Brunei – a teeney tiny country nestled on the northern coast of Borneo, this small sultanate is one of the richest countries in the world (thanks, fossil fuels!). I haven’t met many people who have visited this country: it’s not exactly on the tourist track. But since I was visiting Miri and Mulu National Park anyway, only a few hours drive from the Malaysia-Brunei border, I thought ‘why not?’ Plus, I’m a sucker for ticking things off lists.
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s mouthful of a capital, is a miniature city that can easily be covered in a few hours. My plan, which I thought was very clever if I may say so, was to bus it to the airport there, drop my backpack at the luggage storage facility one website swore to me existed then head into the city for the day before returning to the airport that evening for my late night/early morning flight to Manila. But as they say, best laid plans…
The website had lied, there is no luggage storage at the airport. That was the first thing to go wrong. I mentally prepared myself for lugging all my stuff around for the day as I sat outside the airport waiting for the city bus. That was the second thing.
Twenty minutes later, a lovely woman sits down next to me and enquires why I’m waiting there. Explaining my plan for the day, she tells me how she would have taken me around the city herself IF ONLY she didn’t have a meeting to get to. God, I wish she hadn’t had that meeting. It isn’t long before a taxi driver approached me to tell me I’ve been waiting for the bus for too long. Don’t I know it. ‘I call my friend to pick you up’, he pronounces. I have no choice in the matter, apparently. He makes the call, scribbles a registration plate number on a piece of paper (not a name or a phone number!) and hands it to me. ‘Here soon’, he says. His passenger has arrived and they drive off before I can get a word in edgeways.
I know what you’re thinking. A girl, travelling alone in a foreign country, getting in a stranger’s car. Yes, it screams all sorts of dodginess. I know. But I’m a firm believer in trusting your gut. I spent the next few minutes telling myself that if I got any sort of bad feeling about this guy then I’d make some excuse and stay away. I also spent those five minutes praying this goddamn bus would show up. Unfortunately, it didn’t. A run-down, old banger of a car pulls up instead. The driver jumps out, a huge smile plastered across his face and beckons to me. I don’t get any bad vibes from him, he seems really friendly. I like to think I have good instincts when it comes to these sorts of things. It’s only a ten minute drive into the city and it didn’t look like this bus was showing up anytime soon. Why not?
I hop in, my Chinese-Brunei chauffeur chatting animatedly away beside me. Honestly, I don’t remember his name. I do remember thanking him for driving me into the city.
‘Into the city? No, no, I take you AROUND the city!’ he cries. Excuse me? I protest, he insists. Profusely. Again, I don’t seem to have a choice in the matter. At least I don’t have to carry my backpack everywhere. I often find the best travel experiences come from taking a chance.
I will say this – Bandar Seri Begawan is a nice city. There’s beautiful architecture, welcoming people and a lot of history. My impromptu driver took me to see most of the main sights:
Tamu Kianggeh market, full of spices, vegetables, stray cats and colourful umbrellas…
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen…
Kampong Ayer, a floating village, though I only saw it from across the river…
Istana Nurul Iman, the presidential residence…well, I saw the gates as we drove by…
….which was great. However, it wasn’t long before things got weird. He started out by telling me he really liked me, and, by extension, all Irish girls. Ok, thanks very much, I guess. I smiled and nodded. We chatted. Well, when I say ‘we’ I mean he did all the talking – I couldn’t get a word in edgeways! His favourite topic was how you couldn’t have fun in Brunei because of it’s strict laws regarding alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Yes, prostitution. I try to keep an open mind about other cultures, but moaning to a young female about how you can’t pay other young females to have sex with you isn’t going to illicit you any sympathy.
It was becoming quite uncomfortable, but at least he didn’t accompany me to each of the sights. I was able to wander and take pictures and generally take a breather. I’ll admit, I took as long as I could before getting back in that car each time. Then he told me he loved me: ‘yes, I think I love you!’. How do you respond to that?? It was when his touchy-feely-ness escalated to reaching across the car and holding my hand (while driving!) that I had enough. I took my hand away and tried to explain that where I come from, it’s not normal to hold hands with someone you barely know. He honestly couldn’t believe this. He thought I meant it was illegal, which he took real exception to. But he seemed to accept it.
At least, until five minutes later when he grabbed my hand again. Even with people I know and trust, I’ve never been very comfortable with physical contact, so a strange, irritating man pushing on my personal boundaries? Not gonna happen. Again, I explained that this isn’t normal where I come from. He didn’t like it, but I didn’t care at this point. I wanted to go back to the airport.
I came up with a million excuses, all of which he had an answer to. I’m tired – he had a spare bed at his house! I have work to do – do it at his house! I have a Skype date with my family and need the internet at the airport – but it’s too early yet! He asked me to dinner, then a drink, then a coffee, then a coke. His increasing desperation to keep me with him only made me want to claw at the car door. But I kept at it until he eventually drove back to the airport. His price? A photo of me. I hate the idea of strangers having photos of me, but it seemed worth it to end all this. Photo taken, I grabbed my bags and practically ran into the departures building.
Oh, and I’d made the mistake of telling him my flight wasn’t until after midnight. It was only four in the afternoon and he promised me he would call by the airport later to keep me company. A long wait at Brunei’s airport was spent nervously waiting to see if he showed up. Thankfully, he didn’t follow through on his promise.
Now, I know some of you will have opinions about this experience. Some will think me crazy for getting in that car. Fair. Some will think I judged a man too harshly for just being friendly. Also fair.
He was a very nice man, just far too friendly (yes, that’s possible) and incapable of understanding personal boundaries. Sometimes this happens when you travel to countries with cultures so vastly different to your own. I find the best way to handle the situation is to stay polite but firm. No means no. Most of the time (as in this case) they finally get the message, but if you ever feel unsafe or extremely uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to get out of the situation. Never stay in a less-than-ideal situation out of fear of offending someone. In this case I never felt in danger. Other cases might be different. But don’t let one bad experience deter you from taking chances, you never know the amazing places you could find yourself in. I wish I could have explored more of Brunei’s main city, but I did love the small part that I saw.
Have you ever had an uncomfortable or scary experience with locals while traveling? How did you deal with it?
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Welcome to This Wild Life of Mine (previously known as Life of Dearbh)
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.