Black Gold of Brunei

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

From a place that brought us back to the era of Brunei's past and the historic, watery Kampong Ayer, we headed west towards Tutong on Muara-Tutong highway. Finding the right highway was a bit of a problem for us at first since we thought a small country like Brunei can't be having an extensive network of roads that would make a journey without a map so complicated for foreigners like us. For a moment I couldn't recall where we kept wifey's travel guide book although I wasn't sure there was a detailed map of Brunei in there. Luckily, the roads are not that complicated, they are not criss-crossing one after another like in some metropolitan cities, it just that Brunei road authority should put more meaningful signboards of directions and approximate distances to major towns to help unfamiliar motorists, like us.

So, from Bandar Seri Begawan, we took Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah highway up to Jerudong and merged onto Muara-Tutong highway. The destination of the day was the center of the honeypot that makes Brunei a relatively rich country in South East Asia region. Estimate distance we had to travel was 100 kms and according to the receptionist guy back at the hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan the trip to Kuala Belait would take about 2 hours. After almost an hour driving on a relatively not busy highway, we stopped for lunch at what seemed to be the first rural township off the highway, somwhere near Telisai. I can't recall the exact name of the area but can't really forget KK Koya restaurant's chicken beriyani rice set.

It came with two pieces of chicken per set, cooked like curry but tasted like a combination of chicken curry and masala. It was indeed nice. Wifey had a big chunk of tenggiri fish curry to herself. I thought she doesn't like curry??? Upon making a payment at the cashier counter, I was a bit surprised to learn that food price in Brunei is very reasonable. Actually I want to say - CHEAP. Total damage for our mamak-style beriyani lunch was only B$8.50.

We later resumed our ride in the rented dugong with full stomachs and joyful feeling. In a country where basically not many attractions can be found, a short to medium distance self-drive can be quite fascinating. At least, that was what I felt while in Brunei. The scenery around doesn't differ much compared to countryside areas in Malaysia. I can mistakenly think I'm still within Malaysian boundary if I was taken into somewhere in Brunei blindfolded. We continued on Seria Bypass road for another 20 minutes before we saw a junction to Kuala Belait.

As we were approaching the town center of Belait district, we passed by a big roundabout with a huge teapot replica in its center. I have no idea why Brunei Shell Petroleum sponsored such a construction in Belait when it mainly deals with oil and gas production, not in the culinary business.

The design of the teapot and its surrounding is a bit weird, though. Since it was Sunday, the roads in the town center were really empty. It could be like that on other days as well, I don't know.

I drove towards the beach before stopping at one of the top attractions in Kuala Belait, the Silver Jubilee Park. Facing the sea, the wind blew directly to our faces. It's a good place to rest for a while after quite a long drive, isn't it?

A couple of oil rigs which I think belongs to Rasau oilfield exploration can be seen from the beach. There was an oil tanker too, moving very slowly on the blackish water. We were overwhelmed as finally we made it to the area of Brunei that is rich with valuable natural resource, the liquid black gold.

We took shelter under a gazebo by the beach, with one old Chinese guy sitting right in front enjoying the evening breeze. On the far right, some kids were seen playing on the rather empty beach.

We wanted to see more of these oil drilling activities, perhaps closer ones to the shore. For that, we must head back east to Seria. After getting a help from a gas station staff on the directions, I drove along Jalan Maulana before turning onto the coastal road of Jalan Utara to make sure we can always see the sea since we had no idea how far is Seria from where we were and can't really say where the location of our next stop would be. Not long after I turned the car onto Jalan Utara and passing by a small golf course, wifey shrieked in excitement as if she has spotted something 'out of this world'. She thought I didn't notice what lied ahead of us. All these while, we only saw it in movies or from some images on the Net. The thing looks like a simple machine attached to the ground with its head moving up and down.

And its purpose is to extract or pump out the black mineral (oil) from the underground well to a collection tank before being streamed to the refinery. It's called pump jack but also referred to as the nodding donkey. I think it deserves the name for its shape and movement that resembles a donkey nodding its head.

Pump jacks are abundant in Panaga, Seria where onshore oilfields are mostly located in Brunei. You can find out how this thing works here. One thing I did notice was some of the pump jacks' heads moved slower than the others. I think those could be the older donkeys, yeah? For more than 5 kms along the way, these pump jacks were built scattered all around, wherever oil deposits were discovered. However, the actual highlight of the Seria oilfield is the place called the Billionth Barrel Monument.

Although it's located on Jalan Utara but to access it, we had to come from Jalan Tengah, the main road that runs in parallel to Jalan Utara. We almost missed this particular junction that merges into Jalan Utara if not because of wifey's sharp eyes which spotted the huge, unique architecture of the monument from some 200 meters away. What makes it tougher to find it was because of the missing sign to such an attraction.

The only landmark that a foreign visitor should be looking out for is the Shell Training Center building, in order to aid in finding the location of the Billionth Barrel Monument. We finally arrived at the half empty car park space not far from the entrance to the monument site.

We then took a short walk from the car park to the monument that commemorates the billionth barrel of crude oil siphoned from oil wells in Seria by Brunei Shell Petroleum company in 1991.

It was about 22 years ago and I'm curious how many barrels of oil have been produced by the oilfields in that region till today. The monument was actually built close to the site of the first well and the design carries special meaning, according to Arkitek Idris firm, who I believe responsible for its design concept.

The black curved shape of an arch that forms the main structure symbolizes the flow of crude oil from the earth to the surface and the flow comes from many directions. A total of six joined up arches symbolizes six decades of oil exploration before they came to the billionth barrel mark. On top of the arch structure sits the national emblem of Brunei, which symbolizes the prosperity to the country and its people brought by the black gold production.

15 minutes later we left the monument and the history of oil production in Brunei and Seria in particular. After a brief stop at Seria Mosque, we rushed back towards Bandar Seri Begawan to catch the sunset.

En route, we passed by Brunei refinery and reservoir tanks for petroleum and LNG storage, all belong to Brunei Shell oil company.

There's no doubt that this oil giant has strong grasp on Brunei's oil and gas resources since decades ago. That's why all petrol stations in the country are franchised by this company. Although it looks like a monopoly, the government did its best to benefit the people of Brunei. The oil deals achieved between the government and the oil company let its citizens to enjoy a very low price of premium petrol at gas stations. At only B$0.53 per liter of RON 97, they are paying the lowest for a liter of petrol in SEA region now. So, who said Malaysia has the lowest petrol price, shame on you.

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