First Impressions of Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei were similar to those of Kuala Lumpur, i.e. nicely developed, clean, orderly, and friendly. My expectations of immense oil wealth, extravagantly invested into a thriving commercial economy were still intact, but not for long!
There wasn't much choice of accommodation for the budget backpacker in town. We settled for the only town centre option; a Chinese-run (basic but clean) old converted warehouse. The bed was less itchy than other places we've stayed in, but the tiny ants still drove me mad!
Once we got out and about it in town, it seemed something was missing. The city, still decorated from the Sultan's birthday, was small but also quieter than expected. No-one was rushing anywhere, and 'thriving' it was not. There was no rampant capitalism here, as seen everywhere else in the world. No-one actually asked you to buy anything. The large and modern but quiet shopping malls on the edge of town told the story of the city and country. Perhaps with the exception of the Indian restaurants, life and work was generally only being played out at the necessary pace.
This is probably due to the oil money, providing housing, education and health care to the small Brunei population, and there are no taxes to pay. Apart from the Sultan’s palace (which isn’t a tourist attraction) the other prestigious buildings are all mosques as the Sultan runs the country strictly with Islam. One exception is the ‘Empire hotel and country club’, a $1BN+ resort on the coast that looks like someone advised him to build a hotel instead of another palace!
Brunei is probably the place to come if you fancy rehabbing somewhere more exotic. I expect most westerners would consider it boring without any obvious party scene, a modest dress code - especially for women, and absolutely no alcohol. Most of the teenagers smoke (needing some vice) and drive modified cars around the normally quiet roads, which have kerbs painted like an F1 track. Generally, I really liked the generally calm, quiet and respectful nature of the place.
What I found really surprising was the unspoilt nature, and fairly light-touch development of the country. It was normal to take a water taxi around the water ways, and there was a real community feel to the Kampung Ayer housing on the river that just isn't achieved with traditional city high-rises elsewhere for low cost accommodation.
Most tourists spend 2-3 days here, so our 10 days was off the chart. We had a day out to the beach near to the Empire Hotel and Country Club (from which we could see some offshore oil rigs), did a rainforest trek in the Ulu Temburong National Park, visited a couple of museums and took a water taxi through Kampung Ayer, aka ‘Venice of the East’, but spent a lot of time hanging out in coffee shops, in particular 'The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf' which is now our coffee shop of choice.
The Royal Regalia museum was worth a look, but again was found to be more modest than expected. In fact, the Sultan must have had to be very polite for some of the presents he received, especially a shoddy looking watercolour painting from an Australian delegate. He/she must have been really stuck with the question, 'What do you give the man who has everything?'
Anyway, the whole ‘Sultan of Brunei’ impression I had from the UK turned out to be something else, and I left the country with much respect for the way things were. Reading through the museums it was easy to see an awkward looking underachiever in his early years but now someone who has grown comfortably into his role over time. His figurehead is everywhere, perhaps overused by the people in power. Anyway, they seem to be doing a good job, and have a beautiful country, which is relatively unspoilt whilst the focus has been under the sea.