Since that time I first remember myself being introduced to the world’s geography and history, my curiosity was always keenly animated by the prospect of visiting that tiny sovereign state, situated on the north coast of Borneo, called Brunei. It was something about the aged stories of the powerful Bruneian empire reigning across Borneo and the South Sea, narrated by the great adventurers of the discovery age. Something about the fables of its aforetime almighty sultans, their excessive opulence and their ostentatious palaces, which had made me regard that little piece of land through an exotic and romanticized scope. Being finally in Borneo, after the years, the time to give my curiosity’s fancies satisfaction had come.
To get there I took a public bus from Kota Kinabalu which covered the separating distance in 8-9 hours. A great deal of this time was consumed by the border controls. First crossing from the Malaysian state of Sabah to the one of Sarawak, then from Sarawak to the eastern Bruneian district of Temburong, back to Sarawak, and, finally, again into Brunei, which whole thing amounted to seven border crossings and two wasted pages in my passport, all in one single day.
We arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital, at some time about late afternoon. By that time, already, nothing was moving. The streets were deserted, the shops hermetically shut and the air bereft of any sound traveling through it, as if in the outer space. The whole image I faced gave me the impression of a ghost-city… a desolate, utterly depopulated city, recently ravaged of some pernicious pestilence or something. That deadness would also be and the principal characteristic of this city, as I was to further observe during my brief staying. A city of about 50.000 inhabitants, I would compare its vividness to a Mediterranean, let’s say, village of 100-200 people during the early mornings, and to the farthermost dunes of Sahara during the nighttime.
The aforesaid unliveliness of this city would definitely render one’s time there as dull and uninteresting as watching a movie in an unplugged screen if intent on spending there a length of time exceeding two or three days. As, though, in my case, the length of my sojourn did not last more than two complete rotations of the earth, I found this characteristic of the city ideally cooperative to my ramble-around-in-peace mood. I felt quite privileged to have the wide and well-laid pavements all for myself. Even though it was not actually necessary to utilize them, as I could literally walk amidst the street without any significant difference been made. Even at the rare concurrence of some driver or another on my way with his deluxe jeep, they would, all of them, unexceptionally grant me the priority promptly. Besides the quiet streets, one can also utilize for his strolls the several even quieter pedestrian walkways, public squares, and parks found in the city.
As to what one can see during such strolls… nothing extraordinary, the truth is. It’s pretty much only office buildings in the center, villas all around it, and some gigantic billboards displaying the sultan every here and there. The only noteworthy thing one can see in the main area of the city is its several elegant mosques, and most particularly the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which, with its marble minaret and its golden dome seen from every corner of the city, is also the nation’s symbol.
That’s for the city itself. Outside the city now, and right across the bay, is situated the district of Kampong Ayer, which is a cluster of 42 villages built entirely on stilts above the sea and makes the world’s largest water community. The whole community is linked together by a 36 km long complex of boardwalks and plenty private wooden speedboat taxis, which one can easily catch by standing on any of the numerous wharfs and signaling once they pass by. It maintains a population of more than 30.000 people, of whom the ancestors have been living there for more than 13 centuries. Besides the people’s houses, there can be found shops, restaurants, schools, a hospital and everything a modern community needs. It is an entire town in its own right, and quite justly Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian comrade of Magellan during the first circumvention of the globe, dubbed it the “Venice of the east”.
Walking randomly around the city and the water village is how I spent that day of mine in Brunei. Maybe with some more imagination, or peculiar interests, I bet one could find also some other things – not many, though – to do there. A thing that’s for sure, is that if one wants to visit Bandar Seri Begawan, the best time to do so is during Eid al-Fitr, the feast following the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. At that time of the year, and only at that time, the Sultan opens the doors of his palace to literally everybody who happens to be there. That is a rare chance to marvel what is considered to be the world’s largest, and possibly the wealthiest also, private residence. And, by far most importantly, to get free royal food to the point of abdominal supersaturation. And also, whoever for any reason may wish for it, could shake the Sultan’s hand and take a picture with him.