"Just go up the forested hill back of the hotel," our cheery breakfast server says to a query of where to see monkeys. We are in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei on the island of Borneo.
A paved road veers steeply from the Radisson. "Good for at least a few hundred calories," I suggest to husband Rick as climbing inspiration. Mid-way, a break in the trees awards us a breathtaking glimpse of the city below.
At the top we head into dense foliage along a twisting route with a steep decline. Chirping, buzzing and rustling sounds. Tree tops sway, and there they are - long-tailed macaques; some leap over our heads to nearby trees! "Monkey-business on our first morning here!" Rick exclaims, the strenuous climb forgotten.
Soon, we know our way around Bandar Seri Begawan (aka BSB or Bandar) with its population of 241,000. Unlike us, in this ultra-clean city, locals drive everywhere, the AC blasting away as the temperature hits a humid 35C. Petrol costs only 51cents/litre; diesel 31cents/litre in Brunei currency (BDN$ almost equal to CDN$).
The country's official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam (Negara is "Nation" in Malay - the official language. Darussalam means "Abode of Peace" in Arabic, the language of the Quran, Sunni Islam the state religion).
Located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, it's about the size of Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island (Delaware in the US), making it one of the world's smallest countries, yet one of the richest with bountiful off-shore oil and gas reserves. Citizens pay no income tax; schooling (including post-secondary) and medical treatment are government sponsored.
In 1838, British adventurer James Brooke helped the sultan put down rebellions, and appointed himself Raja Brooke. He whittled the country away by a series of treaties, dividing it in half - as it exists today. The country became a British protectorate in 1888, and gained independence in 1984. The current Sultan, Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, born in 1946, is the 29th of his line, and his son, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, prepares to succeed him.
Sultan Bolkiahm, one of the richest men in the world, owns 5,000 high-performance cars sequestered in garages the size of airplane hangars. His 200 polo ponies are comfortably stationed in stables fitted with AC. Gifts of solid gold and priceless jewels in the Royal Regalia Museum were from various heads of state and royal families, particularly for the sultan's coronation day in 1968. We see the jaw-dropping gold-leaf royal chariot that pulled the newly crowned Bolkiah through the capital during his coronation and another, even grander, for his silver jubilee celebration.
The nearby golden-domed Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, named after the country's 28th Sultan, was completed in 1958. Its 52m (171ft) minaret made it the tallest building in Bandar, until the current Sultan built Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque with 58m (190ft) tall minarets, another splurge honouring his 25th anniversary.
Sometimes we hire a taxi for sightseeing - for example, the palatial Empire Hotel & Country Club. The South China Sea lapping out front, eleven floors of grandeur in glass and marble, a cinema building, and a Jack Nicholas-designed golf course are a few 'WOW' factors. This extravagant complex ($1.1 billion US cost) is a reminder of the sultan's younger brother Prince Jefri, who in 1997 went on a spending spree of $16 billion US. Eventually reeled in by his brother, he was forced to auction many prized possessions in 2001.
Our cabbie drives us to the nearby Jerudong Park Playground; it's a sprawling amusement area, featuring a water park, rides, mini-golf, and the best musical fountain in Asia!
Brunei is a shopper's delight boasting myriad malls. Map in hand, we set out for Gadong, the largest. Soon lost, I ask directions from a shop manager. He graciously insists that one of his employees drive us there, and soon we wander around the packed yet spacious complex. By late afternoon the nearby night market is underway, and we eagerly sample delectable food morsels before the 4km walk back to our hotel.
Bandar's streets are empty after dark, with little night life. Brunei adheres to strict Islamic observances. Our pilot announced before landing - "bringing drugs into the country is punishable by death." Alcohol is banned and not sold in the country, but foreigners may bring some for personal use.
Accordingly, the city exudes a tranquil atmosphere, the sensational rainforest never far away. A mere four blocks from our hotel is Taman Peranginan Tasek, a lush park with a small waterfall and hiking trails and more monkeys! Swinging from trees, the critters are not skittish. Even loud children aboard squeaky playground equipment do not faze them. Some sashay within inches of Rick's feet, then proceed to a ledge where they sit and munch leaves like people consuming popcorn at a movie, never taking their eyes off of the main feature - us.
Although Brunei sometimes challenged our North American sensibilities, our sightseeing and wildlife experiences were exceptional, enhanced by locals with their welcoming words accompanied with a smile.
Meet The Butlers
We feel gypsy blood runs deep in our ancestral veins, as when settled in one place for too long, an overwhelming urge to see yet another part of the world grips us.
My husband Rick and I live part of each year on the lower mainland of British Columbia. For the remainder we are off by air, road or water on journeys of discovery; these gifts of adventures are interspersed by the greatest gift of all - frequent visits to see our 5 sons, their partners, 7 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
On most of our travels the only 'stars' we see are in the sky - not hotel ratings. We move from place to place within a country by local means. The difficulties or challenges of this type of travel are superceded by the rewards of being involved in the daily lives of the peoples and cultures we visit. Respecting each culture's codes of dress and behavior is an objective we sum up as 'trekking the globe with gentle footsteps'. To have fun and follow the sun is our motto.
Although we have trekked through 120 countries in our lives, our writing about them is a more recent pursuit. We invite you to come with us on some of our past travels and 'subscribe to journeys' on our
web-site to keep abreast of our new wanderings.
Irene & Rick Butler
Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Irene Butler is an award winning writer and author of
"Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her husband Rick explore the world for six or more months of every year.
Taxi Service: There are only around 50 taxies in Bandar Seri Begawan - so don't expect to hail a taxi passing by on the street - but have your hotel call ahead for pick-up.
Public Holidays: Brunei shares major public holidays with Malaysia. Holidays specific to Brunei include Brunei National Day (23 February), Royal Brunei Armed Forces Day (31 May) and the Sultan of Brunei's Birthday (15 July).