Sunday, December 16, 2007

Flight 714 to Sydney

You can tell how the money is distributed
© Jeff Jones

It is said that disasters come in threes. I believe I've successfully proved this theory wrong although it wasn't all bad.

I booked with Royal Brunei Airlines because it was one of the cheapest options at this time of year. And Brunei, being one of the world's richest countries per capita, should have a decent national carrier, right?

I should have been concerned when they changed my schedule four times because they cancelled a whole stack of flights between Brunei and Sydney. So instead of leaving Heathrow on Saturday morning and getting into Sydney on Monday morning, it ended up being Tuesday morning with a 36 hour stopover in Brunei.

That wasn't so bad because I've never been to an Asian country before, and Brunei is not like most of them. It has a small population (370,000), has a GDP of $10billion, its residents don't pay tax and get free education and health care, plus quite a few other perks, it's 70% Muslim/30% Christian, has strong prohibition so everybody works two jobs instead of going out at night (helps if there are no pubs), and is under the strict control of the Sultan, who is the third richest man in the world behind Bill Gates and me. It's considered poor form to criticise the government in the media so it appears everything is hunky dory in this small country on the Malaysian island of Borneo.

Second thing to go wrong: Royal Brunei's computer system at Heathrow went down, leaving us waiting impatiently in a queue for a while. We took off a little late, but I didn't have to be anywhere in a hurry so I didn't mind.

I watched nearly six movies between London and Dubai, then Dubai and Bandar Seri Begawan. Stardust (quite funny in places and a very good cast), The Bourne Ultimatum (think I spotted a bit of Oxford in it), Ratatouille (good), The Darjeeling Limited (vaguely amusing but didn't really do much for me), Romeo and Juliet (the 1996 version, v. good) and the first part of It's a Wonderful Life.

The Brunei Hilton

We got to Brunei at about 11am Sunday morning and set about sorting out hotels. I was in the same one as three others from the flight - Amy, Olivier and Kristie - and it was agreed that we should Do Stuff together. Make the best of it, see the country, and so on.

The hotel was called the Traders Inn. It had beds but it wasn't quite up to six star standard. Grubby walls, mouldy bathroom and a stroppy manager who didn't let us check out late for our 11:30pm flight on Monday, despite it saying on our vouchers that we had two days and one night there. Oh well.

Thrown together by misfortune: me, Kristie, Olivier, Amy
© Jeff Jones

We headed back into the city in the late afternoon and decided on a boat tour of the floating village. This houses about 50,000 people (the rest of the city has another 50,000) and consists of a large number of wooden houses built on pillars. It's about 30 years old and I reckon it would be in trouble if a decent storm hit it.

Our guide was excellent and only wanted to charge us $20 (about 7 quid) for a one hour tour - we gave him another $10 at the end. He was also genuinely friendly, taking us to see his house and family of nine, of whom he was very proud. It was pretty cool for us and it wasn't something he did very often, he said. He showed us the workings of the floating village, which looks quite poor in comparison to the splendour of the city and its mosques. There are enough schools and everyone gets government subsidies but I got the feeling that most of the wealth ain't here.

We were invited into our guide's home for some frozen strawberry drink
© Jeff Jones

Nice columns
© Jeff Jones

After we got back we checked out one of the main mosques near the centre of town. We couldn't go inside because it was prayer time but it was, to coin a famous prophet, bloody impressive. I was loving the colonnaded outdoor pool, too.

As we were wondering what to do next, we fell into conversation with another local tourist guide. He was waiting for an American woman who didn't show up, so we climbed into his car and he took us to see the rest of the sights of Bandar Seri Begawan. The highlight was the city's most expensive mosque which was lavish in every way with gold plated minarets, massive amounts of marble, fountains and so on. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and you get a pretty good idea of where the Sultan likes to spend his money. Something like this is amazing when you consider the size of the city and the country's population as a whole.

The most expensive mosque in South East Asia
© Jeff Jones

But wait, there's more. Not far away, the Sultan's palace has around 1100 rooms and houses a mosque that's even bigger than the one above. He opens his doors for three days a year to let the people in so that they can all meet and greet him. They're fed well and can take doggie bags home with them. Just like in a fairytale.

After cruising around some of the lesser palaces, the smallest of which was still enormous, we paid a visit to the night market. Here, you can buy any sort of food for a dollar, so four dollars (about £1.30) got me a large serving of noodles, some barbecue beef on a stick, a few cakes and a drink made from sugarcane. This place is popular with the locals, although there were a couple of other tourists there. The nice thing was that no-one was trying to flog us anything.

Night market
© Jeff Jones

It's all a dollar a serve
© Jeff Jones

A night in the Brunei Hilton followed, and after a less than inspiring English-style breakfast of cold baked beans, strange sausages and stale toast (how can toast be stale?) we headed back into town to take in the remaining tourist attractions. There weren't many. We started at the Regalia Museum, where we spent several hours in bare feet looking at all the presents that had been given to the Sultan at his coronation 40-odd years ago. The computers all looked as though they dated from the coronation too, as none of them were working. I did learn that Brunei had been part of a British protection racket in the 1800s. The Brits protected the Bruneians from piracy in exchange for one of their islands and the privilege to come and go as they choose. Brunei eventually gained independence in 1984, but Brits are still allowed to come here without a visa.

Finally, we got on another boat to go and see the proboscis monkeys up the river. They weren't exactly close enough to take good pics but it was an interesting trip nonetheless. The price magically went up from $30 to $50 by the time we got back so we didn't bother tipping this time.

My wildlife photography skills are improving, as you can see. This is a shot of proboscis monkeys.
© Jeff Jones

The big wet

After unsuccessfully arguing with the hotel manager about a late checkout, we sat in the lobby of the Brunei Hilton and waited until 9pm until a shuttle bus would take us out to the airport. It started to rain at about 5pm and tipped it down for the next three hours. This was a proper tropical thunderstorm and as we found out soon enough, caused flash flooding.

It was chaos on the way to the airport. Parts of the road were a couple of feet deep in water and people were getting stuck. On the dual carriageway, there were cars coming back towards us once they realised they couldn't continue. We made it to an exit and found our way to the airport. Our drivers reckoned that it had never flooded like this along these roads.

It goes without saying that Royal Brunei's computer system was down when we went to check in. I think they eventually did it on paper but it took bloody ages. They charged half of us departure tax as well, even though that was included in the booking. Someone asked for a receipt and was given the money back.

There were problems with visas as well. Olivier and Kristie didn't realise that Olivier needed a visa to get into Oz. Oops. Somehow, they managed to get one very quickly, despite the fact that the Australian embassy was shut. Then there were a couple of lost English kids. One of them presented his passport only to be informed that he was in Australia and had been since 1998. He'd never been to Australia.

It was pretty amazing that after all this, our flight was only an hour or so late, and we left at around 12:30am.

Then things started to go properly durian-shaped.

Aviation safety week

I already had a bad feeling about this flight, and my fears were confirmed pretty quickly. During the 'blessing of the flight', the Japanese guy next to me started praying. Then he just got up and left his seat, taking his satchel with him. I assumed he'd gone to the toilet, but he didn't come back.

We started taxiing and I considered mentioning this to the flight crew, but they had other concerns. The 'lavatory occupied' sign was still on as we took off and I was hoping that our would-be-bomber was merely suffering the effects of a dodgy curry.

After half an hour of flying I was just getting to the part of It's a Wonderful Life where George is contemplating suicide when the in flight entertainment froze and an announcement came over.

"Would all crew please report to the flight deck."

Now I had a really bad feeling about this, especially as we suddenly dropped 2000m, lost about half our speed, all the cabin lights were dimmed, and we'd turned around. Then the displays all went blank. So much for It's a Wonderful Life.

A little while later: "Would all crew please remain in your positions."

Then: "This is the captain speaking. We've had a technical problem but it's something that we're trained to deal with. We will be returning to Bandar Seri Begawan and should be landing in about 10-15 minutes. If you see any emergency vehicles on the runway, do not be alarmed. We will be evacuating, sorry disembarking the aircraft in the normal way."

It all went very quiet. We glided along at low power for 10-15 minutes but we weren't anywhere near landing. I wondered where our probable hijacker was taking us. I hoped he wasn't going to detonate his bomb before we arrived and I was still rather annoyed with myself for not mentioning it to the crew.

Another very long 15 minutes passed before we saw lights again. We got lower and lower and I thought we were going to land in someone's backyard, but the runway finally appeared and we touched down. It took us a long while to slow down. Thankfully, we didn't run out of runway and eventually came to a halt. Everyone clapped and there was some degree of relief in the cabin. Even among an arrogant party of Chinese up the back.

We filed back into the airport, were given temporary boarding passes and waited for instructions. At about 3am, we were told "The flight has been rescheduled for tomorrow at 9am. You will now be taken to hotels" without giving us an idea of how this was to take place. A few of us worked out that by the time we got to the hotel, it would be after 4 and we'd have to be back in a few hours to get on the plane. Not worth it, so most of us stayed in the terminal.

In the meantime, I learned that we weren't hijacked, it was merely a fractured windscreen. Haven't they heard of insulation tape?

I got one and a half hours sleep before being woken by the light and some awful muzak. We were promised breakfast but I'm thankful that we went to an airport coffee lounge instead, pooling all of our cash to buy some real food. Amy had only had a few oat biscuits since lunchtime the previous day, so she was a little peckish. Half decent coffee, muffins, scrambled eggs, toast - it was all good. The brekky provided by Royal Brunei consisted of stale cheese, tomato and cucumber sandwiches, mediocre coffee and juice.

9am came and went and we were all sitting in the departure lounge, waiting. 9:30 and we get an announcement: "We're sorry for the delay, which is due to the lack of an operational crew."

Yes, you do need a pilot to fly a plane, and I don't blame last night's one for not coming back.

10am: "Your flight will be ready for boarding shortly. We're sorry for the delay, which is due to the lack of an operational crew. On behalf of Royal Brunei Airlines, we wish you a pleasant flight [giggles]"

I got the feeling that the level of training amongst the staff wasn't particularly high. You can't just throw it all together and expect it to work. You need some cohesion.

A rather disheveled and annoyed looking pilot did turn up and we finally got on the plane, an hour and a half later. As I got on board, I picked up a copy of the Brunei Times, where on page 2 they had a number of stories on Aviation Safety Week that was launched the previous day.

This time, I crossed my fingers when the in-flight blessing took place. We made it to Sydney, minus movies, and I was rather glad.

The next day I woke up with a stinker of a cold and the worst jetlag ever. I don't think I'll be flying Royal Brunei again.

Our first guide in Brunei
© Jeff Jones

This is wot keeps the village afloat
© Jeff Jones

Kiddies enjoying an afternoon swim
© Jeff Jones

Me and a mosque
© Jeff Jones

The Sultan prefers the escalator
© Jeff Jones

The boats run on Pepsi
© Jeff Jones

The family of our second river guide
© Jeff Jones

Two barges ready to take rocks upstream
© Jeff Jones

A slight detour on the way back
© Jeff Jones

Legend has it that this rock was a sunken boat
© Jeff Jones

Catching dinner
© Jeff Jones


U Ron said...

Well you can't say it was an uneventful trip! Sounds a bit like some of my earlier travels in Asia.

Welcome back to Aus Jeff & have a great holiday

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

Nice story. Does me thinking about a similar stop-over I had In Abu Dhabi coming back from Sri Lanka years ago.

I wish you a happy, healthy and accident free biking 2008.

Jo, Belgium

Jeff Jones said...

I'm sure we can all relate to stuff like this. At the moment I've made it 2/3rds of the way back to London. Fingers crossed for the last bit.

Happy New Year to youse both!