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Sleepy Bandar and Sanskrit influences

Day One, October 2:
11.30 am Brunei time (9 am IST): Brunei International Airport, Bandar Seri Begawan.

The first thing that strikes you as you alight from Flight BI 422 from Singapore is how small and sleepy Brunei airport is.

With just 8 to 10 flights landing everyday, it is understandably not too busy and there are not too many people around. A faraway comparison from the bustling and gleaming Changi Airport in Singapore.

There are just two counters for immigration. We are whisked through by Sunil, the friendly liaison official from the Indian embassy. Customs too is just a single X-ray machine. A few security officials watch placidly as we pass.

A communication goof up means there is no one waiting to pick us up. Sunil goes into a worried huddle with our team leader Mahesh C Arora, an under secretary at India's Ministry of External Affairs. We see him working his cell phone furiously.

Our tired media group of 10 fretted initially, then slumped one by one into one of the many chairs at the arrival lounge. We had checked in at New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport at 8.30 pm the previous night. We had done two flights and seven hours in flying time and we had waited a couple of hours in transit at Changi.

Finally a couple of KIA Pregio minivans pull up. We have our first look at Ikram, our friendly guide for the rest of the three-day visit.

The hotel is a 10-minute ride away. What was disconcerting was the fact that there were no people on the streets. Not one!

A veteran traveller in the group remarks that it is Sunday so there must be no people. He was way off the mark. We hardly see anyone on the streets during our stay. There are malls and cars aplenty. But there is a distinct lack of people. The country has a population of 350,000 people.

It is bright and a pleasant 28 degrees Celsius. By the time we reach the hotel, it is raining. 'It always rains in Brunei' my background material had warned.

2.30 pm: Ministry of Information

After freshening up, we are ready for business. Director of Information Bujang Masu'ut welcomes us. He is a gentle, mild mannered man with a ready smile. We would meet him again many times during our visit, and his insights would prove valuable.

What is striking is the number of women working in the various ministries. Also the fact that the drivers and guides are called in for meetings. They stay in the background, but partake of the same hospitality we are accorded.

Masu'ut hands the floor to Information Officer Musa Mohidin. It's a long presentation. Tiredness from the night before sets in and some in the media delegation nod off. The ministry women giggle. Mohidin shifts uncomfortably and drones on.

The interaction after that is lively. Shorn of his laptop, Mohidin is a changed man. He informs us that Brunei is interested in Indian investment in IT, medical education and tourism.

The talk veers to culture. Mohidin says that till the 14th century the official language of Brunei was Sanskrit. Before it became a Sultanate nearly 500 years ago, it was a Hindu country -- part of the Java-based Majapahit Empire. The Hindu influences continue. Though an Islamic country, the national colour is yellow as is the background of the national flag. Mohidin says the culture is Sino-Indianised. Hence the prime minister, a post held by the Sultan of Brunei -- the world's richest man till Bill Gates came along -- is called Pradhan Mantri. The queen is Rajah Stree.

Image: Bandar Seri Bagewan, the capital of Brunei

Text: Prithviraj Hegde | Design: Satish Bodas I Photographs Courtesy: Brunei Yearbook/The Borneo Bulletin

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