The Australian Newspaper: Oil Rich Brunei A Kingdom in Green and Gold

The Australian newspaper on 29th November 2014, published Nick Boulos' article about Brunei:-


Oil Rich Brunei A Kingdom in Green and Gold

AMAT isn’t expecting company when we pop in, but she’s quite used to spontaneous guests. The last person to stop by unannounced at her longhouse in the jungles of eastern Brunei was the Sultan. “I was in my pyjamas doing the washing up and I looked up to see him standing in the doorway,” she laughs. “I rushed off to get changed without even offering him a cup of tea.”

I have come to meet the native Iban tribe, who continue to live in traditional narrow houses accommod­ating up to 18 families, but the Sultan was apparently just doing the rounds. Hassanal Bolkiah has full executive authority over this conservative Islamic state, and His Majesty has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Most, if not all, the state’s 415,000 citizens have met him, which is a fact they are only too keen to mention at any opportunity.

For the wider world, this petite 68-year-old with a goatee and some of the deepest pockets on the planet is often the only point of reference for this oil-rich country. On home turf, he has been elevated to ­almost godly status. His face beams down from every shop and restaurant; he’s front-page news nearly every day, and people queue for hours every year on his birthday, just to shake his hand.

Of course, Brunei, located on the northern coast of Borneo, is much more than one man. Within its tiny borders are ancient tribes and rare wildlife, fine Islamic architecture and lodges lost in the jungle.

I begin in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, a compact city dominated by two majestic mosques. The most glittering of these, with fountains, gates adorned with rubies and 29 golden domes that represent each of Brunei’s rulers, is Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah. Built in the 1990s on the orders of the Sultan, it cost an estimated $US1 billion. So, it seems only fair that he gets his own ­private escalator. After being presented with a full-length robe, I enter the hushed prayer hall and stand under the vast domed ceiling, marvelling at the geometric patterns on the walls.

Later, I stroll through the canalside Kianngh Market, where demure women in headscarves smash coconuts in half, then past the incense-infused Chinese temple ­towards the National Library. Scrawled across its ­exterior is a colourful mural depicting Brunei past and present. In one corner, dancing masked shamans, in the other, oil rigs.

The country’s fortunes changed overnight with the discovery of oil in 1929. The good times have rolled ever since, particularly after the former British protectorate gained its independence in January 1989. Today, Brunei’s people are free of income tax and enjoy free education and healthcare. No wonder the Sultan is so popular.

“He’s a very humble man,” insists a passer-by. “I was very nervous when I met him but there’s a kindness in his eyes,” she adds, whipping out her phone to show me her selfie with him. You have to wonder how humble a man can be whose wealth and tastes are so ­extravagant. The stories are legendary: 6000 cars including a gold-plated Rolls-Royce; polo ponies with air-­conditioned stables; his own 747 airliner (which he pilots himself) modified with Italian marble; and a rumoured habit of racing his Ferraris on the streets of Bandar after midnight.

A fraction of the Sultan’s treasures are on show at the Regalia Museum, an Aladdin’s cave of priceless trinkets. Among the most impressive pieces is a solid gold arm with an upturned palm, which was used by the Sultan to support his chin during his 1968 coronation in which he wore a 3kg crown.

There’s also his coronation chariot, pulled through the streets by 48 men while he waved to the crowds from his tiger-skin throne.

It’s easy to step away from all this gilded excess, though. Across the choppy Brunei River is Kampong Ayer, a sprawling water village with thousands of ramshackle homes perched on stilts like matchboxes. I hail a water taxi, driven by a chap called Yul whose name is shaved into the side of his head, and he speeds past ­fathers and sons fishing from the wobbly piers. “Fishing used to be the main industry here but it’s merely a hobby now,” says Tom, my guide.

Archaeological finds date the first settlers to about 1000 years ago. Back then, homes were built using ­nibong palms. Centuries later, during the height of the empire, until the end of the 1800s, Kampong Ayer was the seat of government. It took its present form during the next 150 years, with houses growing as needed, and extra rooms added here and there. Tom and I walk along the web of boardwalks past families who offer up barbecued baby clams, gathered that morning during low tide. (Serving suggestion: swallow whole with soy sauce and fresh chilli.) New infrastructure has transformed Kampong Ayer into a sub-city in its own right, with mosques, schools and shops. There’s even a football stadium and, most ­crucially, a fire brigade. However, with countless wooden structures packed so tightly together, fires still spread fast. Sitting outside her blue and green house-turned-canteen (you knock on the door for a plate of chicken and rice) is Miyah Robiah. Growing up here in the 60s, when markets would float past on boats, she knows the horrors only too well. “My old house was one of 100 that went up in flames. We ran with nothing but our coats,” she says. “We were offered housing in the city but I didn’t want to leave the water village. We are a community and my children can still fish and hunt for crabs after school.”

Again, the Sultan is never far away. Just visible in the distance beyond some tall trees downstream is Istana Nurul Iman, the world’s largest palace. It’s three times the size of Buckingham Palace with 1788 rooms, a heady confection of Asian-style hip-and-gabled rooftops alongside a bulbous golden cupola.

My own accommodation is similarly palatial. In fact, for the briefest of moments I thought the taxi driver had taken a wrong turn towards the Sultan’s abode as we sweep up the long driveway at the Empire Hotel and Country Club, just outside Bandar. The lobby — all gold, tiger’s eye gems and Swarovski chandeliers — opens up to a cavernous atrium supported by solid marble columns more than 50m tall, so prodigious they block the WiFi.

Similar levels of luxury extend throughout the 522 guestrooms, though nothing quite beats the views of the beach and South China Sea. Bill Clinton and Prince Charles have stayed here (separately) in the seventh-floor Emperor Suite, complete with gold-threaded carpet and a 10m indoor swimming pool. It can be yours, too, for more than $10,000 a night.

It is, in every sense, a palace fit for a prince. So it comes as no surprise to hear it was originally built as the residence of the Sultan’s younger brother, Jefri, who until 1997 was Brunei’s minister of finance.

Gold may well be the colour of Brunei but so too is green. Later, a few kilometres west of Bandar, on snaking riverways, I find myself cruising slowly in search of ­endangered proboscis monkeys. Only found on the ­island of Borneo, they’re famed for their comically large and protruding noses. “Experts think they help attract ­females. The bigger, the better,” says Tom. The river is quiet, only a lone fisherman and a few fluttering king­fishers to be seen in the distance. Then, after another wide bend, we delve deep into a mangrove clearing and cut the engine.

A large male soon saunters into view, crawling along a branch overhead; he is followed by two somersaulting ­infants. The animals seem undaunted by our presence, but Tom becomes jittery, shifting on his feet anxiously. “According to an old superstition, if a proboscis monkey pees on you, you’ll go bald,” he explains. I swiftly reposition myself.

The illuminated golden domes of Bandar shine brightly against the darkening sky when we arrive back. There’s little in the way of night-life in Brunei. Being an ­Islamic state, alcohol is forbidden; bars and clubs simply don’t exist. But then there is Gadong Night Market.

Bare light bulbs swing over spitting woks; flames shoot high from stalls laden with weird and wonderful delicacies. Locals slurp on spicy soup noodles or queue for curried goat. Strangely, there is no such queue for the skewers of honey-coated chicken anuses, and nor do I ­intend to form one.

The drive back takes us past the Sultan’s palace. The traffic lights outside suddenly turn red — a tell-tell sign of an imminent royal arrival or departure. A second or two later, the heavy iron gates open and a fleet of cars speed out in a flash. There is no way of knowing which royal has just zoomed away but if they fancy a spot of Ferrari racing, they’ve certainly picked a nice night.

Copyright: The Australian Newspaper


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