Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Back to Brunei: A return to the nation at the top of Borneo, where the scenery is glorious - and the Sultan will have you round for tea

The sovereign state of Brunei, perched on the north coast of Borneo, is described as the 'forgotten jewel of South East Asia'.

It certainly was when I visited 30-odd years ago and was dropped by helicopter on to an unexplored ridge.

Back then, at the age of 20, I was almost overcome by the primeval beauty of it all - particularly the lilting gibbon calls at dawn and range after range of majestic trees.

Anyway, it was about time I went back to see how the little sultanate had fared - after all, the bulk of Borneo (the rest comprises Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island, and the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak) had, in the ensuing years, been widely abused, if not clear-felled.

I was bracing myself. The country's vast oil reserves have led to it becoming one of the richest per capita on the planet, in sixth place. Britain comes in at only 22nd.

Sure enough, things had changed.

Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, was no longer a backwater but a sleek, clean place of breathtaking mosques and balmy avenues. It says something about 21st Century Brunei that my guide, Tom, suggested I might like to experience - after a leisurely dusk river trip - the 'Harley-Davidson bike evening tour'.

On our river trip, a boat whisked us into tranquil waterways, abode of salt-water crocodiles, flying foxes and monitor lizards. The sun dipped serenely over the mangroves while proboscis monkeys munched on leaves, kingfishers dipped, and egrets returned to their roosts.

Then it was back to my gloriously immodest accommodation, the mighty Empire Hotel and Country Club. This featured a luxurious manmade beach - next to a luxurious natural beach. It was hard to imagine going anywhere more lavish - though we managed it at the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, whose gate railings are capped with 18-carat gold, sapphires and rubies.