24 September, 2012

Tea in Borneo

Brunei should be a good place for tea.  The nearby Malaysian region of Sabah grows decent tea; Brunei itself is a tiny country at the northerly tip of the rainforested island of Borneo. Oddly, tea culture hasn't really caught on.

The view from my hotel room - a bit different to Oxford...

What has caught on in a big way is: (i) the absolute authority of His Majesty, the Sultan; (ii) Islam as a state religion which reaches into many aspects of private life; and (iii) huge income from oil and gas.  

This latter causes it to rank sixth in GDP per capita, of all the world's countries.  The formal name of the country is a clue to the feeling here: "The Abode of Peace".  All of this is contained within pristine, virgin rainforest.  Brunei is unique, and takes some understanding.

If you're going to build a mosque, giving it 22 domes made of gold is a good start

The country is in parts Malay in outlook and temperament; Islamic in structure and regulation (alcohol and public dancing are illegal); tropically Asian in situation; and oil-rich in national affluence.

You don't get palm trees and opulence of this magnitude in England...

The main university, an example building of which is shown above, is really rather special; most of the buildings have been constructed recently, thanks to the munificence of the Chancellor who is (you guessed it) His Majesty, the Sultan*.  The style is south-asian, and yet this is combined effectively with modern materials and design.  When the vice chancellor said "money is no object", you begin to see evidence of that statement in every building on the rather huge campus.  

Amusingly, the monkeys come out of the rainforest at night and make a nuisance of themselves...

*His Majesty is also the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Defence.  He is also admirably capable as a ruler, and seems to care genuinely for the well-being of his subjects, who lead a comfortable life. 

You have to look hard to find decent tea...

What little "down time" was granted to me by my hosts was spent in a coffee shop, getting to know the imported Darjeeling (pictured above).  Tea is more of a background commonality, here; coffee is granted a degree of status, perhaps due to its relative novelty.

Indeed, much what "tea culture" exists here is that which we left behind - Brunei gained full independence from the UK in 1984.  You can see other relics of our influence, including the fact that most educated inhabitants of the country took their university degrees in England.  The cosy scale of the country is shown by the fact that even the presence of a humble dogsbody such as myself resulted in an appearance on state TV, and a couple of articles in the national press.  Truth is, as ever, stranger than fiction...


Despite all of its oddities, Brunei is quite charming.  Pictured above is a typical scene from my favourite coffee shop, which reminds me that, despite geography and culture, most people of the world are fundamentally similar.  

All we want is wi-fi and the ability to post embarrassing photographs of our friends on Facebook.


Green Stone said...

How's the weather? Looks hot and humid.

Brunei sounds really interesting, what's the food like? How is the coffee anyways?


Hobbes said...

It's cooking here! The heat hits you in the face as if you'd just opened an oven.

The food is Malay, with some Chinese, reflecting the two main types of people that live here. Brunei people are not the world's thinnest, perhaps due to the rather fatty food and scorching heat (which makes exercise impossible). I have begun to miss the little things, like plain toast, scones, and (of course) proper tea!

That said, Brunei is delightful. It is peaceful indeed, just as its name suggests, with almost no crime. It is entirely possible that future collaborations might bring me back here soon, and so I look forward to learning more about this complex and close-knit world. It seems that everyone knows each other - government, industry, academics, diplomats...



Keng said...

Hi Hobbes, welcome to the tropics. Did you manage to try our favourite fruit. durian? During your next trip to Brunei, do drop by S'pore for some nice tea. Kind Regards, Keng,

Anonymous said...

On state TV and national press ..., did you manage to say a few words about tea.

I think coffee was originated in the Muslim world, may be that is why it is more popular in Borneo.

No offend to Keng. I would give durian a miss if I were you, unless you want to see the meal you just had a second time! :)


Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, there isn't an Islamic country that sees tea leaves as much more than a backdrop for sugar cubes. I'm assuming it wasn't always like that, but it certainly seems to be like that now.

Jo said...

I visited Brunei briefly when travelling through Malaysia (Sarawak), it was an interesting little place. Never tried the tea, but I had a lovely coffee at the airport.

Hobbes said...

Dear Keng,

Thank you - I'm definitely hoping to reach Singapore! I didn't see durian / liulian for sale in Brunei, bu have had it back in England. I rather like it!



Hobbes said...

Dear Apache,

I was there on academic business, I'm afraid, and so the words that they got out of me were more to do with that, rather than tea. :)



stephanie.k said...

I was just going through your blog (was at first delighted to find a tea blogger based in the UK where I now - usually - live) only to see this! I grew up in Brunei and it's always lovely to see it pop up in the most unexpected places.

your pu-erh collection is amazing! my sister would be enthralled :) I'm not a huge pu-erh fan myself but perhaps I haven't tried a properly aged shengpu?

Hobbes said...

Dear Stephanie,

Thanks for the comment - growing up in Brunei must make England seem rather cold by comparison. :)

I firmly believe that it is impossible to dislike good shengpu, and that you need only be introduced to the right tea!