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Observations from Brunei …


Arriving to Brunei wasn’t a very exiting event in terms of being very ordinary. The airport is modern, straight, clean and there is nothing that show I have arrived to a different or special culture. A few months ago a spoke to a man who strongly advised me not to go to Brunei. He himself had been living here for 5 years though. That was the third time a man warned me from going to a country even though they themselves had been there. I didn’t now what to expect. Of course one listens to advice received but I am not going to be stopped unless there is a war going on or the Swedish Foreign Ministry discourages from going. So here I am wondering why I was warned about going here. Just as I did when I came to India.

I arrive to Bandar Seri Begawan airport, Leslie and Andreas from the eco village met up, I withdraw cash and buy a local SIM card before we make our way to the city centre. Still squearish, modern and clean. I see women dressed in a modern way, tight jeans, revealing tops and no head scarves. Considering Brunei is a Muslim country run by the sultan himself and being described in the press as a very conservative country a am a bit puzzled.

I am told about the sultan. A very well liked man by the people who is involved in a very hands on way of running his country. Yes, he is the one and only who makes the decisions but he also listens to what the people have to say. One example was the building of a new market. The old one was run down and he wanted to build a new modern one. So he finds a suitable new spot and informs his citizens. The people have another point of view regarding the location of the new market. So he goes there, talk to the people in person, listens to them and decides to build the new market on the old spot. Just like the people wanted it. He has also been very hands on after catastrophes, visiting the area and helping out, not being afraid of getting dirty.

No wonder why he is so popular, and no wonder everyone here wants to celebrate him on his birthday 15 July. On four different dates he goes to four different places where big celebrations are held. And when I say big I mean really BIG. In every city he is visiting all the hotels are fully booked for the event.

And I have to tell you about his love life. According to Islam men are allowed to have four wives. The sultan almost made it. The first one, the queen, gave birth to his first eight children. With the second one he has three. He has separated from his second wife. That means he is legally still married to her, visits her an cares for her but they don’t live together. Apparently there was a big scandal with the third wife involving a body guard. So he divorced her, banished her from the country and she is not allowed to go back. Since they have two children he personally accompanies them to her for the children to see their mother. The almost forth marriage was cancelled.

Oil is a big thing in Brunei which means petrol is cheap. Very cheap. Every household owns 2-3 cars. People don’t walk, they go by car. But that’s the same thing throughout whole Asia. Public transportations are available. But! There is a big but. At the bus station there is no information to be found. So when I needed to get to the Indian Embassy the one to advise me on how to get there was a taxi driver. Bus 37 he said. Great! I talked to the bus driver and he stopped just a few hundred meters away from my goal. imagine a highway, cars driving very fast and in the middle of nowhere the bus stops and I have to walk on the highway to get to the exit. No sidewalks. Still, that was the easy part. The hard part was to get back. The rout for bus 37 is not the same to the end station as it is back. Tat and not having any bus stops makes it not that easy to know where to wait for the bus. Luckily there was i ‘private taxi’ that offered e a ride. I was very grateful after standing in the sun on the highway so I payed him happily.

Double standards, we have it everywhere, in every country. The main rule here is As long as you are not caught doing something illegal you can go on doing it. Smoking, drinking alcohol, being gay, men going to female salons, cockfighting and a lot of other things are illegal. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all men gamble on cockfighting and there is a big gay community. You can get anything illegal you want as long as you know someone who has it. And everyone knows that someone.

Every once in a while people in this area go to Limbang in Malaysia for a good party and shopping. Some of the royal children have a reputation being very good at partying. Scandals being silenced by the sultan.

The gay community is very openly gay. And they stick together. Unless they are married which is quite common amongst the older generation. And as everything else that is illegal, they either meet their lovers in secret or go abroad for meeting up. The younger generation isn’t hiding in that way.

Lifestyle in the countryside is simple. Pretty much the way it has always been but with a modern touch. People still live in longhouses. The one closest to the camp where I’m staying is inhabited by approximately 50 people. The size of a longhouse is measured by the amount of entrance doors. This particular one has 4, even though they all 4 lead to the same common area. Across the common area there are another 4 doors all leading to 4 private areas containing a small living room, bedrooms, kitchen and a toilet each. They are like private apartments for one family each.

It all comes to the fact that people are never on their own here. Constantly surrounded by people from all generations. A consequence of that is that everyone has to make it work. Everyone are very sociable and friendly towards each other. There is a very strong feeling of loyalty towards family members. Kids are raised, looked after and taken care of by the whole community. This is not unique to Brunei but very much a reality throughout the whole Asia. Children are expected to support their entire family and therefor money is constantly an issue. Grown up children are always broke because they give most of their money to their parents.

If you are a citizen of Brunei healthcare and school is for free. Some decades ago houses were provided for the citizens for free by the sultan. Nowadays housing is still provided by the sultan but tenants pay a small fee every month. If you are employed by the state or municipal one retires either after working for 35 years or when one reaches the age of 60. Unless you are a professor, then you have to wait until you are 70. Poor unemployed people do get some financial help from the sultan.

The school system is good but still most young people will end up in non employment. That is for sure a global problem. But in my opinion the biggest problem is what the school system don’t teach students.

Logic and critical thinking. This is a trait missing throughout the whole Asia. Of course that is also a way of controlling people, making them stay put. One of my Malaysian friends and I once talked about why certain countries in the world were so successful while a lot of Asian countries are not. Lack of logic, critical thinking and being afraid of aftermaths if making a mistake is a big obstacle for Asia. And this is also applicable to Brunei from what I have seen.

Being a female single traveler in Brunei is easy. People are very kind and helpful, curiosity is show, people look discretely and sometimes they will approache me with questions. But never once have I been harassed or felt unsafe. Brunei is a safe country for anyone who behaves and follows the law. And the beauty of the country is breathtaking.

Thank you Brunei, it was a pleasure!