Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Mosques, Monkeys and Homes On Stilts

Once you get past the oddity that is Bandar Seri Begawan you must remember that Brunei is still a part of the jungle and river laden Borneo. The capital does make the country. However, the capital still has some interesting things to see and do. You just need to put in the effort. This is not Bangkok.

First, this was not a walking town. I was staying at EZ Lodgings in Gadong. This district was built up with a huge shiny new mall surrounded by strip malls. It was fairly sterile but I had access to anything I needed, except beer of course. In case you missed it, Brunei is completely dry.  Oddly, foreigners can bring in duty-free alcohol but since I do not drink spirits I did not feel like lumbering a case of beer around with me. The number 1 bus was my go-to. It stops beside the mall and I was a 5-minute walk. To add to the surprises, buses stop running at 6:00 PM because you know the hooligans are out at those hours. The best thing about staying in Gadong is I was a 10-minute walk to the night food/wet market. You could feast on so much here and not spend more than $3 or $4 and I mean feast. I ate there every night. I also hit up Dairy Queen when I went back downtown but one $7 blizzard will do me, the bandits. There was a MacDonalds in Gadong so McFlurries it was.

There was a really nice mosque near Gadong that I saw on the way in. I figured it was a good place to start. Unlike most of the roads leading to my hotel, there were sidewalks that I could use. The Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque looked like a typical mosque as we drove past. A large gold dome surrounded by minarets. As I walked closer, dodging traffic in what was an unseen huge, busy and unfriendly traffic circle, I could see the grounds were large and well-kept. It was a night that this mosque strutted its beauty. I was not allowed in the mosque during any prayer time, day or night. Everyone I met on the huge stately grounds was smiling and welcoming. As I walked around taking photos during the night I realized how peaceful it was. Prayers were being said over the loudspeaker but I was used to that after a year in Bangladesh. I actually like it. Families were coming and going. Old guys were handing out chatting and were not bothered by my presence. It was quite beautiful in and around the mosque. So much so that I stayed for about an hour just taking it all in. A nice experience, but it better have been considering the cars I dodged to get there.


I was told more than once that The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is often considered as one of the most beautiful mosques in the Asia Pacific. I don't know what to look for when comparing so I just went with it. Sitting on the edge of the water adds to the beauty that's for sure, but this mosque had more of a "showy feel" if that makes any sense.

I did have a really nice moment here. I managed to catch it on a day when they were giving free tours and lectures. I was shown around by various members who described both the history and functionality. On a normal prayer day, there is room for 3000 worshipers to pray. On special occasions they open up the side doors and rugs are laid on the lawn and pavement. Again, I have seen this large scale worshipping in Dhaka. It really is quite impressive. With no shoes on, the rugs were soft and deep. The interior was quiet and quite beautiful as you expect. Much like Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, this mosque lit up dramatically at night. This was the night I found out the busses stopped running at 6:00 PM. I managed to find a tea shop, grabbed a drink and used the WiFi to call Dart (Uber) and all was good. The locals inside were helpful because I must have looked quite confused/distraught or just plain old idiotic. They took turns making sure I had the right location. One coffee shop girl even waited outside with me to be sure I got in the right car. Lovely lovely people.

While at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque a very friendly guy manning the door started asking me all the standard questions. "Where are you from"?, "How long in Brunei?", "Do you want to go on a river cruise"? Wait, what? My boy was touting from the holy mosque. Well done sir. "Yes, I will take a boat tour with you and your brother." I was planning on taking this boat tour but a dude selling them from the mosque gets my thumbs up for "fu** religion, I need to make some money". 

Ali and his brother Ahmed (I cannot make those names up) owned a riverboat that ran nightly tours for tourists as well as a shuttle service between the city and Kampong Ayer ('water village'). Kampong Ayer consists of a cluster of traditional stilt villages built on the Brunei River. It is one of the largest water stilt villages in the world. The tour was just over 2 hours. We would leave the jetty and ride out past the village and into the mangroves. There was a good chance we would see Proboscis Monkeys, so that was a plus. I was happy just to get into the mangroves. Ali did a good job. There were three of us. A dude from the Czech Republic and Donna from Hong Kong. She was cheerful and chatty. We would also get off the boat and explore Kampong Ayer a catch the sunset over the village. It sounded like a good trip when I signed up. With Ali as our guide and Ahmed on the rudder, we sputtered, then sputtered again but the engine roared to life and we bounced off the incoming waves.

The ride in was very nice. We passed the village and just as quickly we were immersed in the mangrove jungle. It is easy to forget that Bandar Seri Begawan is just a city carved out in the Borneo jungle, regardless of concrete, oil or religion it is still a jungle town. I loved the greens along the river. Ali was yammering away about the history of the area and sights to see along the riverbank. There were the remains of a sunken wooden ship slowly being taken by the river which had an eerie feel to it. All was calm and cool until Ali got all excited and yelled "here, here" to his brother. It was picture time! I guess with the direction of the sun and our position on the river, this was supposed to be the best spot for photos, so that is what we did. A funny moment indeed.

There were 4 other tour boats on the river and naturally we were all following the same route. We were trailing and as we pulled around a bay to a small inlet the other boats had moored and the tourists were going camera snap happy. A very active troupe of Proboscis monkeys were playing in the trees in and around us. I had enough photos from Bako National Park so I just enjoyed the moment. There were 7 or 8 of them jumping from tree to tree, eating and playing. They had no interest or fear of us at all. People lose their minds when they see monkeys. I see them for what they are. Little nasty thieving bastards.

We headed back down the river and into the village. It was a mixture of old and crumbling structures made of wood and modern strong concrete buildings and walkways. I did ask the question about toilets and sanitation. Ali looked at me like I was from another planet. Yes, there are toilets and we flush right into the river. Nature takes care of everything. "Fuck". My emotional investment in this tour ended right there.

I liked this tour. It was a nice mix of things and Ali, for all his childlike exuberance was genuinely having a good time showing us around. The stilt village was incredible. There were schools, hospitals, restaurants, shops, a fire department and anything else you needed. The walkways had street signs and there were new good areas and beat up old areas. The single thread holding it all together was the people. I sound like a broken record everywhere I go, but it is true. The people in these villages were all smiles and welcoming.

I am still angry about raw sewage being dumped directly into the river system and being told that "nature will take care of it."

No comments: