May 27th, 2015
Today’s excursion takes me to Muara, the principal beach associated with Bandar Seri Begawan, as well as the location for the boats leaving for Labuan. The trip is simple enough, involving a return by speedboat to the centre of town, then the bus station, following by embarking on the bus to Muara, which passes by the airport and continues into what could be euphemistically considered as countryside in Brunei.
Wealthy residences, small shopping complexes with retail, services and ample parking, palm trees and old hardwoods, a world of green overhung with the cerulean blue dome overhead and its billowing cotton clouds.
The broad arc of the boulevards degrades into the shambolic weaving of country roads, always well paved in Brunei, moderate traffic the key to bliss in this suburban paradise. The bus eventually enters a small enclave from which the tall colour-coded cranes of the harbour are visible, beyond the alley flanked by small shops neatly stacked shipping containers lining the mesh fence protecting the harbour from intruders.
An excellent coffee at ‘It’s a Grind’ and a few postcards written, and now I am ready to embark on my epic journey to the beach. There is no indication as to where the Labuan ferry may depart from, although my sights today are set on the beach, which is nowhere near this simulacrum of a town, despite the fact of sharing Muara’s name.
I patiently trudge past silos, warehouses, access routes and trucks lumbering along the sun-washed paved roads to indeterminate storage facilities and factories. I am taken to a literal dead-end, not just once but twice, when the security at the naval base forces me to turn back again and change course. Signage may exist but is largely useless. Cars pass by but have no intention of giving me a lift, and there may in theory be buses running to the beach, but so infrequently as to be useless.
And there it is, the coral flower-encrusted hedges interspersed with yellow shading, the spry allamanda, paved walkways connecting sedate wooden gazebos, a few workers and residual families lounging in the shaded compounds, brief eucalyptus sheltering the park from the beach the drops below to the open South China Sea. The upper reaches of the shallow beach are littered with minor arboreal detritus, the rippling blue water translucent in the shallows near the shore, the pitch of the seafloor evidently dropping off very slowly.
I conveniently have forgotten to bring my swimming trunks and towel, and just don’t want to bother jumping in and then wander around waiting to dry out, not that it isn’t incredibly hot and it’s not as if there are people anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, there is absolutely no one on the beach, no sign of life visible except for the blue backhoe at the far end of the beach. On the ramparts at the far end of the bay, tiny figures moving slowly, as if in an overheated dream, and on the watery horizon, a few tankers nestled under the enormous billowing cumulus.
I trudge through the tail end of the waves lapping the sand, tiny crabs rushing to safe haven as the blazing sun arcs slowly overhead, the concrete concourse running from the far end of the beach towards the sea and around to the neighboring beach. A few morose Bangladeshis contemplate their fate, their bodies moving torpidly in the heat, cooling winds wafting across the tip of the promontory. And yet they are happy, given that they earn $20 to 25 for an 8-hour day, twice as much as that paid to the workers in restaurants, and hence provided a genuine chance at being able to save money for a better future.
The solitude is appealing, but not the fact that there is nowhere to buy any food or drink in the park or beach. I had scoured the area prior to crossing towards the water, and the gazebos at the very far end of the bay are in the course of being built, but absolutely no one present to sell anything.
I am beginning to get quite weak and dehydrated, and still have a long way back. The idea of trying to continue to a further beach is definitely not on the table, given my condition. In any case, the beach I am on is several kilometres long, and I am the only person here, which in turn begs the question as to how much solitude I really want.
I feel faint as I return through the park, taking the last photos of probably dubious merit, and then wander back onto the exposed roadbed, the afternoon sun at least low enough that some shade is offered.
A handful of Bangladeshi workers trudge along the far side of the road. No one stops to take pity on my long, overheated walk and offers me a ride to anywhere. The owner of the roadside store looks at me bemusedly as I quaff several litres of flavoured tea and then come back for more.
Rehydration is the only thing I can think of doing at the moment, and it certainly helps me navigate amongst the thick sinuous trunks lining the roadside towards the main conduit leading from Muara back to Bandar Seri Begawan.
As luck would have it, the 39 bus approaches from the area of the naval enclave, and within a few short spurts of running I am onboard and heading back to town, basking in the pallid stream of cool air emanating from above me. Initially it seems we will be taking the same route as before, but the almost empty bus careens onto a side road and then vanishes into leafy residential areas that spread out across the periphery of the capital city.
The backdrop of modest developments recedes into nothingness to my left, the expansive open space revealing itself to be the open water of the South China Sea, eventually closing in on the Brunei river, the golden light filtering through the heavy cloud cover illuminating the layers of vegetation erupting over the far banks.
We wend forward along the undulating road, the bucolic residences at times traditional, at times stolidly middle class, and on occasion lavish, signage pointing out residences of ambassadors of various European and Asian countries.
Finally, we reach the area of Kota Batu, the turnoff to the Technology Museum and the central museum further along, and then not far beyond, we descend towards the gates of the Apek Utama hotel and the sprawling parking area next to the beginnings of the new bridge.
Safely ensconced in my room, I lie down to take in the patter of the evening’s rains …