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Friday, May 19, 2006

May 20, 2006 Brunei


On the west coat of Borneo Island, surrounded by the Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak lies the small but rich country of Brunei.

We sailed the 17 miles from Labuan, Malaysia to Brunei one day last week, leaving Labuan at 07:00 in order to make Serasa, on the Brunei River, before the ebb started at noon, and we anchored off the Royal Brunei Yacht Club at 11:45AM landing in our 18th country, and starting another new adventure. As it turns out that 17 mile sail was the shortest international passage we’ve done on Wings.

Brunei is an Islamic sultanate with extensive oil reserves and income. The current ruler, the Sultan of Brunei, is the world’s richest man, putting Bill Gates to shame, since he basically owns the whole country. He is an absolute monarch, and part of the single family which has ruled this country, passing the crown down from father to son, for 600 years. This family ruled this country before Columbus sailed to America in 1492. It hasn’t changed much, except that the sultans rarely obtain their position any more by assassinating their rivals, including family members, which they apparently did in previous centuries. We read the history of the sultanate, starting from the first sultan of this dynasty in 1406, and many, if not most, of the Sultans of Brunei ruled for very short times before dying in office. Quite a number died after they were appointed but before they were able to take office. More than one voluntarily submitted to execution after learning that a beloved relative was trying to kill them. They just marched into court and named their poison, so to speak. One chose to be garroted. I thought that was a bit odd.

We also toured a museum, and many of the exhibits consisted of daggers, swords, spears, guns, rifles, and various jars and bottles (suitable for poison?). We wonder of there is any correlation?

Despite this history, Brunei is a peaceful country. The full name of the country is Brunei Darussalam: Brunei, Abode of Peace, which name was ostensibly adopted after the rulers stopped killing each other. We find the country peaceful and quiet in a different way. Sleepy is the better term. We are anchored in a river delta, with views of many miles in any direction, and this place pretty quiet, hardly anything moves. When a speedboat comes by it can he heard and seen for 10 minutes before it arrives. When we go to town, the only jumpin’ place is the Gadong shopping district. People here have money.

The monarchy is benevolent. Brunei provides for its citizens free healthcare, free education, and nearly free fuel and oil. Diesel here costs about $.73 per gallon. The highest standard of living of all of Asia exists here in Brunei. The country side is dotted with houses which are nothing less than ostentatious mansions. Oil has been good to the citizens of Brunei. Brunei also has probably this highest density of foreign embassies in the world. There are 18 of them here, including US, France and Iran, but these are not neighbors on embassy row; they are discretely separated.

Water Village in Brunei

The capital, and main city, Bandar Sere Begawan, is located 15 miles up the Brunei River, and it has historically been water based. Many of the homes are located on stilts over the water, and always have been. Today Brunei boasts the world’s largest water village and engravings of the city scene from the 14th century show most of the buildings were built over the river even then. High powered outboard motors speed water taxi’s from downtown to the kampong, or water village, across the river. Commuters park their cars in lots near the river’s edge (on the city side of the river) and take a water taxi across to their houses on stilts. The city itself is spread out, with shopping areas connected by freeways, and most of it is modern.

This is NOT the Sultan of Brunei

We are enjoying our stay here. We’ve rented a car so we can get around, (mostly so we can get lost) on Brunei’s maze of freeways, and we’ve been shopping. The Yacht Club extends a welcome to visitors, has WiFi, a nice pool and a great restaurant on the water’s edge, and it is one of the only places where we can have a glass of wine with dinner. We’re allowed to drink in the clubhouse as long as we bring our own. Alcohol cannot be sold or served in Brunei.

This is probably our last stop in Borneo; the water tanks are full, so are the diesel tanks, and we expect to depart for Singapore within a week.

Click Here for all the Brunei photos

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Brunei



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