ON A WINDY October morning, the estuary of Bandar Seri Begawan’s river is buzzing with activities. From the tables of a food stall, I see locals waking up along with the sunrise while nursing cups of coffee, watching a parade of sweaty runners and parents holding their kids’ hands. There’s a dearth of cars plying the wide roads, but the busy vibe of the bus station near the river is still obvious. On the river, a number of motorboats glide through the waters, going to and from the Kampong Ayer. A host of vendors are shouting, announcing their wares to passersby.
This scene of a Friday morning is common to someone from the city. People like me who grew up in Manila often see this kind of bustle that it’s easy to take for granted. But to witness such in the capital of Brunei Darussalam, a wealthy country, is quite surprising, especially if the clean roads and green surroundings that greet you out of the airport lead you to expect a somewhat staid experience.
TUCKED BETWEEN THE two states of Malaysian Borneo and facing the South China Sea, Brunei has its own baggage. During its early history, its sultanate was so powerful it ruled over a large part of northern Borneo and even most of the Philippines. Like most empires, it eventually weakened and lost Sarawak in 1841, became a British protectorate in 1888 and a British dependency in 1905, after it chose not to join the newly formed Malayan Federation to keep its oil resources within its territory.
Following the Japanese occupation in World War II, the sultan regained his power in 1959, although Britain retained the responsibility over the sultanate’s defense and foreign affairs. Sultan Bolkiah was crowned king in 1967 at the age of 22 after his dad Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin abdicated. Under Bolkiah, Brunei accumulated wealth in large part due to her oil. At present, the tiny nation has one of the highest per capita income in Asia, and the sultan is believed to be one of the richest people in the world. In 1984, the kingdom gained complete sovereignty.
I FIND MYSELF in the capital of Brunei – Bandar Seri Begawan – one Friday, standing on a plank over the river and looking at the houses in Kampong Ayer. After years of exploring Southeast Asian cities, I have learned to be nimble like a cat, rushing off instantly after landing. But right now, I feel like a newbie once more, partly because it’s been a while since I’ve been out of the Philippines and mostly because there’s a dearth of public transportation. Most Bruneians own a car and only a few are riding the bus.
I feel like a child. In a place where water is more expensive than oil, I feel lost.
The following hours whiz by like a blur. I recall exploring Kampong Ayer, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Royal Regalia Building. I eat at one of the stalls in Tamu Kianggeh. But I can’t leave Brunei without hanging out in one of her malls. I watch a movie a few hours before I make my way back to the airport. Here I learn that the locals have a penchant for freezing temperatures and the air conditioners are constantly in full blast.
Who would have thought that, going to Brunei, forgetting to pack a jacket would have been a mistake?