I debated whether or not to go to Brunei Darussalam for a few days and eventually decided against it. I had read several traveller’s accounts mentioning how little tourist-oriented the country is, and how little there is to do. I figured I may have been considering going just to tick a country off the old list. Then, at the very last minute, I changed my mind. Last minute return tickets were very cheap and I could change my Air Asia flight to Laos for a minimal fee. But, most of all, Brunei’s National Day was in 48 hours. If I was ever going to visit Brunei, it had to be now.
How glad I am I made that call. In hindsight, how could I think it would not be interesting to visit a country that is ethnically Malay, but with a GDP per capita 300% higher than Malaysia. I will write more about Brunei in the next post but for now, let me tell you about the National Day celebrations. I had seen a few videos on Youtube, but I did not know exactly what would happen, or where or when. Upon landing, I went to the airport’s tourism office, only to find that it was closed on Fridays (today), National Holidays (tomorrow), and Sundays. In other words, during my 3 day stay in the country, it would never open! So I looked up the Malay language web page about the celebrations and, using Google translate, figured that there would be something going on downtown at 8:00 in the morning.
As I headed downtown, I started seeing school kids lined-up on the roadside with their teachers. I ran into an American English teacher who explained that all grade school kids gathered along the road to salute the Sultan as he makes his way from his residence to the National Stadium. After a rather lengthy wait, the motorcade arrived.
I was really surprised by the atmosphere. There was no cheering or clapping. Although I was busy snapping pictures, I perceived more of a sense of awe and respect from bystanders. Despite the country being so small, I guess the average citizen doesn’t see the Head of State too often. I say that, but since – as per proper British-inspired protocol dictates – the Sultan was seated on the rear-right seat, and the kids were all on the left side of the road, nobody really saw him anyways!
After a formal arrival, inspection of the Guard of Honour and other such things which I did not witness (but saw plenty of on TV the next day), the parade began, starting with flag-bearers and followed with all sorts of military units.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brunei put its entire military on parade! Air Force and Navy and bands and Army units in way more different uniforms than I could count. Clearly, National Day is the day to attack Brunei if one was so inclined. Of course, you would still have to fight through the British Military Garrison Brunei, which is not that big, but destroying it kinda means going to war with the UK. In the last couple of centuries, that has generally not proven to be a very wise idea.
The female presence was quite significant, in segregated units and also in mixed gender ones, with the head scarf being the only difference. That being said, not all women wear Islamic attire in Brunei. For one, ethnic Chinese women do not. Even the little schoolgirls had different uniforms: headscarf and long dresses for the Malay schoolgirls and the same uniform, but with the dress cut knee length for the Chinese schoolgirls. You’ll have to take my word on this one, as despite the sociologically interesting aspects of school uniforms, I did not think using a telephoto lens to take pictures of the schoolgirls’ skirts was a good idea.
Some troops paraded in dress uniforms, and some in operational attire, in some cases with mortars, anti-tank missiles and other such equipment on their backs. These guys sure put a lot of effort in their face camouflage.
In 30 degree, humid weather, I felt bad for the riot police who paraded in full gear. At least it was cloudy.
Then, I saw the absolute craziest parade suits I have ever seen. The hazardous materials response team, parading in their contaminated zone suits! This makes Canadian and UK Army bear skin hats look practical and cool. For those who think this is just impossible, I later realized the parade route is very short. I would say a 10 minute walk in total.
After all serving uniformed members came the veterans.
The Boy Scouts.
The bowling club? I later learned they were public servants from different Government departments.
And then all the high school students with their teachers. Can you spot the English teachers?
After an hour or so, I got tired of the endless procession and went for a walk. I found this scene in all the surrounding streets for several blocks. Groups of people waiting for the sign to line up and get ready to parade. The Army and/or the Police seemed to control everything and directed the people in due time so they would not lineup for an hour for no reason.
In total, over 22,000 people paraded through the stadium. The Sovereign stood on the dais for over 2 hours!
Not all were as tough as the Sultan!
And at the end of the procession, thousands of high school kids started the show, which was a lot more festive than the previous events. Basically a mass choreographed display of flag waving, marching and signing, preceded by some sort of oath, I think. They practice for two weeks preceding the holiday, but I forgot to ask how many hours a day.
Making shapes with coloured fabrics. I don’t think they could compete in this discipline with North Korean kids, but none of the Bruneian kids looked scared for their lives!
And a final show of flag waving after the National Anthem, and that was the end of the party, around lunch time. The different groups involved in the parade seemed really pleased, taking group shots in the stadium and around it. And then they all went home. Definitely more sober than Canada Day in Ottawa, where bars are packed starting at 10 in the morning! All and all, what is the main difference between Canada’s National Day (in the capital anyways) and Brunei’s? In Brunei, it seems the entire police force takes part in the celebrations, while in Canada, the entire police force is employed in keeping the celebrations under control!
Brunei is certainly not an important touristic destination, but how much so? Put it that way: I did nothing other than take pictures of the parade, dressed in normal clothes (and be white!). Did I attract attention?
I was interviewed by two groups of journalists and made page A12 of the Brunei times…
and page 10 of the Borneo Bulletin!
I do realize that I said virtually nothing about Brunei in this post, but I have much more to tell in the next. I had big doubts about going to Brunei and low expectations, but during my 3 days / 2 nights stay, I had a blast and some random travel experiences you just can’t plan (or invent!). In fact, I’m totally back on the beaten tourist track at the moment, and I am a little bored. More on Brunei tomorrow.
PS: I changed the size of the preview pictures. Better? Too long to download?