May 25th, 2015
A quick bowl of granola is followed by a frantic writing session to attempt to catch up on my journal, at least to some extent.
I tried repeatedly to book the flight to Bangkok by Air Asia on my laptop yesterday, but not was not able to progress to the payment screen. Hence I beg the young women from the hotel reception to let me try using her computer. I do get to the payment screen on her computer, but no further, as an error message repeatedly appears when I try to enter payment information. She recommends trying one of the travel agencies in the city.
Looking at the time, I doubt I will be able to attend one of the museums and buy a ticket at the travel agency, but I can try. By the time I rush out the door, it is early afternoon and the heat at its apogee, and yet the cloud formations riding high above the Brunei river are absolutely stunning. It seems to be another day of riveting skylines, which seems to be somewhat of a theme in my visit to northwestern Borneo.
My head only needs to bob momentarily above the railing at the parking lot, and already the boatmen on the river taxis are calling to me. Just the fact that these men are so hungry for work – and almost exclusively Bruneian Malays – points to the notion that not everyone in this country is rolling in oil largesse.
The boat races with several other passengers into Kampung Ayer, and then through the stilt village on the water that Bandar Seri Bagawan originates from to the Yayasan centre area, located on land apparently reclaimed from the river. The boatman races at breakneck speed underneath low-lying structures without warning us, and the man seated ahead of me would have been decapitated hadn’t I warned him to duck, not just once but repeatedly. Does the boatmen usually behave this irresponsibly?
I definitely know where the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is, but it is not entirely clear how to reach the travel agencies upstairs. There it is, an entrance at the back of the coffee shop, although the travel agency whose name I had been given doesn’t seem to be posted. There is a Malaysian Airlines outlet, but I have no intention of paying their even far higher prices for an international flight.
In the coffee shop itself, someone points me to the RBA office across the street, although the Royal Brunei Airlines would have to be as far removed from what I had intended to pay as possible. I can’t possibly imagine who would justify paying the cost of the tickets for this lavishly expensive airline, but I guess it operates, to whatever extent underwritten by the Sultan himself.
The office of the airline looks very posh indeed, the pretty female attendants garbed in the fashionable hijab-styled garments you see the women working on the major Arab airlines wearing. The furniture is muted and vaguely modernist, the entire feeling a retro Moslem 70s decor. But no, I was thinking of something a lot less stylish, specifically an agency selling tickets for AirAsia.
Back in the stairwell behind the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, I see the sign, and progress the two flights of stairs into the hands of a travel agent who seems to be on autopilot, judging from the unimaginative if not entirely useless answers she gives me. But what matters is that she can’t book the flight either, as she uses the same web-based system the public uses, and no, she may not know about what happens elsewhere with AirAsia, but these problems with the airline are not unusual.
So, the only way I will be able to resolve this issue is go to the airport. What? I have to spent $50 in cab fares to get a less expensive ticket out of this country? This is utterly ludicrous! And another reason I will be happy to go home – the idea of traveling on a budget in Southeast Asia is a great idea – if you are prepared to go through constant contortions to save some money.
The attendant herself is exasperated – she has to deal with this kind of problem all the time, but getting to the airport shouldn’t be such a headache, as there is regular bus service running through the day. And the bus station is around the corner …
The 23 bus is empty when I arrive, and the passengers only fill in gradually. I wait nervously, not wanting to risk arriving at the airport and finding the AirAsia office closed, although the likelihood of that happening is a bit marginal, considering how early it still is. The bus leaves and pursues a somewhat elaborate route, consistently paved with perfectly paved asphalt, lined with reasonably middle class residences, modest, evenly spaced trees, and cascading arrays of multi-coloured bushes.
A few residential complexes are followed by an expanse of fenced-in, low-slung structures that seem to dominate the landscape for some distance, one following the next almost the entirety of the distance to the airport. My polite entreaty as to what the buildings could be is met with somewhat blank and disquieted indifference, as if I have provoked a subject that I shouldn’t have.
It may be possible to walk back to town, the airport itself seemingly not that far away, given that the bus has followed an elaborately circuitous route to the airport.
Arriving at the airport, the bus passes a small shopping mall complex, then weaves around a wide grassy circular area to the shallow swooping dome of the airport itself. The broad, low-slung cowl drapes over a rectangular mesh of windows, the sleek interior lean and minimalist. No more than a few airlines fly out of the airport, and there are certainly none of the hordes of passengers you would see in other airports in major cities in Asia.
The AirAsia office dispenses efficiently with my ticket, but at a final price of BR $290. I think the days of getting cheap tickets with AirAsia are long gone – only that the competing airlines are far more expensive. But I have no choice, the only other option being flying to Kota Kinabalu, the price of whose AirAsia flights in the last few days have climbed to even far higher than from Bandar Seri Begawan, never the prices the other airlines are asking.
So be it – I have to go home, work, and hold off on further travel plans until I have far more money, but certainly not come back to Southeast Asia with the idea of traveling cheaply.
It turns out that the Tourism office that I had also come here for is temporarily closed due to construction work. I can’t believe this – so there is now no tourism office open anywhere in the state of Brunei? Seriously? I may as well not bother doing anything outside of the capital then. The woman at the airport information counter clad in the taupe crepe hijab asks me to try her knowledge of the town – perhaps she can help.
Labuan? I shouldn’t even think about going there. BSB is a veritably hub of action compared to Labuan, which shuts down entirely at 5 pm. She emphasizes repeatedly that I would be better off staying here, and then considering that going to Labuan also involves a somewhat complicated journey, perhaps she is not wrong.
In any case, simply wandering around Bandar Seri Bagawan has been mildly but also sufficiently entertaining for me, as I enjoy visiting urban spaces and experiencing the life therein. She is shocked that I would want to walk back from the airport, and that I actually walked from the Gua Dong centre yesterday back into town. Why don’t I take the bus, cab, or drive? Why would you want to walk outside in the heat – or even walk anywhere? ‘Let’s face it’, she tells me humorously – ‘we Malay people are lazy – the idea of even having to go downstairs is daunting.’
I have definitely heard that before, but the laziness of the people has to do with the newfound wealth. Before people had the money to buy cars and motorcycles, they had no choice but to walk long distances in the heat. In any case, it really isn’t that hot, and I want to be able to take photos of the urban spaces that I have passed through today.
As consolation, she hands me a glossy brochure on the delights of Borneo, which encompasses Kuching and Kota Kinabalu and its signature attractions, foods, restaurants and hotels, not the kind of thing I would normally be interested in, but which I suppose is better than nothing at all. The problem with the Lonely Planet guide is that it focuses for hospitality amenities on the town centre, even though most of the action in the area is far outside of the centre of BSB.
And why in the world would I want to stay in as shabby an area as Kota Batu! I suppose that from the perspective of the wealthy Bruneians, Kota Batu could be seen as deplorable, but against the broader backdrop of Southeast Asia, the area would sooner be seen as somewhat posh. Kampung Ayer is nice to look at from a distance, as far as she is concerned, but it is a thing of the past, and doesn’t correspond to the kind of life people now expect to live …
Leaving the airport to the thin crowd, including the group of young Malay men clad in dapper navy suits off to some function, the vast squatting glass cage recedes behind me as I descend into the flower-adorned ramparts of the airport entrance passages. I cross the lanes of carefully advancing traffic, and then proceed along the bricked sidewalk to the malls that await every good east Asian, in fact three smaller propositions in a row, not spectacular in any way.
Unlike the malls I have seen in other east Asian countries, the entrances of the malls are oriented towards the ample outdoor parking areas, and not the roadside. Even the idea of designing a mall with ample car parking area is a novel concept outside of Malaysia and apparently Brunei also.
Modest clothing stores, mobile phones and electronics accessories, snack shops, notions, makeup, and so on, all the things I can’t live without seeing, although there are a few chain-style restaurants also. These outlets seem to belong to Bruneian chains, and unlike Malaysia, where commercial eating outlets tend to almost universally have a Chinese focus, the restaurants here tend to be mostly Indonesian in nature, which I find quite interesting.
The food prepared in the Pondok Sari Wangi is quite exquisite, and probably doesn’t begin to highlight the amazing specialties that the restaurant could offer. But that is the whole idea of randomly wandering through a city and discovering the delights of its local establishments, even if they are hidden in shopping malls.
I order a few different dishes, a side of jackfruit curry, much better than those I had in Myanmar, the taste of jackfruit actually apparent but the coconut curry both spicy and delicate, a sour vegetable soup, fragrant and slightly provocative, but not overbearing, and a dish of battered fried fish pieces in a mild red curry and mango sauce, reasonably good but somewhat bland, and the fish mushy, unlike the perfectly battered fish I had the other day at the Bob Ume seafood in Taman Selera.
In theory, I had wanted to go to the museum today, but as usual things have gotten derailed, so the best I could do at this point is walk at least as far as possible back to the city centre prior to attempting to catch a bus – or just walking for umpteen kilometres until I reach the town centre.
Not far from the mall the roadside is lined with stately billowing deciduous trees under which run some decidedly committed and fit runners, far beyond the bedraggled and lacklustre youth I am used to seeing in the local Malaysian sporting environment. Then again, these would-be athletes are basing their activities out of the adjoining fancy new stadium, and it certainly never hurts to have modern and impeccably outfitted facilities at your disposal.
I just have to take photos of the stadium, but all those fit young Malays trotting past me are too much of a provocation, so now I have to start running too. I had no intention of seriously running, but given that I am 195 cm and spend the better part of my days walking, now for months on end, I find myself launching forward with considerable speed, easily outstripping the other runners, who were gawking at me before, but now look at me considerably more wide-eyed than before.
That’s it for the day, as the light has already fallen enough for photos to be useless, although it’s been another afternoon of incredibly dramatic skies. Waiting at the bus stop is probably futile, and just as I am about to return on the long walk back to the centre, a van stops to offer me a ride.
‘Where exactly are you going to?’ the driver asks me. ‘Anywhere in the centre.’ We are off, although something gives me the impression he may not be doing this out of the goodness of his heart.
‘Are you a taxi?’ I ask him. He momentarily doesn’t respond, then tells me he is a private taxi. ‘How much do you want?’ I ask him. ‘Just give me whatever you want’ he responds. Not an answer I like. ‘How much?’ I insist. ‘You can give me 20 dollars.’ ‘Stop right here and let me off – you should have told me you wanted money.’ ‘Alright then, ten.’ ‘Stop right here and let me off.’ ‘Alright, five.’
We continue on the long route back to town, a journey that would have seemed a bit ridiculous on foot (unless I was a marathon runner, which I am definitely not). The driver has his last laugh when he drops me off in a modest shopping enclave consisting of a set of independent mixed-use buildings lined with small shops and restaurants in a somewhat isolated leafy enclave.
He tells me breezily we are immediately next to town, which turns out to be a bit of a fanciful notion as I clamber over meridians and freeway lanes, trying to determine where I am relative to the town centre, and finally at some distance getting an orientation as to where I am.
The rest of the journey involves walking on the same route I have taken enough times now, past the Taman Selera and main mosque towards the waterfront, then hopping on a river taxi for one last nocturnal race along the Brunei river.