The Friendly Dictator

Our journey along the north coast of Borneo takes us to an old stomping ground – Brunei was a British protectorate until 1984. These days it’s a “dry” country (you can’t buy booze anywhere)… Did we not teach them anything?

We arrive on a Friday (their day of rest), the streets are eerily quiet. A sign says, “drop litter and it’s a $1000 fine (£500), drop it again and it’s $3000 and 3 months in the clink”…Seems a bit excessive.

Perfectly trimmed bushes
Perfectly trimmed bushes

The streets of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) are spotless (unsurprisingly), with perfectly manicured bushes and hardly any traffic. People shuffle about with no sense of urgency. Very strange for a capital city.

The whole “Sultan of Brunei” thing is intriguing; he’s the ex richest man in the world, with the largest residential palace – 1788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, 18 elevators, 5 swimming pools and 110 car garage.

Istana Nurul Iman from the river
Istana Nurul Iman from the river

A trip to the Regalia Museum tells us more about the main man; he became absolute ruler in 1967, and in 2006, he changed the constitution and declared himself infallible, giving him the same status as the pope. It all reminds me of The Dictator (2012), which as it happens is one of my favourite films of last year.

BSB is the size of a small town (130,000 people). The mosque seems to dominate life there. Every time I turn a corner, there it is again. We go inside, but are kicked out within minutes – closed apparently.

The Main Mosque - Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
The Main Mosque – Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

We visit the water village – Kampong Ayer), the largest stilted settlement in the world with 30,000 people. They’re calling it the Venice of the east. That’s a bit of a stretch – it’s got plenty of history (dating back 1300 years), but there’s no where to eat or drink and the walkways are a bit precarious.

The Water Village - Kampong Ayer
The Water Village – Kampong Ayer

I tell the boatman that I wanna see the Sultans palace. It’s only open once a year (for 3 days) during Hari Raya. We’re a week late, so we settle for a view from the boat. When we get close he comes over all friendly and offers to walk us round to the front gate.

The Sultan on a $50 bank note
The Sultan on a $50 bank note
He seems very proud of the Sultan and his palace, and tells us he used to work there (in housekeeping). We chat to the guards, who tell us the Sultan’s due back in 10 mins, so we hang around for a glimpse.

Dictators often get a bad press, but not this one. The people here seem to really like him (besides he owns the press), and with 0% tax, free education, virtually free health care and petrol at $0.56 a litre (that’s 25p), who can blame them.

My first visit to a dictatorship was an interesting experience. The people were friendly and the streets felt very safe. But you can’t get a pint or a bacon sandwich for love nor money, so I only stayed a couple a days.

Playlist additions:

The Specials: Ghost Town (1981)

Stereophonics: More Life in a Tramps Vest (1997)

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