Brunei is beautiful and modern. This is a small country (Sultanate) located on the north coast of Borneo and fueled by energy – oil (black gold) and natural gas. Bandar Seri Begawan, is the capital of the Sultanate of Brunei. It is also the location of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. The mosque is considered one of the most beautiful in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a place of worship, a major historical site and the most famous tourist attraction of the country.
A conversation overheard on a bus in Brunei:
Canadian tourist – What form of government do you have here in Brunei?
Local young man – We have the Sultan and the Legislative Council.
Canadian tourist – So the Sultan is the head of government?
Local young man – Yes, he takes the role of Prime Minister
Canadian – How often do you have elections and are there a number of political parties?
Local young man – Oh, we don’t have parties or elections. The Sultan appoints each member of the council.
Canadian tourist– Does that much power concern you? Don’t you fear corruption?
Local young man – No. The Sultan would remove anyone that was corrupt.
Canadian tourist – But don’t the people want a say in what the country does?
Local young man – Why? We have the Sultan. He takes very good care of us…
What makes this thinking possible is an average per capita income of over US$40,000. The government makes sizable amounts of money from oil, which it solely controls, along with large investments from that oil money worldwide.
The Sultan does take care of his people. At one time a part of housing in Bandar Seri Begawan was in ramshackle water villages. But those picturesque houses on stilts standing out over the water had major problems. Sanitation was a serious issue so the Sultan has been replacing them with new water villages with modern sewage treatment and solid supports. He has also been providing virtually everyone in Brunei with a free education, health care and a guaranteed job. Also attractive free public housing is popping up all around the country.
Walking around in Bandar Seri Begawan is a pleasure. It is very safe. The city has a lot to see and the people are friendly. Although Standard Malay is the official language, English is widely spoken and understood.
There is a modern open-air market where a large gang of monkeys hang out looking for treats. There is a garden called the Eco-Corridor and, of course, the Grand Mosque. There are also boat trips out to the water village, Kampon Ayer. The city architecture is modern and boasts a large shopping mall. Interestingly, the mall is the first place where we ran into a store dedicated completely to Lego figures – you can find the likes of Darth Vader standing next to Homer and Marge Simpson and others.
We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).
Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.
Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.
Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.
Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.
In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.