Borneo: Mysteries


We spent our second night in Brunei in “Sumbling Eco Village” in a tent along a muddy river in the jungle.


The “village” was a clump of a few houses next to a quiet road populated mainly by silent men in soccer jerseys and a bunch of roosters, some of which were tied up on short leashes.  A dour, midget sized man with a tremendous hump in his back made a few appearances as well.

The “eco” was a clump of structures down a path away from the houses toward the river; a tiny cabina with three blow up beds and a solid wall of mosquito screen for the boys, and a canvas tent for me and Ramona.


The tent was advertised as “glamping” and given the name, I was expecting a touch more “glam” but since our tent had a bed with a blanket, a fan and an electric light, my expectations may be off.



It’s just that when I hear “glam”, I think



of brocade curtains, and there was none. The zipper on the mosquito netting stuck.

There were, however, monkeys across the river that came down the drink, and someone to cook us the dinner that we ate in the empty open air dining room, and flush toilets and concrete showers one of which (not the one I used) with hot water.

When we arrived on the little boat that brought us from “the Venice of the East” we were met by a somber young woman in modest drapes of clothes and a hijab. Her name was Serah.

Serah politely explained that since we had booked ourselves an afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu the next day, all the scheduled activities had to be modified and accelerated and/or thrown completely out the window.

Her point: our afternoon flight was a poor and uninformed travel choice but they would do the best they could anyway. As one must.

Once we reached the eco village, Serah dropped her hijab and emerged a young, athletic young woman in new tennis shoesand  shorts with spandex leggings.  Her ponytail  swung briskly back and forth as she walked.  She wore a netball team jersey.  Serah was a jock.

I would have asked Serah about when she wore her hijab and when she didn’t, but I couldn’t.  Everytime I was near her, I was out of breath from trying to keep up with her as she trotted us up 700 steps to climb a canopy walk and up that muddy hill just too late to see the sunrise.

Like so many things in my life, I’ll create my own explanation for her choice, based on my own experience as a liberal, college-educated western woman, ever vigilant for signs of female oppression.

I’ll spare you the details.

As (see description of myself above), I’d like to use the emergence of jock-Serah from underneath her curtains as a metaphor for the country of Brunei, because I know there is a lot simmering beneath its surface that we didn’t see in our teeny glimpse.

But I can’t.

Because really, what the hell do I know after 48 hours in a country hundreds of years in the making?

About a quarter of the population of Brunei are expats who have chosen to live here.  Both our guide for our nighttime city tour and the owner of Serah’s eco village were non-Muslim people from Malaysia who had moved to Brunei for the high standard of living.  They, like the helpful, smiling people we saw in the restaurants and in the mall and on the sidewalk, seem content.

Unlike the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo, Brunei’s jungle rain forests are intact because the country gets its money from crude oil rather than palm oil.  Based on this luxury, Brunei is trying to craft itself into an eco-destination, calling itself  : “The Green Heart of Borneo”.

We didn’t sense a lot of enthusiasm behind a tourist push, however, and not just because of the grumpy humpbacked man. It’s just that people seem pretty content with their status quo.



And who could blame them.

Inviting in a bunch of tourists who book their flights at the wrong time and eat with their left hands and make 3rd wave feminist snap judgements would just disturb the tranquility OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Badar Seri Begawan is a postcard, come to leisurely half-life.  We felt like we were at a theme park, except without screaming children and the smell of cotton candy. The streets are free from litter and the few pigeons didn’t dare poop anywhere.

We didn’t see homeless people, or angry taxi drivers or policeman tasering unarmed black men.

We visited a multi-tiered mall to buy medicine and a $3 pair of flip flops. Its space was clean and bright and echoing with twangy middle eastern muzaac,  though its escalators and food courts were echoingly empty.

I tryto peel back the layers to find the seedy underside of all this peacefulness.  It seems too good to be true.

Then I catch myself.

Am I so jaded that I can’t let a country be peaceful and happy without doubting its motives?

As an American in 2018, do I even have a right to question another country’s contentment?

When the sultan announced his plan for a three year roll-out of Sharia law in 2014, there was international uproar but little local dissent.

Sharia law includes death by stoning for adulters and amputation and whipping for homosexual acts.  Ellen Degeneres was quite worked up.

Why didn’t the Brunei citizens protest?

Maybe the Muslim population agreed with the sultan’s opinion that Islam should serve as a “firewall” to the negative impact of globalization.

Maybe citizens are happy enough with their easy going lifestyle in the “State of Brunei, abode of peace”, with its low taxes and free education and health care.

Maybe freedom of speech has been on lockdown for so long that people don’t even try to speak up. 

Maybe this is a country that doesn’t mind following rules?

I have no idea and frankly, I’d be too scared to disrupt the peace asking a lot of questions because I wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

The sultan may wave at you from his car windows but I don’t think he messes around with people who stir the pot.

Here’s a funny story.

We were talking about Brunei with Dave, our guide this week at Dermakot Forest Reserve.

He’s from Scotland. He says he goes to Brunei periodically when he has to renew his Malyasian visa. Dave’s favorite pastime in Bander Seri Begawan is watching white people walk around at night, looking for something to do.

Dave told us that although Brunei is a dry country, some restaurants (you have to know which ones) serve BEER poured out of a teapot, into teacups.

I kind of love that subterfuge.

Which probably means that Brunei is not the place for me.

I remembered  a Twitte I’d run across while planning our trip.

The thread discussed the fate of a westerner living in Bandar Serious Begawan, teaching at the international school where the sultan’s children go, who was suddenly and unceremonially expelled from the country.

“Oh, are you talking about Steve?” Dave asked.


“I know this guy Steve who was living in Brunei,” Dave said. “I only know him because he took this really cool picture of a squirrel and he was going to show me where he took it. Then one day he posted on Facebook that he wasn’t living in Brunei anymore.”

Dave said that the night before Steve left, someone tossed a brick through the window of his house.

“Maybe because he had a pet dog?” Dave postulated.

Steve went outside and punched the guy who threw the brick.

The next day Steve packed his bags, and left the country.

“It mighta been because he punched that guy,” Dave said.

“I don’t know if it was Steve that I read about,” I said, “but if he got booted out of Brunei, it could be him.”

“I bet we’re talking about the same person.” Dave said. “Not that many people live in there.”

We nodded in agreement. Brunei is a small country.

“At any rate,” Dave concluded, unconcerned.  “I bet he was glad he got that punch in before he left.”

Dave’s dream is to quit his job as a nature guide and start a militia that kills off wildlife poachers.

Perhaps Brunei is not the place for Dave, or Steve, or me.


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