By Carla Sue Broecker
We left Louisville on our long adventure on Christmas Day 2017. The first leg of the journey took us to Chicago and after a wait of a couple of hours, we boarded our next flight that landed in Beijing, China, the following afternoon. It was a long flight, but not too long. We crossed the international date line, so our landing in the afternoon of Dec. 26 needed to take that into account.
After three days in a wonderful Beijing hotel, we headed for the port of Tianjin, China, where we boarded the Regent Seven Seas Voyager for our big “sail,” which will cover a lot of territory in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India and parts of the Middle East, and will eventually end up in Dubai on the Saturday after the Kentucky Derby. From there, we will fly home on Emirates Air Line just in time to start cutting grass in Kentucky.
We have had the pleasure of sailing with Regent many times in years gone by, so boarding the ship was a little like arriving at a home away from home. We knew a number of the crew members from times gone by, and we knew some of the guests as well.
As of last week’s column, we had been on the ship for over three months when we sailed in to Muara, Brunei, home of His Highness the Sultan/King of Brunei. His full legal name would not fit on any driver’s license I know of. In short, his listed name is Hassanal Bolkiah, and he is the 29th sultan. He is a direct descendant of the first sultan, whose reign began in 1348. He is also the self-appointed prime minister of this very tiny, very rich country, where all of its citizens are well taken care of as a result of revenue derived from large oil and gas reserves.
By the way, Brunei was under the protection of Great Britain for some while but gained its legal independence from Britain in 1984 while still enjoying English protection.
Our shore excursion was titled “Panoramic Brunei,” and it mostly consisted of a three-hour drive with a few stops around Muara to see some of the major sites. We had a young tour guide who filled us in on the pleasure and benefits of living in Dubai. She also reinforced over and over again how much she and her family liked the Sultan and approved of the way he was running the country. It didn’t take long to really get the idea that it is a very benevolent dictatorship since the citizens receive economic support, free education that can include advanced degrees from schools in London or Australia, and free health care.
Our first stop was at Bandar Seri Begawan waterfront in the center of the downtown area. It overlooks the Water Village across the Brunei River, where 30,000 people live in houses on stilts. The village consists of an assortment of homes, restaurants, mosques, shops and hospitals connected by wooden boardwalks. People have lived in the Water Village for over 1,300 years, and it is only accessible by boat and water taxi. The water taxis are wild little speed boats with outboard motors that dart back and forth between the docks on both sides of the river as they look for passengers.
Our next stop was a brief one to see the prime minister’s office from afar. Remember, the sultan is the prime minister, so his office is a whopper. Even though it was Sunday, it looked like there was a lot going on.
Then, it was off to drive by the sultan’s sister’s residence. As we drove down the street, it looked just like every royal subdivision where the houses are about half the size of Opryland. The crown prince, the sultan-to-be someday, lives right across the street not more than a toss of a newspaper away (if that newspaper was delivered by a cannon.)
Not far from the royal residences is Jerudong Park, a billion-dollar amusement park that was funded by the government. For some time, admission to the park was free until the cost of its upkeep was finally realized. One final curiosity we saw was the crystal arch at the park’s entrance, which looks like an enormous diamond ring and has a seven-ton replica of a diamond at the top.
Finally, the big treat of the day was tea at the Royal Polo Ground and Polo Club, which resembles a country club in Beverly Hills and is surrounded by stables for 100 horses and the polo grounds. We went through the main entrance and up a wide stairway with golden carpet to see the two-story ballroom. We had had dinner in that ballroom on a previous world cruise, and it looked just as elegant as before.
Back on the first floor where there is a less formal dining room, we were served lovely finger sandwiches, sweets and tea. Though it is an elegant place, they do have a souvenir counter where Polo Club ball caps and other souvenirs related to the sport are for sale.
It was too bad we didn’t have time to visit the Royal Regalia Museum. Visitors are free to wander through exhibits of luxurious items from the Sultan’s lavish coronation and other celebrations. Oh well. There may be another chance some other time.
Back on the ship, we had dinner with friends and then watched the evening’s special entertainment featuring Las Vegas singer/entertainer Elyse Branch. She did a 45-minute tribute to Whitney Houston that was terrific.
Overnight, we sailed in to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Known by the familiar name KK, there was a marked difference between this third-world city and country and our previous experience in the lap of Brunei luxury.
Rather than stay in town, we chose an eight-hour excursion to Majestic Kinabalu Park, which is a World Heritage site located 70 miles from where our ship was docked. Our coach looked modern but squeaked quite a bit; its springs must have been back at its garage. We bounced around a lot as we moved through the beautiful countryside and up into the mountains. The 14,000-foot Mt. Kinabalu is located across the valley from the park and is sporadically visible as the clouds come and go.
The walk through the park’s steep, muddy trails proved to be challenging to anyone with mobility issues, and the scenery didn’t look much different than the countryside we traveled through to get there. However, it was nice and we had an interesting buffet lunch at a lodge that included a very spicy tom-yum soup. Watermelon is the go-to dessert in most Asian restaurants, and the melon they served was divine.
When we got back to the ship, the captain made an announcement that our next stop, Boracay Island in the Philippines, was going to be cancelled. It seems that this resort-filled area had not lived up to some government orders to clean up their handling of sewer waste. As a result, the water in the area is very polluted and cruise ships are prevented from going there.
This means that we will have two days in Manilla instead of one. The Filipino members of the ship’s crew are ecstatic. As many as 600 members of their families are coming to see them when we arrive, and they are coming onboard the ship. We’re so excited for them! VT