Tag Archives: Brunei

Freedom to dance in the wind.

One of the things I love about living in this part of Asia is the super-abundance of dragonflies.  They are just so beautifully elegant to watch in flight. I am always amazed at their diversity, the huge range of colours and markings they come with.

Many people believe in animal symbolism and animals as totems.  There is a wealth of symbolism and meaning – both good and bad – associated with dragonflies.  Love, death, freedom, happiness and courage being just some of them.  It is often said that a dragonfly will appear in your life to convey a message to you.

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With my rational, nature-geek head on, I know that dragonflies appear often in my life because I happen to live and/or holiday in areas rich in habitats which are dragonfly and dragonfly larvae friendly. But then, according to one internet source, maybe it is my ‘rational’ side that needs addressing:

“If you’re being too rational and detached, the dragonfly’s appearance may symbolize the need for you to reconnect with the emotional aspect of yourself, to not be bogged down, to take flight and be free, to shed burdens and dance in the winds of life.”

I’m not a believer in animal symbolism, although I do find it interesting reading.  I certainly like the idea of freedom to dance in the winds of life! So that’s my take on Ailsa’s ‘freedom’ travel theme this week.

Word for Wednesday: P is for preserved.

A little jungle adventure time, and what does every adventurer hope to find? A river dwelling community, some smoking ruins amongst the water village, monkeys, tropical birds sailing overhead? Well yes, all of those.  And how about a box of old skulls and swash-buckling tales of pirates and mighty tribal headhunters?  It sounds like quite the adventure doesn’t it?  That’s exactly what I got when I headed off for a boat trip up the river Belait recently.

“Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”

(Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things).

Tucked into the shade of the riverbank, in a crudely crafted display cage are the remains of human skulls. A tin roof, over a box made of loosely spaced wooden slats, up on stilts over the ground. The box is at least a metre squared, and our boat captain-come-guide told us that once it had been nearly full.  Today, only small fragments remain covering the bottom of the box.

Some of the skulls have been lost to theft.  The flimsy wire front and wooden sides not sufficiently robust to keep pilfering hands out.  And over time the rising and falling flood waters have tumbled the skulls around in their cage, the broken pieces then swept away with the roaring waters. How many more years until there is only an empty box remaining?

Once there is nothing left in the box, will the story live on?  In many countries, such a sight would be accompanied by a plaque, giving an account of the historical significance.  There would probably be a tourist information leaflet, and maybe an organised trip on offer, for people to go and see for themselves. You would probably be able to google it and find a handful of sources with information on it.

In Brunei, where tourism is virtually non-existent, there is none of that.  Finding even the most rudimentary of information on ‘sights of interest’ in Brunei is almost impossible once you go beyond the main sights in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.  But I don’t think that means that there are no sights to be seen.  Far from it.

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This box of skulls is a case in point. Who were they? Why were they here? Well, there is no written account or clear definite answer, but there are two stories attached to them which our boat captain recounted.  The first, that South China Sea pirates sailing under the guise of spice traders tried to double cross some of the local river people.  A big mistake, as they soon discovered, at the hands of the fearless head-hunters.

The second tale tells of Japanese WWII forces reached the rivers and jungle of Borneo during the Japanese drive to rule Asia and the Pacific. Fierce fighting left these remains, the might of the Japanese Army crushed on this occasion.

Whether either story is true will probably never be reliably verified. Either way, the skulls are believed to be haunted.  Local people are very superstitious, believing that to touch them would bring immense bad luck.

If my conveyance of the two scenarios seems sketchy, that is because they are sketchy in the first place.  There is very little written history here, no real culture of traditional story telling as far as I can tell, and there seems to be very little that has passed down through the generations.

Since my trip to see the skulls, I have been wondering how many young Bruneians have any interest or knowledge in this story from their past.  Bruneians are very proud to be Bruneian, very proud of their faith, very proud of their country.  But having tried talking with some of the locals about their culture and history, there just doesn’t seem to be a sense of importance attached to it.  Almost as if what is past is past, gone and therefore no longer of importance.

These past few days I have seen ‘lest we forget’ written so many times in the context of too many wars and the lives they have cost over the past hundred years.  And I wholeheartedly agree with the principle of remembrance.  A national sense of consciousness and memory – whether out of horror, sadness or pride – seems crucial for shaping individual and community identity and integrity. So it feels really alien to be in a country where it is less a case of forgetting than just not every really registering in the first place.


Preserved (transitive verb).

  • to keep safe from injury, peril, harm, or destruction
  • to keep alive, intact, or free from decay
  • to keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged
  • to keep or save from decomposition
  • to keep alive or in existence; make lasting
  • to keep safe from harm or injury; protect or spare
  • to keep up; maintain (for example, historical monuments).

Derivation: Middle English, from Medieval Latin praeservare, prae- + servare to keep, guard, observe.  First Known Use: 14th century.


Although I don’t know who, someone went to the trouble of collecting and displaying the skulls, so they obviously thought that they were important enough to be preserved.  Yet I suspect that in thirty years time the skulls will be long gone and the story will be lost forever.

Preservation of our cultural identity, our historical and cultural roots, takes more than just putting something in a box.  We have to keep the story alive too.  Preserved through our words and story telling.  It is one of my reasons to write, as well as to read.  So it saddens me that there are probably hundreds of similar stories and artefacts that have been lost, in Brunei alone.  We need these stories, to weave our rich tapestry of global culture, understanding, language and identity.  Remembering the past is as important as embracing the future.


Broken but not beaten.

With photography, like any hobby or passion, you are naturally drawn towards certain subjects more than others.  So when I saw that Ailsa’s theme this week was ‘broken‘ my heart sank.  I tend to go for uplifting rather than gritty…why would I take photographs of broken things?!  I couldn’t really think of any relevant shots in my archives, so assumed that this week I’d be skipping the challenge.

Then I took a boat ride out on the Belait river, heading into the jungle. Just me, a friend and the boatman.  Forty five minutes upstream and then back on a little powerboat. You can cover a big stretch of water and jungle in that amount of time.

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“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”

(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness).

Although it did indeed feel like a trip back in time, it didn’t take long for a reminder of modern-day river living to hove into view.  A wrecked boat.  One of many along this stretch of river, dragged over to the banks and tightly secured with ropes to trees and moorings.  There is no road access to be able to come and take the wreckage away, but sinking is not a good option either, for fear of the submerged wreck causing yet more collisions.

Once perhaps a beautiful boat, this broken little pleasure craft crested the bank at a jaunty angle, thickly painted with marks of the changing tide. Despite being quite an expensive boat in its recent heyday, in some ways it now looked rather at home next to the dilapidated riverside shacks.

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Further down the river, a stark reminder of the realities of living in wooden houses.  Local people on the banks of the river still often live in wooden houses over the water, held aloft on stilts.  In this case perhaps a house fire got out of hand, leaving nothing but burnt and broken timbers.  The charred skeleton of a home where a family once lived.

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“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”.

(Ernest Hemingway).

Despite the signs of river life breaking boats and homes, it felt as though for the people who still live and work there, they at least, are unbroken.  There were signs of ongoing building maintenance.  Even some new traditional wooden houses being constructed in the clearings amongst the foliage.  There was a vibrancy to the floating communities I passed.  Old men sat on the gangways, mending fishing nets, women preparing food in the doorways of their homes.  Children, out at the waters’ edge, playing and learning to fish. A sense of community strength, faith in the face of adversity.

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“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.

(Frederick Douglass).

I had gone out on the water hoping for the chance to photograph crocodiles and monkeys.  The wildlife was not cooperative on this occasion, but I stepped off the boat feeling ebullient nonetheless.  If someone had told me I’d see the wrecked hulls of boats, collapsing jetties and the charred remains of river dwellings I’d have expected to feel disappointed, deflated.  Maybe even a little broken for the people who’s lives had been affected.  But instead I came away with a surprising sensation of optimism and hope in renewal.  So, entirely unexpectedly, it turns out Ailsa’s challenge was uplifting after all!