Getting there is half the fun. Royal Brunei Airlines is the only real option so I had to overnight in Bangkok on my way here. When I boarded the Airbus 320 at Suvarnabhumi Airport the colorfully attired flight attendants greeted me with broad smiles and fruit juices. The flight safety video was followed by the voice of an Imam reciting a prayer for the safety of our flight. The jet seemed to be in good condition but the extra precaution is always appreciated.
The capital city Bandar Seri Begawan has wide streets that wind their way through areas of tropical foliage and modern buildings as tall as twenty stories. Our hotel was walking distance from the bay where we could look out and see the water village (Kampong Ayer) where all of the houses are built on stilts in the bay. This is why the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan's crew dubbed it the "Venice of the east". The bay is alive with the sound of motors as the open longboats roar back and forth serving as water taxis. We sat out on the bay one night for dinner and watched the action while we ate Italian pasta
Brunei once ruled the entire island of Borneo but now is tiny and is bordered by Malaysia to the south with Indonesia ruling the bulk of the Island beyond that. Somehow this small sliver of land they kept ended up located above several large oil and gas deposits which now comprises some 95% of their foreign exchange income. The Brunei Shell Petroleum company is (like most Brunei companies) 50% owned by the Government. I read that over 95% of the land is government owned. I once asked what was the difference between the Sultan and the government and got one of those "that's a really stupid question" looks. So the country is wealthy and the Sultan is wealthy. In fact everything from petrol to food is subsidized. While I was here the Borneo Bulletin newspaper carried a story about a man caught smuggling bags of rice into Malaysia who was fined B$10,000 and another where they caught a guy with multiple gas tanks smuggling out gasoline that he bought (subsidized) in Brunei and could sell for four to five time the price across the border in Malaysia. He got a B$6,000 fine (about US$4,500). Drug traffikers get the death sentence.
There are various museums and monuments with a lot of focus on honoring his majesty the Sultan. The country's history goes back some 1,500 years and it was located on the trade route between China and the west. Having been in the region this year where food and transport were inexpensive it has been surprising to pay the local prices for meals and taxis. Hotels are not exactly cheap either and we have Internet access in the hotel but is B$8/hour compared to US$4/day in Indonesia and free in Vietnam. Fortunately our host, the Ministry of Finance, has provided us with a pleasant driver and a van. My colleagues Rajan (an Indian who lived in Washington DC) and Malcolm (from Melbourne, Australia) left ahead of me so I will downsize to a car starting on Monday.
The people have been quite nice and it is a stable and clean environment. This is the classic "roll up the sidewalks at ten o'clock" kind of place which is a nice change of pace... for a while anyway. Hoping to get to the rain forest (best preserved on the island of Borneo) some day, perhaps on one of my other two trips here next year.