Brunei! Is that a country in the Middle East? (A nostalgic look back to where it all began)

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Brunei? Is that a country in the Middle East? I wondered when the man from the recruitment agency in London told me about the job. A 3-month position, with all expenses paid and a competitive salary, it didn’t really matter to me where it was, it seemed a better alternative than looking for accommodation and a permanent job in London at the tail end of winter. “Can you give me a day to decide?” I had asked.

Images of a Sultan and oil wells came to mind. Google revealed a tiny country on the Northern tip of the island of Borneo. Neighboured by the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, it was nowhere near the Middle East. With it’s palm fringed beaches, dense jungle, tropical climate and orang-utans, it was an appealing option. Besides, it would only be for 3 months. How could I say no?

Spontaneity, I have found, rarely disappoints. Yet I admit, standing at the small airport, on the edge of the jungle, wearing my London winter clothing and sweating profusely in the unfamiliar tropical heat, I did question whether I had made the right decision. With only a backpack and not a single contact number on me, I could only hope that my new head of department would collect me as planned. I had spoken to him on the phone just long enough to realise he was Australian, but had no way of contacting him if he didn’t show up, and no way of recognising him if he did. It briefly crossed my mind that I may very well have become embroiled in an elaborate and ingenious plot to lure western women to the wilds of Borneo in some ill-fated mail order bride racket*. If that was the case, I knew they would be severely disappointed. I suspect I make a better teacher than I would a wife.

{*Only a few years later, the book Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren, revealed that it didn’t in fact require an elaborate or ingenious plan at all, quite simply all that was needed to lure Western women to Borneo was cold hard cash and that was something Brunei had plenty of}.

Clearly my new employer was just as concerned – let’s be honest, who accepts a job and travels half way across the world at the drop of a hat and in the space of only a week? Yet equally, what type of school has to recruit someone at such short notice in April? – The Principal arrived on my doorstep unexpectedly the following morning, clearly eager to see what sort of professional he had recruited. Feigning a welcome visit, he was clearly only there to determine whether I was cut out for the job. Still jet-lagged and wearing my winter pyjamas, I am not sure I managed to convince him. I could offer him only a glass of warm orange juice and awkward conversation. A year or so later I discovered, when he wrote a (not very good) book, he referred to me as someone “who could probably reorganise my life in three days and get on a plane” only to add “actually (she) could probably do it in a morning”. I am not sure it was intended as a compliment, but I considered it one.

Lucky for all of us, it proved to be a good decision. So much so, that at the end of my 3-month contract the school offered me a permanent job, and I chose to give up that all too clichéd Aussie dream of working in London to stay in Asia. With delightful students, lovely colleagues and an appealing lifestyle, it wasn’t a difficult choice. Besides, for the first time in my very short teaching career, I found myself actually being able to teach 100% of the time in the classroom and that was a novelty too enjoyable to refuse.

That is how I came to leave the hustle, bustle and appeal of London- one of the greatest cities in the world. To teach in a capital city few people have ever heard of, Bandar Seri Begawan.

Brunei Darussalam, The ‘abode of peace’ as it’s name translates is certainly that. In fact, any more peaceful and you might be dead. People are polite and considerate and crime is not prevalent. I knew some people who even used to leave their car doors unlocked. You just had to pick up a copy of the local newspaper The Borneo Bulletin, for confirmation that the stresses of living in Bandar were a little removed from what many of us may be used to. As one memorable letter to the editor revealed:

“How shocked when I walked in to the travel agency last weekend only to discover to my horror that the woman behind the counter was ignoring me to speak on her mobile phone” Annoyed.

Yes, it was official, I had moved to PLEASANTVILLE. Albeit the jungle version.

Monkeys in the supermarket car park, cobras in air-conditioning units, scorpions on the walking tracks, crocodiles in the drains and 15-year old Princes in Hummers. Such was life in Brunei.

Asia! Where politeness rules, and the culture of losing face dictates. Cut someone off on the roads in Brunei and you are just as likely to get a big smile and a wave, on account of the disinclination to ever lose one’s temper. Aggression and anger almost seemed to be totally abandoned emotions, which made for a kind of fairy tale atmosphere. On the downside, it was perfectly acceptable for people to acknowledge that you are relatively fat alongside the beautiful Asian women. Buying a swimming costume, I was consoled by the charming sales assistant who thought she was being helpful in telling me that I would need an XXL with tummy control. “But don’t worry I have one big enough for you” she assured me.

The students I taught were respectful, endearing and charming to the core. Predominantly local Muslim kids who were excellent representatives of their Islamic faith, and a mixed assortment of expats, whose parents were either in the British Military or oil and airline business.

After my experience in England and Australia, it was nice to be working in an environment and culture where the teaching profession was so well regarded. Students and parents valued education and showed the highest esteem for teachers. I once joked with a student, who had yawned in my lesson, by telling him that I hoped I wasn’t keeping him up. At the end of the class, to my eternal surprise, he presented himself at my desk, head bowed and looking forlorn. Having long forgotten my earlier remark, I was unprepared for what came next. A full apology explaining with remorse that he had indeed enjoyed every minute of my lesson, but had only yawned because he had been up late at a basketball tournament the night before. He continued by informing me that he had meant no disrespect and asked for my forgiveness lest his yawning had caused undue offence. At that point I was thankful I had been sitting down or else I may have keeled over from the shock. If you have ever wondered where 17-year old boys behave as you imagined they did in the classrooms of the 1920’s, the answer is Brunei Darussalam. In fact, the only problem I ever encountered in the classroom was that the students could sometimes be too passive.

It was quite the contrast to London. From being unable to stop students from leaving the class, to having every student thank me as they left the room. From discussions on the correct spelling of venereal diseases, to having to explain to a student why an $800 Prada clutch purse could not really be considered a necessity item. It was a paradigm shift.

Blessed with a small population and oil-rich reserves. The Sultanate of Brunei enjoys considerable wealth and consistently beats other major players in the per capita income stakes**. In fact at around $54,000 per person per year, it is no wonder that Brunei routinely comes in within the top 10 wealthiest countries per head of population. Yet it seems Pleasantville does not as yet understand the notion of efficiency. Or perhaps it is just that with such wealth and enviable low unemployment they just simply do not need to. For that reason there are many hard working mostly Filipino workers holding up the service economy.

{**Although it is worth noting that this wealth is not necessarily evenly distributed within the country. Furthermore, although Brunei frequently boasts of having low unemployment, poverty does exist and the inequality gap is higher than you might expect for such a small country, but data on this is difficult to locate}.

Wealth, particularly when it concerns the royal family, was on a level I had not encountered before. The stories defy the imagination and are quite honestly rather obnoxious. Flying a helicopter to pick up take away pizza in Singapore. Granting permission to miss a month of school to attend Wimbledon or a royal tour of Europe with the Sultan and the Sultana (and yes, that is her actual title). Chat to anyone who has lived in the country long enough and you will either be enchanted or appalled with stories too outlandish to be true. Take for instance the example of how the royals were so impressed by Disneyland that they simply decided to build their own. A billion dollar theme park, the most impressive in South East Asia at the time, complete with gold plated gates the occasional concert by the likes of Michael Jackson and totally free admission. Sadly, without any tourism industry to speak of or a large population to sustain it, even philanthropy cannot defy plain economics for very long. People eventually lost interest and Jerudong Fun Park as it is still known, became all but a ghost town. I remember spending one surreal evening riding the Mountain Log ride perhaps 20 times with my good friend Dawn and her elderly mother. For nearly 3 hours, we never saw another living soul in the entire park, aside from the ride operators. It was an eerie reminder of the excesses of wealth, even when there is a concerted effort to share it with the masses. It defied economic logic, a kind of warped version of market failure, the positive externalities of excessive production Sure it was all at the Sultan’s expense, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of waste. An entire theme park to ourselves, I felt inclined to tell the staff to pack up and go home, “don’t worry we will turn the lights off on our way out”.

Despite losing half of his 30 billion dollar fortune when his playboy brother famously squandered the family wealth, the Sultan of Brunei is still doing rather well for himself. A benevolent leader who is largely loved and admired by his people, (at least as far as anyone can tell from within a dictatorship), he seems not to be concerned with frugality.

Brunei having made its wealth from oil was never going to be known for its green image. I recall walking to class one day and noticing a 747 circling directly overhead in rather close proximity doing leisurely laps. Asking my colleague what was going on he replied nonchalantly, “oh that will just be the Sultan keeping up his flying hours”. My head of department had once asked a student in his class how many cars his family owned as part of a class activity in an accounting lesson. The question was followed by silence, before Ian asked again. “Yes, Sir, I am still counting”. The final tally was close to 15 if I recall. In my mind though, the most excessive of all, was the oil company employees and their 4 x 4 white land cruisers, which would be lined up in the school car park all day, engines running, air-conditioners blazing to keep the drivers cool in the uncomfortable tropical humidity.

I heard snippets of stories at school that made me shake my head in wonder “be careful with her, she has Royal connections”. A comment, which might just as well have applied to many of the students, considering the Royal family in fact owns the school. The Sultan’s son attended the school and arrived in his personal black Hummer (he also owned a red Ferrari). The inconvenient fact that he was too young to actually drive any of them himself seemed to pose little problem as his personal driver took care of that. If he had sought anonymity at school he must have been disappointed. The Prince arrived each day, with an entire entourage closely following in black sedan cars. A half dozen of his personal staff on call, waiting at school to be at his service- a nurse, security personnel and even a religious advisor. The latter I can only imagine for those moments when the moral dilemmas of the schoolyard become too much of a burden. Princely by name and by all accounts by nature, despite all this and to his eternal credit, he was a lovely boy and well regarded by teachers and students alike.

It was his uncle the now rather infamous Prince Jefri, who tarnished the family name and single headedly took away the questionable honour bestowed upon his brother the Sultan of being the world’s richest man. Although spending 15 billion dollars in only 5 years, is quite a notable achievement. What has managed to capture most people’s interest and more impressive in my mind, was Prince Jefri’s notorious playboy ways and how he managed to reconcile his Islamic faith with such a lavish and hedonistic lifestyle. At one time he had a personal harem of hundreds of women and owned a yacht named Tits with each dinghy boldly (but admittedly, quite aptly) called Nipple 1 and Nipple 2. Not surprisingly when his extravagant ways went the way of his dinghy’s (ie. Tits Up), he was promptly excommunicated and banished from the Kingdom. Yet in line with the fairy tales that so often accompany royalty, he went on to live happily ever after in London. That is to say give or take the inconvenience of a few lawsuits from jilted former harem workers. It has to be said however, that Prince Jefri did leave a lavish legacy and Brunei is perhaps the better for it. To start with, much of the money was spent on designing and building opulent infrastructure within the small nation. Polo Fields, gold plated gates and lavish light posts. A Summer Palace- logic not withstanding the fact that it was 10 minutes from the official palace and it is Summer all year round in Brunei- is now transformed in to the opulent EMPIRE HOTEL, a luxury hotel although not as popular as it could be with tourists on account of few having reason to visit the country and a strict no alcohol policy. Complete with acres of swimming pools, a movie cinema, golf course and bowling alley, expats and Bruneians treated it as a private country club for their own benefit. I myself took full advantage. Learning to dive, spending weekends at the pool and what still remains my most enjoyable after school activity initiative, a weekly water skiing club that I started for my students.

Indeed, aside from The Empire Hotel, there was little else to occupy one’s time recreationally. Like most expats, I joined the sailing club and learnt to sail. Although I confess that on account of having observed crocodiles in the waterways nearby, I became more proficient at launching myself back into a capsized vessel, than actually learning the technique of sailing.

It was a quirky social life, often revolving around the concerted efforts of expat residents to ensure they had access to alcohol at all costs, not withstanding the liquor laws. What would ordinarily be a night at your local pub, was often conducted clandestinely via ingenious methods. The popularity of ‘special tea’ in restaurants introduced me to the novel way of serving beer in teapots. The ‘local’ was the Orchid Hotel, a 3 star hotel with a few hotel rooms on a particular floor converted to a speakeasy style bar. Complete with secret door knock and video surveillance once inside you could be treated to a unique drinking experience unlike any other. Conjoining hotel suites, with a snooker table and a bar replacing the beds and writing tables, and bathrooms replete with a bathtub and shower should the need arise. Add the ever-rumoured topic of conversation that you might be unlucky enough to be patronising this fine establishment during a police raid, and it made for quite an interesting evening. Ironically it was often patronised by high-ranking Government officials and police themselves. If you preferred to stay home and drink, there was a gentleman I am told known as the “milkman”. Although I never did utilise his services, as I understand it he delivered very little milk but no doubt made a small fortune with what he did deliver.

However, by far my favourite Friday night adventure was making the regular trip to the Malaysian border town about an hour’s drive away, for a night at Linggi’s restaurant, although those who know it, might think it is a stretch to call it such. Erected in the jungle for no other purpose than to service the trade between the Malaysian and Bruneian commuters it was precisely what you would expect from a typical border town. A short walk from immigration on the Malaysian side, down a dirt pot-holed track, past street vendors selling all manner of barbequed treats, amid stray dogs, lost-looking chickens and prostitutes drumming their trade by small shanty huts with kerosene lamps, was to be found the infamous Linggi’s. Known for its fried chicken, jovial staff, cheap food, cold beer and the illegal stock of alcohol the eponymous owner had buried goodness knows where in the jungle serving as the only bottle shop for miles around. Plastic chairs and rustic tables, tattered posters of 1980’s coke commercials and a toilet you would try very hard to avoid visiting if at all possible, it was my favourite outing. I was not alone. On any given Friday night you could expect to find the place packed with 50 or more expats from Brunei. As good as the fried chicken was, they were there to collect their ‘2 bottles of fun’ as it was sardonically known, or the allowed importation quota of alcohol extended to expats living in Brunei. A generous accommodation for non-Muslims, made all the more fun with the import dockets which needed to be filled out tirelessly and in triplicate without carbon paper when declaring them to the Bruneian authorities. Not being a big drinker myself, I was there for the atmosphere and stir-fried fern leaves, but that is a memory only those who have been there can fully appreciate. I especially enjoyed taking visitors to Linggi’s. With little warning I would tell them we would be going out for dinner, only to enjoy the look on their faces when I escorted them, often on foot across the border, through the maze of makeshift bars and towards Linggi’s. My glamourous mates Eva and Amelia from Australia it was fair to say were in a state of shock from the experience. Amelia’s Miu Mui handbag never once touched the filthy floor or left her lap all night, and when they returned from the toilet their eyes were as wide as saucers. The night before we had been dining at the Empire Hotel, so their expectations were perhaps unfairly high. From 5 Star to 0 Star that is the style they have come to expect of me, I enjoy pulling both off with equal flair.

Not in need of the tourist dollar, Brunei does little to promote itself and is not high on most travel agendas. Stunningly beautiful with hidden treasures, it is almost a shame. I was once confronted in a coffee shop by an aimless looking traveller who approached me and asked “Excuse me, it looks like you live here, could you tell me, what is there to actually do?”.The unique stilt homes built over the water in the capital. The endangered proboscis monkeys, once unfairly known by the title of “Dutchman” by the locals, for their rather large and unique noses. The impressive Temburong Nature Reserve which you accessed via an exhilarating water taxi ride up the river at full speed in boats that were referred to as floating coffins, I like to think because of their shape more than their track record, but notwithstanding I always rode on the roof preferring to take my chances with the crocs should it sink, than in the semi submerged hulls. Hiking, waterfalls and fresh water rivers to swim in, it was a nature and adventure lovers’ paradise. Then there was the wider island to explore and Borneo never disappointed. The states of Sabah and Sarawak are well frequented by tourists and for obvious reasons. Kinabalu SE Asia’s highest mountain, an impressive sight at 4095m and an enjoyable two day climb if you are so inclined. Outstanding beaches and waters that provided some of the best diving in the world, Sipidan the most widely acclaimed since it was put on the map by the Cousteau’s. Turtle hatching. Jungle adventures in search of Hornbills, the world’s largest known flower the Rafflesia, which is equally famous for it’s unsavoury smell, which has been likened to rotting flesh. Sadly, as in so many naturally unique and beautiful places, the wildlife of Borneo is waging a seemingly losing battle against the so-called progress of development and economic growth. The endangered pygmy elephant of which only 1500 are thought to exist, the critically endangered pygmy rhino which are rarely sighted these days and then of course the orang-utangs, depressingly mostly only observed in sanctuaries now, on account of the palm oil plantations, which are destroying their habitats. Equally as disturbing, particularly if history is your penchant, the Death March and WW2 stories from Sandakan offer inspiring tales of tragedy and bravery alike.

Last week as I made my way from Sydney to Switzerland, in the early hours of the morning my plane flew directly over Brunei and it’s capital. I looked down over the sleeping nation, the darkness of the jungle surrounding the towns I had once known well, and which clung to the endless coastline, clearly visible and outlined by the single highway making its way up the length of the country. The expansive dark ocean was lit up with the glow of the oil flares and on the mainland below, flames burned endlessly as I imagined the nodding donkeys plying at their laborious task of extracting the wealth of the nation. I thought of my friends past and present who share memories of that same geography. Many of them still happily living there. I thought of them sleeping below me in their beds, and the nostalgia washed over me. The beach barbeques, the parties, the quirky characters, the travel destinations, the beauty of nature in all it’s glory and the kindness and gentleness of the people. I think it might be time to visit them again.

4 Responses to “Brunei! Is that a country in the Middle East? (A nostalgic look back to where it all began)”
  1. Paul says:

    Maybe your next career is on getaway or a freelance travel writer go Nat

  2. Yvonne Warren says:

    Thanks for such a beautiful and nostalgic blog. I enjoyed reading it so much….what an incredible experience. My bags are always packed for revisiting this magical place. xxx

  3. Eva says:

    Oh Natty, you are just amazing – the way you write, reflect, your insights, and the way you capture it with your photography, writing, your honest and kind heart and mind… I hope your stories are published one day.

  4. Colin Whitbread says:

    Hi Nat enjoyed another of your great blogs your mum & i read it at 1245 am monday morning it was worth staying up for .I can not thank you enough for all your TOURS .xxxx

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