By Mike Snow
Call me a drama king, but my first impression on entering Brunei’s grand Empire Hotel was of having died and gone to tourist heaven. Or else having arrived by time travel during the height of British colonial rule, about to be embraced by royalty.
It’s not just the Empire’s old world charm and elegance (accentuated by meticulously uniformed greeters, a million dollar chandelier, a $500,000 Saudi Arabian crystal camel, plus gold fixtures everywhere) that impressed.
But also assurances by my check-in clerk that the Empire is one of only two 7-star hotels in the entire world. The thought of being privy to such exclusivity adds spring to my step as I am escorted down long ornate corridors, past stunning views of the South China Sea, to my room.
Most nearby Asian nations teem with people who, in the year of the Tiger of this Asian century, might not seem to know where they’re going but are on their way. Because of sultanate’s vast oil wealth, conservative Muslim values and knowledge that they have already arrived, Bruneians move to their own drumbeat.
Which perhaps explains why service at such an ornate hotel – and hotels elsewhere throughout this country full of hallmarks to wealth – doesn’t always measure up to Western expectations.
Two tiny slivers jutting out from Borneo’s northern tier, Brunei ranks as the region‘s richest nation, and is arguably the most beautiful, the most laid-back, the safest and, along with Singapore, possibly the cleanest.
Well-kept roads, sleek, modern condominiums, state-of the-art office buildings and gleaming mosques throughout Bandar Seri Bagawan, the capital, are monuments not only to the vast oil supply but the wholesome image that the Sultan tries to project.
The Omar Sultan Ali Saiffuddin Mosque erected on an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River, features golden domes, marble minarets, and lush gardens full of fountains. Some call it the most beautiful Muslim house of worship in the world.
But then there are the details, which begin to loom when my escort at the Empire is unable to get the card key to open the door to my room.
After several futile attempts she ends up summoning one of the room boys, in this instance an immaculately tailored middle-aged man who saunters up to us about 10 minutes later with a “here we go again” expression that seems to further embarrass my flustered host.
Without saying a word, he takes the card from her, inserts it into the slot and opens the door to a magnificent seascape backdrop.
My long overseas journey has worn me out, so I quickly find myself sinking into what had to be the most comfortable pillows and bed this side of anywhere, surrounded by state-of-the-art furniture and an exquisite marbled bathroom the size of a small swimming pool that includes a shower with three sources of water, a bidet and, of course, gold fixtures.
A spiffy brochure on my desk advertises a golf cart and driver service to take me the resort’s bowling alley, polo grounds, and a cinema which features three Western movies that can be viewed on jumbo screens.
From my balcony, I am able to savor an intoxicating ocean breeze, manicured gardens, a network of swimming pools, and beaches that seem to stretch forever.
Visitors can choose from eight restaurants, or visit the shopping arcade that features photos of past guests, including King Abdullah of Jordan, Pamela Anderson and Bill Clinton, who reportedly stayed three days (though apparently not with Miss Anderson) in a $16,600 per night, football-field sized suite that features its own swimming pool and carpets flecked with real gold. The mere thought of all that opulence made my undernourished stomach begin to growl.
But I am unable to get through to room service. That’s because all three phones in my suite – the desk phone, the bed phone and even the phone beside the toilet and its gold fixtures – don’t work.
Internet wireless, however, does, and by logging into Skype I am finally able to order a snack and relay my phone issue to the attendant, using the opportunity to explain that my room safe doesn’t function, either. A manager shows up to reset my safe – which promptly malfunctions again as soon as he leaves. My snack arrives 30 minutes later, cold to the touch.
So the next morning I am especially hungry and looking forward to the sumptuous breakfast feast that awaits me at the Atrium Café buffet. The food is varied and alluring.
But chaos reigns supreme among the waiters, who seem confused about how to restock the impressive displays of Western and Asian fare while simultaneously directing the unusually large swarm of guests who have shown up to eat. The coffee is good, but arrives slowly, though faster than it took to access my room after checking in. So much for seven stars.
The overlooked details and sluggishness of many in Brunei’s service industry seems tied to overpayment, a sense of entitlement, and certain lethargy bred by Sultanic largess.
I had to ask three times before an attendant finally delivered a toothbrush and toothpaste to my room. And the issues with my safe, which kept malfunctioning, were always politely addressed but never quite resolved. But the poor service is a trade-off. With its legion amenities, relaxed tempo and stunning seaside views, I can think of few better places for a romantic getaway.
Except that I am alone. And there are no bars. And no alcohol, unless one is a resourceful foreigner prescient enough to show up with his own private liquor stash.
Expats are allowed to bring alcohol into the country in limited qualities, and I managed to attend a private luncheon at my conference that included a choice of either wine or beer.
But news articles in the Brunei Times make clear that trying to buy contraband booze is not smart. First, Sharia law is in place and Muslims (who comprise 67 percent of the population) caught with moonshine or any form of alcohol would likely be subject to lashing. Ditto for infidels who push the envelope.
So my savoring of the idyllic is generally done while solitarily sipping tea, woefully mindful that this particular adventure in opulence requires me to follow certain guidelines, as well as a sense of resignation.
To sate my animalistic instincts, I decide on a journey down crocodile-infested waters to the rainforest, which, thanks to the country’s vast oil wealth, remains pristine.
After sharing a meal with former headhunters (who now live largely in village longhouses and, thankfully, seem content to merely slaughter a chicken for dinner), we arrive at a riverfront lodge prior to setting out before sunrise the next morning into leach infested jungle.
Our journey ends with a climb to the top of the jungle canopy, and a stellar view of majestic eagles that circle overhead.
Brunei was not always at the top of the world, and for a long time seemed as resistant to change as its rainforest, rife not only with crocodiles but poisonous snakes and, of course, our jungle hosts, who were once consumed with collecting skulls.
As recently as World War II, indigenous tribesmen enthusiastically displayed the heads of Japanese occupation soldiers they had managed to lop off.
Internationally, few turnaround stories are more compelling than that of this tiny nation of just 400,000.
The Sultan, Brunei’s ruler since 1968, grew up in a relatively modest wooden home in Bandar Seri Bagawan (or BSB, as locals call it), and was hardly indigent. But ever since the 16th century, Brunei itself, a former maritime power, had undergone hard times.
Its fleet had rotted, and Sulu pirates forced many Bruneians into slavery. James Brookes, the legendary White Rajah of Sarawak and the inspiration behind Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, expropriated huge swatches of land for himself. The country’s annual foreign trade stagnated to just $80,000. In 1888, it became a British protectorate.
Brunei’s fortunes finally began to change in 1926 after a pair of bicycling Englishmen connected to the Shell Oil Company smelled gas seeping out of the earth.
Accounts of the discovery are gloriously detailed in local textbooks and are as familiar to local children as stories about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree have been to American kids.
Oil wealth came relatively slowly at first. But after World War II, revenues, with the aid of Shell Oil, began piling up. By the time the young Sultan was carried to his coronation on an enormous red and gold baroque litter at the age of 22, the country’s fortunes had changed for the better.
After the 1979 Arab oil embargo triggered a huge spike in crude prices, both Forbes and Fortune Magazine pronounced him the richest person in the world.
Indigenous former headhunters along with city dwellers benefited from the windfall, which the Sultan has meted out in the form of cushy government jobs, free education, free medical care, subsidized housing, cheap gasoline, no taxes and, for Muslims, free trips to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Locals jokingly refer to these handouts as “Shellfare.” Today, more people per capita drive cars in Brunei Darussalam (“the Abode of Peace”) than perhaps anywhere. Even Horatio Alger would have been amazed.
But the flowering of Brunei has not come without consequences. While crime is relatively low (a stolen car often makes the news), laws are strict and individual freedom curtailed. Demonstrations are permitted but almost never occur.
Prostitution and homosexuality can earn guilty parties up to 5 and 10 years of jail time, respectively (Those convicted of prostitution can also be fined up to $20,000). Anyone caught with more than a pound of marijuana faces the death penalty.
Despite the low crime rate, the Sultan recently noted the need for more religious education, suggesting further restrictions to come.
Another problem is that enforcement of the law is not always administered evenhandedly. During the1990s, at the height of Brunei’s building boom, an estimated U.S. $14 billion went unaccounted for, sparking allegations of misappropriation aimed largely at the Sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri who, as minister of finance for 13 years and head of the Brunei Investment Authority, helped diversify the nation’s economy and oversaw development of its infrastructure.
Jefri’s tastes ran from swank to swankier. Under his watch, the Empire Hotel, for example, started out as a royal guesthouse but wound up as a luxury hotel and country club that included its own signature Jack Nicklaus golf course and climate controlled stables for 200 polo ponies imported from Argentina.
The Empire’s rooms are, well, right out of a sultan’s palace, listing from $400 up to the $16,600 nightly for the deluxe Emperor Suite used by President Clinton. Marble pillars, gold fixtures, a million dollar chandelier, and a ceiling that seems to rise heavenward offset the hotel’s lobby. At night, visitors can view stars through what must be one of the world’s largest picture window.
But the biggest ode to opulence is the 1788-room royal palace, the largest in existence, which the royal family opens to the public three days each year during Ramadan. It features a throne room that is overseen by portraits of the Sultan and his two current wives, and includes extra thrones for visiting royal couples.
During the annual open houses, the Sultan and other male royals patiently shake hands with every male visitor, while female royals greet women and girls.
Bruneians appreciate what the Sultan has done for them, and their fondness for him extends to other royals. Despite being mobbed after addressing an international conference, his son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Billah, patiently shook hands with well-wishers then drove himself home.
The Sultan appears at benefits and official functions, too, of course. He is also often spotted tooling around town in luxury model cars from his extensive collection of about 5,000 vehicles, including an estimated 350 Rolls Royces.
Plus, he’s an avid concert buff. Rod Stewart, Elton John, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson are among the entertainers who have performed in Brunei, in addition to Disney characters who have flown in to amuse younger royals.
Because of the extravagant royal lifestyle, the cost of Shellfare, and Brunei’s dwindling oil revenues, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and others reportedly have overtaken the Sultan’s wealth.
Yet he remains one of the world’s wealthiest men and his tiny Sultanate one of the richest nations on earth – if not the most efficient.
Which I was reminded of one last time when the Brunei Airlines booth at the international convention center refused to honor my credit card, requiring a visit to its faraway downtown office just to change my ticket.
With no taxis to take me there, I ended up paying the difference directly to the clerk, who personally drove the cash the to the airline office and later returned with my ticket — without expecting anything extra.
Mike Snow, shown here at the Brunei Oil Museum, has covered conflicts in both Asia and Africa, and also reported from Latin America, Russia and Washington for major print and broadcast markets. He now writes mainly about travel to mostly exotic destinations. He has visited more than 100 countries.
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