Although I once wrote to the Sultan of Brunei, possibly the world's richest person, asking him to bail out my impoverished football team, I knew almost nothing about the country - other than that it enjoys a phenomenal oil-derived wealth - before I visited it.
On a map of Borneo, the overland journey from the Malaysian provinces, either Sarawak to the south or Sabah to the north, looks manageable. Miri, in Sarawak is only 120 miles or so away. But, just as in the UK, such a distance can be deceptive. Travelling from Miri involves three changes of bus and two river crossings, so the daytripper must pop in and out quicker than you can say the name of Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. I would have barely an hour in town before having to catch the last bus back. Subtract the time it would take to get my bearings in the bus station and the stopwatch would start at around 48 minutes - an interesting variation on the "48 hours in" theme pioneered by the travel section of this paper's sister publication, The Independent.
Yet, as the cliché goes, the journey is often as interesting and revealing as the destination. The bus left Miri at 7am with the sky capped with leaden clouds. The coastal route by the South China Sea is scenic, with scatterings of hamlets edging into a dense canopy of jungle. Having taken a boat across one river, we disembarked at a second crossing, picking up another bus on the far side that took us to the border. Pictures of the Sultan and his family beamed down in the immigration hall as customs officers scrutinised luggage for alcohol (though drink is not sold in Brunei, foreigners are allowed to bring in a small quota). Outside, we were greeted with a series of signs welcoming us to Brunei Darussalam, to give the place its full name.
At 9.30am we arrived in Seria, where the first oilfields were discovered in 1929. The oil still gushes but the buses appeared to have dried up. The next bus would reach Bandar after the last bus back had departed. I had to take a taxi.
On the way into Bandar we saw glimpses of the sultan's palace, with a gold dome glistening through the leafy grounds. Adjacent to the perimeter fence of the palace was an unexpectedly poorly maintained housing block, with paint peeling off. This was to be a recurrent theme: while the people of Brunei pay no taxes and enjoy high subsidies, even a fleeting visit reveals a surprisingly rural and unglamorous nation.
I bought a map and headed for what seemed the single obvious attraction, the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, one of the largest mosques in Asia, and quite magnificent. A friendly caretaker greeted me and guided me around. He gestured for me to enter the main prayer hall and admire the stained-glass windows from England and the marble pillars from Italy, but requested I keep off the Saudi carpets. Outside, there was a courtyard with exquisite Islamic windows and a pool at its centre.
Somehow, I had time to spare. The restaurants were welcoming and the satay, stir-fried garlic, and spices of the food stalls captured the flavour, if not quite the exotic gaiety, of south-east Asia.
Back in Miri, a 10-hour round-trip complete, I talked in the hotel bar to a Malay couple who visit Brunei on business. They listed the sights I had missed. I was unsurprised to hear there was an eco-park and an interior with lakes that are a joy for twitchers. And there are dense forests and mangrove swamps that offer a tropical wilderness relatively intact compared with the environmental apocalypse going on across much of Borneo. In short, a good deal more than the bland leisure activities that I had assumed would be on offer.
And there, I suppose, lies the mind-broadening rub of travel: there's barely anywhere left in our shrinking world that can live down to its reputation. It took just 48 minutes to learn that.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com) offers return flights to Brunei from £502 if booked by 14 July for travel this autumn. After this date, expect to pay from around £589.
In Bander, the Riverview Hotel at Km1, Jalan Gadong (00 673 223 8238) offers b&b in a double at £34 per night.
Alternatively, to travel overland from Sarawak, as the author did, take the bus from Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. A return fare costs around £10.
For more information
Tourism Brunei (00 673 2 38 28 22; www.tourismbrunei.com).Reuse content