Split in two and squeezed between the Malaysian state of Sarawak and the South China Sea on the vast island of Borneo, the tiny Islamic sultanate of Brunei Darussalam is unlike any other Southeast Asian nation. Ruled by a family—who are directly descended from the prophet Muhammad—since the 14th century, Brunei was once a hub of trade between Asia and the rest of the world. Humbled by European
imperialists for a century, Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888. But the discovery of oil in 1929 and subsequent strikes transformed Brunei into one of the richest countries in the world for its size. Brunei's 29th Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled since 1967, but his introduction of strict sharia laws for the country in May 2014 provoked an international outcry. Part national leader, part spiritual mentor, part CEO, the Sultan's responsibilities include controlling the government and the country's oil revenue, still flowing but now slowing, and preparing for a post-oil revenue future. The complex brew of 21st-century luxury and traditional lifestyles make Brunei a fascinating place to explore. More than 80% of Brunei's 5,765 sq km (2,226 sq miles) is mountainous rain forest, dominated by dense vegetation and mangroves, populated by a multitude of exotic species. Muara is Brunei's deepwater port, just outside Bandar Seri Begawan.