Sultan Omar Mosque, Brunei
It’s been a while, but I have to wear long pants today. I don’t want to show my ankles or knees in this place. I also choose to wear a shirt that covers my shoulders because I really do not want to offend the people. I am also not allowed to wear anything yellow, because it is the color of his majesty the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah 29th in lineage. In this place they still chop off hands when they catch a thief. I am not a thief, but I do manage to capture some photographs of people doing their thing while they are not looking. Is that stealing? What will they chop off if they see me? I worry less when a Malay man sees me and then smiles at me.
I take off my shoes when I enter the house of a local man when he invites me in for some tea, and I bow my head when he greats me as he brings his hands to my heart as I say salamat pagi – good morning. I sit and eat sweet rice mixed with coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf and for desert we eat jelly made God only knows how, wrapped in Allah only knows what. It is nice. I have at least seven cups of sweet tea and ten banana wrapped rice sweets before the lady takes the plate away from me. Underneath us the water laps against the stilts that keep the house above the river and I can hear the comings and goings of river taxi boats rushing by. Inside, the house is covered with photographs of the Sultan along with Arabic writing mounted in golden frames.
Kampong Ayer water village, Brunei
Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Brunei
The Sultans Palace behind the water village
I can see the golden dome of the Sultans palace through the window of the local mans house. The dome of his personal mosque is made of pure gold and the way it shines almost hurts the eyes when you look at it. When I look out of another window I look straight into the lives of my hosts neighbors. A lady is preparing a meal over an open flame while she carries her child on her hip. Her husband is plucking a chicken and their son is fishing for catfish in the brown river. Even though the contrast is stark, I wouldn’t say that the people from the Kampong Ayer water village are poor.
Brunei must be one of the only places in the world where you will pay less for diesel than for water. The rich oil reserves pays for the opulent golden domes and most people own their own property. The income per capita is the fourth highest in the world.
Headhunters house full of skulls
But this country is also on the island of Borneo, a place where headhunting used to be the norm. It is a place where tigers still roam free and salt water crocodiles ambush their pray from the mangrove rich rivers while proboscis monkeys chatter high in the canopies of ancient rain forest.
We cross over into Kota Kinabalu in the Saba province of Malaysia, which is on Borneo. It is a wild place. The heat sticks to you like a fly would get stuck in a spider’s web – the more you wriggle to get comfortable the worse the situation becomes. Cicadas shriek and ground hornbills hop along like small dinosaurs. There is a sense of elegance here too. You see it in the way the people dress, especially the woman with their colorful silk dresses and burkas.
The variety of life in Borneo is incredibly diverse. The amount of languages and dialects spoken are as plentiful as the colors of the butterflies are rich. The plant life ranges from the world’s largest flower to the world’s smallest orchid and the people eat things ranging from delicious rice jelly to dried seahorses. Everything is vivid and some things are just plain strange. I like strangeness, it makes me feel like there is still so much more left to explore on this planet. You have to get involved when you travel. You have to taste, ask and listen. You have to respect but don’t always have to try to understand. You have to immerse yourself completely, because not only is that the way to leave something of yourself behind – it is also the only way you take something with you. We all pick pocket our way trough life, taking memories with us where we go. What we take though cannot always be seen. I keep what I take in my mind and then in private times I bring them out and smile, happy that no one can chop off a memory.