The fairytale sultanate of Brunei boasts of the richest monarch, opulent palaces, pristine rainforests and a clean coastline
That summer day, when I boarded the plane, little did I know that I would be swept away to the surreal landscapes of a fairytale sultanate. Brimming with wanderlust, I was out to explore a land I knew of only as a bounty of black gold ruled by the world’s richest monarch. As I looked out of a bus window the next day, my eyes fell upon the golden domes and vaulting roofs of the Istana (His Majesty’s palace) which were etched against a cloudless summer sky. This is the nation of Brunei Darussalam (situated at the northern cusp of the Borneo island in South East Asia) abuzz with activity at the joyous occasion of their Sultan’s 61st birthday.
Walking out of the bus terminal, I was soon facing ubiquitous minarets of the Omar Ali Saiffudein mosque. Resting beside a lagoon, this mosque which dominates the capital’s skyline is made of Italian marble, Shanghai granite and gold mosaic. The interiors are adorned with British chandeliers, stained glass windows and carpets from Saudi Arabia and Belgium.
Most buildings in this city have escaped the drift towards homogenisation and each is allegorical of a distinct architectural style. Long and upturned roof ends are symbolic of Chinese influence and the Islamic influence is evident in the shape of the porches and windows while most of the friezes bear characteristics of Malay architecture. The buildings themselves depict the ethnic diversity of Brunei’s residents. Besides the dominant Malay and Chinese population, there are also Koreans, Philippinoes, Australians, and Indians in this Sultanate. Though Malay is the official national language, English is widely spoken and understood.
I headed next to the Royal Regalia museum. Soon enough I felt as though I had just entered the glorious confines of a palace. The displays inside include chariots, ceremonial armoury, and jewel encrusted coronation crowns.
This museum has a replica of a few rooms of the sultan’s palace. I soon learnt that the Istana Nurul Iman is the largest residential palace in the world boasting of 1,788 rooms (564 chandeliers, 18 lifts, 51,000 light bulbs and 44 stairwells).
The current Sultan. His Royal Highness Hajji Hassanal Bolkiah is also famous for his vast automobile collection. According to the Guinness Book of World Records he owns the largest number of Rolls Royces.
Within the confines of the capital I had time only to drink in the opulence and splendour of the sultanate. Or so I thought till I stepped onto a narrow wooden walkway that leads to the Kampong Ayer (water village) where one fourth of the capital’s population resides.
Here, wooden houses built on stilts hover over the Brunei River in sharp contrast with the super markets and multi-storied buildings on the bank. Long wooden speed boats popularly known as ‘water taxis’ sway gently to the rhythm of the river under the houses.
The Kampong Ayer is the world’s largest water village and was named the ‘Venice of the East’ by early European travellers. Families living in the capacious houses here enjoy all modern amenities. Interspersed among rows of houses, are health clinics, schools, shops, mosques and even a fire station.
The day’s discoveries had whetted my appetite to learn more about this tiny sultanate and the vast forest cover that I could not tear my eyes away from when I was flying over Brunei kept beckoning. Finally surrendering to the call of the green yonder, I searched the map for forest reserves and sanctuaries I should visit. It was only then that it occurred to me why Brunei is evocatively called ‘The green heart of Borneo’ with 70 per cent of its land area covered with virgin rainforests. Ironically, the reason for the preservation of rain forests here is oil which brings in the extraordinary wealth. So people here didn’t have to exploit the forests.
The thickest rainforests are in the Temburong district which is separated from the rest of Brunei by the Malaysian territory of Sarawak and the Brunei bay. I was overwhelmed by the unblemished beauty of the verdant hills as I headed towards the Ulu Temburong National Park on a temuai (boat).
The Iban tribesman whose boat I was on knew exactly how to navigate through the labyrinth of muddy jungle waterways. The mist-shrouded trees slowly cleared to reveal the canopy walkway whose steel structures rise some 50 meters from the forest floor. It was not just the exhausting climb up the scaffolding that left me breathless but also the view of the luxuriant forest cover from the top. Though I did not encounter the long nosed Proboscis monkey which is endemic to Borneo, I did see two rare species — the Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (a species of butterfly named after the ‘White Rajah’ James Brooke who ruled Sarawak) and the carnivorous pitcher plant.
Brunei also has a plethora of idyllic beaches where most people spend their weekends. The clean coastline caressed by the South China Sea is ideal for windsurfing, jet skiing, kayaking and power boat racing.
The rich marine life and vast coral reefs allures snorkelling and diving enthusiasts all around the year.
Ruled by a benevolent monarch, Brunei is a tax free country and education and health facilities are free for all citizens.
On discovering that the history of this nation has been scarred neither by any major natural disaster nor by human strife, I realised how appropriate its official name – Negara Brunei Darussalam (translates as ‘Abode of Peace’) is.
The days I spent in this kingdom seem certainly like pages from a fairytale one is fond of — tranquil and timeless.
ASHA MARY KURIEN