My friend travel blogger Claire Algarme and I took the 8:10 evening flight to Bandar Seri Begawan. The capital city of Brunei is two hours and five minutes away from Manila, so, at 10:15 we were at the Brunei International Airport. Going through immigration was a breeze except for a little faux pas on my part; I took a photo of Claire while lining up and was promptly admonished by an eagle-eyed lady officer who pointed out a No Photograph sign. And she made sure I deleted what I took. I would discover that rules are rules over here and it is better if one does not bend them. The immigration form, for example, categorically states: DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER BRUNEI LAW. Flying back home, another officer confiscated my tube of sunblock just because it was over the 100 ml limit.
Welcome to Brunei Darussalam, A Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures, as its tourism byline goes. These treasures are not only its oil reserves, but also its natural beauty, government system, its gorgeous mosques, and people. Now, I am proud to say that “people” includes the substantial number of Filipinos who have called Brunei “home”. What would we girls have done without two hospitable and generous Filipino expats (Nonoy Hautea and Poks Grajo) who took the time to pick us up at the airport? First-time travelers to Brunei will find out that there are very few taxicabs and buses plying the nation’s highways. The country is so rich that there are more cars than people. 417,200 people versus about 2,000,000 cars. Highways are smooth and pass through public spaces made very lovely with landscaping. (I still had to see a traffic jam there.) The mosques are quietly lavish houses of worship with a pervading hushed reverence about them. Public buildings consciously echo the culture of Brunei. There is national pride in the prevalent application of the wave pattern in building designs.
Brunei is made up of diverse cultures. The brown Malay faces are mixed with the darker-hued Indians, porcelain Orientals, and a sprinkling of Caucasians. English joins Bahasa Melayu as official languages. Some terms are easy to understand. “Makan” for “eat”; “minum” for “drink”, “susu” for “milk”, “murah” for “cheap”, and “mahal” for “expensive. “Gunting”, “lelaki”, “Pintu” are easy to guess. However, “Jangan Buang Sampah di Sini” simply means “Do not throw trash here”. “Walk” is “jalan-jalan” which is puzzling until you go around town and see street signs such as “”Jalan Cator” or “Jalan McArthur”. “Jalan” means “street” and if you are Ilonggo, you will see the connection with the Hiligaynon “dalan”. Nevertheless, let us not forget that Brunei used to be under British rule so if you jalan-jalan on the jalan, watch where you’re going – cars are right-hand drive.
With culture comes food and understandably the predominant cuisine is Malay though one can enjoy Indian, or Chinese food as early as breakfast. The best place for varied and cheap eats is the night market which occupies a vast parking lot from 4 p.m. until evening. Sometimes, a cross-cultural attempt to put a message across can result in hilarity. For example, a Chinese dish is sold as “Exploded Chicken” or “Funny Taste Big Prawn”. Yet, service is taken seriously here. Most restaurants are prompt in delivering orders and this is a boon for the hungry diner.
Brunei is as brilliant as the golden domes of the Masjid Omar Ali Saifudden. It is like a beacon to many cultures and people. It is as bright as the Filipino talents that helped shape it as a nation. Brunei was a surprise for me.