Brunei: The Sultan, Shell Oil, and the 5-Spot Tin of Beer

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 6, 2001 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

The flight on Royal Brunei Airlines begins with a prayer to Allah on the television screen bolted to the front of the cabin. The prayer suggests that Allah, and not man, can produce anything in this world. Yet, as the plane lifts off, the serenity of every passenger's countenance must be due to a more inclusive faith in the laws of physics.

Sparkling grape juice is served as a beverage in lieu of wine, and when we arrive at the airport in Bandar Seri Bhagawan (BSB), Brunei's capital, our bags are searched for alcohol. Coming from Thailand, arguably the party capital of the world, these restrictions seem quaint; later we will learn - with little surprise -- that casinos and bars in Malaysia do a brisk business catering to Brunei businessmen escaping their country's prohibition.

We stay at the Pusat Belia, near the city center. Chiefly a youth hostel and fitness center, it boards tourists as space affords. The men's and women's dormitories are separated by a long walkway, and the proprietors enforce their separation seriously. Couples sit forlornly at a table betwixt the sides, and exchange maudlin good-byes come bedtime.

Our rather ancient guidebook indicates that an English-style pub might be found at "Ang's Hotel", just up the road from Pusat Belia. We scour the road but to no avail. Finally, we take dinner at the Terrace Hotel, thinking it might be Ang's Hotel under new ownership. My companion asks the waiter if she might have a beer, but he whispers that the woman assigned this duty is absent. A few minutes later, another waiter explains uncomfortably that for five Brunei dollars he could send someone next door for a "tin" of beer, but that we would have to take it back to our hotel room.

I am somewhat gladdened by this demonstration that prohibition, whether born from reasons religious or social, will never totally succeed. At best, it will only enrich vendors of alcohol, after making them criminals. Despite this, we virtuously declined the beer.

The next morning we had a breakfast of omelets and wonderfully frothy and sweet tea, concocted entirely by the hand of a skilled Tamilian. To create the froth, he poured the milkened tea from a jug to a glass and back again, the two containers held a good yard apart. This process, having the grace of a well-performed dance, without the irritating noise of cappuccino makers, endeared the Tamilian to me immediately.

BSB is a stunning repository of Brunei's wealth, largely derived from Shell Oil, which employs a large percentage of the population. Like other developed countries, Brunei travels almost exclusively by bus or car. There are signals at the crosswalks and buttons to expedite passage. The handicraft museum contains a marvelous array of Malay clothing, and a dizzying collection of artifacts pertaining to the beloved Sultan of Brunei. The Gedong shopping district contains an enormous mall and hosts of Internet cafes, and is reached by a public transportation system comparable with those of Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong.

Over laksa, the rich but tasty Malay version of noodle soup, our English companion from the Pusat Belia relates the story of a Patpong dancer, who projects bananas from her vagina. It is a world away from Brunei, where Islam hides all but the ankles and eyes of many of its women.

In the afternoon and evening, explosions of some kind are heard - possibly cannons, in preparation for the 54th birthday of the Sultan two days hence. Helicopters are heard frequently, and the roads are strewn with yellow banners inscribed with the number 54. Nearly every building flies ten or more of the yellow, white, and black Brunei flags, and the Sultan's picture is plastered everywhere.

The following day we travel to Muara Beach, on the north coast. It is utterly -- to my mind pleasantly -- deserted. Returned to Pusat Belia, I try to write in my journal but am instead drawn into a conversation with an elder Indian, who I had earlier seen pestering tourists trying likewise to record their experiences. "You live for yourself," he says. "You do not know what it is to live for others." A teacher of eight years, half of which was spent teaching girls in a Bombay slum, I take umbrage at this. The man tries to convince me that the British, the Queen of England specifically, still control the world, albeit more surreptitiously than in colonial times. "They conquered the whole world," he says. So did Rome, I think to myself.

As evidence of Britain's continued supremacy, he tells of how at border crossings the world round, he need only show his English passport and is summarily admitted with a reverent salute. America, he scoffs, is merely a willingly abandoned colony still de facto under the Imperial yoke. He claims that he wrote a letter to the President of the United States, in which he argued for a change in the constitution. The amendment, he claims, was made posthaste. He makes wild generalizations about the African-Americans - robbers, beggars, killers all. We argued until he walked off in a huff.

The next day was the birthday of the Sultan. Triumphant music filled the air of BSB, jets flew overhead; in the evening, fireworks bloomed like flowers in the sultry summer sky. We ventured to the national stadium, whose huge field was filled with thousands of Brunei devout, eating snacks, playing with balloons, engaging in pick-up football games. Along with our now sizable group of English companions, we played 'monkey-in-the-middle' with ardent children, eager to show off their skill.

I am again reminded that it is not historical sites or natural wonders that make a place worth visiting, but rather it is these informal interactions with the people - children most of all -- where differences of religion, skin color, and politics - so futile, as my conversation with the Indian had proven -- can be put aside for the sake of innocent, harmonizing fun.