Travels with John Smith
Chapter 47 year 7 (2018)
Brunei and Kuala Lumpur
-The Sultan of Brunei and his country
-The Sultan’s house and stuff
-our hotel is like a palace
-losing my mind and my shoes
-stilt villages above the river
-no kissing in the taxi
-2 monitor lizards in the goldfish pond
-meeting ex-pats at the pool
-living in Brunei if you are foreign
-going to the parade on independence day
-the Sultan and his wife stay standing throughout the parade
-we decide to stay in
-glass floor at the Kuala Lumpur tower and the Petronas towers
-Air Asia baggage allowance
-eating and hanging out around the hotel
-KL and it’s people
-back in Wuhan it’s Spring
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 47 year 7 (2018)
Brunei, Kuala Lumpur
There are twenty to thirty monkeys climbing up and down date trees and jumping and running around, like a street gang around the swimming pool below us. We are standing on the balcony of our absolutely gorgeous room at the Empire Hotel just outside Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.
Brunei is a small country (approx 400,000 people) on the island of Borneo, sandwiched between Indonesia and Malaysia. They have a king or Sultan and he is one of the richest royals in the world( net worth is about $ 20 billion). In the 1980’s he was the richest man in the world. His money came from oil and natural gas and the people who are citizens in his country don’t have to pay income tax, they have free education (even getting scholarships for university from the government whether they study at home or abroad) , free healthcare (if they need an operation that cannot be done in Brunei they are sent to Singapore paid for by the government), a pension scheme (paid for by the government but also an extra one that is a worker scheme), a housing scheme( everyone has the right to own a house so there are many schemes to help them, including low to no interest interest loans), subsidized food and gas.
The Sultan himself lives in the largest residential palace in the world ( called the Istana Nurul Iman); there are over 1,700 rooms, including over 250 bathrooms, a huge Mosque (big enough for 1,500 people), 5 swimming pools and a stable with a couple hundred ponies (he likes polo). He has a thing for nice cars so has collected approx $5 billion worth of Rolls Royce, Ferraris, etc. and has at least a couple of private jets. Once a year, on his birthday, the Sultan opens the doors to his palace and anyone can come and meet him. Thousands of people come and he shakes every person’s hand (the men, because he’s Muslim and his wife, the Queen shakes the women’s hands). They also prepare food and every person that comes can eat from a massive buffet prepared by his staff.
Our hotel has 2 swimming pools, a Japanese restaurant, Asian fusion buffet (which includes local food) an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a 24 hour bakery that also makes home made ice gelato and ice cream, several large ponds, a couple private beaches, a golf course and a cinema. It is kind of like a palace itself. There are golf buggies available from each entrance to take us to the many different buildings that make up the hotel. There about 3-4 stories of ceiling to floor windows with a view of the sea that is breathtaking. It is quite possibly the nicest hotel we have ever stayed in (except for the Maldives).
We try to book the fusion Asian buffet but it is fully booked (apparently it’s so popular that one must book at least a day in advance) so we opt for the Japanese restaurant which does not disappoint. While we are eating our dinner, it rains so hard, there is a flood outside and when we leave, we wade through water that is ankle deep, directly outside the restaurant.
We are back in the room and I unpack my bag. When I packed it, there were 2 pairs of sandals and 1 pair of flip-flops (which had been packed in the outside pockets of my backpack). When we were at the airport, I noticed I only had one flip flop so I knew that the other one had fallen out somewhere. I threw the 2nd one away. Now I notice that I also only have the right sandal of both pairs of sandals! I might be losing my mind. Here we are in an upmarket hotel and all I have for my feet is a pair of running shoes!
We pass a crocodile sunning itself on the side of the Brunei river as we approach the mangroves where we are meant to see the endangered proboscis monkeys. We are the only passengers on a open deck wooden long boat with our cheeky boat driver. He steers the boat right into the trees, hitting against the huge roots that grow into the swampy waters. He steps out of the boat, on to the base of the trees and tells us to join him. My eyes scan the water for any sneaky crocs or snakes but decide our guide will see them before we do.
He becomes very excited and says to look up at the trees and we squint up against the bright sky at the dark silhouette of the trees and we see the long tails curling upwards, then we see them move, like shadows to a lower or higher branch. My iPhone can’t or doesn’t catch much more than the movement and we can’t see their famous noses but every once in a while we see the tails and the golden orange colour. Our guide laughs and tells us he brought some Chinese people here earlier and there were no monkeys at all! So I guess we are lucky.
We go back towards the town, going through Kampong Ayer (the network of stilt villages built over the Brunei River). There are about 40,000 people living here and they have electricity, schools, a police station, a fire station and a mosque. Our guide says the newer houses are worth about $60,000.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, is close to the jetty where we caught our boat. There is a 171 ft golden dome on top that can be spotted from almost anywhere in the city, but the best view is directly in front as there is a pond in front that reflects the mosque and the blue skies in it’s water and it is postcard pretty.
Earlier, we went to the Kiarong Mosque, which is the newer of the 2 famous mosques in town. It is really beautiful too, with a gorgeous fountain in front and 29 golden domes outside and white and blue mosaic tiles. We were able to see some of the beautiful large stairways, halls and rooms inside of this mosque, but we both had to wear long sleeved black robes that covered our bodies almost to the ankles to be admitted. In the taxi we took to the Mosque, there were pictures on the inside of the windows of what is not ok; No Durian(a stinky fruit), No smoking, no fast food, no kissing.
We are walking around the Royal Regalia Museum marvelling at the many gifts that have been given to the Sultan, displayed in glass cases around the large room. There is a large gold chariot in the middle of the room, a cannon and several round, bright gold shields and swords off to the side. It’s more interesting than I thought it would be but I want to get back to the pool.
We are on our way to sit by the large swimming pool today. I catch a glimpse of something long and slithery swimming with the 2 to 3 inch goldfish in the pond that surrounds our building. It is a 3 metre long (from head to tip of tail) monitor lizard. We stop and watch it for a while, thinking it’s there to feast on the fish. Some kids come along with their parents and start throwing bits of bread into the water. The lizard pushes it’s way past the fish to grab the bread when suddenly a much larger lizard jumps in front of him or her to grab the food for themselves. This creates some squealing and excitement with the kids (& John and I ).
At the pool, we are pampered by the pool staff and we notice a few more European looking foreigners so I strike up a conversation with 2 women who say hello. They are expats; residents of Brunei, one has been living here for 16 years (married to someone who works for Hagen Daas), another for 3 years (her husband works for an airline company). They seem to like living here, the weather is great but they say it’s expensive, because everything is imported.
They say that all the teachers here are foreign and they make good money, are given good money for housing but if that person wants a pool they need to pay a little extra, which makes sense to me! They say all of the advantages to living here are for the locals, not the residents, which also makes sense to me
The ex-pats sound like they have a pretty good life. They come to the hotel every morning to use the gym and have a dip in the pool. Their main complaints are the lack of alcohol, because this is a Muslim country. They tell us about a country club where foreigners go so they can drink. I don’t mention that I don’t drink. When they find out I can sing, they want me to come and sing with the house band. One of them offers to pick John and I up and drive us there. She tells us she’ll come and get us tomorrow night at 7.
We are walking towards the parade grounds with hundreds of other people. I am sure we look a little out of place, as we are the only foreigners around. We pass small groups of women in matching traditional head cover (known as the tudong) and long dresses covering their bodies and men in uniforms.
Today is a National holiday and the festive spirit is in the air. This is the day that Brunei received it’s independence from the UK in 1984. Our driver told us the Sultan will be at the parade. We are not sure what to expect but everyone at the hotel seemed very excited about it so we thought, we should see what it’s all about.
We were told we should come to the stadium very early if we want to get a seat so we got up at 5 (their suggestion). We have been sitting for more than a couple hours on hard benches so my bottom and my knees are getting sore. People are handing out little Brunei flags with little wooden stands to stick them in so we are waving them about. The stadium is only a little bigger than our track/football field at the school and the bleachers are packed. There is a giant sign of the Sultan on the right of the field, smiling down on us.
3 black limousines pull into the arena and the Sultan, his wife and a couple other people get out and shake various hands. They walk up the red carpet to the 2 large golden thrones that are on the open grandstand across the field from us. The royal family are now standing in front of the thrones and there are soldiers with matching uniforms, marching around the field with kilts and guns over their shoulders. Another group march out with different uniforms and bagpipes. Another group with different matching colours and flags. Another group with different matching outfits and musical instruments…
It’s been 2 hours since the parade started and there has been procession after procession of people in matching outfits or uniforms and most are holding signs and there has been one musical group that also had a kind of dance routine. I am hungry and hot (the sun has come up and is beating directly down on the bleachers where we are). The Sultan and his wife have remained standing for the entire parade (impressively) so I can’t imagine how tired they are feeling. The only other foreigners in this crowd are the odd small group of Chinese people. They stand out because they are taking selfies with some of the soldiers standing guard on the edge of the field (without the guard’s knowledge).
There are some friendly locals sitting near us who answer our questions about what it’s like to live in Brunei. Everything they say, confirms what we have heard from others or read. They tell us that every group that comes out is from some section of the government so it’s basically a parade of people honouring the Sultan.
We decide to leave before everyone else does so we walk back to our driver and on the way, buy some local food sold from the many food stalls along the road. It’s incredibly cheap. We buy a couple of things to have a picnic back at the hotel.
It’s 8:00 and our new friends haven’t come to get us yet. We are hungry and tired due to getting up so early. I find her phone number and call. She says they will be late. We start calculating how late it will be when we finally get to eat and how difficult to get back to the hotel which is not close to the expat place and decide to stay at the hotel.
There is a special Brunei food menu to honour the holiday at the Italian restaurant so we have a delicious meal, learn a bit more about the culture here and have an early night.
We are standing barefooted looking through the glass floor we are standing on, to the buildings and traffic 86 stories below. It is hard to really get a feel for it as the guard is telling us we only get 5 minutes to take the pictures. There is a line up behind us. We are on the top floor of the Kuala Lumpur tower. We went up the Petronas twin towers when we were here the 1st time (over a week ago) but this is actually better because we are outside, wind whipping our hair in every direction. To go up the Petronas tower, we had to come early, wait in a long line up and buy tickets to go up in a few hours time. We can see those towers from our hotel room, which is pretty cool. We can add it to our list of amazing views from hotels that are etched into our memories, another ‘Blue Mosque’ moment.
We are staying in a hotel in the centre of town so it’s pretty easy to walk to most of these places, using the wonderful Bukit Bintang Pedestrian walkways, that let you avoid the traffic below. Kuala Lumpur is a pretty full on place-like Singapore but a little crazier. It is also a shopping city. There are so many malls but in most is the same stuff we can get anywhere. I know normally I get excited about shopping but I am trying to keep the luggage down to the bags we have with us.
All of our flights on this holiday (apart from the return flight from Wuhan to Bangkok) are with Air Asia and as they are a ‘cheap’ airline, they have a strict baggage code. They say it’s because they want to keep the cabin weight down, but as John pointed out, they don’t weigh the people! They allow 7 kilos total for your carry on and your purse or small backpack COMBINED! The bags weigh at least 2 kilos with nothing in them.
We are grateful we left a lot of stuff that we bought at the weekend market in Bangkok. Coming and going from Myanmar, they weighed our stuff at the boarding gate and we had to re-pack stuff between us (and hide other stuff-carry books in our hands, wear more clothes). So now I have a small backpack and that’s it. Air Asia are not helping the economy in the cities it flies to!
The 1st night we got here, we walked to a street that was full of bars that serve food. Each place had a specialty food and there were people out front of each one trying to convince us to come in.
We settled on a place called Havana because it had nice tables outside and looked more like a restaurant but was still hopping with people and music and activity. The food was so good that we went back there again last night.
All the hotels we booked on this holiday have pools, as we are not going to any beaches this time but we still want the sun ‘quota’. This hotel has an ok pool but we overhear a guy complaining to the staff that it hasn’t been cleaned and since there are lots of little kids around (we all know what that means) and we don’t notice an outdoor shower, so we stick to suntanning. The weather hasn’t been great since we got here anyway-it’s been raining in sudden and full on bursts so we spend more time in the room.
Near the hotel there is also a huge Hawker area, with all kinds of local street food but neither of us are feeling great so our Malaysian food is limited to what we can get at the hotel.
There are many people celebrating Chinese New Year here and the decorations and mood reflect this. Kuala Lumpur, otherwise known as KL, has a population of about 7 million if you count the surrounding area. There are mostly Malay and then Chinese and then Indian and ‘other’. There is a Chinese and an Indian quarter and the city reflects the mix of cultures.
We checked out most of the things you are meant to see here in KL but Malaysia is so spread out, we feel we have only scratched the surface with the two places we have been. (KL and Kota Kinabalu at Xmas). If we stay in China, we will come back next year and get to know Malaysia a little better.
The campus is in a bright pink bloom. Fruit trees are alive with colour. Clover covers the grass that needs cutting and the air is beginning to feel heavy and thick with humidity.
John and I have decided we will stay another year. Hopefully to save a bit of money. This will probably be the last job we have with an actual paycheque. So we will make the most of one more year. At work, everything moves along much like always. There are fun punctuations along the way, like ‘the Teahouse’, where there are new players and old coming together to make music, ‘Murder at the Juice Joint’, where we got to dress up like 1920’s gangsters and flapper girls along with 20-some others and play our roles while trying to work out who the murderers were, are 2 high points.
The rest is dealing with the day to day where the students are usually the high point. The graduating class this year is the last class I taught (when they were in Grade 10) so it’s good to see them off into the world. Next week is midterm exam time, and soon after, another holiday. Another adventure…