Sunday, September 14, 2014

Selfie and Groupie in Brunei - Day 3

Lost in Translation, literally
Dupong was particularly interested to see in person the source of the Brunei’s wealth – the petroleum. The Oil and Gas Discovery Center is located in Seria. It was said to be a two hour ride away from Bengawan.
We must be in Seria before lunchtime so we readied very early because we expected the driver  to  pick  us  up  at  9am.  Since Jane arranged  our drive, we assigned Jackie to contact the driver. She advised us at exactly 9am while finishing our breakfast that the car was already around. We then searched the parking area only to receive the next message that the pickup was lost in Sheraton Hotel.
Being lost has set the tone of the day. We waited for a while for the driver to reach Radisson Hotel. When we boarded, the lady (I mean the woman at the front passenger seat, who appeared to be the wife of the smiling driver) declared, “No Malayo, No Ingles!” Bang! We felt the bomb exploded in our midst. We took it to mean that the couple, we labeled them as Uncle Driver and Auntie Tourguide, who will be driving us to our suggested destinations only speaks in their local tongue. Then Jackie handed them a piece of paper that indicated the list of our must see destinations that day. When they read the list, they remarked in their tongue, in their usual tone, in their usual talking speed. Had we seen our faces, we would definitely find ourselves open-mouthed, stunned, scared. Jackie almost fell off her seat, I can feel. I can even tell she wanted to back out. Ruth’s family at the back seats remained quiet; I sensed some fear. Dupong and I however were confident we can make fun out of this language  barriers.  We  can  turn  these   constraint and inconvenience into some learning experience. Armed with few Bahasa which we learned from our Jakarta trip in February 2013 and from my  latest trip to Malaysia in August this year, we kept our composure, smiled to the couple, and said, “Ok, ok. Let’s go!”

Upon  entering  the highway, the couple started conversing, telling us many things. I believe, they were about anything which only both of them understand, evidenced by their occasional guffaws. Dupong  and  I reciprocated only with limited and reluctant “ya” and/or “ok”, while our four other company, Jackie,  Jun, Ruth and Auntie Myrna (we did not call her Auntie that day just to avoid further confusion, now that we have Auntie Tourguide), kept quiet and observant. Being lost in translation really is scary. Of my six years crossing Southeast Asia borders, only here in Brunei that I shared a tour with no-English speaking tourguide.
To break the silence (or confusion?), I started cracking some stupid but laughable jokes. As some  sort  of  vengeance,  I  used our own dialect, Bisaya. Since  seated  at the center between Jackie and Dupong, the aircon blower pointed directly at my groin. I used rambutan fruit to figuratively refer to my scrotum, that “due to cold my rambutan is shrinking!” It was timely then that rambutan fruit is on harvest in the country, the couple took my joke to mean we wanted to eat rambutan fruit. Uncle Driver made a turn and parked at one fruitstand, then Auntie Tourguide went down and bought back 2 kilos of Lansones which she handed  to us. She muttered something which we took to mean that rambutan is out of stock. This joke begot more jokes about rambutan and other fruits.

Auntie Tourguide mentioned about “Pantai” and many other incomprehensible words. Again  we  only responded “Yah, Ok!” and surprised later to notice Uncle Driver entering a narrow road, away from the highway with traffic signs supposedly showing direction to Seria. Then after a while, we noticed a Pantai Lumut’s shoreline and beach resorts. Now we know that “Pantai” refers to beach. But we have plenty of them, more beautiful beaches, in the Philippines. Nevertheless we were grateful to find toilets there.

At that time as well, we understood that the couple themselves have prepared an itinerary for us, that they have different tour plan for our group. How nice! How sweet, if only we understood each  other. This  will  however delay our way to the intended destination, so we started using our handful Bahasa terms. Every time we feel that the couple was thinking of bringing us somewhere not indicated in our itinerary, we immediately told them “keluar!” to mean “don’t, no, not, exit, don’t go, no go, do not enter.” They understood it though. Ha ha!
Arriving in Seria around lunchtime, we were awed at the welcoming gargantuan silos of Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) on one side, a mammoth torch of eternal flame on the other side, and the hammering oil mills here and there. We opted to take our lunch first before going  around  and  found  a  place  inside Jollibee. Yah, Jollibee! We came all the way from Manila to experience Brunei except for food;  we  still  patronize Philippine-made  Jollibee. It rained  when  we  dined  and it dissipated by the time we resumed our tour.

There were plenty of gates in the BSP area; our note listed three gates amongst them. Thus we have had plenty of “masuk” (we mean “enter here”) and “keluar” (we mean “exit now”), “kiri” to mean left turn or “kanan” for right turn, commanded to Uncle Driver. Our first entry was to the nearest oil mill where we have a closer look of the hammering machine. After some wrong turns, we found our second entry to the Brunei Shell main office. We  hurried our photo ops not because there  were other tourists, which is surprisingly none, but because of super humid surrounding. Our last stop which we missed the first attempt was at the Billionth Barrel Monument. The spot has ample parking lots for the vehicles, so Uncle Driver announced “jalan jalan!” We took it to mean that we can roam around for as long as we like. As the name suggests, it landmarked the production of the billionth barrel of oil produced from the onshore oil fields in Seria.
Satisfied with what we achieved for the day, as per our listed itinerary, we started our journey back to Bengawan at little past 2pm.

The couple then resumed to their tour plan for us, Uncle Driver led us to Jerudong Park, which we said “keluar!” altogether; then to Pantai Serasa and Pantai Seri Kenangan, which we chorused “keluar!” again; and to Royal Brunei Golf & Country Club, which we just made a turn and exited. Until finally they understood that we wanted to go back to the hotel already.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Selfie and Groupie in Brunei-Day 2

At Radisson Hotel's lobby

When Jane, a friend of Jackie visiting us last night before the pool party, she suggested having some attractions visited at night with her as guide and driver, promising to bring her car. Jane’s sedan can only accommodate 3 extra  persons, so she proposed to hire her  officemate with a car to join us; we’ll only pay him for the gas and some tips.
Selfie at Brunei Museum

Second day yet in Brunei and it will be a long wait for the night’s itinerary. As seats were booked last night, our daytime destination was Gadong area. It was informed that Gadong, being 5km away from Bandar Seri Begawan, is an expansion of the urban settlement area where a number of commercial centers stand side by side. It was said to be alive night and day.
Clothed in our uniformed Brunei souvenir shirt, we took the usual breakfast to prepare for the free shuttle ride. We arrived at Gadong’s The Mall few minutes after opening time. The Mall resembles that of a borderline between Greenhills Shopping Center  and  Division Tutuban Center. We realized yet again that we mistakenly booked a 4pm pick up because as soon as we got the perfect feel of inside shops, we found it too small to spend half a day of window shopping. There was nothing  much  to  check,  nothing  more interesting to find, just another flea market in an airconditioned environment.
Just like in Yassan Shopping Center, we did the best we can to enjoy the moment. We found another Giordano outlet and shopped for more tees. Then we stumbled on a shop which sold to us plenty of local items, worthy to be ladies’ gifts, from shawls, silk handkerchiefs, malongs, and other batik-made stuffs. Grateful to have Filipino saleslady assisting us, we settled shopping there, spent much of our time and much of other Brunei dollars. We pulled them off from displays, picked them up from stacks, asked for more variety of each item. Later, we departed from the shop with bags of purchases, both for personal use and for gifts or pasalubong to our friends and families back in Philippines. I thought we have wasted reasonable portion of our time but it was still 10:30am when we exited The Mall. We decided to check out the adjacent Centerpoint Hotel and its mall. Thankfully there is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf shop the, so I opted to stay sipping  a  handcrafted  iced  coffee   with  Dupong and Jun, while Ruth, Jackie and Auntie Myrna roamed around the mall area… to kill time... hopefully until 4pm.

The museum was closed for renovation during our visit

Coffee filled me up when lunchtime came. Jun  and  Ruth, invited us to try the Chinese cuisine at Szechuang Dynasty Restaurant, just next door to Coffee Bean. We were greeted by a Filipino waiter.
Everywhere here in Brunei, from department stores to commercial stalls, from food shops to restaurants, we find fellow Filipinos. Amusing enough to know that a Bruneish who worked with Filipinos for decades is able to converse with me in Tagalog, she was a teller in Jollibee-BSB Complex outlet. Dynasty also has Filipino waiters whose assistance has added comfort and value to the establishment. Jun, who drained his cellphone battery, was able to ask for a charger from them. We only forgot to leave a tip.

Jame 'Asri Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque at day and night times

It was still 2pm when we finished our lunch – 2 hours more to wait for the pickup shuttle, which seemed too long still. We can no longer wait so we finally decided to take the local bus. Dupong has googled about the commuter bus in  the  city,  that  out  of  the  two  bus lines between Central and Circle Lines, the latter will stop at Centerpoint Hotel. Jackie shouted at the approaching bus about our destination, “SEA Hotel” but the bus passed us. She shouted the same destination at the next approaching bus and the driver called upon us to board.  After  turning  around  Q-Lap and Gadong areas, passing more commercial centers, central public market, the Masjid Jame 'Asri Hassanil Bolkiah at a distance, and more flea markets, we stopped at SEA Hotel and walked a little more to Radisson Hotel before 3pm. We then advised the front desk to cancel our pick up reservation.
Actually, we only deposited in the rooms our purchased souvenirs from Gadong’s The Mall and taken out leftover foods from Dynasty Restaurant. We went back to the bus stop at SEA Hotel to take the next bus to  the Central Bus Station.
Brunei Museum was the next destination; initially not part of itinerary but we have spare time to pay a curious visit. We took the Central Line bus number 39 from the city bus terminal.  Positioned at its bay, the bus waited to fill with commuters and it departed only a little past 4pm. We  thought of taking  taxicab instead,  but a taxi  around here is limited and expensive. Reaching the Brunei Museum was a waste of time; we found it closed for renovation. Fortunately we did not invest in taxi ride and the 1 B$ bus fare per head  per  trip  did  not  matter.  What  mattered was the time lost getting there and back. But again, losing  time  in  Brunei is insignificant because there was nothing more to  go  see  around  the  city  center; some interesting  points  are located at the city outskirts which would require private vehicle to get there.
We walked our way back to our hotel and along  the way we passed by the public market, where Jackie went to buy Lansones, Chinese-looking Temple, Coronation Palace, and Youth Museum.
Selfie and groupie at the Royal Palace aka Istana Nurul Iman

Touring at Night
Night came and we readied for our night tour. Auntie Myrna paid for the related transport service fees. Jane arrived with her officemate, Alex, to board us. It was known later that Alex once took a Filipina for his wife. Jackie, Auntie Myrna and myself took Jane’s car; Dupong, Ruth and Jun in Alex’s.
Groupie and selfie at the Empire Hotel and Resort

Jane took are of our itinerary. Our first stop was in Istana Nurul Iman. We had our selfie and  groupie photos  at  the  main  gate  because  the  palace is only open to the public during Hari Raya, as we were told. The second stop was reasonably far from the city center, the Empire Hotel and Resort. This gargantuan structure has a lot more to offer, from an exclusive cinema theater, to almost an Olympic-sized swimming pools, a restaurant  of buffets,  from breakfast to dinner, and the giant fountains fitting for its size. Getting into and around the hotel and resort was overwhelming and we thought better than splurging for dinner. So we headed next to Jerudong Park and found a seat for 8 persons under its covered food court. My company was already tired, thus Auntie Myrna and myself headed on to our routine photo ops at the krypton-like landmark of the park. We are all adults so we ditched the park’s entertainment and rides and headed on to the next attraction, the Jame 'Asri Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. This marvelous mosque is another  gigantic structure which golden paints illuminated by strobe lights at night. That mosque exuded majesty and richness, which superlatives I cannot even find to describe it. Ruth and Jun were already tired and preferred to stay in the car while the rest of us still have reserved energies for the photo ops including the last destination of the night, the Jubilee Park. This park looked white and lame at daytime but at night can transform into an extraterrestrial attraction when the spotlights pointing the center island changed its hues.
Jerudong Amusement Park

Jubilee Park

Selfie at Jerudong Park

Selfie at Jame 'Asri Hassani Bolkiah Mosque 

It was indeed a very long day which made us lie down very tired.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Selfie and Groupie in Brunei-Day 1

Taking Off
Surely,  this was some crowded but enjoyable trip. Six friends flew to Bandar Seri    Bengawan, city of Brunei Darussalam, on Thursday night of September 11. My company comprised of Dupong, Jackie and Ruth, my college batchmates; Jun, Ruth’s husband; and, Auntie Myrna, Jun’s aunt. All but Auntie   Myrna are my travel buddies. Dupong and I shared a lot of trips in Hongkong, Macau,  Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and   Indonesia, to name a few. Jackie joined my trips to Singapore and Malaysia. Ruth and Jun tugged me along when they visited Hongkong, Macau, Singapore, and Johor    Baruh in Malaysia.
Our  flight  bookings  were  booked  since February 2014, taking advantage of Cebu Pacific Air’s promo fare. However, it was only when July (or was it really August?) felt so fast approaching  that Dupong  and I started looking for a decent place to stay in the    Bengawan city. We found two interesting ones, Dupong eyed Radisson Hotel and Jackie suggested the Empire Hotel,as referred to her by a friend, who lived and worked in the city. Given the distant location of the Empire     Hotel, we settled at Radisson Hotel. Also, we found Radisson close to the city and nearby tourist attractions. And Radisson felt very    responsive to our group’s needs. Then again, time flew so fast that only when it was about a week before our departure, we realized we have not arranged any airport transfers to and from the hotel. Given the   limited public transport in Brunei, plus the fact that we shall be arriving in the country at early dawn, prebooking a pick-up shuttle is highly necessary. Dupong and I made a last minute transport arrangement with the Radisson Hotel.

Group tour is expected to be crowded yet fun-filled, more than my usual solo flight. The downside however, as a personal note, is that I cannot sit in a corner by myself and write anything under the sun, like travel blogging.
Agreed to meet early that night at NAIA  Terminal 3 to rid of cramming and long queue, Dupong came from Mindanao,       Surigao in particular, Auntie Myrna, who   resided in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao also, came along with the couple Jun and Ruth, and  Jackie and I came straight from our respective offices. After having paid for the travel taxes and while waiting for the check in counter to open at 8:30pm, we were treated by the June and Ruth to a dinner at the Pancake House within the terminal’s mall.

Brunei is too near that the 2-hour flight from Manila flew past us like the tailwind of the plane. Departing on time, we landed at       Brunei’s International Airport at 1:30am of   September 12. We found their airport comparable to some of our improved national airports; it was in fact undergoing expansion. We passed the immigration smoothly, finding 14 days stamped on our passports – maximum allowed number of days to stay in the country. Not much around the arrival area can be considered picturesque enough to spend a little more time. Dupong immediately spotted our names (Dupong’s and mine) raised a piece of paper. With a little introduction, we found our shuttle driver to be a fellow Filipino.
Arriving at Radisson Hotel’s doors so sleepy, we hastily signed the check-in papers, thanked Yassin at the frontdesk, bade goodnights, and climbed our rooms 214 and 215. We retired guilty to fail tipping the room boys who helped us settled because we have not changed our US dollars into local Brunei dollars.  It was as if choreographed the rooming assignments, Dupong, Jackie and myself took the triple bed room 214, and Jun and Ruth occupied the double occupancy bed, with Auntie Myrna settled at the extra bed in room 215. Before passing out that   instance, I called the frontdesk to book 6 seats for the hotel’s free shuttle to Yassan Shopping Center.

Despite the lack of sleep, we readied at 8am for the day’s tour plan. We must start early in order to enjoy fully the buffet breakfast for the first day in Brunei. Before the 10am departure of the free shuttle to the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) Complex, we familiarized ourselves with the hotel facilities, the swimming pool, fitness center, and Avis  Car Rental office. The day’s itinerary was hoped to be short and simple. First on the list was Money Changer; we cannot move without any local money.

Reaching the Yassan Mall at opening hours where the only money changer inside was found to be closed yet, we looked for other shops outside and found several ones lining the ground level stalls of an adjacent      commercial center. We crowded at the one nearest to the mall that traded 1USD to 1.14BD. I changed my 200USD, 30MYR, and 2,500PHP to 309B$.
Kampung Ayer, the river village , or water settlement if you like, can be viewed facing the commercial center we were at that time. It looked intriguing to see this   entire community standing on and connected by stilts over a body of water of Brunei River. I have seen some other  floating villages, but this  appeared  unique;  yes  crowded  yet organized, dense yet wide, with clean waters around. A piece of vacant land can be seen from its background but the people seemed to prefer water over it. More amazing though is its means of transport, a water taxi to get to this island of houses and other structures.

Due to too much humidity under the hot sunny day, Dupong, Ruth and Jun retreated back to Yassan Mall, while Auntie Myrna, Jackie and I dared the skin burning climate. Acting as the cameraman, I encouraged them to take poses at the riverbank, its boulevard, and wooden dock. Approaching the dock, a couple of water taxi drivers offered us a ride. We declined. Then suddenly, I found Auntie Myrna and Jackie running down the dock and taking turns in posing at one moored water taxi. It was later that I noticed its all smiling, seemingly friendly, young and quite good-looking driver. He did not offer the ride but I felt he was patiently waiting for us to climb and board his boat. Maybe a feeling of, you know, paying that debt of gratitude having him and his water taxi as our photo ops’ props, we took the ride with Fernan (at least it sounded like Fernan when he introduced himself in Malayo). We enquired the taxi fare to be 20B$ and agreed to pay 10B$ each. The first driver who approached and offered us the ride shouted something at us as the boat started moving away from the riverbank. He seemed to be swearing or cursing, thankfully  the engine revs screamed so loud and silenced him.

The speedboat ride was indeed enjoyable. We took turns to hold the camera and clicked for selfie and groupie photos, so  unmindful of neither the scorching heat of the day, Fernan’s speedy maneuvers, nor the bumpy ride as boat’s hull slapped the water surface wildly. To  taxi  around  the  Kampung  Ayer  was actually long. We got passed the floating structures, from residential houses, mosques, schools, to police and fire stations, and hotel-resorts. Everything around here floated, wooden or concrete bridges, transmission lines for water and electricity, even the towering Toyota billboard. From vantage point of the river village, even the BSB Complex looked floating.

We excitedly relayed to Dupong, Ruth and Jun our memorable experience and fantastic, adrenaline-rushing adventure, with the water taxi ride. They decided to do the Kampung Ayer water taxi ride as well. On one condition though, they have to take Fernan’s taxi too. So we settled at a closed restaurant by the riverbank to sight for Fernan. It did not take us that much time to spot him; we identified him wearing yellow-blue sweatshirt and a white cap. Much to our astonishment, Jackie was seen walking down the boulevard, on her way to the dock to catch Fernan and personally call on him and book him for the intended ride. We teased her to have been smitten by cute driver.
As the cameraman of the group, I joined the second batch boarding the boat. It was my second round so I asked Fernan to enter and pass by some more routes and touristy points inside and around Kampung Ayer. As a result of   being exposed to the heat of the day twice, I got a sunburnt face. 
Tourist Trapping Friday
11 o’clock in the morning chimed, the mosque heralded for the noon prayer, and then all shops hasten to close. Only then that we realized that it was Friday, that Friday in Muslim countries such as Brunei is prayer day, that the midday prayer lasts for hours, and   during   those   hours,   all  activities including primarily the establishments within the BSB Complex will be closed up to 2pm.

As soon as Ruth and Dupong emerged from the department store hoisting plastic bags of Lego toys for Ruth and Jun’s sons back home, we hurried to find lunch before all food outlets close. We tried knocking at   Jollibee’s main doors but they’re really closing and no longer accepting customers. We ran after the adjacent KFC and successfully ordered our food choices before its closing time. We managed to eat fast and then settled in one of the concrete benches outside to wait for the mall to resume its operation at 2pm. We observed faithfuls in proper attires heading their way to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
As the clock struck twelve, the city came to a standstill, literally.  Funny was the tranquility had reinforced and intensified the humidity of the surroundings. We had in fact failed to consider Friday to be a significant factor affecting our itinerary negatively. We should have stayed in the hotel rooms and recover enough sleep.

Nevertheless we waited until our group cannot stand waiting just sitting there at the mall’s side benches. We agreed to made use of the idle time and dared the excruciating midday sun taking selfies and groupies of the mosque, the mall, the mall and the beautiful mosque, the mosque and the mall, even the gargantuan flower pots lining the Yassan’s outdoor aisles, and the Kampung Ayer riverbank. The photoshoots however took only a little while because we cannot bear the exposure to the heat of the sun. So we decided to take a shed at a closed restaurant with vacant seats along the riverbank.
Then, Dupong, Ruth and Jun decided to do the Kapung Ayer tour via the water taxi.
Reuniting with Auntie Myrna and Jackie at the river dock, we touched ground just in time for the commercial centers to reopen. Since we overestimated our mall tour, we mistakenly booked the shuttle pick up at 4pm. It was not entirely a mistake, it’s the only available schedule in the afternoon as 12nn pick up time is not applicable on Fridays. So there we were again, trying to scour the whole mall to endure the 2-hour waiting period. Being inside the mall was in itself relieving; airconditioned environment is a great relief from the humidity outside.
Dupong suggested to wear a signature shirt for our uniform doing the second day tour. The Giordano shirt with “I   Brunei” prints comes in two different colors, so it was decided that the 3 ladies will wear whites and the 3 gentlemen, black.  We then bought more Giordano shirts, which were on sale that day, for gifts to our loved ones back home.
Having waited long enough, we decided to rather prepare for the pool party tonight to celebrate in advance Auntie Myrna’s birthday. And then settle at the pick up waiting area.  We grabbed a box of cake from a bakeshop, buckets of fried chicken and rice from Jollibee, and bottles of Coke from a kiosk.

Back to the hotel, we cooled ourselves off; rested for a while. The swimming pool party tonight also celebrated our first night in Brunei. This double celebration (birthday and welcome parties) won’t be more meaningful than to toast some wine or liquor. In this country, however, liquor drinking and cigarette smoking are tabooed. Fortunately, none among us smoke cigarettes so the ban works in our favor, except for the liquors. Jun as inquisitive as he is ordered few bottles of Equator Beer with 0.00% alcohol content. Obviously, after few gulps with no he gave up drinking the beer unpleased.
Before calling the nights off, we called up the frontdesk to book 6 seats for a free shuttle to Gadong the next day. Initially we thought of hiring Avis Car Rental service but found 60B$ per hour with a driver or 160B$ per day without to be expensive.