Roughin' it in desolate opulence
For long visits in Sarawak, there's no need for a costly "visa run" out of the country to extend a stay via a new passport stamp: merely taking a one hour bus ride from Limbang to Lawas takes travelers from Malaysia to Brunei and back to Malaysia. But, as the macho code of hardcore travellers dictated that getting a country's entry stamp in the passport without ever setting foot in that country indicates a traveller is going limpdick, I hiked up my jock and prepared to rough it for a night in the "Malay Islamic Sultanate" police state autocracy of Brunei.
Although the bus pulled into the capital city much later than scheduled, it was still early evening yet the streets were deserted - and not a taxi anywhere in sight to rescue departing passengers from the heavy rain. With just two options for accommodation nearby - a luxury hotel and a backpacker hostel with a rather seedy reputation - the choice was a no-brainer: when in a sultanate, rough it like a sultan.
While the room was spacious, clean and comfortable, the only "luxury" feature was the top-quality mattress. But I slept too well: after the early morning alarm went off, I slept for 3 more hours, missed the bus, and had to take a later bus back. Fortunately, that gave me the opportunity to witness Brunei's bustling capital city on Friday 1PM:
While taking a photo, I spotted a car parked in a small sidestreet that exhibited signs of life: the driver obviously focusing his attention my way. After shooting the photo above, the car pulled up behind me, while the driver asked what I was doing, where I was from, and whatever else could slither from the slime of a police brain to his mouth. Sporting the standard-issue build of a former muscular body now engorged with fat, and the stern accusatory face that betrayed his "plainclothes" status, there was no question in my mind that this was the voice of authority. Why else would he be the street's sole cruiser? As further proof of his profession, normally when strangers approach me on the street with such questions, they simply move on when I don't reply - but this stranger kept repeating his questions, almost demanding answers, while menacingly cruising behind me as I walked away. Finally, as I neared the bus, he drove off, apparently satisfied with the non-results of his investigation.
The bus was scheduled to leave 1PM but, without an explanation, the driver nonchalantly told me it would leave 1:30, then slowly walked off to his prayers. It was Friday, right after noontime, the day for Muslims like our driver to congregate at the mosque for sermon and prayer. Friday is a weekly holiday and, by Brunei law, businesses are required to close. In addition, in 2014 Brunei became the first nation in Southeast Asia to enforce Sharia law - which applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, and to vistors as well as residents (the first convicted was an Indonesian) - so missing Friday prayer can now result in a fine or jail - thus, the deserted streets.
Numerous websites on Islam teach that Friday is a good day for a Muslim to die, because the deceased will be protected from the trials of the grave. That's why, on these treacherous roads, our driver's piety also sent me into a silent prayer: praying that THE God would temper His bus-driving follower's yearnings to reach the heavens - at least until I'm off the bus. But upon recalling the new Sharia laws, I realized the driver's behavior possibly wasn't a symptom of the sickness of piety, but just a healthy dose of fear of the religious police - guys like my inquisitive stalker friend.