Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
June 20, 2017
The ferry ride from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan and the connecting one from Labuan to Muara were uneventful, the only excitement afforded by a trio ahead of me as we entered Brunei immigration. The entire island of Labuan is duty-free and every second shop sells liquor. Brunei being famously dry, there are plenty of locals that come here to shop, as had these three. They had between them, acquired enough to stock a small shop. Going through customs at the Muara terminal was necessarily slow, as the team of officials checked their declaration forms in minute detail, against the wagon load of clinking bottles. A few barked questions elicited mumbling replies as the others waited in queue impatiently.
Emerging outside, a hopeful taxi driver offered me advice about the shuttle bus into Bandar Seri Begawan. “You wait, la” he said. Sometime come, sometime no come.” But come it did, a battered and ramshackle van and the driver helpfully pointed out to me that it was Ramadan now and we trundled off toward town. All others had had a car waiting and the van was empty except for myself. The pot-holed road and some of the decrepit houses I saw were at odds with the image I had of this fabulously wealthy country, as were the open sewers bordering the road. Interspersed between old wooden houses raised on stilts, were newer elaborate mansions. The multi-angled roofs are covered with sheets of molded plastic, made to look like terracotta tiles in colors of red, blue, gray and green. None more than two or three stories high, they looked picturesque in their manicured gardens, contrasting sharply with older houses with their patched corrugated-iron roofs.
The pot-holes vanished and neatly trimmed roundabouts appeared along with slick buildings, shopping centers and hotels as we entered the city center. The buildings in downtown Bandar are opulent, built on a large scale and meant to awe. But now, in the midst of Ramadan, all the roads and public spaces are more or less deserted during daylight hours and many of the small shops have their shutters pulled down. It is after the call of the muezzin in the evening, that people normally begin to stream outdoors, most of them heading to restaurants. But these last couple of days have been awash with rain and not many ventured out. I wandered around, ducking between buildings and snapped pictures through sheets of rain.
The new buildings may be swish, but the origins of Bandar, indeed that of Brunei, lies in Kampung Ayer, or the water village across the Brunei river. It was this place that intrigued me more than anything else. Stretching more than a couple of kilometers, it includes some forty-two villages. An astonishingly large percent of the population, numbering in thousands live here. All houses are built on stilts, some wooden while the more recent ones are made of cement. There are planked walkways between houses, much like village lanes, their layout erratic and unplanned as lanes of all old cities. Some of the houses are painted in bright colors, decorated with potted plants but there are an equal number if not more, of ramshackle buildings patched up. There are pipes for water and sewage connected to some houses but not all dwellings are connected. Electricity comes from a spaghetti of power lines supported by poles. Dish antennas of varying sizes interrupt the tangle of power lines line punctuation marks. Motorboats driven at full throttle ferry passengers, zipping from one side of the river to the other and along the water channels between houses. Some of the more opulent homes bear signs that say a tour of the homes are possible. Peering at one such home, I was politely but firmly shown a sign. It stated that a thirty-minute tour is five dollars for an adult and three dollars a child.
The dismal weather has not let up in two days and there is more of the same in store for the next few days. I don’t feel tempted to wait. Polite and helpful as the people were, none seemed inclined to chat and I got the sense that the welcome did not extend beyond the friendly helpfulness. Having heard a lot about the friendliness of Bruneians I feel strangely let down. Who knows? Perhaps Bandar wears a different face when it is not Ramadan. Perhaps it is the constant rain that is at fault. Perhaps I have not given it enough time. I may simply have to re-visit.