Brunei: how to visit the land of harems, oil and uber-homophobia without ever leaving your home
Brunei stands as ongoing proof of the unfathomably strange of our world, its borders, politics and the oil economy. It’s a kingdom and a country barely bigger than Cornwall that has produced, over the years, a fair chunk of the oil that is happily hastening the climate crisis. It’s an ex-Persian dependency and British protectorate, and it sits on the once heavily forested Island of Borneo. It’s been a bizarre anomaly for centuries that was famous for pearls before it found oil. I found all of this out by watching the niche beyond niche series “Asia’s monarchies — Brunei.”
Apart from its oil, the other legendry thing about Brunei is the uber-homophobia of its Sultan who was also once the richest man in the world. Although he was forced to backtrack from introducing death by stoning as the punishment for homosexuality, men can still be barred from the country for appearing effeminate. He will no doubt tell you this is for religious reasons, but the book Some girls: My Life in a Harem makes it clear his religion doesn’t stop him from paying for sexual favours with a Rolex watch. But before I spend too much time waffling on about his hypocrisy, I must first accept that it was the British that first made homosexuality illegal in the country and that the Sultan initially repealed this act in 1976. What changed to make him into a blood-thirsty moron, I just can’t say.
Anyway, back to life in the Harem. Sadly, it turns out it is not quite as exciting and glamorous as you may think. Sure there are irregular shopping trips to overpriced luxury stores and evenings in hotel suites, but as the author Jillian Lauren points out, the most expensive date in the world can’t compete with eating Chinese food on a rooftop in the rain with someone you actually like.
Although she does end up with the Sultan at one point, she is actually in the Harem of his brother, Prince Jeffri who she seems to like despite the fact that he stole billions from the people of Brunei and lived in the type of opulence that is solely reserved for people with no morals or redeeming features. At one point he asks Jillian what she thinks of his country… but the country he is referring to is Malaysia. That is how closely Bruneian culture mirrors Malaysian culture, and thus this week I left my Armchair and let other people make my meal at Malaysian Delight, a wonderful restaurant serving sweet, sweet tea, and a plethora of tofu laced foods.
This was back when you could only eat outside, but the Gods smiled upon us and allowed us to finish dining before the skies cracked open and rain forced us off the streets. The food was so good that I would like to learn to make it at home though, especially this noodle dish and the Nasi Lemak that Bruneians apparently eat for breakfast. I also wanted to make these mango sticky rice waffles, but sadly time was not on my side. In fact, the only dish we ended up cooking this week was Tumisan Kari Surayan, really easy, really delicious — go get yourself some!
Unfortunately there seems to be precious little Bruneian music out there, so instead I leave you was their God Save the Queenish national anthem. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ll enjoy the red wine in next week’s country Bulgaria!