It’s Good To Be The Sultan

The house where the Sultan was born.
The house where the Sultan was born.
You cannot discuss Brunei without talking about the Sultan of Brunei. Not talking about the Sultan is like not talking about an elephant in the middle of the room.

Brunei is the Sultan and the Sultan is Brunei. It is a form of government unlike anything in the world today.

The Sultan is one of the most facinating leaders in the world today, and if you don’t know why, by the time you finish this you should see why I have a Paris Hilton like facination with him. You dare not look, yet you cannot turn away.


The Sultan of Brunei is Hassanal Bolkiah, 29th Sultan of the Bolkiah House which can trace its history back, uninterrupted to 1485. His full title is:

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalaam, and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalaam.

The Sultan is the absolute ruler of the country. Unlike most monarchies in the world today, the Sultan holds real authority. He is not a figure head. In addition to the titles above, he also holds the title of Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Finance Minister and he is the head of religion in Brunei. There is no elected parliament. The only advisers are appointed by the Sultan.

Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.
Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.
Martial law was declared in 1962 and technically has never been lifted.

But that isn’t all. He recently changed the constitution such that it is impossible for him to do wrong. It says “His Majesty the Sultan. . . can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity.” He has an official degree of infallibility which goes well beyond that of the pope.

Moreover, (and the reason why I wrote this after I left Borneo) according to the Brunei constitution, “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings … that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan.”

He also has two wives, one of which is a former Malaysian TV personality who is 33 years younger than him.

Way to go Sultan!

The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.
The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.


The Sultan has Bill Gates amounts of wealth. He is left off the Forbes list of richest people because he is a monarch and really didn’t earn it. Regardless how he got it, he has it. I’ve seen estimates of his personal worth at $22-53 billion dollars. I’m sure the recent spike in oil prices hasn’t hurt things.

Because of his position, he personally owns the resources and much of the land in Brunei. It just so happens that there is a lot of oil in Brunei. If you travel along the coast in Brunei, you can see the influence which Shell Oil has in the country. In the royal museum which has the regalia of coronation, there are gifts given from monarchs and countries from around the would. What really stood out, amongst the gifts from all the heads of state, was a gold and jewel encrusted model of an oil platform from ….. Shell Oil.

I’d like to say that he served as a wise steward of the wealth of the people of Brunei. However, that would be a lie. He is probably the most profligate and ostentatious spender in the world today. Consider the following:

  • It is estimated he owns between 3,000-5,000 cars, all of which are rare luxury cars. He owns more Rolls Royces than any other person in the world and has spent upward of $3 billion dollars on cars.
  • He own his own 747 with gold plated toilets.
  • He built a $3b theme park in Brunei that used to open to the public at no cost.
  • He built the worlds largest residential palace. It has 1,788 rooms and is over 2 million sq. feet (200,000 m2.
  • He recently transferred $3b in cash into his own private accounts, which is more than the entire GDP of Brunei.
  • When his brother Jefri was finance minister, it is estimated he embezzled or spent over $23b. He is now in exile in London.
  • The Sultan owns 200 polo ponies.

..and there is a lot more than that.

It is as if he was given a copy of a Richie Rich comic when he was younger and thought it was an instruction manual.

…or perhaps he got his ideas from watching Scarface. He got the money, he got the power, and he got the women.

Life Under the Sultan

This is one of those subjects where my biases as an American really shine through. I really, really cannot understand, at the core of my being, why people would sit around and allow someone to piss away the resources of a nation like this. There is a good reason why monarchies in most countries have gone by the wayside over the centuries. (I can’t even understand why Canadians keep the Queen on their currency).

All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.
All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.
Yet, to be intellectually honest, I have to confess that the picture I painted above about the Sultan is something you’d never ever guess from just being on the ground in Brunei.

There are no secret police. There is freedom of religion. The press is heavily biased towards the government, but there were multiple sources of information including foreign news sources.

Brunei has no taxes of any sort. Education and health care is free to all citizens. Per capita GDP is the highest in Asia (however, I think this really reflects the problem with economic statistics. I noticed no real difference in development between Brunei and Malaysia, yet on paper, Brunei has twice the per capita GDP as Malaysia. If anything, Malaysia seemed more developed. Most of the Brunei economy is concentrated in one person.) A great deal of manual labor is done by foreign workers (I saw Filipinos in Brunei too)

In other words, life is not bad in Brunei. I didn’t get any impression that there was discontent. (but at the same time, if there way, they might just keep it private) I doubt if anyone feels oppressed enough to really want to rock the boat.

However, at some point in the future the oil will run out or prices will drop. At some point in the future, perhaps several generations from now, someone will be on the throne who is truly nuts. If fate had worked out differently, his brother could have been Sultan. It always happens in monarchies. After all, the royal family in Brunei is the result of centuries of inbreeding. (the crown prince recently married a 17 year old distant cousin. His mother and father are also cousins.)

If all the money spent on cars, palaces, yachts and jewelry were instead spent on infrastructure in Brunei, the country would have a bright future. Think of Dubai or Qatar as a better example. Instead, at some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, this whole works will come crashing down and it will not be pretty.

Bye Bye Borneo

Tomorrow I’m off to Jakarta. I hope to be in Indonesia for two weeks going through Java, Bali, and then a few days in East Timor.

I came to Borneo not really knowing anything about the island. Next to nothing about the political divisions on the island, the history, the people, and very little about the natural features of the island.

Most of the people I meet on the road are usually on vacation. They are usually traveling for 2-3 weeks have put a lot of thought into their itinerary. They’ve surfed the web, purchased the guidebooks, and know down to the day exactly what they are going to be doing and where they will be. This is usually their “big” trip and so they take it seriously.

I, however, don’t travel that way. I really can’t. When I came to Borneo I knew there were three countries on the island, two World Heritage sites, and that was about it. So when I go to a new place, it is really a learning experience. What can I say I know about Indonesia? I know a fair amount of their post WWII history, I know vaguely about their colonization by the Dutch, I know in a general sense of the big things I want to visit while I’m there and I know that the most popular tourist destination by a wide margin in Bali.

I don’t use guidebooks. I have used one guidebook since I’ve started my trip, and that was Moon’s South Pacific Handbook. I purchased that back in the US and carried that around for the first several months of my trip. It was heavy, it was expensive, and the information was often out of date. (especially flight information). Given the cost of guidebook and their weight, I just decided not to buy them anymore. I’ve done fine without them. You can get all the information you need online, and all the travel tips and knowledge you need you can get from local tourism groups and other travelers. Once you get the skill of traveling down (and it is a skill), guidebooks are superfluous.

I also don’t like Lonely Planet.

The flip side to not knowing much when you arrive somewhere is leaving somewhere wanting to do more. Almost every country I’ve been to I’ve left with a list of things I’d like to do if I ever returned. Example:

  • Japan: Visit Hokkido, see a Japanese baseball game, visit Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
  • Marshall Islands: Visit Bikini
  • Micronesia: Dive in Chuuk lagoon and visit Yap
  • Vanuatu: visit Tanna Island and visit the John Frum cults and watch mount erupt.
  • South Korea: almost everything I didn’t get to do because of weather
  • Palau: dive more, sea kayak
  • Hawaii: visit the islands I haven’t been to
  • Philippines: visit islands that are not Luzon

You get the idea. (The only places I don’t have a list of things undone is Guam and Samoa, and even then I’d go back to Samoa to visit Tokelau and just because it is a nice place)

The biggest list of things left undone, by far, is going to be in Borneo.

I was really blown away by Borneo. The amount of ….stuff… here is amazing. There are quotes on many of the tourism banners here citing Borneo as the “World’s Greatest Tourist Attraction”. I’m not in a position judge if that is right or wrong, but Borneo would certainly be on the list.

I did not see any orangutans. I did not see any probiscus monkeys. I did not see any hornbills.
I did not see any wild pitcher plants. I did not get to see a blooming rafflesia. Most orchids were not in bloom. I only saw giant insects in a museum (save for a moth I saw last night that was the size of a small bird). I didn’t get to Kuching. I didn’t get to Kalamantan…..which makes up most of Borneo. I didn’t get to climb Mt. Kinabalu.

What the hell did I do, you ask? Quite a lot actually. Explored caves, climbed in the rainforest canopy, bathed in hot springs, saw a million bats go out for a night of hunting. It isn’t as if I was doing nothing.

Looking at the map, I’m sure I’ll end up saying the same thing about Indonesia.

Borneo does get a fair amount of tourism, but nothing like other places. It is still sort of secret. If you want to see the rainforest, most people would go to Costa Rica or Brazil. If you want megafauna, you go to Africa.

The tourism industry here is pretty well developed. Mulu and Kinabalu are very well run and professional national parks. The facilities were good and staff seemed to know their stuff. The infrastructure I found in Malaysia was surprisingly good. Communication was not a problem and for the most part, things are cheap. My room in Kota Kinabalu was US$17.25 a night for a single. I could have had a dorm for about $6.50 a night. The BBQ place just outside as great grilled squid for about $1.

I hope that I can one day return to Borneo.

No, Its not Bhutan, Brundi, or Bahrain. It’s BRUNEI

Still in Brunei. The internet here seems…..slow. Perhaps I got spoiled in East Asia. There are two internet cafes I’ve found, both of which take like a minute to pull up Gmail. I don’t foresee uploading photos until I can get a faster connection.

I’ve also developed diarrhea and a rash on the bottom of both of my legs. Nothing really serious, but not pleasant either. The public toilets here don’t have toilet paper, they have a hose on the left hand side you are supposed to use like a bidet. Not the greatest conditions to learn how to use one, but hey, I’m a survivor.

Yesterday I took a tour of the greater Bandar Seri Begawan area, which took all of two hours. I saw the house where the Sultan was born (small), the house where he lives now (BIG), the royal artifacts, and the two primary mosques in the city.

Brunei is a pretty unique place. I think that is putting it lightly. The closest I’ve seen on my trip so far has been Tonga, which has had a somewhat similar recent history to Brunei.

I’m off to take some photos of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, which is the thing you always see in every promotional photo of Brunei. It is a short walk from my hotel, so I’ll be going there tonight as well for some night shots. They have scaffolding on the mosque so night photos might be better. (I don’t know why, but I’ve had really bad luck running into buildings being restored.)

My current plan is to take a bus tomorrow to to Miri, Malaysia in Sarawak and take a short flight to the Gunung Mulu National Park then go to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and visit Kinabalu National Park. From there I’ll probably fly to Jakarta and work my way overland through Java to Bali and Komodo National Park (home of the Komodo Dragons). Then back to Bali for a short flight to East Timor where I’ll stay for a few days before heading to Australia.

I read in the paper that the Malaysia border is really busy on New Year’s, so at worst, I might have to wait one day before going to Sarawak.

I’ve learned a helluva lot about the history of Borneo, why a Sultanate exists here but not in Malaysia, and why Malaysia is split into two parts, rather than two countries. That will all have to come later on big post about Borneo.

I have no idea if I will have internet access in Miri or in the National Park, so if you don’t hear from me in the next few days, it is because I’m out in the bush.

First Impressions of Brunei

I just arrived in Brunei. No internet at my hotel, but there is an internet cafe in the building. The kids here are like the ones I’ve seen everywhere: playing Warcraft, listening to music and reading celebrity gossip.

Here are my first thoughts:

  • The female flight attendants on my flight didn’t wear a normal chadori. They had what I could only describe as a nuns habit. It looked like what Katherine Hepburn wore in The Lion in Winter. It was actually very elegant. They looked very graceful in it.
  • In addition to the normal GPS position of the flight on a map, they also had peridoic directions to Mecca in reference to the direction of the plane. (Anyone out there know if you face Mecca via the great circle route or via a linear projection on a map? This is a serious question. I’m sure this has been given a great deal of thought)
  • Prior to the take off, they said a prayer in, what I can only guess, was Arabic. The English translation, but for the references to Allah and Mohammad, could have been a Catholic prayer. The length of the prayer was about two minutes.
  • Brunei is very clean. Everything looks very developed. It is also dark so I reserve the right to change my mind.
  • Malay is the official language, but there are a lot of signs in Arabic and English. Everyone has spoke English I’ve met so far.
  • I got the feel I was landing in one of the Pacific Islands at the airport. Brunei is a small country and has a very similar vibe.

I’m going to take a bath for the first time in a month. I’m sure I’ll have more tomorrow. No Internet in my room will probably make me more productive.

Last Day in Hong Kong (for real this time)

Hong Kong, I barely knew ya
Hong Kong, I barely knew ya
I got my tickets and everything is booked. Tomorrow evening I’ll be flying Royal Brunei Airlines to Bandar Darussalam and I’ll finally be out of Hong Kong. I’ve stayed here waaaay longer than I ever anticipated. Granted, I got a lot done and I probably needed to stay put for a few weeks, but I’m getting antsy and it is time to get moving.

I’m currently planning on three days in Brunei, then I’ll be off to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Kinabalu National Park. From there I’ll try to visit Gunung Mulu National Park then hop a flight to Jakarta.

I’m on a bit of a schedule. I need to get some documents sent from the states. I’m going to take my planned vacation from my vacation in Australia, where I’ll sit and wait for stuff to get sent and for my passport to get renewed at the US Embassy.

I’m sort of looking forward to Malaysia and Indonesia because I honestly don’t know what to expect. I’m sort of expecting it to be on a par with the Philippines. (Actually, Malaysian per capita GDP is well above the Philippines and Indonesia is below. I have no idea how East/West Malaysia differ, however).

I’ll experience my first land border crossing of the trip this week and my first trip to a predominately Muslim country. Once again, I have no idea what sort of Internet connection I’ll have. Updates might come in bunches when I can find bandwidth.

I don’t know if I want to climb Mount Kinabalu. I have the clothing and shoes but not the pack. I’m sure I’ll find out more in the coming days.