2014 is my Southeast Asia Year. I visited Thailand with the Government and International Studies Society in January, then came the Brunei trip in May, and in July the Cambodia excursion. Southeast Asia is generally divided into two geographic regions, namely Continental or Mainland Southeast Asia and Maritime or Island Southeast Asia.

The former refers to the area south of the Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, comprising countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. The latter primarily consists of the island states off the coast of East Asia separated from the Continental region by the South China Sea, and includes Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and the country that I am going to describe in this article, Brunei. Referencing the above information, I have been to both Continental and Maritime Southeast Asia this year.

Brunei rests on the huge island of Borneo, the world’s third largest island (the other two are Greenland and New Guinea). As an independent state, Brunei is currently 30 years old, having ended its British protectorate status in 1984. The country’s territorial area is 5,762 square kilometres. Putting the numbers into context, Hong Kong’s land area is 1,104 square kilometres, whereas Singapore’s is 716.1 square kilometres and Macau measures merely 31.3 square kilometres. In other words, Brunei is about five times bigger than Hong Kong. However, Brunei is the least populated country among the ten ASEAN members, with only 415,717 inhabitants; even our tiny neighbour Macau is more populous with 624,000 inhabitants. One could say that Brunei is a rather large country, given its small population.

Thanks to its abundant petroleum reserves, Brunei is a wealthy country with a GDP per capita of US$39,355. How do we visualise a high income country like Brunei? As a traveller, I noticed that there aren’t that many public buses and taxis in the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan. Most people drive their own cars but what’s interesting is that luxury brands do not seem to be that popular - Brunei drivers prefer smaller Japanese or Korean cars. In addition, given its space, the roads of Bandar Seri Begawan do not suffer from the chronic congestion that is all too common in nearly every East Asian capital. The air quality seems good too.

Quite unlike the rich Gulf petro-states like the UAE, Bandar Seri Begawan is not characterised by imposing architecture à la Dubai. The city is clean and tidy. More importantly, from the moment I disembarked the Royal Brunei Airlines flight, until my final departure from the country, I felt safe. Brunei is a peaceful country; there is a reassuring atmosphere, and the people are generally friendly. I suppose given the wealth, the local people do not have to worry too much, but it is equally important to mention that the government wants its people to work. Life seems orderly, without a hint of idleness.

Brunei’s Head of State is Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (1946-), the country’s 29th ruler. Brunei entered a prosperous era during the reign of the 28th ruler, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III (1914-86, reign 1950-67). In the early 20th century, Brunei was a poor country but when Royal Dutch Shell came to explore and eventually discovered the tremendous underground petroleum reserves, the country’s fortunes turned around. Royal Dutch Shell remains influential today.

Partly because of its past poverty, one may find it difficult to spot significant historical artifacts or buildings in Brunei. Kampong Ayer (Water Village in Malay) in Bandar Seri Begawan may be the only reminder of what Brunei used to be like not so long ago. The stilt houses in Kampong Ayer today are equipped with modern amenities such as clean water and electricity, and there are police stations and mosques nearby as well. My understanding of the government’s plan for Kampong is to allow the stilt houses to gradually phase out, and the dwellers to move to live on land. But for those who intend to stay put, there is the option of moving into a standardised government-built stilt house.

Administratively, Brunei is divided into four districts: the district of Brunei-Muara where the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan is located, Belait, Temburong, and Tutong. The district of Temburong is an exclave, separated from the rest of the country by Malaysia and the Brunei Bay.

I was quite impressed by Bandar Seri Begawan’s tranquility, yet it should be remembered that some 70% of Brunei’s territorial area is covered by tropical rainforest. When I think of Brunei, the first thing that pops up in my mind is the well-known Ulu Temburong National Parkwhich covers about 40% of the Temburong district. As an urbanite, born and raised in Hong Kong, my idea of a tropical rainforest essentially comes from reading materials and watching documentary films, so the opportunity of actually stepping into one was quite an experience for me.

One can take a high-speed ferry or travel overland through Malaysia to get to Temburong from Bandar Seri Begawan. We took the ferry. “What a natural oxygen bar!” I thought, when arriving at the Ulu Temburong National Park.

We took a small motor boat to travel up a winding river with literally endless dense forest along its banks. While hiking up the muddy trails, sky high trees - including the legendary Tongkat Ali - punctuated the green, tropical background. It was hot and humid, and bees were never too far away. These were my first impressions of a tropical rainforest.

Leaving the muddy trails, we entered into cool, refreshing streams, ending up in front of a fall, while feeling tiny fishes pecking at our feet. Such closeness to nature! This was how I ended the Spring Semester 2014, worlds away from the hectic city life in Hong Kong.