I'm in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei and a gateway to Borneo. Its citizens are among the richest in the Asian-Pacific. Third World? Forget it. Birmingham is more Third World than this. Opulent shopping complexes with marbled walkways and fountains, the Royal Palace, gold- domed mosques, the Shell Oil building and bank after bank - all are reminders of this tiny country's vast wealth.
Brunei covers an area of just under 6,000 square kilometres, 70 per cent of which is jungle and rainforest. The population is mainly Malay with a scattering of Chinese and Indians, and is presided over by His Majesty Sultan Sir Muda Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzudin Waddaulah, once the richest man in the world.
His wealth does seem to have filtered down. The locals don't pay tax, the city is spotless, the crime rate is negligible. But for how long this benevolence can continue is open to question, for the King is an estimated pounds 20bn poorer than he was 10 years ago. With the recent economic crisis in the East and falling oil prices, the Sultan's government is aware that it can no longer rely on oil income alone, and tourism is being developed as a possible way forward.
With daily flights from London the country is firmly on the network for flights to Australia and, increasingly, many travellers get the chance to stop over. But the big question is, is Brunei worth visiting? If the choice is between cities alone - say, between stopping over in Bandar Seri Begawan or in Singapore - then Brunei is on a hiding to nothing.
As a concession to Islamic hard-liners, alcohol was prohibited in Brunei nine years ago, and the bars and entertainments that prospective holiday-makers and most Westerners expect are absent here. The sophistication and cosmopolitan outlook of Singapore, the ethnic mix and the buzz of districts such as China Town and Little India, leave Brunei's capital standing.
It's a quiet city and, despite all its glittering shopping emporia and modern architecture, it can appear dull to the Westerner. Another factor is that Singapore is an international crossroads. Penang, Bangkok and many other South-East-Asian destinations are within easy reach, and all are more exotic than Brunei.
But if you don't have a choice, if you are landing in Brunei on the way over to Australia, is it worth breaking your journey for a few days? If you've no experience of the East the answer is yes, otherwise you'll be flying from one Western capital to its equivalent down under, and will miss out entirely on a taste of the eastern tropics. It's one of the safest countries of South-East Asia, and for that alone may appeal to the trepid traveller. It's an angle the tourist office should push. So how best to fill those two days, given that as yet Brunei is pretty limited in choices?
The Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, off Jln Pretty, dominates the city centre, and with its gold dome and magnificent turrets is every Westerner's idea of what a great mosque should look like. It is impressive, but knowing that it is only 40 years old, has a lift, was designed by British architects, and is full of stained glass from England, marble from Italy and carpets from Belgium and Saudi Arabia, destroys any real sense of wonder.
For a taste of authentic Brunei the most interesting place is Kampong Ayer, the world's largest "floating village", which was mentioned as long ago as the 1500s by the historian and traveller Antonio Piaffeta. The village is really a group of communities linked by wooden walkways, and straddles about six kilometres of the Brunei river. Most Western visitors tend to view it by water-taxi, for the place can look quite alien and forbidding. From a distance it appears to be a collection of hovels, and it is hard for the Westerner, for whom status is so often linked to external appearances, to see it any other way.
But the residents of Kampong Ayer have family histories going back centuries and it is where they wish to live, despite the government offering its inhabitants modern homes on the mainland. Drawn as usual to the derelict, and frustrated by seeing the village only from a water-taxi, behind the Omar Ali mosque I found a rickety old walk-way leading across the muddy and plastic-bottle-littered riverbank to one of the more run-down areas of the floating village.
Here are single-storey houses cobbled together with thin planks and supported on crumbling concrete stilts. Washing is strung out between the houses. A few people are sitting inside a tiny grocery store, an open-fronted shack patched with rusting tin posters advertising long-gone brands of cigarettes and other goods. Two kids dressed in old Liverpool Club shirts are playing football. (I'm amazed that the ball is not lost into the river flowing beneath them, until I notice it's attached to a long string.)
A maze of narrow bridges and catwalks weaves between the houses. Outside some are chicken hutches; others have tubs of flowers; others are derelict, their corrugated roofs and decaying timbers sagging down into the river. Yet what seems great poverty is for the most part an illusion. Air-conditioning vents, the sound of TV sets, the rumble of washing-machines, all testify to modern conveniences. The place can confuse Western visitors and cause them to question their assumptions. The "peasants" behind these wooded walls are as likely as not to have a Mercedes parked on dry land.
Kampong Ayer is a place to see in the daylight. When night falls in Brunei there is little to do, and few places to go. There is, however, one wonderful, magical exception.
The excesses of the King's playboy brother, Prince Jefri, are legendary. Sacked as chairman of the Brunei Investment Agency after the collapse of his own private company Amedeo (now the subject of huge lawsuits and bankruptcies), he remains a popular figure for many local people. If there's any monument to the Prince, it's not a palace, but, befitting his temperament, a playground. He was instrumental in creating Jerudong Park, a vast, state- of-the-art theme park that was built in 1994.
Everything you could possibly imagine in a fairground is here, only on a bigger and grander scale. There is nothing comparable in Britain, and, what's more, it's all free. It's a multi-coloured, neon-lit wonderland, a sort of Kubla Khan pleasure dome for the masses, and the perfect place to round off the first night of your two-day stop-over.
The Brunei government is working hard to make its vast jungle region accessible, and if you've only a day to experience the jungle, the best option is to get one of the local tour operators to help arrange a visit to the Ulu Temburong National Park - though the word "park" is a bit of a euphemism.
Temburong is Brunei's most isolated region. With its daunting mountain ridges and unbroken jungle, it is really only accessible by boat. There is no other practical way of getting there. From Sg Kiangeeh jetty you can pick up a public launch to Bangar Town, about 14 miles up river.
On leaving the capital, within minutes you've passed the last of the floating villages; the Brunei river turns red, and the city and all its wealth and architectural grandeur melt away like a mirage. You enter a primeval world of mangrove
swamps, giant ferns and nipa palms. Briefly the river widens, and the forest curves away to reveal Brunei Bay and, beyond it, the South China Sea. Then the swamps close in again and the river twists and turns up to Bangar Town.
All the tourist bumf promises you a glimpse of crocodiles and monkeys, but unless you set out when the mudbanks are visible, this is unlikely. I went up river to Bangar in the monsoon season. The river was high and the crocodiles were shy.
Bangar, the administrative centre for the region, has a few shops, houses and cafes and is a nice enough town. From here you can arrange to be taken on to Bantang Duri to get a long-boat up river again, to what really does feel like the edge of civilisation.
Wisely, the government is doing its best to limit human impact on the jungle, and eco-tourism is the buzz-word. There are a couple of scientific research centres built here, and a few nature trails have been constructed by the Forestry Department, mostly wooden walkways to provide access to the swampy terrain. Hanging bridges cross gorges and lead to other walkways, thus taking you higher and higher until finally it is possible to reach the forest canopy and, weather permitting, see the entire jungle below you. It is an awe-inspiring sight, but with almost 100 per cent humidity, serious heat and steep climbs, it's not a trip to take your granny on.
The only airline with direct flights to Brunei at present is Royal Brunei, with daily services from Heathrow. From discount agents, it can be cheaper to buy a ticket to Australia, with a Brunei stopover, than to get a straightforward return; you could pay as little as pounds 500 to Perth, Darwin or Brisbane. Several Asian carriers offer connecting flights, notably Singapore Airlines
Due to a production error the following details were omitted from Julie Myerson's Lisbon article on 13 November. Julie Myerson travelled as a guest of British Airways (0345 222 111) from Gatwick to Lisbon. Flights are operated by GB Airways and start at pounds 129 return. She stayed at the Pensao As Janelas Verdes, Rua das Janelas Verdes 47, 1200 Lisbon, Portugal (00 351 21 39 68 143), where standard double rooms cost Esc27, 800 (pounds 90) per night, including breakfast.
For further information contact the Portuguese Tourism Office, 2nd Floor, Sackville Street, London, W1X 2LY (tel: 0171 494 1441 or visit: www.portugalinsite.pt)Reuse content