Oil wealth has transformed this tiny sovereign state on Borneo but, as Nick Boulos discovers, it remains a place of exotic wildlife and cherished traditions.
Amat wasn’t expecting company when we popped in, but she’s quite used to spontaneous guests. The last person to stop by unannounced at her longhouse in the jungles of eastern Brunei was the Sultan. “I was in my pyjamas doing the washing up and I looked up to see him standing in the doorway,” she laughed. “I rushed off to get changed without even offering him a cup of tea.”
I had come to meet the native Iban tribe, who continue to live in traditional narrow houses accommodating up to 18 families, but the Sultan was apparently just doing the rounds. Hassanal Bolkiah has full executive authority over this conservative Islamic state, and His Majesty has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Most, if not all, the state’s 415,000 citizens have met him – a fact that they are only too keen to mention at any opportunity. But for the wider world, this petit 67-year-old with a goatee and some of the deepest pockets on the planet is often the only point of reference for this oil-rich country. On home turf, he has been elevated to almost godly status. His face beams down from every shop and restaurant; he’s front-page news nearly every day, and people queue for hours every year on his birthday, just to shake his hand. Of course, Brunei, located on the northern coast of Borneo, is much more than one man. Within its tiny borders (the country is slightly smaller than Devon) are ancient tribes and rare wildlife, fine Islamic architecture