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Bandar Seri Begawan



Brunei History Gallery

Negara Brunei Darussalam or "Brunei, Abode of Peace" constitutes less than 6,000 square kilometres of northern Borneo, with a population of only 340,000. Believed to derive from the words "baru nah", literally "This is it! (the place)", it is obviously named after the first words exclaimed upon its foundation! Chinese archives record it under the name of Poli as early as 473AD and there is evidence of the Hindu-Buddhist culture from the 7th to 14th centuries synonymous with the region. Arab traders arrived from around the 10th century until Islam became the official faith with the conversion of ruler Awang Alak Betatar in the 14th century, who adopted the title Sultan Muhammed Shah. The first record of the name Brunei comes from this time, naming it as Buruneng in a poem written in 1385 relating all the lands of the Majapahit Kingdom, it was a vassal state at that time paying an annual tribute of Camphor, a prized aromatic oil which is secreted from the uppermost trunk of 100 metre tall trees. 15th and 16th century Arab sources corrupted Buruneng variously as Burnai or Barain and 16th century European chronicles describe it as Bornei for example, from whence the name Borneo has evolved. I was interested to learn then that the names Brunei and Borneo have the same derivation, testimony to the fact that the Sultanate historically held power over the whole island. This variation in nomenclature also helps to demonstrate the diversity of foreign influence at that time.

Under the new Sultan's tutelage Brunei came to dominate local trade, symptomatic of the tendancy of passing trade to breed the evolution of aristocracies at river mouths. The controlling influence this created between the interior of Borneo and the outside world was cemented by the Sultan offering protection in return for commercial domination, his reach growing to encompass the whole of Borneo, Sulawesi and the Philippines. Its influence subsequently became eroded by the arrival of European powers which enforced monopolies under the duress of their greater naval power, with her imperial influence and revenues declining drastically with the onset of the 17th century.

An archaeological site known as Kota Batu 5Ks away from present day BSB was noted by Pigafetta, the scribe of Magellan's circumnavigational expedition in 1521, a commercial centre visited during what was then Brunei's golden age. He recounted a stilt village large enough to boast 25,000 families, the old capital much like the new. A map importantly explained its pivotal role in serving as a convenient halfway point along the northerly route from Malacca to the Moluccas, and friendly terms met between the Portugese and the Brunei Sultanate from 1514 were maintained for centuries in this ilk. It was this Portugese success which had prompted the Spanish to sponsor Magellan (perversely a Portugese) to find a Western route to the Spice Islands 1519-1522, spurred on by the delineation of undiscovered lands attributed under the Treaty of Tordesillas, establishing what was destined to be a lasting influence in the Philippines before spending 3 weeks in Brunei. Of the 5 vessels and 230 men who had set out on this venture only 1 ship and 18 men survived to return to Spain. Their desire to secure Spanish ports of call and further the dissemination of Christianity later brought confrontation due to Brunei's policy of Islamic conversion however, Francisco de Sande, the newly appointed 2nd governor of Manilla led a fleet to Brunei in 1578 in what became known as the Perang Kastila (Spanish War), noting a fine 5 tiered mosque in the process of seizing Kota Batu before the force succumbed to disease and were forced to retreat. Brunei's importance had grown not least in response to the Chinese demand for local natural resources, which at that time were mainly Camphor, Beeswax, Sea Turtle Shell, Bird's Nests, Sago, Palm Nut and Rattan, with a 17th century Chinese source quoting it as being a pivotal point deemed the "terminal point of the Eastern Ocean and beginning of the Western Ocean".

Upon declaring themselves protestant in 1568 and then finally shirking off Spanish governance in 1581, the Dutch promptly entered the scene. It was a major revelation of my visit to the Brunei Museum to learn that this historical revolution meant that they had become cut off from their traditional source of spices which were hitherto conveyed via Lisbon. Deciding the only solution was for them to venture forth and secure spices directly from their source, Holland's entry into the great colonial game was explained an it was crazy that 2 months in Indonesia, what was destined to become their Far Eastern bastion in that resolve, had not hitherto afforded that insight. Fighting the Spanish at every turn, the Dutch first reached Brunei in the year 1600 battle damaged and in need of refit, but their new national strategy was heavily invested in however. A further early realisation that a spirit of mercantile co-operation would be required for success saw the formation of the Dutch East India Company the VOC in 1602. Between 1614 and 1656 Holland established unprecedented control over the Spice Islands, with Spanish influence in Brunei receding in favour of protecting the Philippines from Dutch control, and the Portugese had similarly been pushed out with Holland's taking of Malacca in 1641, retreating to protect Macau and Formosa.

The British had arrived in Borneo before the Dutch , having established a trading station at Banjarmasin in the early 17th century, and it was in this connection that the threat to British merchantmen from piracy provoked the entry of the Royal Navy, though this interest was to be short lived. Pirates known as Ilanun and Balinini centred around the Sulu archipeligo travelled with the winds, creating a renowned "Ilanun Season" of organised pirate squadrons. The Dutch soon pervaded southern Borneo though, present day Kalimantan, with the Javanese Kingdom of Mataram further squeezing Brunei's seat of influence northwards to comprise what is now Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. It was this progressive erosion of the Brunei Sultanate's control over its territories which eventually saw the voluntary cessation of much of her land. As well as her inability to quell civil unrest between warring tribes and the problem of piracy, the growth of the neighbouring Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines meant that Brunei was in dire need of powerful friends. With the birth of Singapore in 1819, Britain re-enterd the fray around Brunei with the ceding of Labuan in 1846, and Brunei passed progressively further control of the originally small province of Sarawak to James Brooke. Sabah was similarly ceded as British North Borneo under a charter agreed with Queen Victoria, and the final districts of Putatan and Padas were cojoined in 1884. Trusan joined Sarawak and then in 1890 the Limbang River was most desperately passed over in hope of the British resolving disputes amongst the locals, effectively cutting the Sultanate of Brunei in 2. In 1895 the British North Borneo Company did a side deal in selling the Lawas River over to Sarawak, until by 1898 Brunei's present day borders were finalised. Though doubtless desirous of the protection these deals afforded I was left wondering as to just how much of this had been due to the genuine inability of the Sultanate to manintain law and order or whether it was more motivated by opportunism in grabbing the annual retainers. The final capitulation came with the acceptance of a British "Resident" or governor in 1906 which effectively brought Brunei under direct British control, and together with Sarawak and Sabah, Brunei was absorbed as a British Crown Colony in 1946 upon her retrieval from Japanese occupation. She only became newly independent in 1984.

Wildlife Gallery

The ubiquitous introductory beastie section was a better than average presentaton of Brunei's indiginous wildlife, though some licence had clearly been taken to include some East Malaysian species such is the Sultanate's humble expanse. Fully a third of the country is covered in mixed dipterocarp forest lowland foliage of wide diversity. I'm quite sure it managed to boast all of the many primate species on display however, with the Proboscis Monkey, Silver Langur, Maroon Langur, Grey Leaf Monkey, Long Tailed Macaque, Pig Tailed Macaque and Bornean Gibbon. Of the Deer species mentioned which were more numerous than hitherto encountered in Sarawak, the Sambar Deer, Common Barking Deer were joined by the Bornean Yellow Muntjac. It was also revealed that the Kancil is split into 2 sub species, the Greater and Lesser Mouse Deer, also explaining them to be the most primitive ruminants in the world since they lack the Omasum, the third of the normally 4 stomach chambers. The Porcupine also exists here in 3 distinct species and the Pangolin, Tarsier, Slow Loris, Clouded Leopard and Estuarine Crocodile all got a mention. Of the 8 Squirrel species the Great Squirrel was certainly the largest I had ever seen, a tufty beastie with a very long bushy tail the size of a cat. Conversely, the Sun Bear was related to be the worlds smallest bear species, relying heavily on smell since its hearing and vision are poor. 8 Hornbill species are endemic as ever and other final notables were the Reticulated Python,the King Cobra, the Finless Porpoise and the Bottlenose Dolphin. Impressive final specimens included a Scarab Beetle the size of my hand, a Horned Frog much larger still, and the very weird Fiddel Beetle, as were a couple of huge moths.

Oil and Gas Gallery

A dedicated presentation on this industry was testimony to its importance in the development of modern Brunei, a geographic quirk which otherwise might have struggled to remain a viable state. Since the first oil finds here in 1914, the British Malayan Petroleum Company was formed upon the discovery of the major Seria oilfield in 1929 and oil exportation had begun by 1932. After devastation wrought during WWII this field has risen to produce a peak of 115,000 barrels a day in 1956, a rate now restricted to 15,000, and Brunei produced her billionth barrel in 1991. Upon the commencement of offshore exploitation in 1963, gas became a more important factor, and upon its completion the Liquid Natural Gas plant built here was the largest in the world at the time. Under major player Brunei Shell, 5 major oilfields have now been developed, and besides use for local power stations the remainder is transported off to Japan under a contract of joint ownership by the Brunei government, Shell and Mitsubishi. This loading onto tankers is done from pipeline fed buoys 10Ks offshore, with 7.2 million tones of LNG being shipped annually. Tellingly, hydrocarbons account for more than 50% of Brunei's GDP and nearly 95% of her exports. I was happy to let the large detailed presentation on everything you ever wanted to know about the oil industry wash over me, though I did learn about the practice of Deviated Drilling for example, a technique which allows exploration at varying angles from the vertical. This allows the best use of fixed surface rigs, effectively bending the drill assembly in order to explore a cone shaped area.

Malay Culture Gallery

Though I had seen this kind of display many times before by now, this one was important considering that in his desire to cement a national identity, the present Sultan had early in his reign cited a strategy which he dubbed "Malay Muslim Monarchy", much to the chagrin of the sizeable resident Chinese population, most of whom are Christian. Concentrating on the many ritualised ceremonies of Malay culture, this presentation was better than most in relating that Sunat (Circumcision) is recommended but not obligatory according to the Koran, and is considered "noble" for women. As if they have a choice in it. Girls are circumcised at 40 days old, when perversely "a black chicken is provided to accompany her, if more than one is to be circumcised then the chicken is not needed". Primitive superstition or what! Boys are given the snip upon puberty, traditionally with a bamboo splinter, really something to look forward to. I read more about the Khatam Koran ceremony which marks the completion of Koranic recital lessons, the graduates' fingers and feet are coloured with an orange-red juice before songs and prayers are chanted. It was also revealed that during the Malay wedding ceremony, the couple are not allowed to sleep until the morning and traditionally play games in order to stay awake. Yeah, like before getting my rocks off for the first time I really want to be playing an all night session of Ludo. The Mullahs really just had to have one last throe at postponing the sins of the flesh! I finally learned that the male headdress worn on such occasions, the glittery pork pie hat with a cloth spire to one side is known as a Songkok. Various bad dirty jokes come to mind. As if to go out with a bang, this section of the museum was completed with an array of cannon, including dragon and serpent incarnations, one of which was uniquely double barreled.

An Islamic Art gallery was the kind of stuff I had seen ad nauseum, though I did actually appreciate what was obviously an exceptional collection of elaborate Korans, calligraphic decorated carpets and ceramics, jewellry and ancient coins. There was fine art work from Turkey, Iran, India, Egypt and Syria amongst other places and also a display of bronzework, weaponry and glassware. Fit for a Sultan, and I could only presume it had been appropriated by the Royal household over the centuries.

All in all I deemed the museum not bad at all considering the diminutive size of the nation, its disproportionate history was something of a draw and indeed it took me quite a while to get round the countless storyboards, with Roberto soon tiring of my persistence. It was too much even for me though to pay more than a passing interest to the exhaustive biographies of the royal dynasty and so I did my best to catch up with him. From here it was a 5 minute traipse downhill to what had rather confusingly been christened the Malay Technology Museum, actually a depiction of traditional lifestyles illustrated by a series of house mock ups.


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Sarawak to Brunei


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 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.

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The Pinnacles



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Mulu HQ to Camp 5


Today required a very early start before stocking up on inflated price grub and an unflattering rain poncho in anticipation of a 2 day wilderness sojourn. Though there were a few trekking alternatives on offer from within Gunung Mulu National Park, it had really been the draw of the world's largest cave chamber at what is after all one of Malaysia's 2 UNESCO sites which had prompted my resolve to visit. The trekking here was overpriced and problematic to reserve and yet I found myself signed up for the Pinnacles Trail, a ........ which did not even particularly appeal to me, yet given the money and effort involved in getting so close it seemed perverse to come here to visit the caves and no more. Part of the expense was perpetrated by the necessity of taking a longboat from the Camp HQ for a 30 minute river jaunt, quite clearly a local scam in securing employment and a quick buck where a forest trail could quite clearly have been created. First stop was an unexpected brow slapping layover at a telltale modern longhouse community clearly recently established for forcibly resettled Penan people, the last nomads of the forest, where stalls layered with tourist tack did not exude a good first impression. After sweeping round shady bends and negotiating at length a shallow rocky section which had necessitated other boatloads to get out and walk the boat over it, we put in at a boardwalk leading up to the second major brace of "Show Caves". First was the Wind Cave which though on a smaller scale than the previous giants made up for it in character, a golden underground chasm of sugar icing and many unlikely stalagmites. Clearwater cave had to be my overall favourite however, another fantasticly proportioned void which most remarkably as the name suggests, has a major and very clean looking river flowing through it. For the daring you could don a wetsuit and go caving from this point onwards, the initial phase being a swim down the quickly darkening gulf. Not for the faint hearted but what an adventure. It was here that I learned of the principle of "Keyhole" erosion, whereby the effects of alternating soft and hard layers of rock had over the millennia created a cleft of that very shape, as the river variously carved the rock side or river bed more than the other.

The boat from there took us up another excellent jungle clad highway until we were dropped at a shingle banking for our eventual egress into the forest. This was the start point of the real stuff now, an easy if somewhat boggy flat 8.5K trek punctuated by 2 bouncy wire suspension bridges. At the end of it materialised a haven christened only as Camp 5, a basic forest shelter which though mustering a busy kitchen for the all inclusive big spenders had only rubber mats and not much else under an open air roof to offer.

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Bario to Mulu


The day previous proved unremarkable in a indulgence of deserved relaxation and reading, marked only by the realisation of an anniversary for me, now a full 11 months on the road. I knew now that I had entered a different world indeed where time had been relegated to secondary importance to the incalculable wonders on offer, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo were only conducive to a timescale which I could never have hitherto contemplated and yet they justified every last day. Every day I impatiently thought of oh so near Australia and yet it was still a world away, I let that consideration remain surprisingly inconsequential in the presence of other important attractions. Certainly though I didnt wish any further unnecessary delay there could be no question of cutting corners.

Fearful of not uncommon delays and cancellations, we were fortunate in waking to a day of acceptably scattered cloud which would not preclude our departure. Nights of entertaining conversation with Swiss duo Alex and Melanie revealed that they had flown out in advance of us with the intention of next tackling Gunung Mulu National Park, and our immediate connection via Miri airport had us booked on the same flight as them back out into the jungle folds. Arriving at Miri airport after another panorama of forested rolling hills and logging track scars, it was a strange permutation to variously spy or meet up with a myriad of travellers whom I had met over the last fortnight or so. The Swiss duo booked on the same flight as us out to Mulu were predictable, and yet besides a gaggle of other fellow itinerants previously encountered I was shocked to unexpectedly come across Sine accompanied by an Ozzie bloke, she should have been long gone. My mind had writhed at an opportunity missed ever since I had left her here in Miri, and as though now to rub it in here she was having just completed the impending delights of Mulu and the Headhunter's Trail to boot. If I had been more partisan in forsaking Roberto and let my heart rule for once, it would have been me instead of the Ozzie that was plain, it helped that he was a nice guy though and I didnt let the perversity of the situation take the piss out of me. I was just left wondering whether I had made an error of judgment, or was it just the story of my life?

Another incongruous farewell saw me loaded onto a Fokker 50 in Malaysian Airlines colours for the backtrack up the now familiar route to Mulu, a flight less than full despite the ostensibly premium availability, and the remarkably swift 18 minute hop had us land at an airfield surrounded by jungle-clad limestone outcrop scenery reminiscent of southern Thailand. Our naivety played into the hands of touts awaiting the easy pickings of disorientated arrrivals, who we paid generously for an unnecessary short van transfer, upon which the park HQ became a focal point for further uncertainty. Hoping against hope that a bed with our name on it had been reserved, we had to collectively back down from expected confrontation when we found our names on the books after all, I joined Roberto, Alex and Melanie in a large dormitory against our expectation. They obviously didnt have a habit of confirming booking requests and given the propensity for problematic ramifications it was a poor excuse for service however they redeemed themseves since, especialy given the stereotypically inflated pricing.

With only 3 nights at Mulu, Roberto and I were forced into dropping our bags and immediately heading out on a lone and technically illegal evening foray, our itinerary for the next couple of days would leave us no other avenue to explore one of the local cave systems and so it had to be now. With the caves ostensibly closing at 6pm it was a rushed boardwalk speedmarch with no time to afford appreciation of especially prolific bird calls, and so we arrived at what was actually a less than immediately obvious yawning which unfolded only once almost within it, the cavernous entrance to the Deer Cave. Our first of the 5 resident "Show Caves", the Deer Cave was no ordinary hole in the ground. Boasting the worlds largest cave mouth and largest underground chamber, you could allegedly park 40 Jumbo Jets in it nose to tail......

Then nearby Lang's Cave after watching the amazing periodic sunset exodus of millions of bats......

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