But of course bars in Brunei don’t really exist.
You can’t get arrested for drunk driving in Brunei because alcohol and bars don’t exist, I was told while sitting in a bar drinking a can of Tiger beer.
To my right is an English contractor. I don’t remember what he did exactly, but he said with a slight smirk that not even his coworkers who have been in Brunei for years know about the bar.
The people in this bar seem to revel in the fact that it is a secret. Bars and buying alcohol in Brunei is prohibited. This is a country ruled by a king that’s under Sharia law. If the police raided the bar the people in it would be arrested. It is a genuine speakeasy.
However, I am not sure how much of a secret the place really is. Some guy who travels around the world getting drunk put up a blog post about it, offering to tell people where it is via email. I took him up on his offer and sent him a message, but as I sat in a cafe looking out upon a drab city street I knew that there was no way that I was going to wait around for him to reply. So I tried another method. I assume that the Chinese people living there probably at least knew where the speakeasy was, and after befriending a Chinese guy who ran a restaurant I popped the question. He told me exactly where the speakeasy was.
Outside of visits to Kampong Ayer, I was just finding myself feeling something in Brunei that I’ve rarely felt in my travels: boredom. The place isn’t only incredibly peaceful and comfortable but also incredibly bland and overtly uneventful. I had to do something fast.
There was a rotund-ish, older Chinese lady at the end of the bar talking loudly with a rotund-ish, older Chinese guy.
“Can you understand us?” She called out to me across the bar.
He had just called her chubby.
“Yes, when you speak Mandarin,” I replied in Mandarin.
“He just called me chubby!”
They would switch between various strands of Chinese, from Mandarin to Cantonese mostly.
I moved down to their end of the bar and joined them.
She was Hakka, she told me that her family was originally from Hainan. She said that Chinese who’s families moved to Southeast Asia going back to China to try to discover their roots was the biggest waste ever.
“There is nothing left anymore. There is nothing to see.”
The big guy worked in logistics. He said that he brought famous performers into Brunei. There was no reason to doubt him. He was originally from Guangdong.
They supposedly knew each other when they were children but hadn’t seen each other in forty years. They said their families were friends long ago.
“I remember her when she was a little girl,” he said.
“I remember him when he was a boy,” she said. “He looks exactly the same now as he did then, except for the double chin.”
Said she that recognized him by his booming voice, which seemed plausible.
However, it seemed strange to me that they never crossed paths in the bar before, as they both seemed to be regulars. I asked how that could be and they said they didn’t understand it either.
“The most important thing in life is to enjoy it,” he boomed. “This is why we come here.”
“They call me a lady without a traffic light because I come and go as I wish,” she said.
From what I could tell this basically meant a woman without a man.
“I don’t like being a lady without a traffic light,” she wallowed.
At her side was her 17-year-old daughter. She was dragged out because her mom didn’t want to go to the bar alone. She was bored. She had no interested in speakeasies. She just wanted to be somewhere with her friends.
“I’ve been here since 6 PM,” she moaned.
But she seemed friendly and interested — at least partially — in talking with me. She asked questions and really listened to my responses.
“There are only 300,000 of us and we’re all related,” a Brunei guy who was educated in England told me this peculiar point about his country.
Brunei is small. Real small. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing.
I walked over to a table that had a lively group of locals standing around it.
I introduced myself and the first thing they asked was how I found the bar. They didn’t seem to believe my story that a random Chinese guy told me. They asked what I’m doing in Brunei. I told them that I’m a journalist.
I saw no need to lie. They could find out all about me just by looking up my name anyway… which they immediately did.
I found out about this because one of them asked me a question about China’s ghost cities. I didn’t say anything about this.
“How do you know about that?” I asked.
“I looked you up,” he replied laughing. “Before the night is over we’re going to know everything about you.”
At that time I didn’t realize how much of an annoyance this would come to be.
“Can I have a word with you?” the bartender asked me soon after and then took me out on the enclosed balcony.
“Do you have a camera in your bag?” he asked.
“Do you have a camera in your bag?”
“Of course I have a camera in my bag, I’m a journalist. I always have cameras with me.”
“Can I see it?”
“What? Why do you want to see my camera?”
“Someone said that you might have a camera.”
There was this guy who kept making references that I had a hidden camera with me and I was filming inside the bar. The first couple of times I laughed about it, as I thought he was joking but he kept saying this to the point of being irritating. Apparently, he found it necessary to alert the bartender.
“Look, I finally told him, I write about big international geo-economic developments, not secret bars in Brunei.”
It was becoming clear that these guys thought they were more interesting to an international audience than they may have been.
Roger asked me to do take out my camera.
“I just need to see it.”
“Uh… yeah, sure.”
I opened my bag, pulled out the case for my Sony mirrorless, and began opening it.
“It’s okay, okay, okay, it’s no problem,” he responded suddenly. “You don’t have to take it out.”
“What are you talking about? Don’t you want to see my camera?”
“I just wanted you to open your bag. I just needed to look inside of it.”
That was actually a close one. The latest file on that camera’s sim card was a video of me standing in front of the hotel talking about how there was a speakeasy inside of it.
But I then became really curious about why he would want me to open my bag to look at my camera but then had no interest in looking at my camera once I’d revealed it.
Then he told me the reason for his paranoia.
“One time there were two guys from France here who had a backpack like yours and they kind of looked like you. A group of foreign teachers were here and they were the ones who became suspicious of them. They took them out here to the back and searched them and they found a camera that was connected to a device that transmitted the signal to their hotel room. They had filmed everything in here. I mean, everything. So we went to their hotel room and made them delete everything.”
They suspected that I too could have been wired.
“We are actually for members only,” the bartender continued. “I don’t know why my uncle let you in. He should have asked you questions at the door.”
We then returned to the bar and the bartender gave me a beer for my troubles.
“How do you keep this place open?” I asked him.
“We have an arrangement,” he replied.
The rumor is that the owner of the hotel is related to the king.
Whatever is the case, the speakeasy has been open since 2000. However, people kept talking about how they didn’t want it to be shut down as part of normal conversation. The very real potential for such gave them a continual feeling of anxiety — but I also believe that this talk of police raids added to the excitement of being there.
When I rejoined the group the bartender nodded to them that I checked out and was fine. They bought my beers for the rest of the night as a way of apologizing.
“These people here,” the bartender said, “they are all my family. They need this place. It is the one place that they can come to be free.”
These people live under Sharia law. Coming to this bar was they way that they momentarily escape.
“If this place gets shut down, we die,” one of the regulars turned and said to me.
“If this place gets shut down because of you we will kill you,” the irritating guy who got me frisked made another thinly veiled “joke.”
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