Going to Brunei was a last minute decision. We had a flight leaving from Kota Kinabalu (in the Sabah part of Borneo) and, to get there, we either had to fly or go through Brunei. I’m glad we chose the latter.

Brunei is a tiny country sandwiched between the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. It almost joined with Sarawak and Sabah in becoming a part of Malaysia a few decades ago, but withdrew at the last minute when it discovered that it was sitting on vast oil reserves and didn’t want to share.

Those oil reserves have enabled Brunei to become a very wealthy country and has personally enriched the Sultan of Brunei to the tune of about US$40 billion, making him one of the richest men in the world.

The riches have enabled the country to provide free education and free health care to all of its approximately 300,000 citizens. It has also produced some impressive buildings, including a huge mosque in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and one of the largest residences in the world – the Sultan’s palace (which has over 1,700 rooms and over 200 bathrooms!).

We were able to enter the mosque briefly before prayer time to see the huge interior and impressive carpets and stained glass. When we went outside to look (ironically) at the fake boat that the sultan has placed in the fake lagoon next to the mosque (too much money makes you do some funny things), two Muslim men approached us. Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect because we sort of got in trouble in the mosque when we overstayed the 5 minute time limit imposed on non-Muslim visitors to the mosque, but they ended up talking to us about the mosque and giving us some sweets they were preparing for a Ramadan feast that evening.

Before sunset, we hired a boat to take us on the nearby river to see the Sultan’s palace (evidently, he opens it up to the public once a year – but we were about a week too early for that) and to ride around the Kampung villages.

The Kampung villages are built over the water on stilts and have been in Brunei for several hundred years. The government has offered to build the inhabitants new houses for basically free, but they refused the offer because they don’t want to leave their village (and the closeness of their friends and family) regardless of how impractical it can be at times. Instead of building new houses on land, the government decided to build new schools and even a fire department alongside the stilted homes.

There is one Brunei scandal worth mentioning. The brother of the Sultan went on a huge spending spree for several years, building extravagant mosques, government buildings and hotels, purchasing several hundred luxury cars for himself and building one of the largest yachts in the world. The spending became so excessive that the brother was eventually banned from the country and now lives in London. As additional punishment, the Sultan reduced the allowance of the brother to a mere US$300,000 a year month. Poor guy. Hopefully, he’ll be ok!