Borneo: Traveler’s Notes

We flew from Portland to San Francisco to Tokyo to Singapore to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei.

During the SFO-Singapore section our seats in the very back row jiggled like water balloons on a trampoline which led to some uncomfortable vomiting, but luckily Japan Airlines supplies plenty of barf bags.

Traveler’s note: The toilets in the Tokyo restrooms are amazing. The wall beside the toilet has a control panel with so many buttons that I was afraid to press, any with or without my pants on.

We were tired when we finally reached Brunei.  I’m vague on detail.

I know that we tried to change our money at the kiosk selling SIM cards.  We were gently corrected and redirected (becoming theme for this trip) to the ATM.

We stayed at the Radisson Hotel, recently purchased from the Sheraton and renovated to look like every other chain hotel around the world which is likely just what it looked like before.

The gracious Radisson employees at the front desk spent the first fifteen minutes of our stay offering us  upgrades and VIP bonuses.  Just when we were ready to bite, they kindly explained that we didn’t really need any of them.

They told us our guide was coming to take us on a night tour of the city.  In an hour. Their useless upgrade boondoggle had eaten away one fifth of our power-nap time, not that we were counting. (We were.)

Brunei is one of the smallest, wealthiest countries in the world.  Two thirds of its population of 440,000 practice Islam. The country has been living under Sharia law since 2014.

In exchange for their right to free speech, a free press and their ability to vote, Brunei’s citizens enjoy free education and health care, housing and vehicle incentives and a super low crime rate

Traveler’s note: It’s a matter of priorities.

The country is ruled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah,  who is also the prime minister, and his third wife, who also has a long name. Large framed photographs—one of him, one of her, regal in jewels and yellow robes, hang above the counters of stores and offices.

In 2011, the sultan was worth $20,000,000 or something similarly massive.  He currently earns a cool $100 per second, just by being alive.

I don’t know where the first and third wife came from, but the sultan’s second wife was a local girl working as a flight attendant for Royal Brunei airlines when she met her future husband-the-billionaire.

The Sultan built his second wife a lovely palace, garden and theme park where locals, after paying an entrance fee, can ride all the roller coasters and ferris wheels for free.

Outside the theme park is a roundabout, in the center of which is a gigantic statue of their wedding ring.  Which is nice, but rather anticlimactic, since they are now divorced.

These days the second wife lives in London with her son.

Traveler’s note:  Everyone says she’s fine.  Just because the man is a sultan with a string of ex-wives does not mean he is Bluebeard.  Get over your presumptions.


Brunei locals are understandably proud of their country’s low-stress life style, featuring low crime,  long-lunches and short work days.

In addition, once a year the sultan holds 3 days of open house at his palace. Everyone is invited for tea and a gift wrapped box.


If you stand in a very long line, you can shake hands with the sultan.

If you have a really good time on the first and or second, you can come back and do the whole thing again. The sultan does not stint on gift boxes for his people.

Last year all the kids who stood in line got a box with $10 in it. If they did it every day, they could bag $30.

The  unemployment rate in Brunei was 7% in 2017. The most coveted jobs for successful college graduates are in the military and police force—because the crime rate is so low, there isn’t a lot for the police to do.  The only police we saw were at the airport.  They wore white gloves.

Our guide picked us up at the Radisson an hour after we arrived and I’m sorry but I don’t remember his name because I was chin-dragging exhausted and his voice was low and melodious.

Our guide and his van, which wasn’t very good at changing gears, drove us around the wide, clean streets of Bander Seri Bagawan while he pointed out buildings and memorials that the sultan had built.

I couldn’t hear.  The boys were almost asleep.  Ramona was trying not to throw up.

Traveler’s note: The evening you arrive is not the best time to schedule a city tour.

I moved up to the front passenger seat.  We stopped at the theme park.

The sky filled with black clouds and the air was thick and fat, eager with rain.  We heard sirens in the distance.

“There’s the sultan’s escort!” our guide said.  “Maybe he’ll pass by!”

“What does a person do when they see a sultan,” I asked.  “Bow?  Salute?”

“Oh, he’ll wave,” our guide said.  “He’s very friendly.”

We perched on the sidewalk and waited, but the sirens faded.

“He must have gone to his polo ponies instead,” our guide said.

We got back into the van and made our way around the palace then towards the polo fields which were broad, meticulously groomed and lit daytime bright.

A small group of polo players scrimmed up and down the field.  I squealed.

“CAN WE WATCH?” I begged.

“Um,” stalled our polite guide.  “I could drive slowly.  It is not for spectators.  But look for the sultan.  He wears a blue jersey with #1 on the back.”

Traveler’s note: Of course the sultan wears #1 on the back of his jersey.  

Our guide drove as slowly as he could, but then sky dumped buckets of rain and the sultan went back to his palace and his polo ponies went back to the barns which are pretty palatial as well.

Afterwards we went to the night market, a huge roofed area with drained tile floors and vendor areas with sinks and shelves surrounded by a covered parking lot.  It was the clean bright, carefully designed.

“The sultan built this market for us,” our guide said.  “The old one would get blown around in the weather.”

Unfortunately, the market was mostly deserted.  Families were still celebrating Eid, the days of feasts that come at the end of Ramadan.  We did see a couple of cats, though, and two vendors selling teeny tiny bananas.

It was still raining and now it was dark.  Bander Seri Begawan isn’t known for its nightlife.  Our guide rallied, valiantly.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.  “I know some nice restaurants.”

“Nope,” we said.  “We’re just tired.”

“Fine, I’ll show you some nice views,” he said and we clambored back into the van.

What with the darkness and the streams of rainwater running down the van windows we didn’t get clear glimpses of Istana Nurul Man, the sultan’s 11,788 room palace—the biggest royal residence in the world!, or of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque with its dome covered in PURE GOLD, or other buildings and memorials that the sultan built for himself on various birthdays and diamond jubilees.

Bandar Seri Begawan calls itself “The Venice of the East”.  The traditional part of the city is made up of houses built on stilts in and along the river.  We drove underneath a bridge that the sultan built that linked the new and old part of the city.  The bridge is confident steel and modern and lit with purple and green lights.

“The bridge is very convenient,” our guide explained, “but it’s putting the water taxi drivers out of business.”

Traveler’s note: That’s why it’s better to become a policeman than a water taxi driver.

Gas is fifty cents a gallon in Brunei and the sultan offers his citizens sweet deals on cars.   Parking is a premium, especially for the people who live in stilt houses in the river who don’t have driveways.

Our van tilted and maneuvered around stacks of parked cars while  we peered fruitlessly through steaming windows into the darkness.

Finally we begged in an appreciative and polite way to be brought back to the Radisson. Radi and I ate a sandwich first, but Ramona and Tavish and Ben went right to sleep.

Traveler’s note: My sandwich was falafel and hummus, delivered by roomservice.  Delish.


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