A mega early muscle straining start was necessitated this morning for the hoof out to Miri's local bus station, a subsequent bus availing us of leg 1 of the crazily convoluted connection to Brunei. The typically unconventional manners I witnessed in partisan driving were compounded by a queue jumping chancer who I squared up to at Malaysian immigration, but the short hop to the Brunei entry post was quiet and a little unorthodox in being ushered into a cramped office. It seemed that the poor transport service was merely reflective of the fact that this border was simply little patronised. After no bag check nor even any sign of a customs hall, a switch onto an equally spartan Brunei bus conveyed us to the Baram River crossing, which was not the RO-RO variety I had expected but a tiny wooden putter boat whom the bus boy paid on the spot. A long anticipated dream and in honesty one of the major instigations for my sidetrack into Borneo, Brunei at first appeared even more Islamic with more headscarves evident and distinctive extravagant almost futuristic mosque architecture. Affluence was discernible in grand public buildings, ostentatious mansions short on taste and many flashy cars. The nodding donkeys and gas plants lining the road in succinctly revealed why, and a sign by a leafy housing area betrayed a sense of dictatorial pride, for some reason declaring "Sale of Motor Vehicles Prohibited". A further fenced off area of squeaky clean spartan housing was a revelation in bearing a NAAFI shop, subsequent signs related it to be a British army outpost of the Ghurka Garrison. Having worked for the NAAFI in Germany it was an unexpected marvel to come across a place I had doubtless in the past dreamed of being posted to, it had to be lost on Roberto though why I would possibly want to stop here just to visit a shop. Arriving in nearby town Seria, functional blocks little different from standard Malaysian conurbation, another bus took us the last long leg into Brunei's capital and only city, which goes by the name of Bandar Seri Begawan. It had been part of the mission to learn just exactly what all that mouthfull meant if nothing else, and knowing that Bandar simply meant port it was a little underwhelming to learn that Seri Begawan was simply a title adopted by the previous Sultan upon his abdication. clear as mud then. But no matter, it was always just referred to as BSB or Bandar anyway.
I struggled to hide my grumpy mood that day, provoked by a multitude of petty frustrations which were symptomatic of not feeling in control of my destiny these days. The enforced dawn rise and immediate departure from Miri prompted by Roberto went against my better judgement, I would have much preferred a rest day to convalesce after the hardships of a weeks trekking and privation. We were pushed on by the need to hit Kota Kinabalu by the 31st in time to realise Malaysia's national day in a suitably large town where the party would be sure to kick off, and there was also the pressure of the impending appointment to meet back up with the Swiss duo to tackle Mount Kinabalu a couple of days later. It all made sense on paper but with the independent Sultanate of Brunei beng such a quirky long anticipated goal, it pissed me off to be caught up in an enforced rush distracted. Though Roberto was mature for his 25 years and surprisingly not at all a pain in the arse, perhaps it was his energy or converse lack of restrain which made me feel the crushing need to break free on my own, I knew though that that wouldnt be for another week at least. We had been thrown together for practical reasons and so it remained.
Further contemplation of Brunei differed from Malaysia in the appearance of Arabic script, and the money trail was further evident in the propensity of strimmer operators everywhere, tending road verges and junctions which were consistently prettified. Petrol was unsurprisingly very cheap at 53 cents a litre (about 17p) and diesel was little more than half that. Street naming was nothing if not systematic, with the many sideroads off the one main highway simply being numbered Simpang (Road) number so and so until they reached into the thousands. The procession of overelaborate individualised villas lining it continued unabated.
Glimpses of huge golden clad onion domes belied the tree enshrouded Sultan's palace, an equally extravagant complex larger than Buckingham Palace, it allegedly boasted crazy statistics such as 1778 rooms and almost 6000 chandeliers, sadly it was safely enshrouded behind trees in the main though. Crossing the Edinburgh Bridge deposited us in the city centre, on the face of it a standard not unlikeable affair, from whence we immediately hit the nearby tourist office in spying it off the bus. After being told that Brunei's sole budget accommodation option the Youth Hostel was closed and crazily not even being able to afford us a map, cynicism did us proud in resolving to track down the hostel in any case. It transpired to be thankfully open after all, in fact just newly so after a renovation, phew! In a long list of added bonuses, the central location directly opposite Brunei's somewhat defunct Legislative Assembly building was compounded by an on site internet cafe, plush rooms devoid of other takers and most amazingly a swimming pool. Really just happy at having found anywhere at all acceptable given Brunei's reputation for bruising your wallet, at little more than 3 quid a night, it was a steal.
It was merely after a road crossing that we found ourselves outside what could be considered 2 of Brunei's most important public buildings, complimented by a large minaret and fountain, the Legislative Assembly and the ..........Hall, and yet our ability to wander in between them unchecked and gawp around testified to the fact that they are in fact little used. No democracy here folks, the Sultan rules by decree. We managed a peek inside the ....... Hall, all red carpet and collonaded pillars, it was the site of the Sultan's coronation in 1968 and the golden throne still sat marooned at the end of the empty hall. It was quite strange that there was nothing and nobody to stop us going in and even sitting on it it seemed, save the conscience of our mucky feet. That small insight was rather pertinent in that under continuing pressure of time and fearful of Brunei's expense, we persisted with a resolve to fill out the remainder of the day with the cities most convenient attractions. First at hand was the Royal Regalia Museum right across the ensuing road the other side.
THE ROYAL REGALIA MUSEUM
The large domed edifice sporting a prong on its crown resembled a German WWI helmet, and had been seemingly purpose built for the extravagant housing of the paraphenalia associated with the Sultan's coronation and ceremonial duties. After removing our shoes to save a further red carpet, entering immediately revealed the wooden Royal Chariot purportedly used only once for the coronation on 1st August 1968, it was adorned with gold patterning with tyred wheels just visible behind fake cartwheels, resembling in size the chassis of a bus. Push me pull you trolleys were attached at either end so that bearers might manually push it using horizontal hand grips. A similarly garish golden throne sat atop pride of place, bearing an emblem including 2 lions on its backplate. Though a storyboard had considerately abbreviated the Sultan's full 31 word title, it was clear that His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Brunei Darussalam was still thoroughly accustomed to such apparently synonymous overindulgence. The remainder of the large entrance hall was tiered with a cavalcade of the associated pomp, with the ceremony led by the bearer of a very long 2 pronged spear, and escorted by countless cohorts wielding decorative round or losenge shaped shields, spears and costume. Other porters bore betel nut boxes, vases, garish tassled parasols and musical instruments such as solid silver drums, a type of oboe and gongs. An internal gallery related the procession for real, with a similar chariot being apparently drawn by an escort of costumed mannequins in red or black, this one was used for the 1992 Silver jubilee celebration.