December 20th, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia – That Brunei is wealthier than its neighbors is immediately noticeable; the number of new luxury cars spanning Mercedes to Lexus to a few Ferrari and Porsche sprinkled in and the elaborate design of some very large house makes it clear. When taking the overland route in from Miri the source of that wealth is also obvious particularly as you drive through the town of Seria. Its the headquarters for Brunei Shell and the view from the main road include operating oil pumps as well as a vast array of pipelines carrying oil and gas from the many country and offshore rigs to the huge storage facility. If the state buildings, mosque, and the showrooms of the royal museum are any indication then the sultan does not mind showing off his fortunes. It even seems as if he spreads the wealth across his territory; even the rickety wooden buildings of the stilt village over the river have beautiful furnishing and intricate moldings on the inside. The Sultan takes his Islamic upbringings seriously enough to make it nearly impossible to find alcohol or any nightlife of any sort, but one thrill we were able to try was taking a crazy speedboat taxi downriver in the dark of night. One other notable feature of the city is the number of western tourists here; it was a sharp increase from neighboring Sarawak so I asked a few where they were heading and it seems that Brunei is a popular stopover for flights from Australia to Europe and Asia, never would have guessed that.
Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, is also a nice city. It does not have quite the tourist infrastructure or elegance of Kuching, but it does have a character all its own and a nice feel. It also boasts one of the best Italian restaurants we have eaten in in quite sometime, and that is a huge improvement from the usual local fare. The state museum has an exhibit on oil and gas production which, as with the one in the Brunei museum, is sponsored by the Shell Corporation. Both these exhibits represent some of the best works in apologetics I’ve ever encountered; it easily rivals the best apologists of Judaism and Christianity. The most impressive presentation (which I have captured as best I could with the photo below) shows an image of a family in their living room using all the great products which exist only because of oil and then a small image next to it of what life would be like without oil. Now there is no doubt oil is used in a wide range of products and it would be inconceivable of giving it all up at this point, but I really think people were dressed and had furniture to use and toys to play with before oil and would again if we no longer had use of the magic elixir.
To visit the research center we wanted to, we had to make a small switch of the itinerary (I will give more details on this once we pull it off), so we are off tomorrow to climb the tallest mountain in southeast Asia followed by a visit along the wildlife rich Kinabatagan river and then a visit to the Danum Valley research center. The next week and a half is going to be pretty intense but should include some of the best experiences of the trip. I don’t know what internet resources we will have access to so it may not be until the new year that we update again (it looks like we will be spending New Year’s eve on a bus instead of the top of the mountain as originally planned).