Part of a trip through Southeast Asia encompassing Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia’s Sumatra, Brunei, Malaysian Borneo, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Brunei

– visited June 2015 –

Brunei is a rich Sultanate occupying a tiny spot on the island of Borneo. Malaysia has a much bigger part of the island and Indonesia’s territory is much larger still. The sultan rules as an absolute monarch over the roughly 430,000 people in Brunei, applying a mixture of English common law and sharia law. Wealth from oil and gas has transformed Brunei in the last decades. Its GDP per capita, measured at Purchasing Power Parity, ranks among the highest in the world. Brunei just doesn’t look like a rich country. Maybe that has something to do with the Sultan being one of the richest people on earth (maybe) and spending money on thousands of beautiful cars? What else do you do as an absolute ruler?

I am desperate for a GPS signal so I place my phone against the window of the bus. I forget about it and as I get up to leave the driver spots the phone and reminds me.

I want to leave Brunei by ferry going to the Malaysian island of Labuan. I had found the ferry departure times on the internet. As I arrive at the ferry port, I am being told that the boats stopped running years ago. I am staring at a few rusty vessels, one of them has already partly sunk.

[Start of the fictional part.]

I spot a small motorboat; I tell one of the workers to get me some petrol and fill up that boat. My natural authority makes him do what I want quickly. I jump into the boat, start the engine and ride out of the harbour into my own personal freedom. Never to look back.

[End of the fictional part.]    

Damn it, I did bad research. And why didn’t I speak with someone about the ferry? Why didn’t I get another confirmation than some old timetables on the internet? Stupid me. The early-morning bus I could have taken instead is long gone. I have to get back into town. A friendly older guy takes me to the bus stop. Turns out he is from Bangladesh but has been living in Brunei for decades. He recently had to set up his own company, he was working as a civil servant but reached the mandatory retirement age. Now, he is self-employed and does contract work for his old department. I ask if that annoys him. “No, it is their country, they can do whatever they want.”

I head to KFC; it is the only place where I know I can get internet. I need a new plan. An hour later I sit on a bus, I am leaving Brunei but instead of heading east, I head west, the only direction with an afternoon bus.