October 31, 2013 – Muara, Brunei (Borneo)
Borneo, a large island at the bottom of the South China Sea, between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, contains three different countries: part of Malaysia, part of Indonesia, and all of Brunei. I had always heard of Brunei since all conversations about rich monarchs eventually include the Sultan of Brunei – his palaces, his cars, his wives, and now we are in his country.
The Sultan is not a ceremonial monarch, as in Great Britain, he is absolutely in charge. It is his army and navy we passed on the way in, his oil fields off shore and his country, his flag.
He is the 29th in an unbroken line of rule, going back over 700 years, and has been in charge since his coronation in 1967. Brunei was a under a British Protectorate until 1984, when it gained its independence. It is still a member of the Commonwealth.
As we entered the harbor, we passed the main Brunei Navy base, and some of its ships.
It is always interesting to see the greetings we receive upon arrival. I am sure the call of a cruise ship is a significant economic event, and the local version of the chamber of commerce tries to show how very welcome all the Yankee Dollars are, and so we are greeted with traditional dress and necklaces of beads and shells.
We boarded a tour bus, since there are few taxis in Brunei, and none at the pier. The reason for this is that due to the price of gas, about $1.25 a gallon, and auto subsidies from the government, the average family has 3 cars – no need for buses or taxis. Due to about $10 billion a year in oil and gas exports per year, and only 400,000 citizens, there is more than enough money for the Sultan and his people. Free education through college, free health care – what a guy – just like our guy!
Brunei, as is much of Malaysia and Indonesia is Muslim. The Sultan is Muslim, and the laws are basically British Common Law, with a few Shariah overriding exceptions. Each Sultan builds a massive Mosque, which is considered “his” Mosque (although anyone can attend) – this is the current Sultans Mosque, which has 29 gold domes.
This is the private escalator for the Royal Family’s exclusive use, and it is turned on every Friday when they attend mandatory prayer services.
This is the Mosque of the current Sultan’s father – and yes, it has 28 gold domes. Notice the contrast between the lavishness of the Mosque and the Water Village in the foreground. These water villages are everywhere in Asia, and are basically clusters of homes built on stilts over the water, and contain Mosques, schools, markets, etc. They are slowly disappearing as younger generations are persuaded to live on the land. The people in these villages are somewhat similar to the Gypsies of Europe – they represent both a lifestyle and almost a distinctive “race”. They are often refugees from nearby countries.
We visited a museum called “The Regalia”, which displayed a collection of items belonging to the Sultan and items from his coronation and Silver Jubilee celebration, including the massive “chariots” in which he rode for the parades. They were “pulled” (they were actually motorized) by 24 guards and “pushed” by 24 more. I guess in the old, pre-oil , days he would have been carried.
Next we got a glimpse of the Sultan’s Palace – just the gates, and the top of the Palace from across a river. The yellow flag in the center of the picture indicates that the Sultan is in residence. He has been married 4 times and has 12 children. His first wife, to whom he is still married, was selected by his family, and by law is his wife for life. Under Muslim law, he is allowed up to four wives at a time, and he has married three additional times, divorcing each, but keeping the children. As we were passing this area, we were signaled to the side of the road by passing police motorcycles. Our guide told us a member of the royal family was likely passing and indeed more motorcycles at high speed and a Lamborghini roared past us, followed by a sedan, bringing up the rear. She told us to have our cameras ready, but I could barely identify it, much less take a picture. Probably just some prince.
The palace has 1700 rooms, 257 bathrooms, and there are 1000 people working there. Underneath the palace is a garage storing his collection of 200 cars. Don’t you know I would love to prowl through that garage? There is an apartment complex next to the palace, to house the palace staff – here is one of the six or seven buildings in the complex.
Our tour next took us into the Sultan’s Polo grounds – he is an avid Polo player and keeps several hundred Argentine horses at the Polo Club.
The Sultan’s brother, sometime in the 90s visited Disney World and was fascinated with the rides, but very frustrated at lining up with the commoners hours on end for one ride. Upon his return, he persuaded his brother to build a first class amusement park in Brunei, for the exclusive use of the royal family. It was built and named Erudong Park. It had all the rides that he found in DisneyWorld, including Space Mountain.
For his birthday, his sister gave him this giant crystal Diamond, which was mounted at the roundabout near the entrance.
After a while, the boss, his brother, began complaining about the extravagant expenses, for something only used by the royals, so the park was opened up to the public, free of any charge. It was immensely popular and was the major gathering and entertainment spot for both Brunei and Malaysia. Unfortunately, the increased usage caused huge increases in operating and repair costs, so the Sultan decided to begin charging a fee. Attendance dropped to almost nothing and the park closed, and the rides were all sold off. There is some sort of lesson in marketing and capitalism in this tale, but I am too tired to work it out. By the way there is currently some sort of legal dispute between the Sultan and one of his brothers over misuse of funds – I don’t know if it is the same brother or the same issue?
One last Mosque on the way back to the ship.
We are about Mosqued out! On to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia