'Where is Brunei?' is usually the first question travellers ask - a query that can easily be solved with a map. 'What is Brunei?' - now that's a much more difficult question to answer. It may seem like nothing more than a bucktoothed bite mark nibbled off the Bornean coast, but there is a lot more to this wee sultanate than meets the eye, and that's where things get tricky.
So perhaps it's best to start with the things that Brunei is not. Brunei is not an ubermodern emirate bustling with a Vegas-like energy, nor is it an uptight Muslim stronghold ruled with an iron fist. This may surprise visitors at first - especially when they discover that the serene capital city (10 points if you can name it without looking at the highlights!) seems to prefer ramshackle stilt villages to architectural allegories for world domination. But make no mistake, Brunei isn't a backwater oil rig either. In fact, for many centuries the sultan's power extended across the entirety of Borneo and over to the Philippines.
But far more interesting than the tall tales of erstwhile power is watching how this micro-nation grapples with its modern identity. Youngsters memorise names of popular recordings with the same alacrity as historical minutia, while higher up in the ranks, princes ride the waves of 'black gold', erecting myriad monuments to misguided spending. Day trippers will barely peer beyond the very staid mosques, markets and museums, so it's well worth hanging around as the Napoleonic bravado melts away to reveal a spellbinding saga of one sultan and his faithful people.
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