Day 96: Brunei!September 19, 2016 in Brunei
Unfortunately our plans for getting some shut-eye were fairly short-lived. Since we didn't actually have a door to our capsule, just a thin blind, we were constantly getting noise. People coming in and out of the quiet area, water pumps every time a nearby toilet flushed, people talking in their own capsules, a guy nearby that sounded like he was going to cough up a lung. There was even a child yelling at some point! In this kind of environment I was also a bit worried about my snoring keeping a lot of people awake, plus I tend to have difficulty sleeping when an early but important alarm has been set (mainly for fear of sleeping through I guess).
So I didn't get much sleep. The last time I looked at my clock it was 11:30, and I definitely woke up at 4am as well as at several other points. So I was extremely bleary when our alarms finally went off at 5am. We quickly changed, packed and walked over to the terminal where they were already calling people on our flight as check-ins were closing soon. But we self-checked-in and skipped the line, so no problems. Again a long walk through the enormous terminal, and arrived at the gate 15 minutes before the scheduled boarding time. Shandos hunted down a small bakery with some pre-packaged pastries which we devoured.
As usual the flight was a bit late but only about 15 minutes or so. We had a nice moment as well of sitting on the runway in complete darkness - the cabin lights are out, and it's 6:40am so not really any sunlight from outside either, and the only noise was the dull whine of turbines from outside the aircraft. For a few moments all was still, before the engines screamed into life and we charged down the runway for our twelfth flight of the trip, this time heading east back to Borneo, and to Brunei.
We touched down at the very modern terminal building around 9am local time, where I finally used my UK passport! Citizens of the UK don't need a 20 USD visa on arrival while Australian citizens do, so I took advantage of that fact and saved us a few dollars. Still well behind the several hundred pounds it cost to renew, but I'll make it up I'm sure!
Brunei is a very small country and the capital only has around 50,000 residents. One consequence of this is that there are surprisingly few taxis in the city, apparently less than 50! Our hotel had arranged a pickup and he was waiting right at the exit, but we also had to wait for a Mr Edward who was supposedly on our flight as well. We waited for nearly an hour (I had a second breakfast of KFC nuggets in the meantime) but Mr Edward never showed up; eventually our driver got the shits and we were off into the city.
In this case, "city" is a bit of a misnomer as it's the smallest capital city I can remember visiting. It has the large majestic buildings and sweeping boulevards like Canberra and other purpose-built capitals, but the downtown area is only a few blocks, and the tallest building is about 12 stories or so. Sort of halfway between Bathurst and Canberra I guess.
It's surprisingly wealthy too - there isn't rubbish everywhere like in Thailand, the cars are newer and better maintained, the houses look neat and trim, and there seems to be a sense of civic pride. Manicured lawns, fountains, gardens, that sort of thing. It reminded us a lot of the less-built-up areas of Singapore, or the older parts of Dubai.
Our hotel is definitely a 1970s relic, with some fairly classic furnishings. The intro blurb in the guest info booklet says that it's a downtown budget hotel, and the word budget is underlined and bolded for emphasis which made me chuckle! But again, it's cheap, it's air conditioned, it's clean, walking distance to everywhere we need, and the wifi is mostly working. Plus breakfast and airport transfers - good deal!
After checking in we headed out, first stop was the large mosque right on the river front. Very impressive with its white walls and glittering golden domes; we went inside but as usual with mosques there isn't much to see on the inside. Religious idols being haram and all that, plus non-Muslims were only allowed access to a small section right near the entrance, so we couldn't see up into the enormous dome.
We wandered along the riverfront for a while before deciding it was time for an early lunch since our breakfast was at 6am, so we found a small shopping mall with local restaurants and essentially picked at random. Good food, though very similar to Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine (fried noodles, chicken broth etc).
After lunch we crossed the river in a tiny speedboat to the floating village. This is the historic area of town, and was known as the Venice of the East since it was literally thousands of houses built on stilts right out in the river. Entire suburbs and communities exist there with everything they need - shops, post offices, schools, mosques, restaurants, even police stations and fire brigades! This is the way they have traditionally lived in Brunei since about the 13th or 14th century when the area was first settled.
There was a surprisingly good museum about the village which we spent some time in, before wandering around the village itself. Some parts were very modern with ultra modern glass and concrete houses, and other parts were just ramshackle tin, wood and fibro dwellings, but all joined together by bridges, causeways and boardwalks, everything a metre or so above the river. Reasonably clean too, though there were a couple of areas where masses of garbage had accumulated.
The locals are extremely friendly and don't get many Westerners wandering around, so everyone was very quick to say hello and show us their houses, shops etc. Since it was just after lunch time there were a lot of school children heading back to the schoolhouse for afternoon lessons. After a couple of hours wandering, rain was threatening so we decided to head back across the river and find a cafe to relax for a bit.
We found a boat pretty quickly, and from the dock we had a good view of the Sultan's palace. Apparently it's one of the largest purpose-built royal palaces in the world, but completely closed to the public sadly. He's one of the world's richest men thanks to Brunei's oil and gas reserves, and boasts a ridiculously impressive car collection (sadly said to be rotting away as nobody is interested in doing upkeep).
Back across the river we found a cafe with reasonable coffee, and just in time too as a tropical downpour started not long after we entered. We ended up staying here for an hour or so, using the wifi and waiting for the rain to subside. Not quite out of sights, but running low on stamina after a long day, we decided we'd retreat to the hotel for a bit.
I had a quick snooze while Shandos did a few things online, and we headed out again around 5:30pm. Back to the same mosque, where the sun sets directly behind it creating a beautiful vista perfect for Instagram photos. With the muezzins calling the faithful to sunset prayers, we set off to a nearby food market where we had a local special dish called nasi katok - basically just a piece of fried chicken with a serve of rice and some very hot chilli sauce.
Fairly exhausted after our long day, we headed back to the hotel. It's also worth mentioning that there is literally zero nightlife in Brunei, as it's a completely dry country. Non-Muslims are allowed to bring in up to 2L of spirits or 12 cans of beer every 48 hours, but you have to consume it in private as public displays of drunkenness can lead to imprisonment and caning. So with no beers to drink, we settled for a bottle of water and a block of Cadbury chocolate from the convenience store under the hotel. Off to bed for an early night.Read more