- Posted September 2, 2012 by
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
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Idul Fitri in Brunei
Hassanal Bolkiah has been the sultan of this tiny Southeast Asian nation since 1967, and is generally quite popular among his people. He provides free health care, and pays students to attend school. That’s right, the families of students receive money when the kids attend class. In addition, there are no homeless on the street, and alcohol is banned.
I traveled to Brunei during Idul Fitri, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The holiday is as important to Muslims as Christmas is to Christians, and people generally take time off to go home to see family or travel. This year it fell towards the end of August, and as I’ve always tried to adapt to local customs I regretfully left my Jakarta office behind and hopped a flight to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and then took a ferry to Brunei.
My first impressions of the country were quite positive when I went through immigration at the ferry terminal. It was a modern and relatively calm affair as opposed to immigration in many other Southeast Asian countries. Also, I was pleased to note that about half of the immigration officers were female, which follows the general trend of Islamic countries in the region, where women are allowed significantly more prominent roles in society than in the Middle East.
Exit the terminal, however, and (not unexpectedly) everything is closed – including the money exchange counter. No, this is not a country that lacks ATMs. There just weren’t any at the ferry terminal. Fortunately, Bruneians tend to be extremely friendly, and I was able to hitch a ride into town and receive a crash-course in local culture at the same time.
Brunei is part of Borneo, and the majority of the four 400,000 citizens are therefore Malay. There is also a significant population of Chinese, as well as a large number of immigrant workers – mostly from Indonesia or the Philippines – typically working in the service industry. However, because it was the holiday, many Malays were spending time with their families, which meant that most businesses were closed and the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan was filled with a mix of foreigners lounging around with nothing to do.
People tended to congregate around the major sights of the capital, including the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which is certainly an impressive structure, as well as the waterfront, which overlooks the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River). What made the waterfront such a spectacular view is the fact that the opposite side of the river is comprised of a water village, with all of the buildings on stilts. As opposed to water villages I have been to in other countries, the Kampong Ayer in Brunei was seriously modern.
We’re talking houses, schools, mosques, and a fire station, sitting on the river, built to the standards of developed countries. The interiors of the houses were beautifully decorated and colorful. They were painted in shades of light pastels, and with plenty of room for relatives. This was important, as Bruneians tend to have large families who live right next door. My guide, a sixteen year old boy who was the second born in a family of thirteen, told me with a slightly embarrassed smile that he actually didn’t know the names of all his cousins.
Besides the downtown, seeing endangered proboscis monkeys living on the river next door to humans, government buildings that rival the size of the U.S. congress, and some truly astounding mosques were just some of the other sights that had convinced me to visit this country, but the real draw was the possibility of experiencing something truly unique – meeting the sultan himself.
The only other legitimate sultan in the world is the sultan of Oman (I don’t count Yogyakarta as it more or less falls under the jurisdiction of the Indonesian government), but Hassanal Balkiah of Brunei is much more accessible during three days of the Idul Fitri holiday when he invites the general public into his palace (completely off limits the other 362 days of the year). This is a rather lengthy process that involves a significant amount of waiting as tens of thousands of people go to take advantage of this opportunity every year.
First, everyone goes through security, and then gets a free breakfast or lunch in the main foyer, a massive hall that is just one of the 1,788 rooms in the palace. Considering the amount of people that get fed, one might expect the quality of food to be lacking, but don’t forget we are talking about the sultan of an oil-rich country. This was a true feast although definitely more for the carnivorously inclined.
After eating, it was time to start waiting. And waiting. And waiting. There were three main waiting halls, which you were led to one after another, and it was a bit tedious. I would highly recommend bringing a friend of the same sex, because at this point men and women are separated. Men are allowed to meet the king and the male princes, while women meet the queen and the princesses, eventually. Even though I arrived about 8:30 A.M., it wasn’t until 12:30 that I walked into the sultan’s chamber and shook the hand of the royals. On the way out I was handed a box of fruit sweets as a royal present.
I can’t say it was a life-changing event, but lets face it – how many people get to meet a living sultan? If you are considering a trip to Brunei, I would plan it around this event just to be able to go home and tell your friends that you ate breakfast in a palace and met a sultan in the afternoon.