Oil Money

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Trip End Oct 06, 2013


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Flag of Brunei  ,
Monday, October 8, 2012

Most guide books and tourist sites will suggest that Brunei, and Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) in particular is barren of anything interesting to see or do. And It's true that there is a limit to the number of things to see (and the biggest sight around, the Royal Palace, is off limits), but we found Brunei to be source of fascination. It was less about the sights and more about the history and status of the tiny sultanate (it was also our first ever Sultanate so it was a significant curiosity). Brunei is a monarchy and has been ruled by the same family for over six centuries, and there is almost no chance that Deb P could find it on a map.

I did find that the concept of one extraordinarily wealthy family (and one man in particular) ruling over a population that was still struggling with poverty was bringing out my inner communist (I didn't even know I had an inner communist!!). Muda Hassanal Bolkiak is the 29th sultan as well as the head of the government. The West is littered with examples of individuals who do little or nothing to warrant their excessive wealth (name just about any movie star) but the Sultan of Brunei who, by biological good luck, was born into the right family, and, by geographic good luck, controls a small country that is sitting on massive oil reserve, must be the poster child for shameless spending of unearned wealth (to the point at which even those vapid Real Housewives of Beverly Hills would be blushing). Need convincing?

* estimated net worth: $25 billion
* Brunei is the home to the largest residential palace in the world today.The Istana Nurul Iman is more than half a kilometre long and one-quarter of a kilometre wide, and has 1,788 rooms (338 mote than the Vatican in Rome), 257 bathrooms, a banquet hall that can be expanded to accommodate up to 5,000 guests, a mosque accommodating 1,500 people.The total floor area is 2,152,782 sq. feet. It also includes 110-car garage, 5 swimming pools and table for the Sultan's 200 polo ponies.
* the sultan has at least 7,000 cars and has bought over U.S.$789 million worth of high-performance car: more than 530 Mercedes-Benzes, 600 Rolls-Royce's, 134 Koenigseggs, and 450 Ferrari's in his car collection. Some of the cars housed here are the only ones of their kind on the face of the earth like the Porsche Carma and the right-hand drive Mercedes CLKGTR. Several concept cars like the Ferrari Mythos and Pininfarina-designed Jaguar XJ-220 also grace the 'garage'.
* a car parked at the back of the garage may need almost 1.5 hours to be brought out.
* the sultan keeps a Rolls-Royce in front of his palace with the engine running 24-7.
* recently purchased 48 handbags, and 24 “duck” umbrellas from Lederer de Paris shop in New York
 * brother, Prince Jefri,, pilfered $15 billion from the sultanate while in charge of finances (in charge for no other reason than he was related to the sultan)- how rich do you have to be to not notice a theft of that magnitude?

Perhaps emulating the Sultans passion for cars, there are 3 times as many cars as there are people in Brunei- even the shanty town homes would have a reasonably nice car parked outside (nicer than the homes!). Forgotten in this car friendly Asian country was the pedestrian (we saw two pedestrians....if we counted ourselves)- it seemed as though the Sultan must of made a mass purchase of traffic lights and related paraphernalia, installed it all, and left the pedestrian crossing signals permanently red- we never once saw them flip to green?? What is the punishment under Sharia Law for jay walking?? Very strange.

We did jay walk our way around to see most of the sights of BSB with the most interesting stop being the Royal Regalia Museum, where visitors can glimpse the Sultan’s full royal regalia, including the crown and royal chariot, along with a vast collection of opulent treasures. Most of the displays were gifts presented to the Sultan for a wide range of celebrations- apparently world leaders are still pretty keen on presenting each other tributes as long as they don't have to foot the bill (there was even a soapstone carving from former Canadian PM Jean Chretien). Not surprisingly, the biggest gift giver seemed to be Shell Oil, the Dutch based oil company. DH was trying to imagine just how many gifts the Sultan has received if there's no room in the palace for ones displayed here.

Named after the 28th sultan of Brunei (the late father of the current sultan), the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was built in 1958 at a cost of about US$5 million, and stands next to Sungai Kedayan in its own artificial lagoon. The 44m minaret makes it the tallest building in central BSB, and look out if you try to outdo it – apparently the Islamic Bank of Brunei building originally exceeded the height of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and consequently had to have its top storey removed by order of the sultan

We even managed a boat trip into the mangroves for a some proboscis monkey spotting. On our way out and back we got to see what the locals call the 'Venice of the East'. Built entirely of stilt houses and wooden walkways, this cluster of 42 villages houses more than 30,000 inhabitants and is the world's largest water village. Brunei also forced us to ask a somewhat unexpected question- is there something about excessive drinking (in a dry country), and chain smoking (in a non-smoking hotel) that causes Chinese businessmen to wander the halls in their red bikini underwear? Unfortunately for an unsuspecting hotel desk clerk this was the third non-smoking hotel in a row that turned a blind eye to smoking that would make a forest fire seem mild by comparison (can you claim to be a non-smoking hotel if you have ashtrays underneath all of the non-smoking signs??). DH began describing in vivid detail the skimpy male undies she was being subjected to, and the poor conservative Muslim girl working the front desk (who was obviously terrified at the thought of having to confront drunk, red bikini clad Chinese businessmen) once again proposed a solution that involved us moving to a room behind the kitchen. This time there would be no moving and our neighbours were threatened with a beating if they didn't keep their doors tightly closed (and if that didn't work, DH was going to get me involved). Problem solved.

Contrary to other reports we found Brunei to be interesting- the oil reserve is supposed to run dry in 25 years. What happens then? If the lavish spending continues, and the diversification attempts fail, Brunei may just become a country version of the old gold rush towns.
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Comments

Elaine & Doug on

Conspicuous consumption taken to an obscene nth degree!

Carol on

I just can't understand how people an live in such opulence when all around them people live in shanty town style homes? So much greed!

Marlene S. on

I would have paid to see Deb arguing with a "red bikini clad Chinese businessman" LOL I would have been arrested if I had to deal with
that and those!!!

I could have served ten years doing groundskeeping or cooking at the Palace!!

Marlene S. on

Again, I say, KARMA's a BITCH! The greed, glutony and selfishness is unbelievable.

I their defence, they were born into this, and don't know any better (or worse) !!

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