L a n d f a r a w a y

A for­est canopy walk i n Brunei’s ulu tem­burong na­tional park will make you feel like you’ve reached the very edge of the earth

WKND - - Travel - Text and pho­tos By ro­hit nair

Brunei Darus­salam is eerily peace­ful. I guess it has to live up to its name­sake — Darus­salam trans­lates to ‘ abode of peace’. But it’s not the tran­quil­lity that’s re­mark­able; it’s the en­force­ment of peace through mind- con­trol lev­els of reg­u­la­tion that makes this place an Or­wellian dream. You have no choice. You will be at peace. And if you’re look­ing to get away from it all — you know, peace, seren­ity, pris­tine en­vi­rons — then this tiny coun­try on the is­land of Borneo, prac­ti­cally in­side Malaysia, will tick all the boxes. There’s no al­co­hol, cig­a­rettes are du­tiable and not sold in the coun­try, and taxis or pub­lic trans­port are vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent, but none of that should bother you, be­cause you must be at peace.

That so­lil­o­quy out, ex­plor­ing the tiny cap­i­tal city of Ban­dar Seri Be­gawan and em­bark­ing on an epic jour­ney to what will feel like the end of the world, will give you plenty of in­sights into Bruneian life and why ev­ery­thing is so sur­re­ally tranquil. Also, the air here is pure, highly oxy­genated and smells like the earth, thanks to the stun­ning pris­tine forests that are all pro­tected, which is very dif­fer­ent from neigh­bour­ing Malaysia where vast hectares of rain­for­est are cut down to make way for oil palm plan­ta­tions. The rain­forests are why you come here and you should drink up all the fresh air you can.

A brief his­tory Ban­dar — mean­ing town or city in Malay ( the pre­dom­i­nant lan­guage) — Seri Be­gawan is the cap­i­tal and where you will find the Brunei Mu­seum. Al­though only con­trolled traces of its his­tory be­fore the 16th cen­tury can be seen here, there are some fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hibits that tell a story of a very reclu­sive and iso­lated na­tion. There is a pic­ture of Spain’s Mag­el­lan ex­pe­di­tion ar­riv­ing on the shores of Ban­dar Seri Be­gawan in 1521 that touches on the na­tion’s pre- Is­lamic ances­try, and sev­eral ex­hibits of the gen­er­a­tions of Sultans that have ruled Brunei since.

The cur­rent r uler, Sul­tan Haji Has­sanal Bolkiah Mu’iz­zaddin Wad­daulah ibni Al- Marhum Sul­tan Haji Omar Ali Sai­fud­dien Sa’adul Khairi Wad­dien — and that’s how you have to write it if you work in Bruneian me­dia ( ev­ery sin­gle in­stance or men­tion) — is fa­mous for flaunt­ing his lu­di­crous wealth and spe­cial pen­chant for gold, and the coun­try it­self is rich in nat­u­ral re­sources. Brunei has the largest oil­fields in South­east Asia, and with the enor­mous wealth that black gold has brought them — it ac­counts for close to 90 per cent of the econ­omy — it has, in a short time, leapt into the list of de­vel­oped coun­tries. The in­fra­struc­ture is world class, sans pub­lic trans­port, but then again, ev­ery­one has at least one ve­hi­cle. Mosques dom­i­nate the land­scape, along with ver­dant forests and moun­tains. Tourism is still rather in its in­fancy here, but as global oil prices plum­met, Brunei is quickly try­ing to se­cure a place in the al­ready tightly con­tested South­east Asian tourism in­dus­try.

Get­ting there The na­tional car­rier is Royal Brunei Air­lines and it has a INTO THE JUN­GLE: A long­boat driver casts off af­ter drop­ping off pas­sen­gers at Ulu Tem­burong Na­tional Park

FROM THE CITY TO THE FOR­EST: 1 The Jame’asr Has­sanil Bolkiah Mosque in Ban­dar Seri Be­gawan 2 A panoramic view of the Em­pire Ho­tel & Coun­try Club, which was built as a royal palace 3 Houses along Kam­pong Ayer, Brunei’s fa­mous wa­ter vil­lage 4 The bridge that marks the be­gin­ning of the Ulu Ulu Re­sort and the end of the long boat ride into Ulu Tem­burong Na­tional Park daily direct flight to Brunei from Dubai on brand new Boe­ing Dream­lin­ers equipped with all sorts of fancy new tech like cli­mate con­trol and elec­tron­i­cally tinted win­dows. Many na­tion­al­i­ties re­quire a visa to en­ter, but if you’re stay­ing for un­der three days, you may be el­i­gi­ble for a visa on ar­rival, which costs 5 BND, so do check be­fore you fly. The air­port is lo­cated 11km from the city cen­tre.

Stay Bruneians are al­ready fast asleep when our plane touches down in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal. It’s just a lit­tle af­ter 10pm. The roads are prac­ti­cally empty as we make our way to our ho­tel for the night, the sprawl­ing — and I mean acres and acres of prime land just east of the Brunei Bay — Em­pire Ho­tel & Coun­try Club. It has its own theatre and cin­ema, swim­ming pools and pri­vate beach, and pala­tial rooms. The ho­tel was in­tended to be the palace of one of the Sul­tan’s close rel­a­tives, but was in­stead rented to the Em­pire to be run as a ho­tel. All the trap­pings of a palace re­main, ob­vi­ously, with solid gold fix­tures and adorn­ments through­out the cav­ernous ho­tel. It’s re­gal to the point of gaudy, or vice- versa, depend­ing on whether you like gold as much as the rulers. With ev­ery amenity imag­in­able avail­able, there is no rea­son to leave, un­less you’re head­ing into the rain­forests for a spot of adventure. Nev­er­the­less, if you’re in Brunei for a short stay, Em­pire Ho-

tel & Coun­try Club might be your best bet as there are only a hand­ful of oth­ers to choose from.

The city sights From the ho­tel, the cen­tre of the city is only a short ride away. The Gadong night mar­ket is a bit of a de­par­ture from tightly reg­u­lated life in Brunei, but worth a visit. Filled with the smells of bar­be­qued meats and many Malay and lo­cal treats, the mar­ket is bustling with lo­cals ea­ger to get their hands on some de­li­cious food and fresh lo­cal pro­duce. Plenty of of­fal of­fer­ings like chicken liv­ers, hearts and butts — yup, and they’re a lo­cal favourite! — be­ing grilled up over coals and slathered in spicy mari­nades are on dis­play. The chap at the stall was a lit­tle wary and em­bar­rassed try­ing to ex­plain the chicken butts, but it was all smiles around once I tried one, much to their de­light. And yes, it tastes like chicken.

Gi­ant woks of Mi Goreng are emp­tied in min­utes and there is an en­tire aisle of women blend­ing Milo ( malted choco­late like Oval­tine, only bet­ter) with milk and serv­ing it up in gi­ant cups. This is a food lover’s par­adise, if you’re will­ing to ex­per­i­ment. There’s also roasted peanuts mixed with chilli sam­bol and dried fish and prawns — an ab­so­lutely de­li­cious pro­tein- packed snack to put oth­ers to shame. Ev­ery­thing in the mar­ket is 1 BND, by the way — cheap and de­li­cious!

Kam­pong Ayer, or wa­ter vil­lage, is an­other at­trac­tion that is worth see­ing while in the city. Si­t­u­ated over Brunei Bay, the area is home to over 30,000 in­hab­i­tants, who live, work, study, pray and play on houses built on stilts. There’s even a hospi­tal, schools, restau­rants and mosques, all ac­ces­si­ble via boats on the many wa­ter­ways that criss­cross the vil­lage.

go­ing far away Ulu Tem­burong Na­tional Park is in one of the most pris­tine rain­forests in the world, lo­cated in the far east of Brunei. It is so iso­lated that you have to take three dif­fer­ent modes of trans­porta­tion to get there. And even when you are there, you only get to see about one per cent of the rain­for­est — the rest is pro­tected and re­quires spe­cial per­mits to en­ter. Sci­en­tists are some of the only peo­ple granted ac­cess to these ar­eas to study the di­verse flora and fauna.

Ulu Tem­burong, or Ulu Ulu as our guide called it, trans­lates to ‘ Far, far away’ and the jour­ney there starts on a ferry from the city’s main ferry point. The fer­ries op­er­ate on a first- come, first- served ba­sis and of­ten in­volves a fair amount of wait­ing time, so get there early. It’s rough when you’re on hol­i­day to wake up fright­fully early, but if you want to get to the rain­for­est, you will want to be at the ferry point by 8am.

A 45- minute boat ride later, dur­ing which you ac­tu­ally cross into Malaysia and back into Brunei again, you reach the last main ferry sta­tion from where you have to take a bus or taxi to the outer fringe of the rain­for­est. From there, you have to hop into a long­boat that takes you deep into the for­est, to the barely in­hab­ited Ulu Ulu Re­sort. Don’t bother try­ing to ar­range for all of this on your own. The best way to ar­range for trans­porta­tion in and around Brunei is to go with tour op­er­a­tors like Sun­shine Borneo Tours, the en­er­getic folks who ar­ranged our tour. As men­tioned ear­lier, pub­lic trans­port is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent and the few taxis that op­er­ate in the coun­try rarely do so af­ter 7pm. Most shops and restau­rants close by 9pm, or 10pm at the lat­est.

Once you reach the re­sort, there are sev­eral ac­tiv­i­ties to en­gage in, depend­ing on your level of fit­ness. You can kayak or take a boat ride along the river, or climb a few hun­dred stairs and as­cend 80m of alu­minium scaf­fold­ing to stand high above the for­est canopy and breath in fresh rain­for­est air, not to men­tion take in breathtaking ( ahem) views of Ulu Ulu. Gib­bons and Pro­boscis mon­keys chat­ter sev­eral hun­dred me­tres be­low you and there are plenty of stun­ning birds to spot. Some of the trees in the rain­for­est are as old as the coun­try it­self, which re­ally puts man’s time on this planet in per­spec­tive. Of course, the climb is not for the faint of heart — fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally — sev­eral of our party suc­cumbed to the climb on the very first rest stop. But if you muster through, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence you will never for­get be­cause it feels like you’re on the top of the world look­ing down into an end­less sea of green.

The high­lights Ulu Tem­burong Na­tional Park is where you want to head to. In fact, there isn’t much else to do in Brunei, and it’s not ex­actly a cheap des­ti­na­tion ei­ther. You get the same South­east Asian hos­pi­tal­ity and warmth in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, with the added bonus of be­ing far less re­stricted, and they have bet­ter de­vel­oped tourism ma­chiner­ies. But what they don’t have is na­ture that is as pris­tine and pure as it is in Brunei. There’s also all that peace­ful­ness.

ro­hit@ khalee­j­times. com SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND SMELLS: 5 Walk­ing along one of the many bridges lead­ing up to the for­est canopy in Ulu Ulu 6 Fried chicken butts ( bot­tom right) amongst other food on sticks 7 More Malay snacks on dis­play at Gadong mar­ket 8 A tranquil for­est scene in Ulu Ulu

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