Brunei is a one-off; a tiny oil-rich sultanate on the north coast of Borneo, cornered and split in two by the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
It glimmers with golden-roofed mosques whose calls to prayer ring out over the country’s dense and pristine rainforest, filled with proboscis monkeys and lazy pythons, while offshore, flares from oil rigs light up the clouds in the tropical night.
Around 420,000 Bruneians are ruled over by one of the world’s wealthiest men – the living link in a dynasty of sultans stretching back 600 years. At one time, Brunei was the driving seat of Borneo, but its territories were whittled away piece by piece, first by the Sulu kings, then by the British. Today, Brunei is a peculiar mix of material wealth and Malay tradition. Affluence has numbed Sultan Bolkiah’s subjects into submission to the political system. Bruneians see no reason to complain: they pay no taxes and the purchase of cars and houses is heavily subsidized. Healthcare and education are free and trips to Mecca are a snip. Politics, it seems, is not their business. This climate of benign affluence, combined with the prohibition of alcohol and the complete lack of nightlife, makes Brunei’s tagline – ‘The Abode of Peace’ – ring perfectly true.
Still, change is in the air. With oil and gas reserves expected to dry up in the next 20 to 40 years the economy needs to diversify. Fortunately, Brunei holds a trump card for the future: ecotourism. One of the happy consequences of its dependence on oil is that three-quarters of its landmass is still covered by virgin rainforest, arguably the highest proportion of any country in the world. Brunei is the easy way into Borneo. You get kampong culture, pristine jungle, endangered wildlife and all the creature comforts you could hope for. Just don’t expect to rough it.