Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Bandar Seri Begawan is perhaps Asia’s quietest capital city. There is practically nobody walking down its few streets and cars do not honk. I spent a day in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, mainly as a transfer point between the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Culturally, Brunei is very similar to Malaysia. However, religion plays a more central role in people’s lives as seen by the ubiquitous golden-domed mosques. The grandest of these is probably the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, overlooking an artificial lagoon and containing Mughal architectural elements. Another example of the country’s strict adherence to Islam is the complete absence of alcohol and cigarettes. These items are allowed to be brought into the country on a limited basis. (I was surprised at the stringent hand search of everyone’s luggage for alcohol and drugs.)

My highlight of visiting Brunei was meeting up with local Cser Chee Khiong. He showed me around and answered the many questions I had about his “mysterious” country. Because of its oil wealth, Brunei is able to subsidize many of life’s necessities, including gasoline, utilities, rice, other foods, tertiary education and healthcare. Moreover, there is no income tax!

Chee Khiong also took me to two grand but wasteful structures in Brunei--the Empire Hotel and the Jerudong Amusement Park. The Empire Hotel is the world’s most expensive hotel, costing $1 billion to build. The hotel is struggling to recuperate its costs, probably because of its many gold decorations. The story is similar for Jerudong Amusement Park, which has limited operating hours due to its financial bleeding.

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