The Island of Borneo’s crown jewel—Brunei

Ask most folks where the oil-rich Muslim nation of Brunei is and they place it somewhere near Saudi Arabia. But in reality it’s in East Asia—plunked on top of Borneo like a cherry atop a tropical ice cream sundae.

The two countries could not be more dissimilar. Borneo is a very poor, rural country with one foot in the Stone Age.

In Brunei, the ruler is driven around town in a $14 million gold-plated custom Rolls Royce limo.

Brunei is a tiny kingdom ruled by one of the world’s most controversial people. Imagine Marlon Brando and Pee Wee Herman had a baby with Mussolini. Make him 5’7”, cover his chest with medals, give him his own country and make out a check to him for $40 billion.

Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah is a sultan, which is essentially a Muslim king. He is the second longest reigning monarch behind Good Queen Bess. He is also the self-appointed Prime Minister and President along with Minister of Defense, Minister of Finance, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (such as they are), Admiral of the Navy, Inspector General and head of the Royal Brunei Police Force. Let me see, have I missed any? Oh yes, the guy who is under indictment in the City of Las Vegas. How does a billionaire get banned from Las Vegas? More on that later.

First, this fellow is my hero because he has spent more money having a good time than anyone else in history. He lives in a palace, big by most standards—2,152,172 sq ft (official government estimate), with 1788 rooms, 257 bedrooms and five indoor swimming pools. That’s nearly the square footage of the Empire State Building and is oddly exact. In reality, it’s about 10 times smaller. There is a playground for his kids too which is so big that it’s really an amusement park and is kept staffed and open to the public. All the rides are free but since the locals are bored to tears by it, it sits idle. That was a cool billion dollars, but his kids would rather fly to Ibiza in one of the dozen-plus family jets. Tourists don’t come because you can’t drink or shake your bikini on the beach.

In 1996 Michael Jackson showed up and gave a concert for the Sultan’s 50th birthday and then hung out with him and his children for a few days. I had chicken and pie for dinner on my 50th.

The Sultan likes cars too. No one knows how many he has. Estimates range from 5,000 to 7,000 exotic cars. There are more than 600 Rolls Royces and 500 Ferraris—including those in the ocean because many of the cars have to be pushed off the dock into the sea to make room for the newer ones.

About 15 years ago the Sultan’s brother, Crown Prince Jeffery, blew through so much cash that the empire nearly crashed. But they bounced back with some smooth moves, such as when the bros bought a jewelry company in Switzerland and sold it for many times what they paid for it to some sucker who found out later that the royals were the only customers. The boys also designed jewelry, like this ghastly diamond crusted watch that they made ten of costing $800,000 each.

It depicts a couple committing a very private act and they do the dirty in motion on the hour. Now me, I love the idea, but it’s just not good art and I’ll bet they don’t even keep very accurate time. And where would you wear it? Well, might wear one on the yacht which Jefri named Tits.

Maybe this means something different in the local Malay language, but since the shore launches are named Nipple 1 and Nipple 2, probably not. The yacht used to be pictured on the Brunei government website in front of the palace, but I see that’s gone now as conservative values continue to tighten in the country.

The stories of excess are endless, but my favorite is when the Sultan and his crew entered a swank Beverly Hills antique store where a friend of mine and her daughter were just purchasing a clock—back when there were antique stores, shoppers and clocks. She was paying as the Sultan’s major domo came up to the desk and told the owner that the Sultan wanted to buy the entire contents of the store after having a thorough 5-minute examination. The major could see the ladies clutching their clock and he demanded it be included. My friend, who was no wilting violet, gripped the clock fiercely, but with the help of additional musclemen they wrestled the clock from her and she and her daughter were ungraciously decanted into the street.

Although the Sultan has imposed Sharia law in the country, the brothers seem to be exempt and criticism of them is a serious crime. They do spread the loot around though, and there is so much money the citizens are well paid to zip it.

So why is the Sultan barred from Las Vegas? Well years ago when he used to hang there he hired women to come decorate the palace for a month at a time. They were well paid. They came and went, but at one point he decided to renew some of their contracts for another month. At least one of them said, “No, I have to get back.” He objected. She said, “I’m outta here!” But he patiently explained that since he was in charge (see above list) she was staying. Later he did let them go, but charges for kidnapping were filed in Las Vegas. So how do I know this? I got the story firsthand from one of the women (the same way I knew about the clock).

I have always wanted to visit Brunei, but I’m surely scuttling my chances with this article. Just like I did when Turkmenistan’s foreign office banned me as ‘provocateur’. Tim Ferriss was with our travel group and they let him in—and he is definitely a provocateur.

Oh well, I can still go to Vegas.

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  • Richard Berge says:


    Your research and curatorial instincts are impeccable. You won me over with the watch.

  • ollie says:

    I would say (duh) better watch it, you could be bored from the country.
    I dont believe i have ever heard of this much excess…

  • Tyler McNiven says:

    More proof we are in a simulation. Makes me wonder if there was ever a need for fiction in the first place. Mind bending. One of my favorite articles yet!

  • heather rangel says:

    “It’s just not good art.” Lol this is the best sentence in this amazing piece. Brilliant.

  • George Moore says:

    Loved it! I knew a little about him from your book and past menu articles, what a character. I don’t think they’ll mind if you want to pay a visit as their oil preserves are estimated to dry up in as soon as fifteen years. They’re scrambling now to make themselves a great tourist destination because oil is 70 percent of their GDP. Sultan may have to sell a few of his cars.

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