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Bemused by Brunei’s Jerudong Park


Oil was discovered beneath Brunei Darussalam in 1929 and has made its royal family vastly wealthy. It is Borneo’s richest and most modern enclave, a tiny city-state on the north-west coast, whose name means ‘Haven of Peace’.

The population is small but the terminals at the international airport are huge and mostly empty. They seem designed to make a statement and the few uncomfortable-looking officials who haunt them seem tiny in comparison. Of the two runways, one is reserved exclusively for the royal family, whose fleet of private aircraft includes several Lear jets and a Boeing 747. The sultan is the twentyninth of his line and some estimates put his oil related earnings as high as 200,000 dollars an hour. That’s nearly five million dollars a day, thirty million dollars a week and more than a billion and a half dollars a year.

Bandar Seri Begawan – the capital – is filled with public buildings that are, like the airport, immense and largely empty. It is as if some catastrophe has claimed ninety percent of the population.

The city is messy and confused, decrepit Chinese shop houses sit next to hideous new office blocks, expensive cars prowl the streets but the pavements are uneven and full of holes. As the day draws on towards night, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer rises above the rooftops, ancient and chilling, otherworldly in its beauty, and I wonder what there is to do here in the evening. Brunei is a strict Islamic society, there are no bars, the restaurants close early and I had seen no cinemas, theatres or clubs, but there is Jerudong Park.

People in Brunei speak of Jerudong Park with a mixture of awe and joy. When I mention it to the receptionist at my hotel (who usually speaks only in grunts and whose work rate never seems to rise above the level of torpor) he becomes animated and almost verbose. But how do I get there? It is some distance away and public transport is sporadic, taxis expensive. He suggests that I hitchhike.

Outside the centre of the city Brunei looks like jungle interspersed with shanty towns, with the occasional palace thrown in here and there for effect. The sultan has two, the larger of which contains 1,783 rooms. The other members of his family (which is large) also have at least one palace each, sometimes more. One of them is rumoured to have nine dwellings altogether.

I learn all this from Anwar, who has taken pity on my outstretched thumb. He is a Palestinian, a surveyor, tidy and wellspoken; the construction company for which he works makes a good profit from building things for the royal family, they spare no expense and are careless with their budgets. I ask him about the shanty towns.

“A lot of them,” he says, “belong to foreign workers. There are Bangladeshis, Filipinos and Thais who do the labouring on the construction projects for about one dollar fifty an hour.”

“How about ordinary Bruneians?” I ask.

“Some live in shacks, but if they do, they don’t deserve much sympathy, the sultan is generous, every male is entitled to a plot of land, an interest-free loan for a house and another for a car. Pressure to repay these is minimal, there are no taxes in Brunei, a public health service and pensions for all.”

“If every male gets a house and a plot of land what do the women get?” I ask. He laughs politely as if I have made a joke.

Anwar misses his family, who still live in Palestine. Talkative, with the volubility of the lonely, he drives quickly and the afternoon light slanting through the windows lights his face as he steers the little car along a stretch of motorway six lanes wide. It is elaborately lit and signposted but almost totally empty. We turn off and the road leads down towards a bridge across a river. It looks brand new, but makeshift barriers have been erected at either end and we turn towards a ferry that is just docking.

“What’s wrong with the bridge?” I ask.

Anwar winces and says, “Nothing is wrong with the bridge, it’s a brand new bridge but one of the sultan’s cousins owns the ferry concession so when the bridge was built, income from the ferry plummeted and he demanded that the sultan close the bridge. So two weeks after they opened it they shut it again, a ten million dollar bridge…” His last words trail off plaintively. He seems more pained than amused.

“They don’t make plans, they don’t look to the future – they just think about today.” He shakes his head, then something catches his eye.

“There he is!” Anwar is suddenly tense and animated, sitting bolt upright in the seat.

“Who?” I say, as a black Mercedes without number plates passes us. I catch a glimpse of the driver: a small man inside an enormous car, he looks youthful, his face wears a neat moustache and a puzzled expression.

“It’s the sultan, it’s the sultan!” shouts Anwar with almost childish glee, and so it is. He looks lost, driving slowly, his head turning from side to side as if he were confused, bewildered or is looking for something.

Nicholas Sumner, probably younger as that's a film Nikon he's toting.

Not long after that we come to the sultan’s playground. I thank Anwar for the lift and hope that he sees his family soon. Jerudong Park is a funfair bigger than any of the Disneylands, no expense has been spared anywhere, marble has been used lavishly and the rides and games are the newest and most exciting from Europe, America and Japan. There are rollercoasters, a log flume, a go-kart track and a polo club. There is no charge to enter and all the rides are free.

Despite this it seems as empty as Brunei’s roads and public buildings. Fairgrounds are tacky by nature but crowds give them sound, colour, the frission of energy. Jerudong Park is practically deserted, music is playing and most of the rides are open but hardly anyone is there to fill the place with the noise and vitality that give fairgrounds appeal. And somehow it looks cheap. The marble looks like plastic beneath the strip lights, buildings look patched with makeshift repairs and a few irritable teenagers flounce from ride to ride. Bored, truculent; cynical in the way that only the immature can be.

Abruptly the few rides that are in use come to a stop. The music ceases and with a crackle of static the call to the evening prayer comes over the loudspeakers. But what had seemed profound and moving across the rooftops of Bandar Seri Begawan, in the soulless wastes of Jerudong Park seems strange, disconnected and out of place.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. Laa Elaaha Ella Allah
(God is great, God is great. There is no god but God).

The teenagers sprawl across chairs, their faces masks of bored indifference, but tension and suppressed energy shows in the sporadic twitching of their feet. When the time for prayer passes the music begins again and they slouch off, their movements elaborately weary, their expressions elaborately sullen.

Extracted from Nicholas Sumner’s new book ‘Available Light‘. His adventures in the ‘Golden Age’ of travel photography are of interest to travellers and photographers alike. Find out more at www.troubador.com.

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