Borneo Adventure 6
April 10 – 13
After trekking in the jungles and caves of Mulu, part of Malaysian Borneo, I returned to Miri and then took a bus into the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. Brunei is an oddity in the region. It is an oil rich sultanate nestled in the jungles of Borneo and, in many ways, feels more like one of the UAE’s neighbors than it does a Southeast Asian nation. Geographically it is also interesting in that it is essentially embedded within the borders of Malaysian Borneo, tucked in between the Malaysian provinces of Sarawak to the west and Sabah to the east. In this way it resembles such micro-nations as Monaco in France and San Marino in Italy.
Anyway, I’d only be spending two full days in Brunei, the entire time in the country’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Luckily enough, I have a high school friend, Melanie, who had lived and taught in Brunei some six years ago. I reached out to her and she put me in touch with a friend of hers, Aisya, who had been a high school student at the time but was now completing her university degree. Aisya was more than happy to show me around and we made plans to meet, along with her friend Adi.
Joining me was a fellow teacher at my school. Her plans had been up in the air and I suggested she essentially follow in my footsteps, arranging it so we’d cross paths in Mulu and then Brunei, at which point we would part ways (she’d return to Bangkok, while I’d fly to Peninsular Malaysia and Penang).
I don’t know how my time in Brunei and BSB would have been without my guides, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as interesting, pleasing and rewarding as it turned out to be. Aisya and Adi took us to three of the city’s most important mosques, led us through a tour of Kampong Ayer (literally, Water Village), even brought us to their school where a small celebration was being held for a group of exchange students that had been visiting from Kuala Lumpur, allowing us to see a play they put on as well as musical performances. To make it even more personal, we were invited to have dinner with Aisya’s family, including her mother and father and a couple of her aunts.
I was required to wear the robes in the pic above while visiting one of the mosques. As a non-Muslim, my entire body had to be covered, including my head. The robes are thick polyester and very, very hot, especially in 30+ degree weather. Aisya was not required to wear them, of course, but did so out of unnecessary solidarity.
The city of BSB is incredibly clean and quiet, maybe even a bit dull for some if one doesn’t know where to go or what to do—or has local guides who will pass along the information with enthusiasm. It was these guides, though, that made all the difference.
While visiting one of the mosques, the sun set just as the muezzin called out and people heeded the call to prayer. The sunset was absolutely stunning, first turning the sky an otherworldly orange, then fading to purple and pink, and finally bathing the building in a deep blue. It was truly incredible. Later, I saw the same mosque from a distance, aglow with spotlights and seeming to float in the night.
After an excellent breakfast, Aisya and Adi drove us to the airport and saw us off to our respective next stops.