THIS week in Brunei the 6th Asean Traditional Textiles Symposium took place in Bandar City. Papers were presented regarding the scope and current condition of the indigenous fabrics of the region. This is a bi-annual exercise. This year the Philippine delegation’s speaker was the country’s foremost academic textile expert, Dr. Norma Respicio, who teaches at the University of the Philippines, the University of Santo Tomas and the University of Asia and the Pacific. Her very thorough research paper on the Yakan textiles of Basilan was very well-received.
The Brunei hosts graciously gave us Asian hospitality; among other activities, besides the two-day seminar, we went to see what we could of Brunei.
The country is in Borneo, sharing the world’s largest island with Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) and Indonesia (West Kalimantan). The capital is Bandar City, population 60,000, with numerous wide boulevards, with hardly any traffic to speak of. In fact, compared to Metro Manila, traffic here could be said to be nil. As befitting an oil-rich state, the city has architecturally significant buildings, particularly its two major mosques. The roof of one is gilt gold and the finials are pure gold. Government buildings are imposing with white as the predominant color. A new bridge of 700 meters across the Brunei River looked magnificent, held up by steel wires from a high tower, seemingly flying into space. It was opened just last month. A second bridge of 36 kilometers is being built to connect Bandar to Temporung District, a rural area of about 11,000 people separated from the capital by two rivers and a bay. Otherwise, to get there you have to take a boat from the Brunei River in Bandar to the Brunei Bay and then upriver on the Temporung River, a 45-minute trip that passes through dense nipa swamps on each side followed by thick and tall mangroves. Brunei has 70 percent forest cover. Temporung has ethnic minorities like Ibans and Muruts who till the soil, who engage in artisanal activities like weaving, basket and mat-making, forging cleavers as well as native food preparation. They make this delicious cracker from rice flour and coconut milk, deep fried to perfection resulting in an utterly light string cracker that is not at all oily or heavy. Plus sticky rice (suman), and chicken cooked in bamboo with lemon grass and ginger. All of these we partook of when we visited a longhouse in Lepong Baru, an Iban village. The traditional longhouse is usually a wooden building where tribal people live together. But the contemporary Brunei longhouse is no longer made of wood but concrete and divided into individual apartments, or rooms, for each family. The one we visited had 17 doors, or 17 apartments, all on the second floor. The first floor is an open space for parking vehicles or farm instruments. There was a chief and gong-playing male musicians while dances were presented by men and women, including a little boy.
The longhouse displayed its heritage woven cloth, baskets, and cleavers for us to see their material culture. They were quite welcoming and eager to show us how they live. I went down the path to see the blacksmiths working on fashioning cleavers, which they held over fire to soften the metal preparatory to pounding it on an anvil.
We went for lunch at a tourist lodge next to a river, again with dense vegetation on either side. There was a hanging bridge and boats for river cruises. This is part of the rainforest adventure tours that tourists can avail of for a day, or a number of days in Brunei which probably has one of the most extensive rainforests in the world.
The river itself looked inviting and must have furnished the giant river shrimp (ulang) that we had for lunch.
As we traversed the virtually deserted roads I kept looking at the trees and plants along the way as well as looking to see if the proboscis monkeys (the male has a distinctive nose) would show up, but only one little monkey crossed the road so fast few of us saw him. Then the guide showed us a photo that he taken the night before at the lodge while he was taking a walk—it showed a viper curled up on a tree branch. He didn’t even move when they passed which they did quickly and with alacrity. And that too was the same reaction of a three-meter crocodile that we saw lying asleep on the riverbank. We took photos (from the boat) and he didn’t move a muscle. He looked rather well-fed so it must have been siesta time.
I noticed the trees along the road were so big. Durian trees were about 20 meters high; a huge macopa tree had bigger leaves than the ones we know but smaller fruit. The leaves of the teak trees leaves were much larger than the ones we see at home. There were also dozens of breadfruit trees (rimas) with lots of fruit. And huge trees in full bloom in the forests which I could not identify. Pink flowers, or white flowers but in profusion and ornamenting the sky above.
The vegetation was so dense that I noted that the sides of the road had their vegetation cut so as to clear the sides or else they could take over the road itself. Brunei is that pristine and dense with trees and vegetation. The guide said no commercial logging is allowed and only what is needed is taken.
Our second village was Senukoh, to the west of the first one. This was a village of Muruts and they had a one town, one product (otop) scheme—noodles made of rice or wheat which they manufacture with a small machine and then package. They gave us some for merienda and they were delicious. hey also showed us some local games involving seeds, consisting in gathering and counting them. Across a nearby swamp, we could see small monkeys jumping from branch to branch if we looked long enough. Someone said they saw a crocodile but I didnt.
The jetty where our boat let us off in Temporung is in Bangar City, a compact city with a large public center where the high school, the hospital, the government center and the military camp are all spaciously and attractively placed. We stopped by a small ethnic lifestyle museum which was quite good ad thoughtfully informative. We stopped by Bangar on the way home and arrived in Bandar City just in time to pass under the new bridge and watch it against the sunset, a stunning sight of man-made beauty and Nature’s own.
Brunei seems to have kept its paradise.