2004-07-17 Bendar Seri Begwan

Nawaaz really wanted to go to Brunei, and I too was drawn to the idea of visiting a rich, staunchly muslim Sultanate. We arrived not knowing what to expect. At the ferry terminal we were subject to heat imaging, and a customs check. Brunei is very scared of SARS and advised that its people not go to Canada, Singapore or China (at all) last year. The country was also teetotal, so the customs officers were only interested in finding alcohol. I donít know if drug importation is a capital crime, as it is in Singapore and Malaysia, but anyone caught could expect some caning to go with their prison sentence.

The little bus from the ferry terminal brought us past large houses and large cars (not so common out of North America.) The capital was squat and small, but the country isnít so large either. Through some luck we found a newly opened guesthouse. We dumped our stuff and took the last bus out to the themepark. Yep, the sultan built his people a themepark that matches Disneyland for acreage. There are fewer rides, and only about half of them were open. What the park really lacked were people. We were the only patrons for the first hour! (it opens at 5pm) The staff had to turn on the rides for us, there were no lines to wait in. We all felt like Michael Jackson! Never again will I be one of two passengers on a world-class feet-dangling overhead-track roller coaster. Some people did come, but they never outnumbered the staff. The rides closed for prayer-time, which was only nominally observed by the staff. We cabbed it back into town just as the park closed. The cabís limo played London FM, which made for an eerily urban feel. Why Bruneiís transmitters rebroadcast two London radio stations, Iíll never know. Well, maybe the Sultan promised his people some cool, or something.

We spent the next day wandering the city. We saw the massive mosque from the outside, because non-muslims were not allowed inside. Nawaaz went in, but his Islam was challenged. Once he convinced the most active members of the congregation, they suggested he convert Lins and I. How they were planning to convert me by being so insular, Iíll never know. I wonder what the Muslim traders who converted parts of South East Asia did?

The stilt village was quite interesting and the high-speed water taxi was quite a laugh. Good food was easily found (Linsí tastes would beg to differ), and we went to the Royal Regalia museum in the late afternoon. All the museum displayed was the Sultanís stuff. Royal processional items like his massive gold chariot (human-drawn) and his clothes and gifts from his Silver Jubilee. Amazing, opulent stuff, and considering how much he funds the general population (free Education abroad), it is harder to complain about the consumption. I donít imagine that corporations would be so generous to the locals if they held title to the resources.

The Sultan was hard to miss, because we arrived the week of his birthday. His birthday celebrations seemed to last a few weeks. The whole city was festooned with black and yellow banners wishing the Sultan a happy birthday. Companies competed with each other to have large banners and the biggest display of lights. It looked like Christmas. In the evening there was a street festival. It looked just like a German Volksfest, but with no alcohol (or the exuberance that follows). Most of the stalls sold knock-off goods and illegal CDs and unlicensed soccer jerseys. One guy tried to sell me a Rolex for 150$B (approx. $125 Canadian). There is no chance of it being real, as the gold in a real Rolex is worth more than the price offered, however the price was far too much to justify the novelty of a fake.

The stage show did not capture our attention for long. They had what appeared to be a Miss Brunei competition, which seemed very un-muslim to me. There legs were still covered, though. The real highlight was the parade ground where ten huge bouncy castles lined the perimeter and the field was filled with people playing impromptu games of soccer. Nawaaz and I managed to invite ourselves into a game. The fun! If ever I was to be the best player in the country, now was my chance. I played well enough that they didnít believe I was Canadian. Lins meanwhile was seated with the wives. The other women werenít short on conversation, they asked her which one of us was her husband. They asked if we were staying at the Sheraton or the other top-flight hotel, or even why we (North Americans) travel so much.

2004-07-19 Kota Kinabalu

Returned to KK for a night and checked into a hotel rather than risk another hostel. The hotel was pretty dodgy and the TV only had a crappy Hong Kong movie on. Nawaaz, Lins and I bought a bunch of junk food and had an evening in...I think we were at the end of our travel enthusiasm.

The next day we went to the ferry port and managed to arrange a trip to two islands in the national park with a French family and a Czech couple. The first island was great, the water warm and it wasn't too crowded. Made me wonder why people live in the often-frozen, cold, and un-scenic parts of the world. The second island was much bigger, far more crowded and featured cheeky monkeys. The cheeky monkeys would scare away the massive baron lizards and steal people's unwatched food. Nawaaz and I made a quick hike to the island's summit and then down and round again. We learned that jungle is much less green beneath the canopy than is depicted in cartoons. Not that much sunlight reaches the bottom. We also learned that Tarzan vine swinging just does not work, but you probably figured that already.

Our beach spot was beautiful but compromised by the proximity to the chemical toilets. Yes, this island microcosm was small enough to make one realise all the negative effects of tourism. There was far more litter than I expected or could understand. But, from a distance the islands are delightfully lush and the South China Sea is enchanting.

Returned to the mainland, cabbed it to the airport. The wrong airport it turned out. Air Asia flies from the old one further into town. Oh well, we made the flight.

2004-07-21 Batam Island

Our trip included a visit to Indonesia, if just barely. A couple islands in the straight of Singapore are technically Indonesian, but generally serve as Singaporean tourist destinations. It is essentially their Tijuana. We went to the downtown ferry port rather than the one by the airport, our first mistake. We then took the first ferry that was there, another mistake, as it took us to "Waterfront", a port we had no information on. We were also both suffering from colds, which was also a problem.

We arrived in Indonesia and were surprised that we needed Visas. The guide book said it was a visa-free entry point, but no, they wanted $10 US for a three day visa. Lucky for us, or so I thought, I had my emergency $20US bill on hand. But no, the customs official would not take it, it was too crinkly. I tried to wait him out and remind him of the merits of global acceptance of US dollars. But no dice, so I asked if he would take my nice new 20$ Euro note. Of course he would, but at a 1:1 rate. Gasp! The economist in me was very upset. I asked for a bit more. He offered 5,000 rupiah on top of the visas, which I grudgingly accepted. I did not know what the real rate of exchange was, but I managed to save a couple bucks.

The town wasn't really a town, but a massive unfinished shopping development. We walked to the Holiday Inn. Lins didn't think we would get past the guards, but they were very happy to let us white people by. They wouldn't change my money though...only hotel guests. The bus driver at the port wouldn't let us on the bus, he insisted that we take a taxi. The taxis wouldn't leave us alone, it was very annoying. We were sick and tired. We did have a good meal at a small hawkers mart, the only untouristy place within walking distance. We spent what few Rupia I was willing to change, and we were gone. Earlier than expected and not a moment too soon.