Friday, December 03, 2010

Brunei for Dummies.

In 2007 I had written a highly acclaimed post for people who may want to travel to Germany and avoid rookie mistakes. It’s time for the much delayed next installment which will guide the ignorant traveler intending to visit the tiny Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam.

Quite a few on finding out that I spent a little over a month in Brunei, sheepishly asked where is Brunei? (Some used ‘what’ instead of ‘where’) I envy them. I believe that most of us are better off being unaware of the existence of a country where tax is just a word used on Scrabble boards and driving any car from the last century is considered taboo. But in keeping with the Lonely Planetish spirit of the post, I shall be kind with the trivia dispensing. Brunei is a monarchy, sultanate to be more precise, on the island of Borneo in South East Asia. The two hallmarks of the nation are its particularly loaded Sultan and its astounding luck with hydrocarbons. As far as what you can do as a tourist there kindly refer here. For the more adventurous who want a true ‘feel’ of the place read on.

1. The first thing which one observes in Brunei Darussalam is that people are happy. So obviously I was pissed off the moment I landed. I can make a leeway for lot of things but definitely not contentment.

2. There is just one major road in Brunei running from the east to west. The locals obsequiously refer to it as ‘The Highway’. The time to traverse the whole length of this 120km lifeline is what one would take to travel from Indira Nagar to Marathahalli in Bangalore at peak traffic hour. So unsurprisingly quite a few Bruneians commute daily from the capital Bandar in the eastern corner of the country to Seria in the western corner, where The Corporation which shall not be named has its premises.

3. Anyone living in the small towns in India is aware of the horrible practice of everyone knowing everything about everybody. I had a tough time growing up in a town where every move was noted and quietly reported back to the puppet masters. Brunei citizens experience the same misery but on a national scale. The rare upside to such a close knit country is that when one gets hauled up for speeding on ‘The Highway’ by the police, it is highly probable that the erring driver and the policeman may be distantly related. So the old Indian excuse of,’Sirjee, chota bhai samajhke isbaar ke liye chhor do’ will hold a lot of water in this part of the planet.

4. One of the most striking features of the country is the overwhelming presence of The Corporation at every corner. Never before have I seen just one company have such a remarkable role in a nation’s history and weave itself so firmly into the social fabric. It felt a bit surreal at times.

5. Brunei is a teetotaler’s wet dream. The restaurants bizarrely stay open late and yet after a long day, when one instinctively utters ‘A pint of Guinness please …’, the waitress clears her throat with a disapproving look. You may naively ask ‘But Sayan, you must be having some bootleggers around? Perfect dryness is just a Gandhian theory right?’ I will have to sadly shake my head and say no. Brunei is truly dry, just like the Mahatma intended. My fellow Malaysian brethren and I invested significant time and effort in searching for a ‘source’ including staking out the Army's canteen but all clues merely gave way to wild booze chases. However the problem was finally solved by hopping over the border every weekend. (One can bring in limited amount of alcohol to Brunei but they will need to register it at customs.)

6. This absence of spirits hasn’t dampened the night life of Brunei in any way. All bets are off in Gadong (pronounced emphatically as Gadooooonnnngggggggg) which happens to be where the young gather for phenomenally wild nights. Watching someone throw up in the late hours of Friday nights after having one water-melon juice too many or jostling with people crowding around a flaming carrot juice shots competition, one will be left gasping for breath trying to catch up with the madness all around. When one finally drives through the saucy green light districts in the wee hours, the only thought which resonates is how too much fruit juice can get someone as high as a few pegs of JD. (Disclaimer: I am not advocating fruit juice fuelled intoxication. I disapprove of the use of fruits for any form of self-gratification.)

Statutory Warning: The following statements may induce you to raise an army and invade Brunei. Conventional wisdom suggests it is advisable not to go beyond sabre-rattling as the Bruneian national security has been cunningly outsourced to the Gurkha Regiment of the British Army.

7. There are no taxes in Brunei. No income tax, no service tax, no sales tax, no deduction at any source whatsoever, no surcharges, no education cess, no infrastructure duty. Excise is just exercise spelt hurriedly and Tariff is the nickname of Haji Muhammed T Ariff. Everyone’s education is paid for and it will usually involve a fully supported scholarship to one of the top universities in UK. There are no JEE or AIEEE equivalents. Hospitals are cheap and the police efficient. I find all this unacceptable and a gross violation of my right to see other people crib about their country. In short, we need to raise an army and invade them and bring about some chaos. (Refer statutory warning)

8. If Brunei is about anything at the end of the day, it is about cars. The message was pretty clear on the first day when my recently graduated colleagues drove in on their VW Beetles, Honda Civics, BMWs, Mercs, Mini Coopers, Mazda and the range of SUVs which make you feel like turning into a Naxal and fight for justice. When asked what I used, to go to my office in Bangalore, I had to meekly say Volvo without daring to elaborate further on the make of the vehicle. But thank god for Bruneians and their love for sleek cars for I now know how it feels to be in a two-seater open hatch Honda S2000 flying at 225 km/hr. Divine.

My Volvo doesn't look too bad against their array of BMWs and VWs.

With their close knit society and fascination for cars , Brunei is easily one of the most marvelous places I have had a chance to visit. The people are very friendly and as already mentioned more happy than any community I have encountered. It was their sense of contentment which I found utterly fascinating and at the same time difficult to relate to.