Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Brunei and the Sweaty Staircase to the Sky

I got a pretty warm welcome to Brunei this morning. Literally. The power went out at the Capital Residence Suites around six in the morning and I woke up in a sweat. Sitting in my hotel room unable to sleep with nowhere to go gave me some time to read my Brunei guidebook anyway.

Brunei gained its independence from the United Kingdom on 1 January 1984, so the country is only a couple months older than me! We're both aging in a dignified manner, if I do say so myself. The IMF estimated in 2011 that Brunei was one of two countries (the other being Libya) with a public debt at 0% of the national GDP.

There's a period of time were land was being controlled by the White Rajahs which I found very amusing. I'll let Wikipedia explain that one:

"In the 1880s, the decline of the Bruneian Empire continued. The sultan granted land (now Sarawak) to James Brooke, who had helped him quell a rebellion and allowed him to establish the Kingdom of Sarawak. Over time, Brooke and his nephews (who succeeded him) leased or annexed more land. Brunei lost much of its territory to him and his dynasty, known as the White Rajahs.

Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin appealed to the British to stop further encroachment by the Brookes. The "Treaty of Protection" was negotiated by Sir Hugh Low and signed into effect on 17 September 1888. The treaty said that the sultan "could not cede or lease any territory to foreign powers without British consent"; it provided Britain effective control over Brunei's external affairs, making it a British protected state (which continued until 1984). But, when the Kingdom of Sarawak annexed Brunei's Pandaruan District in 1890, the British did not take any action to stop it. They did not regard either Brunei or the Kingdom of Sarawak as 'foreign' (per the Treaty of Protection). This final annexation by Sarawak left Brunei with its current small land mass and separation into two parts."

Brunei shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. Borneo is the third largest island in the world. As mentioned above, Brunei is split into two parts. Today I'm going to take a tour of the smaller part, Temburong District, which is home to the Ulu Temburong National Park.

I might agree with this sign and say the two worst smells ever are cigarette smoke and the durian fruit.

As time went on the news out of China got less and less pleasant. I had some tours and stuff planned for a day in Beijing on the way back but it's looking more and more likely that I will just kill a day at the hotel and hide until my flight the next day.

I ate some hotel breakfast while I waited for my car to arrive and take me to the port. As the main chunk of Brunei and Temburong District are separated by Brunei Bay, I would need to take a boat to get there. 

They are actually building a bridge to my destination but it's not finished yet apparently.

It started to rain and so we all waited under a structure near the dock. I met up with my guide for the next couple days: Erick. Most of the other tourists here seemed to be Chinese, traveling during their New Year holiday. Erick said that because of Covid that this would be the last day the Chinese tours would take place. I considered how much of a bummer it would be to have your holiday canceled, and then be sent back to the place all of the virus is.

As soon as we were out of earshot Erick says "I’m not racist but I don’t want to guide Chinese because of the flu". Fair enough. I was the only English speaking guy so my tours today would be solo.

The boat had some trouble starting which seemed like a great omen.

Once on the other side in Temburong Erick took me to a nearby market.

The place was like Star Wars cantina of produce. Even for me, lover of weird foods, there were multiple things for sale here that I had never seen before. Erick was kind of being a pain here because he wasn't providing a lot of guidance. I pointed at a couple of things like "can I eat this now if I buy it" and there was a lot of "no this isn't ripe" or "this you have to cook". Come on people I'm trying to get weird.

Like what the heck are these things? I'm going to say... urchin fruit.

And I'm gonna go ahead and call these things... chalk melons. See Erick. How does that make you feel? I'll just make up my own tour of whimsy until you step in.

Now we were getting somewhere. Wajid Temburong is steamed rice slowly cooked in sugar and coconut cream, then wrapped in nyirik leaves. These might have been fancy versions of a classic, because as the sign indicates they had additional flavors: ubi kayu or cassava and labu or pumpkin. I went for a bag of the pumpkin.

There was a ton of some fruit cut open and drying all over the place. Sure would have been nice to know what that was about. If only I had a guide...

Anyway I was pretty happy with my bag of wajid. It was a pretty good score.

We had some good chats in the car. Head hunting, making deals with the devil. You know, guy stuff.

We stopped at the Sumbiling Eco Village to have a bite to eat before continuing on our journey into the rainforest.

They prepared some fried bananas for me.

And I dug into my wajid.

It was so pumpkiny it was sort of like just eating cooked down pumpkin puree. To the point that I'm not 100% sure that that isn't what it was. It was good but too sweet to eat the whole bag. Being wrapped in leaves was a nice touch as well.

Then we left our base and ventured farther afield.

The road had ended so if we wanted to get any further into the Ulu Temburong National Park we were going to need to hop in a motorized long boat called a temuai and travel along the Sungai Temburong River.

I had plenty of time for selfies and pictures of trees, as that was about all that was happening at the moment.

We were blowing past the other boats laden with Chinese tourists. Sad.

Nothing gets the sweat glands pumping like climbing a larger number of steps in the freaking hot rainforest. Nothing says "you're about to experience something unpleasant" like a sign from the government saying that if you die it's not their problem.

I quickly reached the point of sweatiness where I had a hat but I didn't want to wear it because it's so hot, but I also don't want to take it off because I don't want my head to get sunburn. Also yes I put on sunblock but it had long ago all sweated into my eyes. Why do I hate myself?

When I got up the last of 8 million jungle steps I was greeted with my reward. It was steps. I'd won steps. There was a tower in front of me with a lot of steps, then a bridge part. To another tower. With more steps. With another bridge. To another tower. This was sick what I was about to inflict on myself. I saw walking people on their way out red faced and tired. Souls destroyed, I assume, by the steps.

Some Asian tourists near me in line were rubbing some green goop on themselves. They noticed my attention and offered me some. One said it was to keep the bees away. Like what the heck are you talking about bees? I took it to be polite but I was very skeptical. It was like a salve in a little circular container. It smelled like menthol and after rubbing some on my arms it started to sort of burn and cool at the same time.

Erick was trying to tell me he was going to wait for me at the bottom. Bro. You think I'm gonna walk up this rickedy thing all by myself, with probably no one else even able to speak English up there to hear my last friggin words, and no one even there to take my picture if I do make it to the top? Is that how you think this is going to go? I hit him with the "sounds like you’re scared." And up he went. That worked so well I felt a little bad.

Then I began my ascent. An added fun part that I hadn't anticipated was that the tower was completely made out of metal, and the higher I climbed the less shade was available. So as I rose so did the temperature of the structure, until the point that the safety rails were too hot to hold on to.

I would've eaten more of those pumpkin baby food leafs earlier if I had known about all of this exercise.

A thought popped into my head that some of my family and friends *aren’t* hanging out just above the canopy of the rainforests of Borneo. It really bummed me out. 

Erick's photography style was one that often seemed to involve his thumb.

Well I must admit the view from the top was pretty swell. I think all things considered this experience will go into my "glad I did it but never doing it again" pile. There were also lots of good animal noises emanating from the trees.

On our way back to civilization we stopped at a little waterfall.

The main attraction was these little fish that eat the dead skin off of your feet. As much as I enjoy being repeatedly bitten I did not mess with this for very long. It doesn't seem very... hygienic. 

Erick seen giving the boat ride back one thumb up.

Back at Sumbiling Eco Village we dined on some curry and rice.

On the boat trip back I was seated next to a very sleepy man with a very floppy head.

Erick said that when the bridge opens it will put a lot of these ferry people out of work. Bummer.

Erick was entertaining my feeble attempts at learning a little Malay here and there. Selamat pagi: Good Morning. My favorite was apa kabar: how are you, because it sounded like "abracadabra".

We also had a good conversation about Sharia Law, which Brunei had implemented just last year. Sharia law is no joke, with the penalty for theft being getting your hand chopped off, and adultery I think is being stoned to death. Really cheery stuff. In practice though it sounds like there's not been a lot of changes in the justice system since Sharia became law. For example in order to get your hand chopped off for stealing there's something like two Muslim men in good standing had to see you do it, and you had to have done it for a bad reason. If you stole something to feed your family or something then you get to keep your hands. Erick was doing a pretty good job of making hand chopping sound reasonable. Which of course is ridiculous. It sounds like something that they will never enforce. So why go to Sharia law in the first place if nothing will practically change? Well it sounds like there's a royal uncle who is eying the throne and the current sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, wants to ensure that his son is the one who succeeds him. Well I think that there are some provisions of Sharia law that would make this happen, thus the switch to Sharia. 

People back home seem to be unimpressed with the death count and comparing Covid-19 to the seasonal flu. I had a good feeling that these posts were going to age really well.

There's also some speculation that the virus jumped species from someone eating a weird animal at a Chinese market. I felt personally attacked. I ate a bat. I ate a snake. Nobody told me that doing so could potentially end humanity.

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