The highlight of my whole trip was spending new years eve with a local family in the capital of Brunei. I was sharing a hostel room in the youth centre with a Japanese man who was travelling outside Japan for the first time. He'd brought his badminton racquet and befriended a local man on the badminton courts at the youth centre, securing an invitation to dinner on new years eve. The family was kind enough to extend the invitation to me. Our host had a wife and three children at home. His brother brought a wife and two more children. His sister brought more, and his parents were there too. Add a Muslim Murabi and it was a very full house. Each of the children were confident and comfortable with who they were, laughing at themselves and teasing each other and showed a lot of interest in Shinya and me. The adults were also very curious and welcoming. I got the feeling that they were all as excited to have us there as I was to be with them. Before dinner, the Murabi lead a prayer to thank Allah for the year that we'd had and to bless each of us and to request a good year ahead. He specifically named each person in the prayer, using a list he'd been given by the host, including ours. This Murabi had apparently been invited because he was known to the family, but they could have invited any, giving him a donation in an envelope to thank him for his time. This ceremony was not traditional for New Years Eve. Our host did it before trips or major events, but thought that it was a good chance
If I have any complaint about Brunei, it's around the tours. There used to be a government funded tourist information counter in the post office, but that closed down and now one of the tour companies provides information 'free of charge'. Of course, that information includes details of the tours they offer themselves. I don't know how tourists would find the other tour companies unless they take some time to wonder town or guidebooks happen to mention them. I took a tour that had been discounted to less than half the original cost because I tagged along with a Dutch family of 9 who had already booked. The guide, Zizi, was very friendly and knowledgeable and the boatman had incredible eye-sight, so I got my money's worth, but if Brunei wants to build the ecotourism industry to replace the oil exports when they run out, they need to create better value. As it was, I saw more in three hours than others see in 1 hour at almost the same price and it was worth the money at the discounted price. We took a speed boat down the river, stopping to watch Proboscis monkeys jumping into the water from 3m up, squirrels playing in the tree tops, monitor lizards, herons, igrids and even baby crocodiles with jaws 2 inches long. The boatman was trying to catch one to show us up close, but the guide stayed at the other end of the boat 'because where the babies are, mothers are not far...'
If I had to compare them, I'd probably have to say that the people of Brunei are even friendlier than those of Sarawak. I was told that the direct bus to the capital of Brunei was broken so I took a series of local buses to get here. At the second stop, I asked someone which was the next bus and was immediately told that it left at 1pm, an hour away. That gave me time to explore a little. When I came back, a driver got into his bus and began tooting to let the passengers know that it was time to board. A guy in a red shirt that I thought I recognised from the previous leg of the journey boarded and I followed him, noting that it was almost 1pm. Before I even got a chance to check whether it was the right bus, a guy came running up to stop me, pointing to the correct bus. He must have overheard me saying where I wanted to go earlier. "That bus goes back towards Miri," he told me. A few minutes later, the same guy jumped into the driver's seat of that bus and began tooting his horn. When I got on, he smiled and said, "I didn't want you to go back. You're not even here yet." In the capital, most people smile and say hello as my path crosses theirs.
My first real contact with the people of Brunei occurred at the border from Sarawak. The local bus took me through 3 stages - stamp out of Malaysia, health check and stamp in to Brunei. We all got off the bus at the second stop and presented our health papers to an official in a small room. One by one we were called up to be screened. While I waited, I noticed that the screening was done by thermal imaging and there were rooms out the back, presumably for anyone showing up positive. As each person went up, their image showed on the operator's screen as a patchwork of orange and red against the yellow background. When my turn came, my image almost blended into the background. How could this be when I was sweating buckets in the heat? The only part that stood out was the brilliant red where my nose would be. I'm not sure what that says, but they let me through to country number 34.