Miri to Brunei

Another day, another country… This time, Brunei – a small country split in two courtesy of us (that’s the Brits, who used to pretty much run it) giving parts away until oil was discovered and the Sultan decided it would make more sense for his family to make the most. Sensible chap.

Brunei’s no Oman, or Qatar, or Dubai. Some silly money has been spent, but there seems to be little forethought as to what will happen when the oil runs out. Current thinking is they’ll start destroying their otherwise pristine rainforests to create a timber trade. A horrific, but possible outcome.

My journey started early in the morning. As usual when I have some form of transport to catch, I kept waking up before my alarm until I only had two minutes to go before 6am. The advantage of this is it means I rarely wake anyone else in the dorm. Unlike some selfish *cough* “people”, I pack as much as I can the night/day before and don’t shove all my stuff into crinkly plastic bags at 5am, putting on all the lights and chatting to my mates.

I snuck out, saying a last “good bye” to the cute kittens and their parents, and walked to the nearby bus station to get the 7am coach. For those doing the journey, it’s easier than Lonely Planet makes out (and simpler than the edition prior to mine details).

Get to the local terminus. Purchase your first *two* tickets – they sell these as a bundle for RM13. Hop on the 7am bus and it will take you first of all to the Malaysian border where you stamp out. Our bus driver was really chirpy and made sure we got to the front of the queue. Back on the same bus, you’re then ferried to Brunei immigration where you descend with all your luggage. Passports are stamped quickly, and then you must wait for the next bus “under the shaded place”.

We waited around fifteen minutes… oh, yes, “we”. I got talking to a Kiwi and his English girlfriend (Al and Toni). I’ve got personal issues with Kiwi men dating English women (anyone who knows me well enough will understand this), but they were both great to chat to and nattering made the journey go faster.

Yes, well, we waited around fifteen minutes and a purple bus pulled up. The driver beckoned us on board and we set off into Brunei for just over five minutes. We then hit a river so we got out and took our luggage out with us again, hopped onto a small motor boat and were taken over the water to the other side. There, another bus drove us to Kuala Belait. All of this up till now was included in the fare we’d paid in Miri.

I’d picked up some Brunei dollars in Miri the day before, but in case you don’t get a chance, there is an HSBC with an ATM (well, three, but only one worked apparently) visibly opposite this bus station. The driver kindly waited while A&T ran over to get some cash and we set off for Seria (pronounced similarly to “Syria” not “ser-EYE-ah”) after paying our $1 fare.

At Seria, there’s another HSBC around the back of the bus station as well as a handful of small shops. I grabbed a nice ice lolly for 70c while we sat and waited for the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) bus to depart around half an hour later. When you arrive at the small station, there’s a wipe-clean board by a doorway telling you when the next one is due. From here it’s around 100km to BSB, so the journey’s roughly 90 minutes.

We set off from Miri at 7am and arrived in BSB at approximately 12:30. Not too bad, to be fair. And the prices were good, as were the bus drivers.

We’d all settled on the $10-per-bunk Pusat Belia youth hostel as the residence of choice and walked along the riverside to it. It looked very nice indeed, all newly-painted with a gym and a swimming pool available. Top notch!

And close to foreigners from the 16th to the 22nd for some reason. Arse. The staff recommended KH Soon… right by the bus station. So back we plodded to where we’d set off from, just as cloud came in and the wind picked up. We got to KH Soon Resthouse just as the rain started and clambered up two floors.

The staff were friendly enough and we haggled a little on the price as I don’t think at this point they realised that the hostel was closed. They even gave us a free bottle of water each.

Toni and Al, bless them, let me share a room with them so I’d not be stuck with a $35 room tab for two nights. Guys, if you read this, a huge “thank you”. Instead, we got a room for three with a bathroom (small wet room with a new-looking shower and a loo with no seat) for $56 between us – just over £6 a night each. Still twice what I’d been planning on, but less than I could have been stuck with.

We ditched our stuff and headed out in the now-relenting rain. A&T found an Indian place to grab some lunch but I’d spotted adverts for a KFC. I know I’d had two in the previous two days, but this was “new country” time so I had to have one. And I found it, not far from the main mosque.

Appetite and rules sated, I crossed the road to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, an impressive building currently part-covered in scaffolding. I’d checked to ensure it wasn’t prayer time so I could wander in.

Inside the door, an old Muslim asked me to fill in the visitor’s book and don a black robe that covered my arms and legs. I could only walk on the brown-carpeted areas and I gently ambled into the centre of the building.

Well, I’ve been in a few mosques in my time but I really liked this one. Bright white with gold relief, lovely stained glass windows (made in England!) and a decorated dome above. Pretty, stylish and not overbearingly gaudy. There’s not a lot to it, but what there is is very nice indeed.

I chatted to the doorman for a few minutes and he enthused over the work being done. The scaffolding was due to the stonework being cleaned. The main dome had already had its entire gold covering removed and replaced (“new gold – from Italy”) in preparation for the mosque’s 50th anniversary celebrations in September. Sadly, the ongoing work meant I couldn’t climb the minaret and see over the town. Ah, well.

Thanking him, I handed back my robe and walked around the side of the building to see a stone boat “floating” in a man-made lagoon. The mosaic decoration on this structure is superb, though I’ve no idea of its relevance to the mosque.

Next, I headed for the post office to get some stamps in preparation for the usual postcard run. I was surprised to find a stamp exhibition on, and spent a good half hour gazing at the historical stuff they had to show. Most of the descriptions were in both English and (I think) Malay. The first stamps used after the British marched in were interesting as they’d taken older ones with the “wrong” names and values on, and altered them.

I did pick up some current stamps, then walked around the corner and up the road to the Royal Regalia Museum. The core of this collection is gifts presented to the Sultan, though there are also sections on the Sultan himself and on the history of Brunei, predominantly over the last 150-or-so years. Lonely Planet passes it off as a gaudy showpiece, but I found it quite interesting. Yes, some of the gifts are a bit… ostentatious (solid silver scale model of Angkor Wat? Pretty cool, actually) but there’s a lot of variety. The chariots used in the coronation and silver jubilee processions are amazing.

Considering it’s completely free entry, well-signed, and has such a variety of stuff, I’d definitely say it’s worth an hour or so of your time. I enjoyed it, anyway, even taking time to read through some of the old documents signed by one of the older Sultans and the British representatives in the late 19th century.

Oh, the opening hours have changed slightly from those in the recent Lonely Planet. They’re now Sun-Thu 09:00-17:30; Fri 09:45-11:30 and 14:30-17:00; Sat 09:45-17:00.

I’d hoped to catch a film here, but it seems both local cinemas are shut. One’s definitely gone and buried (the M Vision Borneo theatre) while the other looks like it’s being refurbed (Hassanal Bolkiah cinema). Other than these, it’s a bus ride out to a mall… and a taxi back as the buses stop at 6pm.

There’s a restaurant a block away that says they’ll have the footie on tonight and tomorrow, so I know where I’m eating for the next two days. No beer with the matches, though – it’s illegal to sel alcohol anywhere in Brunei. Can’t have it all, I suppose.

I popped out to get postcards and blank CDs and bumped into the Aussie / Kiwi couple again. Well, it is a small town and it’s very quiet. We chatter for an age and then went for dinner at a hawker mart. Spicy corned beef with rice and an iced corn drink for $3.50 – just over a pound. Can’t say fairer than that.

We made vague arrangements for the next day and I walked the empty, dark streets back to the hostel.

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