Thursday, April 26, 2012

Village In The Ayer

Brunei is one of those tiny countries that you might have heard of, but aren't really sure about: who lives there? what do the people do? how can such a tiny country be viable? The answer to the last question, of course, is oil. Although small, Brunei sits on substantial reserves of both oil and gas. Indeed, one of the reasons why people may have heard of Brunei is that, up until 1997, the Sultan of Brunei was the richest man in the world and a byword for profligate extravagance. Indeed it was the tiny sultanate's abundance of wealth that led to it refusing to join the Malaysian Federation in the 60's so as not to have their riches siphoned off to Kuala Lumpur (the sultan and his family were adept enough at that already).

A panorama photograph of the old stilt-houses of Kampung Ayer.

Arriving in Brunei by land from Sabah is a rather convoluted affair. First you have to cross into the neighbouring Malaysian state of Sarawak, which requires an immigration check with exit and entry stamps in the passport (both Sabah and Sarawak have independent immigration controls that were set up when they joined Malaysia, ostensibly to prevent mainland Malays from flooding in and taking jobs away from locals). Then within 50km you reach the actual Bruneian border where another set of immigration inspections await. The road carries on to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei (and also quite a mouthful, so people just simply say Bandar or BSB), but in so doing ducks into Sarawak again as Brunei is split into two non-contiguous pieces with a slice of Sarawak separating them, a vestige of creeping British colonialism. The Brits (in the shape of James Brooke, the "White Rajah of Sarawak") arrived in the 1830s and were given, for helping to quell local unrest, the small port town of Kuching, then an island off the coast, until little by little most of northern Borneo was under their rule and Brunei but a rump of its former self. In all you would have to pass through four pairs of customs and immigration controls. To get around this you need to get off in Temburong, the first sliver of Brunei, and hop aboard one of the public speedboats that ply the mangrove-lined waterways, linking the inland riverine settlements, to take you directly into the heart of Bandar.

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and model, stone ceremonial  barge. Nice, but nothing special.

Though once there you would be hard-pressed to believe that you are in the middle of a capital city. The roads are quiet, there are few people out and about, the handful of shops that there are seem lifeless and devoid of colour. The place is barely more than a single, monotonous suburbia. Sure, everything is neat and tidy, as befits a country that produces a barrel of crude per inhabitant every couple of days, but it all seems rather soulless. (I was later to discover that everyone goes to the mall instead.) There is a well-manicured polo ground, some parliament buildings (that looked very much unused) and the state mosque, which I found rather bland. There isn't the same flashiness that is apparent in Dubai and other oil-rich gulf statelets, instead the wealth is less conspicuous, but nevertheless there. This is most apparent after a visit to the national regalia museum where there are displays of the ceremonial accoutrements that go with the pomp of the sultan's court life. Suffice to say that the predominant colour is gold. Shiny, blingful and everywhere. Sharing the same building is a large section devoted to various diplomatic gifts presented to the sultan and immediately reminded me of visiting Myohyang-san in North Korea. Such fawning hagiography always irks me, no matter the subject.

There is, nevertheless, something well worth seeing in Brunei, and that's Kampung Ayer, which means "Water Village". The origin of the name is pretty obvious as the houses of this village are all built on stilts in the Brunei river. Today the village is home to some 30,000 people, or a little under 10% of the country's population, but only a century ago half of the country lived in the various settlements on the river. The various neighbourhoods are all connected together by a veritable maze of wooden and concrete walkways. Like in Venice (to which it is often compared, but then again so are many other places) there are no cars, instead small motorboats buzz around, requiring only a token hand gesture or eye contact to bring them to a halt and whisk you off. Wandering around this floating warren you are able to catch glimpses of daily life - children playing, women washing clothes, and old men chatting on the porch - that just isn't accessible in the splayed suburbs on dry land. The inhabitants of Kampung Ayer are generally poor, but that is by Bruneian standards. The houses are far from squalid, with all of them boasting electricity, indoor plumbing and usually also satellite TV, although many do look rather rickety on the outside. Not that this has led to an exodus to the mainland, in fact there is a brand new, stilted housing estate (if that's the right term) being put up with large, concrete houses replete with all the necessary mod-cons, including individual jetties for private boats.

New social housing with a twist. Stilt houses with all the mod-cons in Kampung Ayer.

One attribute that Brunei does share with the oil-rich Gulf is its dependence on foreign labour. Whilst Bruneians have an enviable welfare state and heavy subsidies they aren't inclined to plump for any old job, which leads to a top-heavy state sector and most simple service jobs being taken up by Indonesians and Filipinos. Luckily the mix is pretty harmonious as not only are Bruneians less contemptuous than their Arab peers, but they are quite closely related to both Indonesians and Filipinos and can communicate well with either (Malay is Brunei's official language whilst English is widely spoken, whilst Indonesian is very closely related to Malay and Filipinos generally speak good English). In fact I seemed to mostly interact with Filipinos who were the hotel, restaurant and shop staff (although the bus drivers tended to be Indian, perhaps because too many Bruneians have been to the Philippines and have seen how they drive over there).

I had initially planned to breeze through Brunei. Few people would claim it to be a particularly happening tourist destination with lots to see, and yet I managed to spend almost an entire week. Doing what? First of all I had a very kind and attentive host who drove me around and introduced me to his friends. But I was also very lucky to meet a lady called Norizah, whose eclectic family background makes mine look very pedestrian indeed. She organises corporate events and was about to hold one for Total on safety in the workplace. As part of the event she was setting up a handful of staged, but unannounced, scenarios that are potentially dangerous to see whether people would notice and, more importantly, speak up. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and she suggested I participate in one of her skits. She even offered to pay me, although the simple offer of a buffet lunch was enough to sway me. So for my first paid employment in over two years I got to be an actor for a few minutes, carrying an oversized box through a hotel lobby. Oscar-worthy it certainly wasn't, but at least I earned a little pocket money and got to gorge myself on fancy hotel food (or at least fancy by my standards), always something that will endear a country to me.

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