In the early 1970s, I visited my father in Brunei and travelled with him to the Temburong District.
On the Way to Temburong: Bandar Seri Begawan
Our journey started from Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. Brunei is a sovereign state on the north coast of the island of Borneo, which spans the equator. Brunei itself is a little north of the equator and has a tropical climate with monsoonal conditions—humidity and regular, almost daily, warm rain during monsoon season. Rich in oil and gas, it is a sovereign state, governed by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the wealthiest people in the world. Photographs of the Sultan are prominently displayed in buildings throughout the small country.
Largely populated by Malays, Brunei is a Muslim country with numerous mosques, their gold domes gleaming in the tropical heat. We visited the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Banda Seri Begawan—surrounded by an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River. It is an awe-inspiring building with its white marble minarets, quiet courtyards, and gold-plated domes. Women must wear long sleeves to visit the mosque and are only permitted in some areas—the central courts are reserved for men.
I was awe-struck by the majestic spaces and cool stone floors and worried that I may accidentally do something wrong. The sight of military police armed with rifles and bayonets standing guard at the small airport had worried me. As had the sight of armed military personnel driving jeeps through the streets around the capital. There are strict regulations and laws in Brunei now; I am not sure how many of these were in place in the early 1970s. This was my first overseas trip as a minor, unaccompanied by a parent, although my dad was waiting at the airport to greet and collect me.
Journey to Temburong
Temburong District, although part of Brunei, is an enclave, surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak to the east, west and south, and the Bay of Borneo to the north. These days it can be reached by road across a bridge from Bandar Seri Begawan but in the 1970s, access was by boat. My dad was employed as an agricultural consultant in the Temburong District and made the boat trip regularly to Bangar in the course of his work.
The long boat, complete with Malay owner and operator was tied up on the Brunei River, accessible from one of the back roads of the nation’s capital. Long boats, as they are called, are traditional craft operated in and around Brunei. They are long, narrow vessels with a shallow draft and no overhead cover. They are sufficient in width to seat one or two people abreast, but capable of carrying several passengers spaced over the length of the boat. Our long boat was powered with an outboard motor although traditionally paddles would have been used.
We set off, the driver grinning broadly and displaying his less than perfect teeth. He knew Dad and they conversed in Malay while I settled into my makeshift seat and watched the water slip by. We passed the village on the outskirts of the city where wooden houses rose on stilts above the water. Children played and swam, jumping gleefully into the river from their verandas while others in the houses went about their daily chores.
The journey took us out into the Bay of Borneo briefly as we exited the mouth of the Brunei River. Here, the water was choppy and discoloured from silt washed down in recent rains. It began to rain, with huge warm droplets, typical of monsoonal rain. With no shelter I was soon drenched and wrung out the hems of my clothing.
Hugging the coastline, we made our way to the entrance point of the Temburong River and headed upstream. Both riverbanks were covered in dense rainforest—Borneo is home to some of the most ancient rainforests. Everything was green and lush and dripping with water. I saw a cow, dead and bloated being carried downstream on the river’s current. Eventually the rain eased, and the day turned still. We arrived at a hotel, located near the river. The boat was tied up to the hotel jetty; we made our way ashore, and I was able to change out of my soaked clothes.
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We set out early the following morning. It was still with clouds of mist shrouding the hilly countryside. This time we travelled by Jeep, along muddy roads as Dad paid a last visit to the local farming families. It was impossible to drive the whole way to these smallholdings. The Jeep was left parked as close as possible, and we traversed the remainder of the way on foot. It was mid-way through monsoon season and the ground was muddy and slippery from the heavy rains. I slipped and skidded my way along narrow paths and balanced unsteadily on makeshift bridges over running creeks. The rice paddies were deep in water and we came across pepper vines and other cultivated plants. Chickens and the occasional rooster scratched around the homes and fled, clucking at our arrival.
Longhouses and Hospitality
Temburong is home to the Iban people, who live in traditional long houses. Within a long house each family unit has a room and access to a shared veranda. At night, the steps—notched timbers—are drawn up into the house to protect its inhabitants. Traditionally, the Iban people were headhunters, which perhaps accounts for their longing for security. In the houses, there was generally an older woman who welcomed us and offered refreshment.
Although it was warm (despite the rain) we had hot drinks due to risks associated with the water quality and safety. Boiled water was preferable in an area where both animal and human excrement were likely to have polluted the water. Tea was brewed and milk and sugar added in the form of condensed milk from a tube. Coffee was made by adding a portion of premixed coffee and condensed milk (also from a tube) to boiling water. We made a lot of visits, and insufficient time and capacity to consume all the generously offered hospitality.
On our last night in Temburong we were the invited (and honoured) guests at an event to show appreciation to my father for his work, and to farewell him. The gathering was in a roofed but otherwise open structure with a plentiful arrangement of traditional and local food. Rice cooked in banana leaf packages was my favourite (I like bland food). Meat offerings were minimal although a chicken had been killed in honour of the celebration. The food was largely the traditional fare of the local people. As honoured guests, everyone else waited until we had started eating. It was a happy gathering with many smiling faces.
The following day as we set forth on the return boat journey to Bandar Seri Begawan, I felt a sense of sadness. I knew that my visit was coming to an end. Soon it would be time to return to Australia.
© 2021 Nan Hewitt