Monday, September 29, 2008

The Grenewode Inscription

Foreword and disclaimer: this inscription will be plagued with self-censorship if I attempt to give a week-by-week account of the training there in backwater Daerah Temburong (which is twice), so I'll just to hell with that and give a traveller's guide to this place in Brunei, where more Singaporean males than Bruneians have been and will be to.

I hope you find this useful, whether you're a combat trooper or an officer cadet, although this largely pertains to Commandos training in Brunei. If you're a junior, a batchmate who's been scheduled to reroll or something, or just looking in for esoteric references, this inscription is for you. Enjoy!

Brunei Trivia: Brunei is a smallish country in the northern half of Borneo. It used to be the whole of Borneo, plus Palawan and bits of Mindanao as well, but at some time in history it got unlucky. If you want to know more, you can try quizzing Ainan on it. (e.g. "In what year was Limbang annexed?" you go)

The extant territory is divided into 4 districts (daerah) summarily described as follows, from west to east:
Belait - where oil is
Tutong - where crops are
Brunei-Muara - where mosques sprawl
Temburong - where troops train

Temburong is an exclave, that is to say it is separated from Brunei Major by a strip of Sarawak territory called Limbang. The Bruneians still claim Limbang as their own; you can tell if you read the map's footnotes carefully. You can see Limbang occasionally when the bus goes near there, across the river called Sungei Pandaruan (if you're awake). During navigation, however, it is not advisable to wander into Limbang.

The 4 districts are further divided into 38 mukims, or wards. While for all practical purposes of the soldier this is useless, you can pick out the different mukims and where their boundaries go on the map, just for fun.

Temburong Trivia: Temburong itself houses 5 mukims (Bangar, Labu, Batu Apoi, Bokok and Amo) all of which you will pass through in your frame. The principal town of the district is Pekan Bangar, where you will alight from the ferry on your first day. Along three roads leading south and east is the residential area, where most of the district's 9300 people live. The training area roughly coincides with the residential area.

North and south of these are forest reserves (read on your map: Hutan Simpan something something): the one to the south, the Ulu Temburong National Park, is a tourist attraction, so you might want to bring your family there after ORD.

Geography: Temburong offers a smorgasbord of terrains and boasts a rich biodiversity, which you will enjoy to much the fullest extent.

The most dangerous terrain that you may encounter is the mangrove swamp, where at some places the mud goes up to your chest, where thorny plants number more than is amusing and where crocodiles possibly roam.
(Note: For training safety purposes, you are not advised to taupok a croc once sighted à la Steve Irwin, however much you are tempted to do so. Oh yeah, and the live rounds are for you to shoot yourself, not the crocs.)

The other terrain commonly encountered are hilly terrains south of Pekan Bangar, with alternating ridgelines and ravines winding through the landscape. During navigation, you may choose to walk alomg the top of the ridges and get pretty damn lost, or stick to the bearing and climb up and down ravines on the way. Most people, I think, prefer to get lost.

At one point you may get to see and climb Mount Biang. Mount Biang is really called Bukit Biang, a tall ridge peaking 423 metres above sea level, but don't forget that you and your mates come from a largely flattened country. If you are lucky like we were, you may find yourself in what is almost a different biome from the lowlands, here where the clouds are all around you and moss grows like fur over giant boulders.

The biodiversity will surprise you. If you look around carefully, you will identify at least 5 varieties of flies, 2 varieties of mosquitoes and 4 varieties of wasps. At dawn or dusk the rainforest explodes into cacophony, with the cicadas' white noise forming the bulk of the decibels, the howler monkeys' haunting bleats, and numerous other inexplicable drummings, whistlings, etc.

At night it is not totally dark, contrary to what I believed before I went in. Maybe "totally dark" meant minimal light pollution, resulting in a near totally clear night sky where individual stars can be picked out from the misty Milchstrasse, clouds and foliage excluded. Fireflies glow pretty gleefully at night too, as do rotting leaves (see phosphorescence).

Concerning equipment:
1 Don't lose issued equipment (watch your trashbags!)
2 Don't break issued equipment
3 Bring a hammock!

Taking care of yourself: Apart from luck, this is admittedly the only thing that divides heaven and hell in Brunei, so here are some additional tips.

1 Gloves are important for ravine-dipping. Personally, I recommend tough leather gloves that open at the fingers, which are easy to put on and take off (in case they get wet, which is quite often), more cooling, and allow freer movement of fingers. The only disadvantage is that your fingers will get pricked, though your palms will not.

2 Bring your own plasters outfield in a waterproof bag and keep in on your person. Tried and true in Tekong, was too stupid to try it again in Brunei.

3 Carry more water than is necessary. It might be heavier on the shoulders, but nothing kills your day worse than all your canteens running out of water. If that extra 1.5l bottle which you might never touch at all will give you some sense of security, pack it.

4 Don't scratch your heat rash, if you still haven't learnt the lesson the hard way.
4.5 Not recommended to ask others to scratch your heat rash either.

5 Do not sit down at every conceivable opportunity during long walks. It looks very annoying, and you will get cramps because your muscles are unable to adapt to the erratic resting.

6 Do not bash without looking. If you bash without looking like some idiot I know, you may alarm a whole nest of wasps and the four poor fellas walking behind you will all get stung. Wasp stings are potentially fatal, so if you know any such idiot that tends to do that, persuade him to fall out first.

7 Getting down slopes can be very dangerous. Where it gets very slippery, you may want to go slide down on your butt. But when you do so, make sure that no tree trunks go in between your feet.

8 Spread the load equally across your detatchment. If there are people you know who persistently cannot carry heavy loads, you can be nice and help out, but do keep in mind your limits. If you fall out because of your excessive load, it will be your buddy's turn to be extremely helpful.

9 Boil your meat rather than roast it. It tastes much better this way, honest!

10 If you keng in the middle of an exercise, you are very, very wrong indeed.

Concerning Rest and Recreation (R&R): You'll spent 3 weeks looking forward to it, and when you get to that one day set aside for R&R, it seems like forever.

The Museum in Brunei is a run-down place from the outside but an okay place inside. Strongly recommended to look around more inside, or you've wasted your time. I mean seriously, people actually would rather watch the same Tom & Jerry cartoon 4 times over than explore the Sultan's treasure trove of Islamic art! Philistines.

If there is any survival tip I can offer pertaining to R&R, it would be for the tour guides.

In one corner of the Mall there is a rather popular handicrafts shop which sells wood whittlings of boats, lyres, woven potpourri baskets, metalworks and stuff. It's quite expensive: if you plan to spend on it, do bring around 100 ringgits. If Mom collects banknotes, bring lots more.

Colophon: I hope that these tips provide some hint of what you can expect to find in Brunei. If you have been fed all the tales the taxi drivers tell you about the place, you'll realise the reality is much milder; training is bearable if you don't get injured or sick (though if you would rather get sick or injured, then I can't do much to help).

Luck is of course important here in this country, so good luck for those who have yet to go. If at any time you find that training is tough, just remember that it's a goddamn stairway, not an escalator, that brings you to Heaven.

[P.S. If you want to read the illustrated Grenewode Diaries, which I am afraid is pretty unpublishable, you can ask me for it.]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Blogging from Bandar Seri Begawan

Small note at 27 September 2008, 1635h: I am blogging from the mall in Bandar Seri Begawan, in a corner populated mainly by kids, because the adults here curiously do not play LAN. Same problem here as when blogging from London or Paris or Vienna three years ago, like dodgy keyboards; the one I'm using in Brunei is okay, only a little weird but it jams a lot.

For my family back home: I have had a good harvest. Bedtime stories aside, there's 2x keychains, 1x potpourri box, and for Mom's banknote and coins collection, notes of 10, 5 and 1 ringgit plus a 1 ringgit coin.

Just to add that Brunei is a pretty cool place. Some of us almost want to retire here. Tell you more when I get back to Singapore; this keyboard is killing me.