“Is this a country and if so where can I find it?!“ is the usual reaction on Brunei-Darussalam. To be honest I hadn’t heard of it before either, I literally found it on the map, trying to show some Filipino where he lives and that Europe and America are two different places that among others also have white people. After that I looked the mysterious country up in the internet and was immediately interested. The country is so small yet so rich and I haven’t really been to the islamic world before so mosques and halal restaurants appeared very exciting to me.
And so it was decided. All I had to do was watch Cebu pacific promos and off I went. The only problem for me was that Brunei firstly doesn’t have any budget accommodation and secondly doesn’t really have public transport. These circumstances lead to my very first couchsurfing experience – the best decision ever and beginning of a whole new level of travel for me. But to get the situation then straight: It my young me, by myself, about to do couchsurfing for the first time, in the muslim monarchy of Brunei-Darussalam. To be honest I wasn’t really scared apart from the few seconds after I arrived and my lovely host and me didn’t recognize each other at first. Eventually we had the best time together, she was honestly the best thing that could have happened. We went hiking, to the beach, spontaneously to the movies at night, to the supermarket (I love foreign supermarkets) and we even bought some burkinis! I got to know so much about the country even in the short time, I sort of felt how much I have missed when I went to other places and didn’t stay with locals.
What I really liked about Brunei was how green it is. Not like park-green but it’s got this borneo rainforest feeling with the huge old tropical trees on the driveways. And then there’s no traffic ever, even during rush hour! Something I cannot imagine coming from the Philippines. Everybody in Brunei basically can afford a car – that’s why there’s no public transport. The government subsidize cars for the people. Speaking about cars, the sultan prefers to drive himself and whenever there’s a car of the royal family on the road (they have special car tags) one has to form an emergency corridor.
I was so interested in the whole monarchy thing, my host she went crazy haha. The sad thing first: you’re not allowed to visit the sultan’s palace. He only opens the doors to public during the national holiday in June. You can queue to shake the King’s/Queen’s hand. When I went there, all I could see was the big gate and his guards. Apparently the palace has 1,700 rooms only for the sultan’s guests. The family is big as well. In Brunei they allow polygamy. It is ok to have up to 4 wives, which in the first instance depends on your wealth. The sultan’s second wife cheated on him though so he divorced one, which is also not at all ill-reputed. In total he got about 4 princes and 7 princesses.
Another crazy thing: there are no taxes on anything in Brunei, I couldn’t believe it. Also there are no tuition fees even for college in the UK for example. Working citizens have the opportunity to apply for one of the government houses. After two years of working they are very likely to be accepted and get a house for free. On the other hand it’s really hard to get a citizenship. You have to be full blood Bruneian in second or third generation, otherwise you have to take a test which is expensive and extremely hard to pass. Gasoline is obviously very cheap. Employees in the oil industry earn more than in the government.
Then there is the thing with Islam. Brunei is officially a muslim country, but this is more illusion than reality. There is not work on Friday from 12-2 pm for men to go to the mosque and people get fined when they are on the streets. The same happens when you put christmas decoration in front of your house. The celebration of christmas and new year’s eve is officially forbidden, which is why people go to Malaysia to celebrate New Year’s. Apparently the country is completely empty at that time.
Bandar Seri Begawan has three main sights. Firstly of course the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, named after the father of the current sultan. Because it’s Brunei the whole building is extremely lavish. Floor and walls are italian marble, carets come from Saudi. And of course it has the iconic boat in front of it, where it reflects in the artificial lagoon. As a non-muslim you are only allowed to have a quick look insight, meaning you can enter the mosque but you are not allowed to go further than the welcome mat. It was beautiful, I have never seen something like that before. I assumed it can’t get better than this, until I went to the second Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque – Brunei’s biggest – which I liked even better I think. It was built in the 90s to celebrate the current sultan’s 25th year of reign. Because he is the 29th ruler the mosque got 29 golden domes. This mosque is the most luxurious, elaborate, fancy building ever. I was blown away by its beauty. The dark blue in combination with the golden stars looked noble! I wish I could have taken pictures inside… Fun fact: The sultan has his own elevator to enter haha. Among the Unesco heritages is the district of Kampong Ayer, the water village. To me stilt houses were always associated with poverty. Most of the slums are usually built along water. But of Brunei this is not at all the case. The water village is home for about 30,000 people – the largest stilt settlement in the world. Most of the habitants prefer to live here than on dry land. The village is just like any other. It has its own schools, mosques and police stations. Instead of taking a tour through the village, I just paid the boat man 1$ to get to the other side, how local people get around as well. In the beginning there were very colorful houses, whose owners have their large cars on the other side of the river. The further I went the more basic and destroyed houses I got to see. This was also when the elsewhere to clean Brunei felt like the good old Philippines. But wow this is such a different life there on the water, yet so normal for Brunei people. Walking around the area was when I realized how close bahasa malay is to bahasa indonesia. When people started talking to me I would answer in the scraps of indonesian I still remembered. It turned out that both languages are so similar, people understand each other very well. Brunei people speak malay in general, signs are written in arabic, but many people talk english to each other. Because of many Indian immigrants the food is mixed malay-indian, which is basically heaven for me haha. Also I got to revive my guava addictionFor sunset we went to this exclusive 6-star hotel called “The Empire hotel”. The chandelier in the lobby is made of real diamonds and is worth half a million dollar. Most of the people there didn’t have a room though, just came to have a look like me haha. Enjoy the flood of pictures, guys!