Tomorrow, February 25, is Makha Bucha Day in Thailand, one of the country’s most important religious holidays. This holiday commemorates two events that occurred on the same day during Buddha’s lifetime. The first was the spontaneous coming together of 1,250 followers just months after Buddha began teaching; he instructed them to do good, to cease evil, and to purify the mind. Forty-five years later on the same date, Buddha gave his final teachings and achieved Nirvana where his spirit was separated from his physical body. Both events occurred on the third full moon in the Thai lunar calendar and so this is the date on which Makha Bucha Day is celebrated.
Now you might wonder, as I did, how we are at the third full moon of the year when the Chinese New Year occurred just two weeks ago. The answer is that this is the third full moon in the Thai lunar calendar that typically begins in December, not the Chinese lunar calendar that begins between late January and late February. To add a bit more confusion, the Thai New Year, or Songkran, is based on the Thai solar calendar and occurs annually on April 13.
By taking Friday as a vacation day, I was able to arrange a short, four-day trip to Brunei, officially known as Negara Brunei Darussalam, or the Country of Brunei, Abode of Peace. Brunei is located 1,200 miles southeast of Bangkok on the island of Borneo. At 2,226 square miles in area, the Sultanate is about the size of Delaware, but with just 400,000 people it is smaller than Wyoming, the smallest U.S. state by population. Despite being just four degrees north of the equator and on the South China Sea, the weather in Brunei has been surprisingly cooler and less humid than that in Bangkok.
Officially an Islamic nation, Brunei has a culture of tolerance that allows for the free practice of other religions. While alcohol is not sold within Brunei, travelers can bring limited amounts into the country for personal consumption. Because of the ban on alcohol, dinners are relatively inexpensive, e.g., no wine, and nightlife is pretty much non-existent.
After I arrived on Friday, I found that all the stores and shops were closed from noon to 2 p.m. for mandatory Friday prayers. Above the headlines on the daily newspapers are the exact times for daily prayers, and in my hotel room there is an arrow on the ceiling pointing to Mecca. Prayers are said five times daily:
- The morning prayers, or Fajr, are said at the break of dawn in remembrance of God;
- The noon prayers, or Dhuhr, to seek God’ guidance;
- The late afternoon prayers, or Asr, to remember the greater meaning of our lives;
- The evening prayers, or Maghrib, to remember God as the day begins coming to a close;
- The night prayers, or Isha, said after the twilight disappears to remember God’s presence, guidance, mercy, and forgiveness.
Brunei has been ruled by Sultans since 1363, and the current Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, has been in power since his father abdicated in 1967. In addition to being the 29th Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah is also the countries first (and thus far only) Prime Minister. He also concurrently holds the roles of Defense Minister and Finance Minister. The Sultan is reportedly worth over $40 billion thanks primarily to the nations rich oil and gas deposits.
Oil exploration in Brunei began in 1899 but the first major oil discovery was not until 1928. Today, oil and gas production accounts for 70% of Brunei’s GDP and provides its citizens with a high standard of living. With a per capita GDP of over $50,000, Brunei ranks 6th in the world, a couple of positions higher than the U.S. Brunei Shell Petroleum, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and the nation of Brunei, is the nation’s primary oil and gas exploration and production company.
Saturday, February 23rd, was National Day, the anniversary of Brunei’s independence from British protection. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 until its independence in 1984, when it joined the British Commonwealth.
To commemorate this day, there was a large ceremony at the Haji Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin Park, just down the street from my hotel. Omar Ali Saifuddien was the 28th Sultan and the father of the current Sultan. Crowds filled the park starting around 7 a.m., a military band and honor guard marched in at 8 a.m, and the Sultan made his entrance at 8:15 a.m. After greeting other dignitaries, the Sultan inspected the honor guard and then returned to his dais to watch the parade.
For the next 90 minutes, over 20,000 people from 129 contingents marched into the park to salute and be saluted by the Sultan. With the exception of the scale and the presence of the monarch, the parade was reminiscent of small town 4th of July celebrations with the large participation of civil servants, military, young people, non-profits, and civic groups. The National Day parade included police, fire, and haz-mat crews from different jurisdictions; soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the various branches of the armed forces; students from the country’s high schools and universities; and people, young and old, from various social and civic groups including what appeared to be the Brunei Boy Scouts.
The army unit was in full camouflage with loaded packs and weapons and the haz-mat team wore its protective gear. The citizens wore traditional Malay dress — the men in matching long-sleeve shirt and trousers with a bright, three-quarter length sarong wrapped around their waist and a black hat, called a songkok, on their heads. The women wore brightly colored dresses, called baju kurung, that covered their arms and legs, as well as head scarves to cover their hair.
After entering and saluting the Sultan, the various groups proceeded onto the field and stood side-by-side facing the Sultan while the rest entered. Once everyone was in place, the group was lead in a pledge of loyalty. Then they held large colored cards over their heads to form the Brunei flag, the National Day logo, and various messages including the numbers 1984, 2013, and 29, respectively the year of independence, this year, and the number of years since independence. After the ceremony, the Sultan went down to the field and greeted many of the participants before he was driven away.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.