A Country I Have Never Heard Of? I am Going!

Hiking through the remote jungle of Borneo, my guide stopped suddenly. With a worried expression on his face, he said it was going to rain. I was still a novice to the jungle but knew that it didn’t just rain in Borneo, it downpoured. We had just enough time to jump into a wooden longboat before the guide’s premonition proved true. As the rain beat down, the wind picked up. Bravely (or foolishly), we hit the rapids at full speed as we rocketed in the direction of our base downriver.

Most of my travels are not preplanned but my most recent one took this to an extreme. Unable to sleep one night in Singapore, I was browsing a budget airline’s (AirAsia) website looking for
deals. As I went through the list, one particular deal jumped out at me, a $80.00 (59.19 Euro) flight to Brunei Darussalam. Brunei Darussalam? I am a fairly well educated traveler and I was a bit stunned to see a flight to a country I had never heard of.

A quick google search didn’t return much information (the Brunei government website was under construction, complete with animated gif) but from other sources it looked like I wouldn’t be decapitated while visiting. I promptly bought the ticket.

That day I went to the airport completely unsure of what I was getting into. I wasn’t even sure if what I was doing was legal. The US State Department website said I needed a visa to enter the country but the Brunei government website (which looked about as trustworthy as a geocities site) said I didn’t. I said the hell with it and boarded the plane anyways.

Brunei Darussalam

I read a bit more about the country while I was in the air heading there.

Brunei Darussalam is an Islamic sovereign state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia. It has a population of 401,890 (July 2011) that is ruled by a Malay Islamic Monarchy (meaning it has a Sultan who has absolute power within the country). The Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, is periodically the richest man in the world (that honor switches depending on the stock price of Microsoft and the buying price of oil internationally). According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product per capita (one ahead of the United States) and is one of only two countries in the world with no public debt.

Surprise was my first feeling after I arrived. Brunei had a modern airport but didn’t have a staff to run it. There was no way to exchange money and no one to talk to. This was a completely new experience for me as usually airports are a safe zone for me.

I found an official looking taxi and after some negotiating arrived at the hotel that I had hastily booked online. I secured a last minute tour for the next morning and quickly went out to go explore.

IMG_3435My first impression of the country was that it seemed quite westernized but with a delay behind the United States of about 20 years. It seemed to have solid infrastructure but the buildings and styles were dated. It had a very clear and religious setting (which is generally a nice thing) but the people seemed cold and uninviting.

My initial ‘meh’ impression quickly changed when I spotted a Mosque in the distance.

I have seen countless religious buildings during my travels. They are the highlights of many tours and the centerpiece of many cities. This site however was on a completely different level. It was the single most incredible religious building I have ever seen. Surrounded by fountains and gardens stood the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.

Awe struck, I spent an hour walking around the grounds. Despite not being Islamic, (far from it) this was one of the most spiritual moments of my life.

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Into the Jungle

Early the next morning, I left the only safe base I had in Brunei and boarded an unmarked and seatbelt-less tour van. I had absolutely no idea what to expect with the tour. I had only scanned the description and instead based my decision on the ratings (there were only two ratings as tours of Brunei were not listed on any major tour websites).

The “tour group” was just three people, the guide (a local), an incredibly shy Japanese student and myself. The three of us loaded into a covered speedboat and at full speed ventured out of Brunei, into Malaysia and then back into Brunei (Brunei is split in half by Malaysia the same way the United States is split by Canada between Alaska and Washington). IMG_3790Faster than really necessary, we took hard corners and quick accelerations as we cruised through the thickening Borneo jungle. The entire time, my smile grew wider. The river got thinner and the vegetation got thicker. I sat on the bow and was totally thrilled by what was happening.

From the speedboat we landed in a remote city and got into a rugged van. The van ride lasted about 45 minutes. From the van we jumped in a ridiculously cool motorized wooden longboat. Again at full speed, we ventured further upriver deep into the heart of the jungle.

I was completely loving every detail of the journey. I was completely out of my element and in a new and dangerous situation. It was clear I had no way out.

Surrounded by miles of jungle, we jumped out of the longboat, and started to hike. The first thing I noticed about the jungle was how loud it was. Despite not being able to initially see them, there were animals and insects everywhere. The next thing that surprised me was how thick the jungle was. The vegetation was so pervasive that I literally couldn’t see more than four arms lengths in any direction (this includes looking up). It was incredible.

As we hiked, the guide identified some of the sounds we were hearing.

“You hear the whhhoooop, whhhoooop noise? That is a rhino bird.”

“You hear that super high pitched buzzing? That is a horned beetle”

We stopped as we walked by a tree that had recently been cut down. “Because we don’t have defined seasons here, the trees don’t have rings. They are just sap and wood”

He then pointed to one of the creepiest things I have ever seen.

IMG_4062Crawling on the far side of the trail was a group of ants that were devouring a caterpillar. I didn’t have to look closer to see that the ants were as big as the lid to a soda bottle. It was the closet thing to a real monster that I have ever seen.

Later during the hike, we came to an extremely tall metal tower. With a smile, the guide said to start climbing. Apparently I was going to see the canopy.

The view from the top was incredible. It reinforced how remote I really was.

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I spent a long time at the top of the tower thinking about the jungle below. I left only when I saw that despite the height, the top of the tower was home to more giant ants. (I am not sure how that was even feasible…)

We continued the hike and eventually re-boarded the longboats. We stopped at what I thought was a small creek and my guide recommended that I take my shoes off. I was skeptical (shoeless hike in the middle of the jungle? Sounds like the makings of an embarrassing doctors visit…) but agreed. We continued hiking through the bed of an active creek.

Eventually we made it to the scene of some waterfalls.

I walked right into the pool under the falls and immediately screamed like a little girl. Something had bit me!

I jumped out of the water and looked in horror at my guide. He was losing it in laughter.

The small pool was home to dozens of skin nibbling fish (like the ones you see at Asian spas). I laughed both out of surprise and out of appreciation for the prank. I spent about 15 minutes having my feet gnawed on by the wild fish.

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After the fish had lunch, we had lunch of fish and other jungle creatures. (I am hoping it was not the same fish that ate me) The meal was strangely luxurious and absolutely delicious.

IMG_4376At this point, the guide noted it was going to rain. He explained that in addition to feeling it in the air, he could hear upcoming rain because all of the birds come out for one last feast as they knew they wouldn’t be able to find insects during a storm.

We loaded back into the longboats as the rain started.

Faster than I understand to be possible, the river switched from calm waterway to white water rapids. The wind immediately picked up and we were bulleted with leaves and rain from all directions.

The guide drove the motorized boat at full speed. We narrowly dodged swinging vines and rapids. I sat at the bow completely soaked and absolutely thrilled. My adrenaline was pumping, my senses were heightened and I was living through one of the most thrilling scenes of my life.

Several hours later I made it back to my hotel and immediately feel asleep with a smile on my face.

The Water Village

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The next morning, I forced myself out of bed and into yet another taxi. I had heard about a local water village and was tired but eager to check it out. I was dropped off at the waterfront of the capital city and instantly realized I had no way to get to actual water village (which as one would expect, was located offshore).

IMG_4444Within seconds a boat drove up and asked me if I needed a water taxi. Problem solved.

The village on stilts was massive. It was connected by seemingly endless thin wooden paths and contained hundreds if not thousands of water houses.

As soon as I landed on the water village, I immediately noticed how nice everyone was. Stranger after stranger went out of their way to greet me and learn about where I was from. One family even took me in to have photos taken with me and their children. These people were as warm as the mainlanders were cold.

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They explained that their village lifestyle had become so popular that the government had started to build floating suburbs around it.

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They also explained that while many people assumed the community was poor due to the state of their houses, that they were actually quite well off. They pointed at the shore where they parked their sports-cars. (no joke!)

With a huge smile on my face, my journey to Brunei came to an end. It was a constant experience of amazement and exposure to new lifestyles. A week prior, I had never even heard of the country. After visiting, it quickly became one of my favorite travel destinations.

I say this not as hyperbole. My days spent in Brunei were some of the best of my life.

26 comments… add one

  • Marc Oct 16, 2013

    Awesome read Danny! Jealous of your travels. Stay Safe!

  • Mary Lane Oct 16, 2013

    Danny: I too think this is (vicariously) my favorite place you have been to. Move over Venice!

    • Danny Dover Oct 16, 2013

      Yeah it was such a surprise. I really feel lucky to have experienced it. Smelled better than Venice too! :-p

  • Jonathan Oct 16, 2013

    You’re travels are amazing. These are things I would never attempt in my life. This pics are great too. Keep moving forward and tell us all about it.

    Peace,
    Jonathan

    • Danny Dover Oct 16, 2013

      Thanks Jonathan! :-)

      Will do! More pics and videos to come soon. Cheers bud!

  • Dad Oct 16, 2013

    Danny,

    I really enjoyed this post. It was very descriptive and compelling. The pictures added a lot to the flavor. One questions: What ever happened to the shy Japanese student. Were you ever able to have a conversation with him?

    Have fun and let’s talk soon.

    Love, Dad

    • Danny Dover Oct 16, 2013

      Thanks Dad! :-)

      I had some short, small-talk, conversations with him. He spoke english but mostly kept to himself. Nice guy though.

  • Dan Richey Oct 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your story of this trip Danny. That view of the trees and valleys from the top of the tower is absolutely STUNNING!!!! Wow, what a cool experience with the trees, jungle, waterfalls, floating village. I have never heard of the country either. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Danny Dover Oct 16, 2013

      Happy to share Dan and more to come! Let me know if I can help you with any of your adventures. Cheers bud!

  • barb dover Oct 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your admazing adventures. This trip to Brunei sounds incredible. I love all ofyour visual descriptions- I feel like I am traveling with you!

    • Danny Dover Oct 16, 2013

      Wait till you see the video, I think it adds a whole new element!

  • Eric Oct 17, 2013

    Danny, I have to agree with all the other commenters about the quality of the post. This is, so far, my favorite one in terms of how immersive your journey into Brunei and Borneo feels. Thanks again for sharing your wildest trips. Keep traveling and be safe!

    • Danny Dover Oct 17, 2013

      Thanks Eric, that is really interesting and useful feedback. I’ll try to keep the tone/feel of this post going forward.

      Thanks for taking the time to point out that aspect of this post. That helps me as a writer.

      Cheers bud!

  • Shaad Hamid Oct 17, 2013

    Great post Danny! Can’t believe you’ve never heard of Brunei before :-) Glad you’ve actually visited it though.. You must do Sri Lanka next man! You’ll love the food, the people, the history and the culture…

    • Danny Dover Oct 18, 2013

      >Can’t believe you’ve never heard of Brunei before :-)

      I have heard of it now! :-p Generally speaking American’s don’t learn enough about geography or non-english languages. It’s a shame, I am still catching up :-)

  • Ross Williams Oct 17, 2013

    Danny,
    I’m envious. Enjoyed the narrative of your adventure and loved the photos. Know you have many more. Make sure you let me know when you publish your next adventure or what about a book?

    Ross

    • Danny Dover Oct 18, 2013

      Thanks Ross!

      I hope all is going well for you! Another book is on the way, I am just making extremely slow progress :-) The positive peer pressure is helpful though. Thanks!

  • Cathy Highsmith Oct 17, 2013

    I’m a new reader and am loving everything about your blog. I found you while researching minimalism and became fascinated by your story and your Life List. My life is, in most ways, the opposite of yours. I have 5 children (making minimalism look better and better all the time), I’m a full-time college student, and have never even thought about a bucket list, I guess because I was taking my time on earth a bit for granted.

    I actually attended an information session about study abroad at my college this evening. Your story made me realize that I need to think more in the now than leaving everything for “someday”.

    The hardest part is that I’m afraid of everything. Heights, water, wide open spaces, flying (I have flown, it’s just scary) and I have a huge fear of the unknown…and failure. Were you afraid of anything when you first began this journey? You really make it seem as if you’re fearless!

    Thanks so much for your time and your blog. It’s allowing me to “go” places I have never been! The photos are wonderful!

    Cathy

    • Shaad Hamid Oct 18, 2013

      Great question Cathy! Danny I look forward to your reply to this wonderful question.

    • Danny Dover Oct 18, 2013

      Excellent question Cathy! I just added this to a list I keep of future blog posts to write.

      First of all, congrats on taking the first step. Identifying the direction you want to go and looking to others who have been there before is the most important thing you can do to before getting started.

      >Were you afraid of anything when you first began this journey?

      Absolutely. And to be completely honest there is still a lot that scares me everyday. It is one of the signs that I am going in the right direction.

      The big things that still scare me are public speaking and a lot of social situations. I get visually nervous, shaky and very quiet.

      While I don’t think there is a magic trick for overcoming fear, I have found something that makes it manageable, perseverance. I have found that fear usually only lasts for a few minutes max if you confront it. After you confront it enough times the duration shortens.

      For example, with public speaking I still get scared every time I walk on a stage to speak but since I have forced myself to do it many many times, the fear now only lasts for a minute or less.

      Perseverance has even completely eliminated fear for some things in my life. Generally speaking, I am no longer afraid when I go to a new country or when I go to some big event where I don’t know anyone. These have now become things I look forward to. With these situations, I confronted my fear so many times that it eventually went away entirely.

      As I mentioned, I don’t think there is a magic pill or quick trick that will completely eliminate fear for everything but you can find at least a bit of comfort knowing that the skill you need (perseverance) is already within you. It is just a matter of exercising it.

      • Cathy Highsmith Oct 22, 2013

        Thanks for the insight! I think you confirmed what I have suspected…you can’t fix your fears, you must face them. Sigh….I knew there was no easy button. **Kicks rock**

  • Maryann Custode Oct 23, 2013

    Great read Danny!! Like your mom, I also feel like I am traveling with you. The photos are beautiful! My favorite photo is of the family living in the fishing village. I looked at each and every child with their beautiful beaming smiles and thought to myself… no matter where people reside in this world love & happiness is what matters most. Different countries, different lifestyles, same needs. Looking forward to the video. Safe journey.

  • shree Nov 14, 2013

    Nice blog post..I do have to ask , some of the pictures taken (especially the 3rd picture from the top , of the mosque)
    was really nice and seemed to follow some of the rules of composition that i have been learning in my photography course..are you into photography by any chance?

  • Carrot Nov 19, 2013

    Danny, have you ever been to China? If you haven’t, do put China on your list of future stopovers, you’ll enjoy yourself mate. I’m based in Shenzhen, a city that is bordering Hong Kong in the southern province of Guangdong. After reading some of your posts, I’d say I’d like to meet you if you ever come to China.

    Here are some of the stuff that I’ve done and seen while travelling in China:

    1. I’ve seen the inside of the Forbidden City in a dream back in 2003. I went to the Forbidden City for the first time during my first visit to Beijing in 2012, and it looked exactly like what I saw in my dream. Bought a Commie fur hat complete with Red Star as my ears were about to freeze off in the -12 deg C cold. Amazing. As I had to catch a plane, I only had time to tour half the place. I will return to finish what I started, I promise.

    2. 3rd trip to Beijing, 2012 – I stood on more than 2000 years of history while climbing the Great Wall of China. As I scanned the surrounding mountains, I thought about how my ancestors frequently made cross border invasions into the Middle Kingdom. I felt like a barbarian, and images of ransacking villages, looting, beheading men and carrying women off on horseback came to mind, but that’s another story altogether.

    3. Chinese New Year 2013 – went with my girlfriend to her hometown in Hunan province. She is of the Yao ethnic minority and grew up in a mountain village, and I was thinking of rolling hills in the countryside. I had never been to a mountain village, and after that trip, her nickname of Mountain Village Girl had a whole new meaning. Her village is really remote, deep in the mountains about 800 plus metres above sea level, a civilization apart from the rest of civilization.
    I drank pure unfiltered mountain ground water without the fear of dysentery. I got intoxicated by homemade rice wine that her uncles brewed and swore never to buy another bottle of chemical laced rocket fuel crap sold in supermarkets. I ate pigs, chicken, eggs and vegetables reared and grown by her family. I threw firecrackers at chickens and pigs and watched in amusement as they stared at me blankly without batting an eyelid. I ate frogs that my girlfriend’s father caught (according to her brother, something that he did only because I was visiting), and drank his precious hornet pupae wine. I set off fireworks from the top of a hillock terrace field while the rest of the village watched from below. I helped girlfriend’s mother to roll and fry glutinous rice balls while assuring her that I’m not a human trafficker who will sell her daughter off to some Southeast Asian country. I had to balance a torchlight and a bucket of hot water and walk about 40 metres to have a bath at night. I managed to eye flirt with her pretty cousins without anyone getting suspicious, because those ladies were so warm and hospitable and it’s their culture. I realised that her people shared a very similar heritage, culture and language with that of my father’s, the Hakka people. I realised I fell in love with her mountain village. I realised that I didn’t know a lot about being Chinese, me being overseas born Chinese.

    Come to China, I’m sure you’ll love it mate.

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