in North BorneoComments Off on Brunei




It was just a short day-trip from Miri in Sarawak to Kuala Belait in Brunei.


That town is also a river port, servicing the oil industry.


We anchored off the ‘Yacht Club’, which although there are no resident keelers and has few cruising visitors, is a friendly and busy little establishment with restaurant and bar overlooking the river and a large fleet of sailing dinghies. They welcome us to use their very good facilities.


Kuala Belait iis only a small service town with no notable attractions, but it was plain from the outset that we had now entered a more wealthy country.

As it had been an international ‘passage’, it was neccessary to clear in with all the authorities, it proved to be one of the most complex clearance procedures ever as I was directed from one department to another, filling in forms, returning to the boat to ‘computer create’ new forms (hand-written was not acceptable) and with the most-ever use of the ‘chop’ -the boat stamp, -which had to be applied over every signature on every page.
Complicated as it was, no-one was making it difficult, it was just ‘the way it is here’. Nobody was unfriendly, although (to the amusement of a young Muslim woman officer) I did get a somewhat stern reminder from a rather military man in the Customs Department that my dress standard (shorts and T shirt) was not suitably respectable for a government office in a Muslim country… When I later needed to return (with more forms) before I entered the building I put on long trousers over my shorts, -he was suitably mollified and I was given the faintest of smiles…
The paperwork took most of the day, but there was still enough time to see all that was neccessary in the town, after a second night there we moved on.

For once we had excellent sailing, for a whole day we did not need to use the engine, the wind was from the quarter, we flew along past the oil platforms and the Brunei Coast.
Our next stop was at Jerudong, a perfect anchorage, but in Brunei style typically,  a part of a development which was agigantic waste of money!
Jefri, the now ‘out of favour’ brother of the Sultan, built it as one of his projects of which there have been several and resulted in sending the country near bankrupt!
The anchorage is inside a large lagoon of several square kilometres, built by extending stone breakwaters out from the shore, and even creating an artificial island in the middle! It is just out from a Royal Palace on the shore. There is room in it for hundreds of boats and is a near perfect anchorage, but apart from the occasional passing yacht, like us, it is totally unused. Although we are permitted to stop, it is unfortunate that we are not allowed to land, many of us I’m sure would stay a long time if that were so!
It is part of the major development which happened at Jerudong a few years ago; the Sultan built a massive fun park (now largely defunct), polo grounds, a stadium, and brother Jefri built this and the Empire Hotel…more on that later!

As we couldn’t leave the boat to go truly ashore, and to just go and sit on the island with it’s one tree didn’t seem as though it would happily occupy us for long, much as we liked the anchorage, we moved on the next day, good sailing once more, -up to the main  port of Muara.


Just beyond the port, in a largely enclosed part of Brunei Bay is Serasa Beach and the Royal Brunei Yacht Club. There is no marina, but a large anchorage, which is quite secure, it has good protection from the sea, although still exposed to wind, -and frequent lightning storms.
As visitors we are allowed to anchor or moor off the Yacht Club among the few resident yachts; eat at their nice restaurant and have free use of their wi-fi and other excellent facilities.
We were also able to buy what must be the cheapest diesel in the world, at the roadside pumps it is still heavily subsidised at just $B.31 perlitre, -about 27 cents NZ!
Serasa is about 30 kilometres from the main town of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan. Although possible to take the boat on up the river into the main town, we have a problem with going up muddy, rubbish strewn rivers, we preferred the relative clean and security of the yacht club where we could safely leave our dinghy ashore while we took a car or bus into town.Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB) is a town of surprises, -surprising that it is so filthy rich, surprising that it is so small and surprising that for its  small population, better use hasn’t been put to its wealth!   It has so many fabulous commercial, religious and public buildings, with fairyland ornamentations and fairytale mansions; but although they probably own a nice car, so many of its people live in what must be classed as substandard housing.It was an interesting place to look around, but not somewhere worthy of spending much time.


The most striking downtown showpiece is the undisputably beautiful Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque


set in its artificial lagoon with concrete Royal Barge going nowhere.

As a strictly Muslim country it is no surprise that is the centrepiece for the town, the principal place of worship.


Alongside is a sports park and small stadium,


but for a park, it has the most unbelievable entry ways


and on the main thoroughfare outside, ornate street lighting, mosaic-like paving
with topiaried dual carriageway separation…


(which given that this road is in the middle of town on a normal working day, carries remarkably little traffic for its size, -it is never difficult to cross the street!)


A little further up is the Royal Regalia Museum, another nice piece of architecture which formally displays (some of) the Royal riches.


Although the Royal Palace is impossible to view from the road, the street outside is maintained like a public gardens!

But set against these beautiful buildings, almost within a stones throw of that glorious  central Mosque, are the edges of the Kampung Ayer, the very extensive ‘water village’, housing built over the water on both sides of the river with a population of some 30,000.




Although not truly squalid as it has piped services and electricity, the homes and walkways are quite dilapidated, in places hazardous and a real fire-risk. Rubbish collects in enormous malodorous mounds in tidal backwaters around the stilts, a perfect breeding ground for disease carrrying vermin!

Of course for many it must be a preferred traditional lifestyle choice and I guess many would have it no other way, but I can’t help but question the priorities of the inhabitants -and the authorities!


The main city market, given the population of the town is quite a meagre affair, -although colourful beneath its bright umbrellas.
There is not a lot of fresh food on offer, some vegetables, but very little fruit, apart from bananas most of what is there has been imported from nearby Malaysia or much further afield.
Shopping in the city is surpisingly limited too, there is a large complex of twin shopping malls,


the interiors of which are ‘Singapore style’ with big name brand stores, -but without the ‘busy-ness’; but otherwise shopping in the main street is limited to smaller shops, a few expensive and exclusive, but generally just selling service items; or otherwise, are eating places, -of which there are many, -and we found, good!
Central BSB is really very compact. Beyond the impressive religious and public buildings, the large twin shopping malls, and the inaccessible Royal Palace, sightseeing is over quite quickly! In peripheral BSB there is a network of roads, generally of good standard and carrying relatively little traffic, through housing of average standard and interspersed with large shopping malls. It is a country of cars; pedestrians and cyclists are very few.
We visited a shopping mall or 2 chasing good supermarkets, we found them and they are the closest that we have seen to Australian since we were there, -including the patrons, -there’s a large ex-pat Australian community. There is a vast amount of food imported from Australia, including fruit and vegetables flown in (although definitely showing signs of age, not as fresh as when they left I am sure) but the real surprise was the beef. It is brought life from Australia for Halal slaughter in Brunei, the end result is beautiful fresh Australian beef at prices very comparable to what would be found there.
A few kilometres out of town is the Jame’Asr Hassanal Boliah Mosque, the largest in Brunei and built in 1992 for the 25th anniversary of the Sultan’s reign.








Externally it is impressive, however, inside, I think it is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, -but unfortunately, photographs are not allowed! For a Muslim building, the decor is remarkably understated, with plain white marble floors, staircases and quite simply embossed ceilings.
The prayer hall is circular beneath the main dome and just the right blend of white stone, pale blue and gold tracery, a little wood carving, quite plainly decorated gold and grey prayer mats over the entire floor and naturally lit from the dome above. The atmosphere is perfect, I could happily go and kneel for prayers in a place like that!

We visited the other of Jefri’s grand follies at Jerudong, the Empire Hotel and Country Club.


It is undeniably an impressive place, completed at the cost (maybe) of 1.1 billion US dollars, but many of the bills remain unpaid and it is grossly underpatronised.
The scale is enormous, the central atrium is said to have a 80m high ceiling


with multi-level mezzanine floors escalators and marble staircases between


There are marble columns, beautiful wood mouldings and lavish use of gold, -real gold!




-and perfectly executed mosaic inlaid flooring.


The lobbies on each floor in each of the accommodation blocks are likewise lavishly appointed, it is all perfectly presented, -but lacks people and the day to day finishing touches, such as fresh flowers that would normally be seen in such a hotel of world standard.
It is listed among the best in the world, but if so, it was amazing to us that we should be allowed in as we were; -to drive into the carpark and walk through the main doors wearing shorts and T shirts, through the lobby, all levels of the atrium and into the accommodation blocks, completely unquestioned!
One of the best it may be, but hardly one of the most exclusive!

Outside is a complex of pools, saltwater and fresh;


adjacent to a man-made beach with all the opportunities for outdoor eating, recreation and watersports that would be expected.


It makes a great setting for a tropical holiday in a plush hotel, and we learned from a friendly young Englishman guest, that although the asking rates for rooms are astronomical, he had arranged a couple of nights there in one of the better rooms for rather less that he would pay for an average B and B in the south of England.

One can’t help but wonder how long it will last, although only open now for a few years already the lack of patronage, hence lack of cashflow, hence lack of maintenance is beginning to show…if left, it could become a gigantic shabby, totally unoccupied, eyesore…

But then the future of the whole of Brunei has to be questioned, for too long it seems the Sultan and his state have been ‘living for the day’ spending the oil money lavishly without thought for the future.
There’s not a lot of incentive for the people to work, save, or better their lot. They pay no taxes, have free healthcare, free pensions, cheap loans, subsidies to buy cars and subsidies for petrol. Most employment is based in the oil industry, the country has nothing else, little agriculture, -not even tourism to any extent.
So what happens when the oil money runs out in a few years?  It will be sad if they turn to cutting down their jungle for timber and to plant oil palms as has happened over so much of the rest of Borneo.
So far the jungle of Brunei is largely untouched as there has been no need to use it, it would be a tragedy to have it destroyed now in these days of environmental enlightenment.  I heard talk of promoting eco-tourism, -sounds reasonable, but to support the whole country it would need to be massive and there’s little sign of anything happening yet…

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