Hi ho, hi ho, it’s overseas we go…Brunei Darussalam

Outside Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

C’mon, give me a break…it was ABSOLUTELY time for another trip!  Hey, we didn’t go anywhere last Christmas, and we’d been to Ecuador way back in mid-1999, so we were about due.  To be fair, we’d already booked this trip to Malaysia with our friend Linda back in September 2009.  Keen, hey! What can I say…if you can’t physically travel immediately, the next best thing has got to be making the booking!  OK, OK, I don’t even try and hide it anymore…I’m a travel junkie!

Held in Sarawak, Borneo

Linda had told us about the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival (this is the 2010 event link, but here is the one for the upcoming event in 2011)  in Borneo, and it all sounded very exciting to Alex and I.  The Rainforest World Music Festival is a unique festival that brings together renowned world musicians from all continents as well as indigenous musicians from the island of Borneo.  It has been going for approximately eight years and its success has largely been due to all of the volunteers, both international as well as local, who freely give up their time to help out.  Linda asked Alex and I if we would be interested to volunteer…HELL YEH!!!  That took hardly any convincing at all; Linda showed us the web site (she also has lots of contacts there, and the Andean band she manages in Australia, Inka Marka, have played there before)…and we were immediately sold!  Linda then proceeded to use her contacts, and in no time at all, it was official…Alex and I would be volunteers!  It was an easy sell – whilst I had been to Malaysia, I had never been to Borneo (part of which is Malaysia), and Alex had never been to either.  Of course I am always up for a new country and a new experience.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque & Royal Barge

Linda also mentioned Brunei and the Empire Hotel and Country Club…Where?…What?  The Sultanate of Brunei is a tiny Muslim country nestled between Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and the Empire Hotel and Country Club is its 5 star hotel centrepiece.  Whilst I have never had a huge desire to travel to Brunei, we decided to go there, as we were already going to be so very close. Staying in a 5 star plus hotel?  Linda had been there before with her band (Inka Marka), and said it was worth the splurge. With some really decent on-line deals, we decided to “OTT” (over the top) it, and act like royalty, well at least sultans, for a day…or two.

This speaks for itself!

Good ol’ Air Asia.  Flying ain’t what it used to be!  Once we booked our Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur return tickets, we were able to get our internal tickets quite cheaply, which allowed us to see a fair bit of Malaysia (Sarawak in Borneo and Penang on the mainland) and Brunei in just two weeks.  As usual, we packed a lot in.  Cheap sometimes comes at a cost, however, with Air Asia changing the internal flight times so often that we lost count. It’s all good if there is no urgency to be at a certain place at a certain time, but if you have a tight deadline, I would definitely recommend another carrier.

This sure beats vegemite!

Linda drove to our place, where she left her car, and Dad drove us all to the airport.  We had pre-flight drinks (coffee!) and then boarded the plane.  We’d done our homework – food isn’t free on these flights, so we came armed with sandwiches wrapped in foil and a host of other delectables which would hopefully keep our taste buds happy.  I reminisced about my primary school days where the “wogs” would try and hide the foil and want to spear their parents for giving them salami or prosciutto in continental bread rolls…if they were lucky they could swap with one of the Aussie kids and score a vegemite sandwich (sliced, doughy, white bread).  I laughed out loud..these days, WHO would swap salami in a continental bread roll for vegemite in tip-top bread?  Multicultural Australia…we sure have come a way!

The flight was good, no problems at all.  Once we arrived  in KL, we had to wait a few hours before flying on to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital of Brunei (whose official name is actually the State of Brunei Darussalam).  Linda had her lap top with her, so we filled in our time by sitting in a cafe, and sipping on coffee (as you do), whilst using the free wireless provided.  You can never have too much coffee, or wireless internet access for that matter!  Soon back on a plane, we were on our way to Brunei.

The Empire Hotel…no luxury spared.

We arrived in BSB late in the afternoon, and promptly caught a taxi out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club. I had seen their web site and read up on it, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. OMG…OTT!!!  Translation – Oh My God…Over The Top!  The Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei guide got the description down pat – “Imagine a zillion-tonne hunk of Italian marble dipped in gold and tossed into the rainforest – you’ve just picked the fanciful Empire Hotel and Country Club”. Couldn’t have described it better myself!  We entered the grandiose gates, passed a lot of highly manicured lawns, the entrance to the golf course, the quote, health club, unquote (health club I said, NOT gym!)…and then were left outside the grandiose doors of the hotel.  And there the three of us stood, looking very much the backpackers.  What can I say?  Oil and water?  Never the twain shall meet, or mix at least.  I felt like I had been dumped outside Buckingham Palace in my bikinis!

Beachfront view from the Empire Hotel

Once inside I couldn’t help but be overawed by the opulence (our three day stay here would provide me with many more OMG moments!) of the place, but decided that, hey I was here, so just enjoy it. As the saying goes…if you can’t beat ’em…join ’em!  We were promptly taken to our ocean front rooms, and I must say they were luxurious indeed. The hotel really did have it all…various swimming pools, ocean access, various restaurants, massage, spa…just to name a few things.  It truly was a city within a city. The only downfall was that it was far enough from the city centre to make taking taxis in and out rather expensive, and buses were quite infrequent (A) because the number of cars per person in this small country is astounding and (B), which is actually a result of (A), public transport is scarce and infrequent.

On the Empire Hotel:  It was built in the 90s on the same scale as a Las Vegas Casino, and was commissioned by Price Jefri, originally as lodging for the royal family (talk about putting a new spin on private accommodation!).  Construction costs were estimated  at US $1.1 billion, and the property was quickly transformed into an upscale resort to recover some of the construction costs…word has it that this will never actually happen!  Amongst many other things, the hotel boasts two camel-shaped lamps made from pure Baccarat crystal, topped with solid gold…they cost a mere US half a million each!  Now that is extravagance!

Linda and Ombi – wining & dining at the Empire Hotel

Apart from soaking in the many outdoor pools, we actually had a lovely time in Brunei, spending a bit of time in the city centre, and checking out some sights.  Whilst Muslim, it is not as conservative as many of its middle eastern cousins.  Having said that, it is always both polite and courteous to observe the dress code of those around you.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.  We were very lucky to get a personalised tour on our second day, as Linda has a friend who works in Brunei Tourism.  Chris Robles met us at the hotel and then spent a day driving us around the main sites, which meant that we got to see quite a bit, including the main sites. Without a car, for reasons previously

Royal Regalia Museum

explained, this would have been really difficult.  Some of the highlights were the Royal Regalia Museum (basically a celebration of the sultan and all the trappings of Bruneian royalty), the Brunei Museum (giving a great overview of the country and its people as well as the brilliant Islamic Art Gallery) and the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which was built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the current sultan’s reign.  The sheer volume of the place was amazing and the myriad of  woven rugs scattered across the men’s prayer hall astounding.  Amongst all of this we stopped for both a buffet lunch and some decent coffee.  When Chris dropped us off back at the hotel, we were knackered.  We thanked him for his kind hospitality, and made our way to the pools, for a relaxing finish to our day.

Which side of the Yarra d’ya reckon the mosque is on?
Homemade boat & paddles – Kampong River

The next day we made our own way into the city centre and wandered around.  We seemed to not only be the only tourists, but the only ones walking around, and I must say, it was pretty hot.  That couldn’t possibly have been the reason!  We visited the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque,  (built in 1958 at a cost of about US $5 million…then!  They don’t go by halves in this country!), another very aesthetically pleasing monument.  Alex and I also walked around Kampong Ayer.  Right in the centre, this water village is an amazing juxtaposition to the many lavish buildings which surround it.  Just minutes away from the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, is a jumble of wooden planks and shacks, considered to be the biggest water village in the world.  Housing an estimated 20,000 people, Kampong Ayer is made up of 28 water villages.  As we wandered and meandered around the walkways, and on many a  broken plank high enough above the water to make the idea of tripping over positively frightening, I couldn’t help but be amazed how poverty could reside so close to luxury.  I alternated between looking at the rotten planks below me, and then looking out to the city from which I had just walked.  What a contrast!

Brunei water-taxi service

It was mid-afternoon and getting rather hot (hmm, well, hotter!)  We walked back to the centre, where we met Linda, and then just browsed around, stopping at some shopping centres, as well as refuelling on coffee.  I cannot say that the shopping was overly exciting, and we didn’t really buy much apart from some food.

Our three nights and four days in Brunei passed in a flash, and before we knew it, we were on a plane flying out to Kuching, where we would be volunteering at the Sarawak Rainforest Music Festival.  Whilst I was glad that I had seen Brunei and had seen and done some interesting things, I cannot say that it tops my “5 places to re-visit” list.  Interesting enough it’s kind of more in the been there, done that category!


What am I reading?
The Havana Mob – T.J. English

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by” – Robert Frost

How people on “the other side” live – Kampong water village

Outside wooden house – Kampong water village

Boy going to school – Kampong water village

Opulence – Empire Hotel & Country Club

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Inti Raymi…Australian Style!

L to R: (Back) Narelle, Jane, Natarsha, Ombi  &(front), Linda, Karen & Kirrily 

As I tap away, I am acutely aware that we are almost in the month of  November, which would not normally be such a big deal, except for the fact that the last time I updated my blog was months ago!  I have been meaning to write for weeks, months really, yet that elusive thing called time always seems to somehow, well, elude me!  Having said that, I have decided this fine Sunday morning that “the woman on a mission” has a new mission, which is to write a series of blogs that will update you on mine and Alex’s comings and goings over the last few months or so!!  So, let me get  cracking.

Peruvian shaman

In Late June my close group of friends that I fondly refer to as the “South America Contingent” collectively organised an Inti Raymi Party.  Inti Raymi, or the “Festival of the Sun” (to be exact, “resurrection of the sun”  in the Quechua language) was a religious ceremony of the Inca Empire to honour the Incan Sun God, Inti.  It also marked the winter solstice and a new year in the Andes of the Southern Hemisphere.  As a bit of an aside, since 1944 a theatrical representation of the Inti Raymi has been taking place at Sacsayhuaman, a sacred site only two kilometres from Cusco, on the 24th June, attracting tourists and visitors from all over the world….I was one of those visitors in 1999, only months before I met Alex.  The energy was intoxicating, and it is a memory that will always remain in my heart and soul.

Linda beating to the rhythm of the drum

Meanwhile, back in Australia…our dear friend Linda, aka “Ms South America Melbourne”, was involved in the organisation of this event in Melbourne (one of many), with a contingent of mostly Andean, and to be specific, Peruvian friends.  It was an invitation only event, to be hosted at the home of our also dear friends, Mick and Claudia Benham.  Let me tell you, that night it was definitely the Rain god and not the Sun god that was present, as there was an alluvial downpour to rival all downpours.  The backyard would have made a brilliant mud-wrestling pit, but alack and alas, the ceremony went on, rain, mud, slush and all!

Mud-fest at Inti Raymi

Despite the rain, a great time was had by all, as most of the attendees have some connection to South America, the Andes or its people.  We were all asked to bring along a plate to share, but before we all got stuck into the food, a shaman took us through the ritualistic part of the ceremony.  This ceremony transported me back to Peru, or even to outside the churches of Chichicastenango in Guatemala…a world where cultures, traditions and religions are mixed.  In moments such as these, I desperately want to be anywhere but Australia, as I long for that deep-rooted culture and tradition that I find so lacking here.  I suppose yearning is the word.  My physical body lives in Australia, but my heart and soul are constantly travelling the world – neither seems to want to settle in Australia!

Shaman conducting Inti Raymi ceremony

Despite the continual rain (the Rain god was NOT going to give in!), we danced to Andean music and conversed with our peers.  Unbenownst to others, I was floating in and out of my own little world….before backpacking through South America and meeting Alex 11 years ago, I knew not a lot about South America, its traditions or its people…but traversing this continent would change my life forever.  My travels and experiences there have touched me in the most profoundest of ways.  It turned me into a “culture jockey”…ever since, my life has consisted of straddling two cultures!

Shaman making offerings to Inti, the Sun god

Whilst I love Australia, and am proud of being Australian, not a week goes by where I do not yearn for South America.  I love the vibrancy and passion of its people, many of whom have nothing, yet have everything…and then I think of my own country…where many people indeed have everything, but who spiritually have nothing.  Love, passion, spirituality and few material goods  versus a plethora of material goods yet a spiritual void?  To “have” or “not to have”…that is the question!


Dedication: For South America and its people – you are my second homeland!  Thanks for the great love and passion you have instilled in me.  Knowing you has changed my life…forever!

What am I reading?
Conversations with Tariq Ali  – Speaking of Empire and Resistance, by Tariq Ali and David Barsamian

“Before we work on artificial intelligence, why don’t we work on natural stupidity?” – Steve Polyak