people.

My strategy was wandering around the capital city (Bandar Seri Begawan, I bet you’ve never heard of it) for the 1st day and then go to the Ulu Temburong National Park for a day trip.   But on the 1st night that I arrived there (before the 1st day officially started for me), I already walked from my hotel to a shopping mall next to the waterfront, which is about the longest distance (between two points) in the “downtown” area.  Most shops downtown were closed after 6 pm and that shopping mall was about the only one that still opened in the evening (there were a couple others in the suburb,  Gadong/Kiulap).   People say Brunei is boring because alcohol is not allowed (for their citizens) — due to religious region (Islam) — and there is no night life.  Both didn’t bother me because I wouldn’t really make use of either (anywhere in the world) even if both existed. 

The next morning, I quickly visited the biggest mosque “Omar Ali Saifuddien”, which was almost empty, except a guy who was vacuum-cleaning the carpet when I walked without shoes inside the main part of the mosque.  I then went to the waterfront and paid B$1 to take the speedboat across the river to their famous IMG_1301Kampung Ayer (water village) which was said to be the biggest stilts in the world.  There were many old (and poor) houses but many new ones have been built in the front but many of those were empty as far as I could see.  The Cultural and Tourism Gallery was nice .  It not only provided a viewing tower but it showed a lot of history of the water village — their national treasure, and the history of Brunei.   From the exhibition there and what I had read before, the earliest Brunei’s historical record (~1000 years ago) was found in Chinese historical records/books.  They traded with the Chinese at that time and even Chinese currency was used.    … I closed a door and peed in a place which looked like a traditional peeing stand for men outside the gallery.  One peed directly into the river.  But later on, I found that there was modern washroom/toilet inside the gallery.   There was a possibility that I had peed illegally 🙂  I didn’t try to verify … nobody saw it anyway 🙂

I should say here that all places in the city (museums and mosque etc.) that I had visited were free.   My plan was then to visit two museums 5/6 km (close to 4 miles) away, by bus.  It’s here that my “transportation theory” is applicable again, ie. one can judge the country a lot by its public transportation.  The bus was no. 39 (info. in books was correct) and I waited for at  least half an hour.   People taking busses (compared to people in hotel/shops) didn’t seem to speak English enough that I could gain any useful information.  Fortunately, the driver at least knew the names of the museums (in English).   The bus was very old and things seemed worn out.  The bus driver smartly took me to the Malay Technology Museum first and its location was not clear after one got off the bus.  I reached it at the end.  The museum was actually a continuation of the Kampung Ayer history exhibition and it showed all kinds of materials or styles of structures/architecture of the houses over the water village.  Malay Technology Museum should be very close to Brunei museum but there was no straight path and I had to walk backward to the main road and turned back again to reach the Brunei Museum (as I was instructed by the locals).  One of the stupidities here.  Brunei Museum was quite nice and certainly provided more things to see than Malay Technology Museum.   Its exhibition includes all sorts of history from Muslim in Brunei, Royal families, Brunei Shell Petroleum to animals and plants as well as the ethnic Brunei people with a bit of overlap with the Kampung Ayer again.  When I wanted to get back, I had to wait for at least 40+ minutes for the same no. 39 bus.  I met the same driver again and there was a good chance that there was only one bus for the entire line (to and from) !  For such a long wait, I’d be willing to pay for a taxi if there was one !  There was none (in the 40+ minutes that I was waiting there) !   I felt surprised,  did you ?!  

Here is another chance to show how much better Brunei tourism could’ve been better. Both of the above museums didn’t sell snacks nor drinks, not to mention souvenirs ! When I asked a staff there, she told me that they didn’t sell anything officially but if I really wanted, they could sell me personally a bottle of water at B$1.  So I followed one of the staff to his locker and I was lucky as he just got one bottle left !!   They didn’t think of the tourists’ needs and nor did think of earning some easy bucks by selling some food/drinks/souvenirs ?!   Maybe, it’s all due to the fact that it’s run by the govt.  which was not so business-oriented.  It might be good some time for the tourists.  Eg. at the airport, the exchange rates for buying and selling US dollars vs Brunei dollars is 1.19 and 1.25 — only 5% different.   Tourism to me is an easy money.  Now Brunei had oil but in some foreseeable future, the oil would run dry and it’s too late to develop tourism then.

The good side was that people in Brunei didn’t seem to think to rip the tourists off (from my 3 days’ experience there).  An interesting phenomenon !  I’d not jump to the conclusion that Muslims are all honest people … as if you just went to places like Egypt (or Bali in Indonesia), there was no lack of opportunities to be ripped off.  I remember many years ago in Bangkok/Thailand that a Thai fellow who tried to fool me into buying their gems told me: “Buddhists don’t cheat” 🙂   Later,  I narrowly escaped from his/their very well-arranged scam (which is another story) !  Religion is not a reliable shield for dishonesty or honesty.

I asked the bus driver to drop me off at “House of Twelve Roofs” and my hunch was right that this was too difficult for him to understand. So I prepared beforehand the Malay name “Bubungan Dua Belas” (almost a one-to-one translation) and he understood what I said.  A tiny psychological success (for my preparation) !

Another feature in Brunei or Borneo is that the spelling of many names are not standardized as there were different local Malay variants.  I  came across “Kampung” vs “Kampong” and “Bubongan” vs “Bubungan” (all the same!) …. or the tourist books had other examples as “kuih”  being the same as “kueh” (cake) etc.

IMG_1309“Bubungan Dua Belas” was probably a waste of time and so was the nearby Arts and Handicrafts Center.  But the Royal Regalia Building opposite to my hotel (Radisson) was very nice.  The tiny problem was that you had to take off your shoes again.  I always worried that people might steal my shoes !  Inside this grand royal exhibition building, you saw all kinds of artifacts related to the Sultans and their families.  It’s the grandest and most luxurious display of all in Brunei.

I’ve spent some time to arrange and worry about the 2nd day trip to the Ulu Temburong National Park.  Because of the lack of tourists, the few tour companies existed and I’d contacted all didn’t have anyone else who wanted to go on that day.   Fortunately, 2 days before or so, there was finally one more and at the last moment, there was another.   The journey to this National Park is complicated and just hiring a longboat oneself may be B$100 itself.   Making use of an earlier quote from the hotel, the one day trip with Freme  was B$135 for at least two persons — they’d want to charge me double price if there was only me ( … I actually found another tour company Borneo Guide which was cheaper at B$165 if I went alone).  The Freme tour guide later didn’t know what that name meant and it might come from Chinese as I saw the Chinese name * on her badge even though she didn’t understand what they meant !

In my opinion, a large part of the fun of the Temburong trip was on the journey to the final destinations.  We took the waterway because if we did it on land, it’d be longer and we’d pass thru’ the Brunei/Malaysian border many times and our passport would be stamped 8-10 times.  Our journey started with taking speedboat from the Jetty of the city.   The speedboat was generally very fast and it tilted often at 10 deg. or even 30+ deg. one time when it became very unstable.  It’s probably unsafe according to any of our Lab’s safety standard but it definitely made people (at least me) feel adventurous.  Even though the majority of the river path was quite wide, I felt particularly exciting when the boat wiggled in and out of some narrow river.  After we reached Bangar, a van took us (in ~20 minutes) to Batang Duri which was along the river and each of the few tour operators owned some houses.  From there, Longboat on the way to Ulu Temburong National Parkwe took what they called “longboat” to the final destination which was another 30 minutes.  Taking the speedboat, everybody was under the cover; but sitting on the longboat, we were completely exposed.  Fortunately, the longboat didn’t tilt too much even though the river was quite rough.  At least, for me, this delivered the most fun as the boat cut thru’ the turbulent river and the water splashed sideways violently.  Brisk wind with the sun over the azure sky did help a bit too and had a cheering effect on me.  This took about 30 minutes and it felt much shorter than this as I really enjoyed this portion of the comfortably adventurous boat trip.

On arrival, each person should pay B$5 to the Forestry Dept. but the tour guide paid for us as it’s included in our fees.   Getting off the boat, one needed to walk for 800 steps or so to reach the highlight of the tour, the canopy walk.  It’s really an aluminium structure (probably >100 ft above the ground of the hill) and they restricted the no. of people who could walk up and stay there.   At the top, I could see the dense forest all around but that view was only a tiny part of the vast Borneo.   The dense forest made it difficult to look too far.  There was an Amway conference for the Korean salespeople and we were competing with them in climbing this structure.

After that, it was a short boat ride back and to a waterfall which you might see from the photo.  We took off our walking shoe and wore some temporary old/torn shoes we got from the tour operator as our feet were completely under water (sometimes > a foot) while we waded to reach the waterfall.  There if you put your feet in, fishes would come to bite or nibble, not the most sensational feeling of all times …. At the end, people seemed excited and all stripped themselves off to underwear and sort of swam, except ME !

For the two guys who have made my day trip a bit cheaper, one was an American, Jim,  working for Samsung in Seoul and another English, James, working in the international office in Oxford University.  One reason that I don’t like companions in travelling is that I have to talk with people.  But this time, at least at the beginning, I was the guy who initiated the talking points and broke the ice among ourselves.

After Jim graduated from MBA in Michigan, he joined a special program of Samsung (~with 50 people, not all Americans but also Europeans …) ~2.5 years ago.  Gradually, it became more than apparent that he didn’t enjoy his stay in Korea at all.  He’ll very likely leave Korea this coming March and has started to look for jobs in US.  Part of it was that he didn’t feel he was one of them.  He seemed to think that this was particularly bad in Korea.  It might be so but this is probably a common phenomenon among foreigners.  ( I of course have had quite a few of this kind of experience. )  I have seen BNL colleagues going to China for the (rather successful) Daya Bay Expt. and I observed first-hand the attitude of Americans towards the Chinese.  On one hand, they realized how much China had improved; on the other hand, they couldn’t resist having their superiority mentality and would be happy subconsciously to have the reasons/opportunities to look down on the Chinese or would feel sorry when they saw some tiny bits of Chinese superiority (such as the better leather chair in the conference room at the Institute of High-Energy Physics compared to BNL’s poor chair 🙂 ).  Jim learnt some Korean at the beginning but he told me that he stopped after he found out that his Korean language skill after one year was about the same as his after the 1st month.  To me, this is a sign that he didn’t have real interest in Korean language/culture.  Not everybody has the best language talent, but sometimes or even often it’s due to the fact that one didn’t regard other people’s language or culture highly enough, ie., it’s the “Why should I learn your stupid language” mentality.  Nobody would admit it but I subjectively feel that this is at least part of the reason.  “Know yourself and know your enemy” is probably one of the more useful principles/tactics from “the Art of War”.  After 9/11, Americans felt that they needed to catch up in learning about the Muslim culture or radical Islamic philosophy.  The Asians have probably learnt more about the western philosophy than what the westerners have learnt about the Asians.  Nevertheless,  from Jim, the hidden hope of Samsung sending some of these Americans/Europeans back to their home countries to work for Samsung didn’t quite work out (not just for him).

The English James turned out to be easier to talk to.  Individual variation is again more than national reputation or our bias towards national distinction.  Very early in the conversation, I let them know of my history of Oxford (and even Rhodes Scholarship).  Recruitment seems to be a small part of his job.  He’s on the way to Australia/New Zealand to give talks about Oxford.  He’s happy to use business money to spend X’mas in the Oceania.  British executives’ salaries are probably not the highest in the world and he’s quite proud of himself making up a series of talks and conferences to spend a month or 2 outside UK.

On the van back to Bangar, one of the two British finally couldn’t help starting to make a conversation.  He asked us why we came to visit Brunei.  I immediately asked him back why he did so himself.  He said that he had no choice because he worked there !  It turned out that they’re British soldiers based on Brunei and he’s at the end of his one-year stay.  I didn’t know that British soldiers are still in Brunei.  Apparently, it’s the Sultan’s request and the Sultan paid their salaries !  I guess this is cheaper than developing your own military power from scratch.  Though he refused to tell us how many British soldiers in his base, he told us a bit about his “boring life” in Brunei and his view with much confidence or arrogance.  When I told him that I travelled for ~2 days in Brunei, he agreed that he couldn’t find anything more to do after 2 days.

Lack of tourists in Brunei also means that there isn’t much information compared to other popular tourist spots.  Next morning, I chose to take the more risky approach, i.e., bus, to go to the airport.  Mainly because the taxi (called by hotel … you don’t easily see any taxi passing by) would cost ~B$23 whereas the bus would only cost B$1.  ( The bus service stops at 6-7 pm every day and so the evening when I first arrived I paid B$29 for hotel transfer which used Avis car actually. )  At least 4 busses, nos. 23, 24, 36 and 38 (even though some sources/books claimed 6), could be used to go to the airport.  Waiting for 5-10 minutes, I happily saw no. 36 but when I got on and asked the driver whether that bus went to the airport, the driver understood me but unfortunately he told me to take no. 34 !  Though it’s against all the information (from multiple sources), I felt I couldn’t but follow his advice.  5-10 minutes later,  miraculously the bus no. 34 came (all busses looked about the same except the no. posted outside).  The driver indicated positively with his body gesture when I asked him whether the bus would go to the airport.  But this no. 34 bus was kind of strange.  For multiple times, the bus driver seemed to veer out of the main road and sidetrack substantially and very deep into some small roads seemingly just to take some passengers very close to their home, after he communicated with the passenger in question.  I was not sure what’s going on and I tried to confirm with him again that he’d take me to the airport.  Probably because I spoke English, he didn’t reply.   I was feeling uncertain but soon I found that the road signs were all pointing the airport.  He dropped me off right at the departure terminal.   I said “Terima kasih !” to him — one of the few Malay words that  I could utter (without translator).  Even now after I google online, I still couldn’t find any information about the no. 34 and no books that I’ve read have mentioned this bus.  There were no (obvious) bus stop post for the places (including the airport terminal) that this no. 34 bus driver have dropped people off.  Near the airport, the formal bus stop was supposed to be quite a bit away from the terminal.  It’s awkward and not fully comprehensible but it worked (fortunately) !

With all the communication difficulties, people in Brunei didn’t seem to rip off or cheat the tourists.  Maybe, since there haven’t been so many tourists, they haven’t developed their greed ?!  Or, they’ve just followed the government and haven’t had any sort of business mind, good or bad ?!

In Long Island, I don’t have friends to meet.  But in the ~10 days while I was in HK, I’ve met quite a few friends, an entirely different human behavior.  Eg. on the 1st full day in HK, I met a guy for breakfast, then another for lunch and then another friend at 4 pm for tea.  Afterwards, I walked a bit to a German restaurant (of my sister’s choice!) to have dinner with my sister and mom.   ( I’ve never liked German restaurant and that night’s experience only reinforced it. )   Different friends work in different careers, have different aspirations and their bank accounts may not “weigh” the same.  But as I get older,  I’m more able to realize and appreciate that each of them has been successful in their own right.   From my perspective,  this group of middle class people that I had grown up with in HK (or elsewhere) are quite different from what our parents in HK were 30+ years ago.

This email has been written in my HK home, at the HK airport, on the train towards Port Jefferson Station and I’m going to send this from home.  The trains have been on time but the bus was late by >10 minutes.  Waiting and shivering in the cold weather for 20 minutes had reminded me of my waiting in the hot weather in Brunei (very close to the Equator).  They were different but both were bitter nonetheless ….


* The Chinese name for Freme is “飛美”.


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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