February 7, 2010
Our first destination today was the Royal Regalia Building. Prior to this excursion there were lectures on the history of Brunei, once occupying all of Borneo and parts of the Philippines, but gradually reduced through the years (it’s almost impossible to find on the map) by numerous treaties into a fraction of the island, the third largest island in the world; Greenland and New Guinea are larger. With its tiny size Brunei is extravagantly enriched by oil. It has no income tax, universal education, free medical care, and pensions for the needy. We passed a service station selling gas at $0.25 per liter; gas prices have not increased in years. We also passed very affluent neighborhoods with large, beautifully landscaped homes. This is also a country where head-hunting among up-country tribes is only a generation or two distant. The women were comforted to know that head hunters did not choose women as victims. It also has people living in dilapidated stilt homes on the river. The country is Muslim, but other religions are tolerated; our guide was Roman Catholic, originally from the Philippines, and was not discriminated against. The Sultan heads everything: he is sultan, king, prime minister, defense minister, treasurer and head of the Muslim faith. We passed two courts, one for Muslim law the other British law. Caning for punishment is decided by an imam judge for some crimes, more serious punishment for others (not cutting off fingers or hands). The Sultan was building another palace for another wife; a Muslim can have four wives, but has to be able to support them and house them separately. The first wife has to consent to marrying a second wife. As far as the Sultan’s romantic involvements were, it reads like “Inquirer”, really complex. But he’s the Sultan and can do what he pleases. The people love him because he is like a benevolent protector, sharing his wealth with the people. (But how much he shares is only speculation. He is the third (?) richest man in the world.)
The Regalia Building is immense and houses various costly trappings of the royal dynasty. We removed our shoes before entering where the center of attraction is the coronation coach that would be pulled and pushed by 24 selected men in the front and 24 in the rear, with space in the coach for selected royalty. There were shields and spears surrounding the coach. That was the limit of taking pictures. We had to store our cameras in lockers before going through the rest of the building that had extensive displays of royal finery, gifts from countries, and a replica of the royal palace.
Two mosques were next, where again we removed our shoes and women with bare arms and men wearing shorts had to don black robes. Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque was built by the present ruler’s father by masons from Italy with marble from Italy, granite from Hong Kong, and stained glass from England. If we weren’t able to see the Taj Mahal, this was supposed to be close to it. The Jame’s asi hassanil Boblkiah Mosque by the present Sultan is newer and shinier, if anyone can imagine that. But with all that money, the sky’s the limit!
Our lunch was at a hotel where we noticed both men and women were wearing stunning costumes in the lobby and outside the hotel. A wedding was taking place in the early afternoon. The wedding would last three days and 12,000 guests were invited. The guests do not give gifts, but the bride and groom present gifts to the guests. That really cuts down on the Bridal Registry! I just happened to miss the event, but those that did happen to assemble to catch a glimpse thought they saw some from the royal family, which happen to be related to either the bride or groom.
The dining room of the hotel was really strange. The buffet was very good but I sat at the last table of the dining room facing a shopping center. There was no glass or wall, but as I’m eating I’m watching a woman put some pants to her little boy for size, another woman doing the same with a dress for her little girl, tables with shirts for $3.99, back packs, toys, and other household goods all around. Probably that’s why I missed the wedding: I was distracted by the shoppers.
Boarding a boat that accommodated about twenty passengers facing each other we sped over the Brunei River toward the mangrove swamps in search of the elusive and shy proboscis monkey, only found in Borneo. Only the male has the prominent proboscis; the female has only a pointed nose. Females fight over the male with the longest proboscis. We also learned that the male has a permanent erection, so he’s always ready. There were some fishermen in the shadows of this 90° day, and our boat slowed not to disturb the water too much. Our guide spotted a poisonous mangrove snake that had yellow stripes. It was well camouflaged, and without binoculars I couldn’t see it. We got excited whenever we saw movement in the trees, and could see glimpses of monkeys. We got a better look when the trees cleared a bit and saw a family scampering up and down trees. The trees were bare enough and the light was perfect to see them; however, they were not that close.
We circled back until we came upon the houses on stilts. These were not as nice as those we saw in Vietnam, with plants in planters and hanging pots. Many of the ones we were seeing now looked more like boarded-up shacks. We were headed for one of these homes where we would meet a family and be served refreshments. We had to get to this home by passing by others closer to the river bank. All I can say is that you’d better be sober getting home at night because on each side of the wooden walk with no railing was water. The home was very large, kept by the family for just such occasions and used as a tourist attraction. There was ample seating on couches and arm chairs to accommodate all of our group with tables set with about four different desserts, plus hot tea.
This was our last excursion of the day before heading back to the ship.