The country of Brunei is a very strange place indeed. A spot on the island of Borneo surrounded from all sides by Malaysia and the sea, it was meant to become a part of Malaysian Federation back when the Brits were imagining their escape routes from here. At the eleventh hour the Sultan of Brunei pulled out of the Federation, appalled by the idea of lowering himself to be on the same level as the rest of the local Sultans – many of them coming from the younger branches of the same Brunei dynasty. This turned out a stroke of genius, when they found oil in Brunei – a lot of oil – a humongous quantity of oil. There was so much of it that in the eighties the Brunei Sultan became the richest man in the world. In the history of the world there probably isn’t a person who would have spent as much money personally as himself – billions of dollars for cars, women, parties and palaces. I was intrigued by this little speck lost in the vastness of Asia and so I decided to spend a couple of days there, especially as it was easy to include it in the itinerary that took me from Bangkok to the Philippines.
At first sight Brunei is the most Muslim of countries. In the plane heading there a strict voice declares that taking drugs to Brunei is punishable by death. The airport greets you with muezzin’s voice retranslated loud and proud. Forget alcohol in a restaurant. The centre of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) – the capital, which the British called simply Brunei City – is dominated by the huge Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque.
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