Oct 11th, 2017

Sultanate Of Surprises

Brunei 020

Exploring Brunei Darussalam

for The Times

It is moments before daybreak in the jungle. The air is already warm, and I’m hiking up a steep slope to a backing track of cicada-buzz and gibbon whoops. In the half-light, the creepers and trees around me double as living handrails. After twenty minutes of climbing, I reach the lookout tower above the tree-line. The effort has been worth it. Swelling out to the horizon are miles of primary Borneo rainforest, and as the sun comes up, pools of cloud dissipate to reveal a thousand rich greens. It is as wide and wild a view as you’ll find; a genuinely cinematic panorama. And they say there’s little to see in Brunei.

Over a cup of sweet tea back at the riverside Ulu Ulu Resort – the only visitor accommodation in the 50,000-hectare Ulu Temburong National Park – I listen to other guests deciding what to do with the morning ahead. “So what’s it to be?” says one. “Kayaking, swimming or hammock?” I’d been wondering the same thing myself.

Brunei’s largest national park might not be the only place in Southeast Asia offering pristine rainforest, but you’ll struggle to find another within shouting distance of an intercontinental air hub. The fact that there are only a handful of us enjoying its charms makes it all the more special. The afternoons are long, the birdlife is prolific (although the park’s famed hornbills elude me) and, as importantly, the airport sits just a couple of hours away.

Almost three-quarters of the country is taken up by protected jungle, which is a surprise to many. When you mention Brunei, the images that leap to mind are of oil dollars, royal indulgence and super-cars: Dubai without the oddly shaped tourism projects. The lack of awareness is due to the fact that the nation, which long ago ruled all of Borneo, simply doesn’t attract large numbers of visitors. It has logical appeal as a stopover en route Down Under but, as holiday taglines go, ‘Brunei: it’s tiny and you can’t buy alcohol’ is never going to attract the mainstream.

When I leave Ulu Temburong, a land-water transfer – including an enjoyable croc-spotting glide through mangrove forest – brings me back to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, where I meet Tom, my guide. “I had a group recently who kept saying ‘Come on! Where’s the party?’” he tells me. “Eventually I had to explain – this is Brunei, we have history, we have rainforest and we have hospitality, but there is no party.”

It’s inescapable that the city, which is all that most passing tourists ever see, lacks the wham-bam hustle of elsewhere in the region. The one time someone openly tries to sell me something is when I enquire about internet access in a hotel. It is, however, its own place. Just minutes upstream we join in the classic Bandar visitor activity: proboscis monkey-spotting. There are a dozen of them rubber-nosing in the higher branches; further kudos to Brunei’s readily accessible wild side.

We visit the town centre’s chief attraction, the irrepressibly swanky Jame’Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, built in honour of the current 29th Sultan and accordingly boasting 29 domes, 29 chandeliers and 29 Carrara marble staircases. The interior is an almost luminous masterpiece of woven rugs and arching ceilings. There’s the chance too to peek through the gates of the nearby Istana Nurul Iman, the plush residential palace. It has 1,788 rooms, which rather says it all.

It makes the city’s flipside all the more surprising. More than a third of Bandar’s 80,000 inhabitants live in Kampong Ayer, a sprawling settlement of pastel-coloured wooden houses suspended on stilts above the river. It couldn’t be more at odds with the broad civic buildings on the north bank. Tom hails a water-taxi, one of several dozen criss-crossing the water, and within two minutes we’re walking through an every-which-way world of boardwalks, pot plants, Arsenal towels and mint-green bungalows.

“The Sultan tried to resettle people on land, but they wouldn’t budge – this is the original city. People have lived here for at least 700 years,” he explains, as young boys in traditional song kok hats chatter past us. “They have schools here, hospitals, Internet, mosques, fresh water, supermarkets – everything.” It is a captivating place through which to meander. The water ‘village’ is actually split into 42 different districts, and among the washing lines, wobbly bridges and painted minarets, signposts start to make some sense of the seemingly random layout. We wander at length, and striking up conversation through a window, are invited to look into one of the houses. It is as ordered and homely as any country cottage.

That evening we drive to Gadong, a lively strip of cafes, food stalls and shopping malls on the city outskirts. Bruneian cuisine is a knee-weakening blend of Malay, Arab, Indian and Chinese influences. Rows of families sip mango juice and feast on grilled fish. “This is our nightlife,” says Tom, almost apologetically. It doesn’t look so bad. (Thirsty travellers, incidentally, shouldn’t overly fret – customs legally allows two bottles of wine or spirits per person.)

For a final night splurge, I check into the much-eulogised Empire Hotel. The US$1.1bn property was initially created as somewhere to house royal guests, and is now a very Bruneian hybrid – a mix of beach resort, Baccarat-bling and cucumber-sandwich high tea. There’s a 55 metre-high lobby of Italianate marble pillars, and from its windows I can just make out offshore oil rigs.

It somehow seems fitting to have the cause and effect of the country’s mega-wealth gazing at each other across the water. Brunei is somewhere that seems happy with itself, and its future as a tourist destination is likely to be as uncongested as its present, which is no bad thing for those passing through – just remember to prioritise sturdy footwear over party shoes.