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April 2, 2004

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Three countries share Borneo island - Malaysia, Indonesia, and tiny Brunei. Can you believe that Brunei enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes on earth? Oil fills the national treasury and makes the country's leader, Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world's richest men. The Sultan rules Brunei as an absolute monarch, one of the last in existence. He's kept his power with a blend of charity and repression: no taxes, free healthcare, free education, a fully subsidised society, but no political opposition allowed and all citizens must quietly acquiese to his edicts. There's enough oil to peg every citizen's net worth close to a half million dollars (of course the Sultan keeps all of this wealth).

We're visiting Brunei because we bought cheap air tickets to Indonesia on his majesty's airline, Royal Brunei Airways. Our flight won't leave until April 5th, so we have a few days to explore this little Asian sultanate. We arrived by ferry to Brunei's capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan. Besides being the capital, Bandar is Brunei's biggest city, population 60,000. It's a neat, clean, modern place with wide roads and overstated public buildings.

Even though Malaysia is also a Muslim country, Brunei adds more Arabic flavor to its brand of Islam. For the first time we see Arabic writing on every sign. Within Brunei, no bars or alcohol allowed and no kissing or holding hands in public.
Kampung Ayer is a centuries-old collection of 28 water villages built on stilts in the Brunei River. Around 30,000 people live over the water in communities connected by boardwalks.
After viewing this picture, you've seen Brunei's centrepiece and main attraction: the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Built in 1958, the gold-domes rise over rusty villages along the Brunei River. The mosque itself sits on an island within an artificial lagoon. Inside, Italian marble walls and luxurious carpeting must make for delightful praying sessions. The sultan keeps it open for the public, however, if you're non-Muslim you must keep your infidel feet off the carpets.
Brunei's people are ethnically Malay, open, and friendly. Just don't hug anyone in public; that's against the law. There's no nightlife and the streets are deserted by 10pm.