AN IRISH BACKPACKER ASKED ME, in the Kuala Lumpur airport the other day, where I was headed. “Brunei,” I told him. He didn’t hear me. “Phucket?” No, Brunei, I repeated, on the jungle island of Borneo. He looked confused. “Never heard of it,” he said. “What country is it in?”
Brunei is accurately and often exclusively described as a small oil-rich Islamic state in Southeast Asia, notable for its 40-billion-dollar-net-worth sultan and his crazy-expensive palace with gold-plated bathroom sinks and the like. Last week, an Indonesian man I met named Hadi seemed impressed that I was travelling here. “Air-con,” he said, waving his arms around to indicate its omnipresence, “and nice carpets.”
I concede naiveté in expecting gold-plated sidewalks to line these streets. They are not very clean. We have yet to visit the sultan’s famed palace — V spent most of the day bedridden, and we were exhausted from an early morning flight — but we did enjoy a sunset stroll of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifudden Mosque, the postcard gem of Muslim architecture in this part of the world. It is inescapably gorgeous. A light rain began to fall just as the sun was setting and it created a perfect crescent rainbow behind us, soon overwhelmed by the strung-up Christmas lights hung up downtown. One gets the sense that these people know exactly what beauty they’re sitting on, but a tiny population (under 400,000) and seclusion from the world has kept them humble.
Also, possibly the poverty. I don’t know statistics, and certainly the country, whose currency is tied to Singaore’s at a 1:1 exchange rate (fun fact: you can pay for anything here with Singaporean dollars), is among the richest in Southeast Asia. But across from the major mosque lies a lesser-visited water village, a stretch of shanty homes on stilts propped up over a murky brown river littered with trash. The water villages across the river to the south seem, from the little I’ve seen so far, to be much swankier; they are collectively called Kampong Ayer, and are a major tourist attraction. But the homes beside the mosque are in mostly rough condition. It is jarring to see such dilapidated wooden shacks so close to one of the most majestic modern buildings in Southeast Asia, down the road from the Guinness World Record holder of the largest palace in the world.