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Brunei:   The Abode of Peace

Children of Kampung Ayer

Children of Kampung Ayer walking along the maze of boardwalks that connect the many houses, shops, and villages

Mosque in Kampung Ayer

Mosque in Kampung Ayer

The native Malays are mostly Muslim. It's one of the more strict Islamic countries, though nothing like Saudi Arabia. The sale of alcohol is banned, though non-Muslims are allowed to bring it in from Malaysia. Non-Muslims (mostly the Chinese) are allowed to practice their religions freely, as evidenced by Chinese temples and churches. The streets of BSB are every bit as colorful as one would expect from a place with a Malay majority. They are also very clean and sparsely populated. The city is quite spread out considering that the population is 60,000—half of whom live in Kampung Ayer. The country has a very high standard of living due to its huge oil reserves. The oil is expected to run dry in 2020 and economic diversification programs are currently being carried out. In fact, the Sultan recently bought an area of ranch land in Australia bigger than Brunei itself. Its tropical rain forests are very pristine due to the fact that, with so much oil, forestry is not needed. Hopefully it will remain that way. Tourism is a major part of the economic diversification program and the national parks are an important tourist draw.

The year 2001 has been declared "Visit Brunei Year" but tourists are still few. Brunei is the world's last absolute monarchy. The Sultan has the final say on everything, period. This includes how the oil money is spent. While the Sultan spends plenty on himself, he also throws a huge amount of money at the people. This explains why he can remain an absolute monarch. He has given the people the highest standard of living in Asia in just a few decades, so most of those people are willing to wait awhile for a constitutional monarchy. Wherever you go in Brunei you will see pictures of the Sultan and his two wives. His palace is a curious building; it looks like an office building with a gold dome that seems somehow out of place. The outside of the throne room is more traditional, shaped like a megalithic Malay house. The palace has 1,788 rooms and costs more than a third of a billion dollars.

On my second day in Brunei I visited the Jame 'Asr Bolkiah Mosque, the largest in Brunei, and all of Borneo for that matter. It was an amazing sight both for its incredible size and its lavish blending of Moorish, Arabic, Persian, and Malay decorations, which cover the entire building and the surroundings. The fountains and gardens add a peaceful touch to it. The main prayer hall can seat 3,500 worshipers.

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