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
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