Bandar Seri Begawan 1

May 21st, 2015
The women seated at the adjoining group seem surprised at the amount of baggage I am carrying. I am definitely surprised by the amount also, although for the moment stuck carrying it. Now I only hope the driver shows up and the attempt to save money on my trip to Brunei doesn’t fall through.
Just as I suspected, the man who momentarily peered into the lobby is in fact the chauffeur driving to Brunei, one of the cronies of the Dillenia Guesthouse, no doubt, although he later tells me that he has been doing the run to Bandar Seri Begawan for 20 years, putting an incredible amount of mileage on this car.
He normally takes other passengers, but today he only has myself and a number of courier deliveries from companies in the sprawling Miri area across the border to Brunei. He knocks on the dashboard of the car, telling me despite the immense about of mileage the Toyota never breaks down – which is probably why so many people here drive Toyota pickups.
Weaving into the guts of Miri, I see that pretty much all the businesses are Chinese. His English is broken and heavily accented English is difficult to understand, but then I don’t understand any Chinese or Malay. He asks me if I speak Mandarin, although I would hardly call what they speak here Mandarin, sooner adaptations of various streams of Chinese imported to Malaysia over the centuries.
He tells me proudly that Miri is largely Chinese, as are most of the cities in Sarawak, but then continues that the fact that there are few Malays is good and that Malays are useless crosses the line. Not surprisingly, he completely forgets to acknowledge that a large proportion of the population is native.
Sensitive a statement as it may be, while I acknowledge that there are many imperfections to the country, the Chinese in Malaysia generally have a fairly hostile attitude to Malays, considering the country largely their own, an attitude I almost never see in conversations with Malays vs. Chinese.
We meander along side roads until we reach the border area, passing through a number of very low key inspection points and then some shambolic structures in disrepair, returning to the open road as the driver returns my passport. ‘When will we be entering Brunei’ I ask him. We already did – you mean one of those innocuous border posts was the entry point to Brunei?
It doesn’t look like they’re checking too hard here. And for that matter, there was no flag nor any declaration of the fact that you are now entering a new country. Oh well, so much the better – I was expecting to get executed on the spot for smuggling in my cheroot collection! One difference between Malaysia and Brunei becomes immediately apparently – everything looks new and very impeccable, and unlike most developing countries, the public buildings looking like they were actually designed, with bold geometric designs and colour schemes.
The world we pass through could be some rural, middle class area of Florida, particularly if you take out the occasional mosque. We continue along some of the side roads to locate businesses at which the driver drops off his couriered goods. Fire engine red plugs mark capped wells, larger complexes with stacks emitting burning flames connoting wells still in progress.
The main road runs straight through modern and somewhat characterless settlements, with a rare small shopping area, all very new and clean, although the brilliant sunny sky and verdant tropical foliage really is nothing to complain about, nor the very functional AC in our car, protecting us against the intense sunshine.
The centre of Bandar Seri Bagawan slides into view via a series of looping boulevards that circumambulate the beefy white mosques with golden domes, the ostentatious Moslem identity of the city reminding me of the principle cities in eastern Malaysia. Surprisingly, at least from the exterior, these mosques hardly look that riveting in terms of subtlety or artistic panache.
My hotel is apparently three kilometres away, which I was kind of dreading, although it turns out that the Apek Utama hotel is located along the wide Brunei river. The river can easily be navigated with the assistance of relatively inexpensive river taxis, which run throughout the day.
Leaving the glittering religious architecture of the centre behind, we weave along the scenic road to the suburban enclave, the big sign over the access road belying the modest inn occupying the first floor of the building. The polite young woman at the reception happily answers every one of my questions, not that navigating this town should be a particularly stressful affair.
The hotel is somewhat of a basic yet overpriced inn, the idea of expensiveness relative to other much poorer Southeast Asian countries, but in Brunei this is probably a steal. After having done my usual research using the various online sites I can’t say I found any other option that was as competitively priced.
On the cheaper end, there is a hostel, which I just don’t want to stay in, due to lack of privacy and having to lose a lot of time and energy navigating around the possibility of other people sharing my personal space, and much more expensive hotels, that are actually probably worth the money, just that I don’t want to spend that much money to begin with. And as it later turns out, the Apek Utama’s location is actually perfect inasmuch as it drives the visitor into a riverine environment completely different from the immediate centre, and yet is extremely easy to get to by boat.
The room at the hotel is quite plain but very comfortable, with a sizeable low profile bed, a large chest, a small bathroom, a tall, narrow curtained window, small night tables, high ceilings and excellent wifi. There seems to be next to no one in the place, something that is confirmed when I return to the hotel later on in the evening. Better yet, there is a kitchenette stocked with basics.
But I am utterly exhausted for some reason, perhaps just the conflagration of lack of sleep, yesterday’s intense hike, and the fact of having lost yet another camera having a depleting effect. The room is dark, the brown heavy curtain resolutely darkening the window and allowing no light to enter. I doze off and wake up several hours later, having lost part of the day, but not feeling particularly guilt-ridden about it.
I do need to stop dawdling and get into town. A few modest local snacks from the neighboring corner store are adequate for caloric intake, although there are no eateries to speak of in the area. It turns out the boat dock is a short walk away at the edge of the sprawling parking lot that sits next to the wide river.
The boatmen in their individual motorboats hover near the jetty, calling to me the moment I appear in their line of sight. Several young headscarved women and their attendant group of nattily-dressed young boys assure me in the sweetest way that I can in fact take the boat to the town centre from here, and yes, the boats run into the evening.
You wouldn’t necessarily want to descend to the jetty and board a boat drunk, but then I don’t think drinking is a big past time in Brunei anyway. The boat ride into town is utterly exhilarating, the launch riding the crest of the wake from passing boats, a screen of spray flying around as we curve a broad arc along the river to the modest town centre, anchored by the Yayasan mall, several blocks of modest shops, and the sprawling mosques.
Bandar Seri Begawan seems like a city on the water, judging from the view from the boat. Despite the fact that the Kota Batu area of the Apek Utama guesthouse is actually quite far removed from the centre, the boat taxis provide an extremely convenient mechanism to reach points along the river. The idea of just getting on and off somewhere on the river in one of these speedboats and racing off is just incredible, the feeling a lot more civilized than the overbearing and overcrowded experience in sweltering Bangkok.
Climbing up the steps towards the plaza that separates the two large structures containing on one side the Hua Hou department store and on the other the Yayasan mall, I survey the modest but very proper urban landscape, the interleaving passage drawing the eye to the Sultan Omar Ail Saifuddien mosque, few people seen on the impeccably maintained spaces around me.
My first priority is to get some cash, which normally is not a problem in this day and age, as even the most rudimentary countries now feature functioning and reliable ATMs. I see some version of the usual string of icons inside the kiosk at the Baiduri bank, which would seem to be a green light to use the machine. Two rejections on one machine drive me to try the other, which actually swallows my card. I punch several buttons on the console, but nothing happens. Amazing!
I have traveled around the world, to some of the most underdeveloped countries, and an ATM has actually never swallowed my card. And to boot, this is one of the rare ATMs manufactured by my former employer! The employees inside the adjacent branch wave me away, but I am not leaving – I want my card back. I can only retrieve money on this card, and don’t want to take any chances with this.
The young man from the branch tells me the machines will only accept international Mastercards, but that is hardly the point – if a machine does not accept a card, it should simply reject the card, not swallow it – that would never be OK. Happily he is able to retrieve and return my card, otherwise another fiasco would be on my hands.
The small mid-passage outlets in the neighboring mall sell modest tourist souvenirs, amongst others, very pretty, large-image postcards. I return to the top-level food courts and order some very ordinary mee goreng from one of the eateries staffed by the usual Indonesians and Filipinos.
I have almost completely squandered my day, and yet the centre of town is so small it doesn’t really matter – one hour is enough time to walk through the town on an exceedingly leisurely basis. I see very few people, although the occasional foreigner is visible. Wandering around the centre, I realize that the town area depicted on the map is indeed very small – although from the map, BSB sprawls out some considerable distance from the relative nonevent of the core. What establishes the centricity of the core area is probably the set of huge mosques in the vicinity.
There seems to be a big fear on behalf of westerners as to living in a strictly Moslem society, but most Moslem countries actually have very vibrant street and restaurant life. You can’t go out and drink, but for that matter, the people tend to drink more juices and coffees, which is fine by me.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the streets are really empty. The call of the muzzein from the local mosques is relentless, not something that necessarily bothers me, as log as the muzzein has a great voice. I am not sure I can enter the mosques, though. I walk by the bus station and it seems abandoned. A few taxi drivers loiter in front of the station and call to me. At least there is some marginal sense of life there.