Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Grass and Humidity

I was allowed onto the new air-conditioned bus bound from Miri to Brunei half an hour before the 3:45 departure time. The bus wasn't even half full. We left promptly and cruised quickly to the border, where all of us passengers were stamped out of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We reboarded and drove to the other side, where we all got off the bus again.

We were all stamped into Brunei, then moved into a small, older bus. An Irish passenger who lived in Sabah groused "This isn't a 40 ringgit bus."

But I'd read about this…there are rules about Malaysian buses going into Brunei. Never mind that the Malaysian bus was vastly superior to this Brunei bus. Rules were rules.

The crappier bus headed out along the Pan-Borneo Highway, a perfectly paved road that runs parallel to the coast, passing through small towns that looked like suburbs of Houston, complete with lawns, garages, fences, joggers, oil derricks and Shell signs.

Rain kicked in just before we arrived in Brunei's capital city after dark. This was the tropics, the weather reminded me.

At 7:30—the bus freezing from the overpowering air-con—we pulled into the drizzle of Bandar Seri Begawan, passing Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Ah, that was near my hotel! I'd seen it on my map. After circling round the block past the bus terminal, the little bus pulled up nearly in front of my hotel, Brunei Hotel, which I'd booked into for two nights on my bank points.

Brunei Hotel turned out to be newly renovated and excellent. I left my bag in my room and headed out in search of money and food.

The HSBC bank on the corner gave me a crisp $100 Brunei dollar.

"Crap. That's going to be hard to break," I thought.

I headed to a shopping center nearby, past a dramatically lit mosque, huddled under my umbrella beneath the rain, but there wasn't much to eat there. So it was back to Coffee Bean for the same pasta dish I'd had plenty of times in the Kuwait and Cairo branches of the same company.

At least Coffee Bean could break my hundred.

Brunei didn't seem to have a lot going on, but it was raining and dark out, so I couldn't really judge. I'd try again tomorrow.

In the morning, I was thrilled to find that Brunei Hotel had an excellent included breakfast buffet and the kind of hot-water shower you don't have to fuss with. And when I went outside, I discovered that a local market was across the street.

But Bandar Seri Begawan? There didn't seem to be a lot happening here. There are a few villages built on stilts, which look nice, a waterfront but not much on it, some stunning mosques, and a couple of museums. That's about it as far as tourism went. It reminded me of Kuwait City, but a lot smaller and with humidity and grass. This would be a great place to work for a short time—friendly, safe, multicultural, high quality of life. But for visiting, while Bandar was easy and relaxing, I didn't feel bad when the rain kicked back in and sent me scurrying back to my hotel.

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