Brunei - Lessons in Luxury

BRUNEI - Lessons in Luxury

Brunei has a tiny land mass, but a big bank account.  It is smaller than the state of Delaware, but boasts billions in petroleum revenue.  This conservative Muslim country has had its share of controversy recently, but we wanted to see the place for ourselves and learn what we could while we were traveling along the west coast of Borneo.  Turns out, the learning was as plentiful as the oil reserves, and we left knowing much more than when we’d arrived.   


The school kids here don’t have to memorize the names of this country’s numerous past presidents.  Every four to eight years there’s not a new guy in office.  Brunei is a sultanate, ruled by a Muslim king who’s title is passed down through generations.  In fact, it’s been the same sultan here in Brunei for the last 50+ years.  Kids in school here don’t get off too easy, though, because they are required to memorize the sultan’s entire name (which, turns out, is about as hard as memorizing the last 45 presidents!).  Try saying this name ten times fast...

Full Name:  Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien Sultan and Yang di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam

Our first field trip takes us to a towering central mosque.  It is visiting hours when we arrive at the mosque, so we dress up in the modest choir robes that are provided, wrap our heads with shawls, and step into the expansive main hall.  The scale of the room is majestic and gold leaf trim adorns the entire space.   The stained glass windows were created in England, and the rich brick-colored marble of the pillars was brought from Italy.  Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling are designed as miniature replicas of the mosque itself, complete with gold domes.  This building is our first taste of the oppulence that defines Brunei.

The second stop on our Brunei adventure is the grandiose Royal Regalia Museum, where the oppulence continues.  It is full of information about the King’s coronation ceremony and all of the pomp and circumstance that went into the celebration.  The chariot on which he was pulled by an army through town sits in the center of the lobby.  Did you know he had a Golden Hand sculpture sitting next to the throne? It was there just so His Majesty could rest his chin on it when the crown started feeling too heavy!

Also displayed in the museum are the elaborate gifts that have been gifted to the Sultan from all over the world, especially the Arabian countries and Southeast Asian neighbors.  Room after room is filled with beautiful gifts - samurai swords, elaborate embroideries, inlaid marble tables with tiger mosaics, and all assortments of gold, silver, bronze, and crystal sculptures.  There is even a portrait of His Majesty created entirely of colored crystals!  (sorry no photos allowed...)

Mark continued to remark on how interesting it was that the pictures from the Sultan’s childhood were very meager. He grew up in a small house, and there was not really even a developed city at that time.  It definitely was not the Brunei that is today - a result of the massive petroleum resources that continue to be discovered beneath its surrounding waters.

A common sight in parking lots around Brunei


Since our visit to the Petroleum Museum in Miri, we have sailed past dozens of oil platforms and tankers.  The oil platforms are lit up brightly at night, creating a glow you can see on the horizon from miles away. Crude oil is big business around here.  Numerous helicopters have buzzed overhead, carrying drill workers to and from their jobs.  These guys actually live on the platform for two weeks at a time, then go home for two weeks, rotating throughout the year.  Each platform is its own mini-community complete with a clinic, cafeteria, gym, and living quarters!  (Reminds me of the ‘seasteaders we ran into who were seeking refuge in the Langkawi immigration office.  They had tried to build a house on stilts in international waters, only to be chased out by Thai authorities at gunpoint!  Not sure what ever happened to them, but I’m sure they didn’t strike it rich!)  

In our local learning research, we have read about the various uses of petroleum - making plastics, fuel, beauty products, textiles, and so much more.  In fact, this all ties in beautifully with our recent unit about hydrocarbons in chemistry!  I love it when it all comes together like that!  Really, it was all part of my carefully crafted and perfectly syncronized curriculum planning. (yeah, right.)


We bid farewell to all the extravagance of Brunei in style.  Our final field trip included taking bus 57 out to the Empire Resort and Hotel where we had the chance to enjoy a proper afternoon tea.  Between 3 and 6 pm, the hotel lobby serves a pinkies-in-the-air affair.  We’d read our etiquette book the previous day as part of our local learning to prepare for this fancy event, and studied about the origins of afternoon tea.  

A duchess had decided that she always seemed hungry between the lunch and dinner meals, and asked her chef to prepare a snack that would bide her appetite until evening.  She must not have been the only one getting the munchies in the late afternoon, because the afternoon tea caught on throughout England and eventually would become commonplace in many of the faraway places where the English settled.  Some of our Australian cruising friends include afternoon tea into their everyday eating schedule.  It was our chance to indulge.  

Each of us got gussied up (as gussied up as we get these days - collared shirts, but flip flops were still on our feet, of course) and practiced our most proper manners as we sat down to plates of cute little tea sandwiches, delicately decorated sweets, stemmed glasses of sparkling apple juice, and teacups filled with any tea we chose.  The waiters wore jackets and ties and even poured our tea with a white tea towel draped over their forearm!  I giggled at the pure fancy of it all!

After only a few days in Brunei, it is time to move on.  We check out with the officials, pack away our collared shirts, take one last look at the golden spires of the skyline, and lift our anchor.  We’ve seen new things and learned what we could here, but to be honest, all this glit and glam just isn’t really our ... cup of tea. 
Found a Dairy Queen on our 'royal' tour

A boat trip along the river with a very friendly tour guide - safety first!

Traveler advice if you plan to visit Brunei - rent a car.  Among all the luxury cars, there are no easy ways for tourists to get around.  The bus system only runs when it wants to, and on two separate occasions we waited over an hour for a local bus.  Twice, people took pity on us and pulled over to give us a ride in their own car!  On our way out to afternoon tea, the bus driver quoted us the 'buleh' price and would not budge.  We didn't know when, if ever, the next bus would come, so we were forced to pay high dollar for our trip.  Ouch.


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