When it came to my handshake with the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, I fluffed my lines. I’d pre-rehearsed the phrase ‘Selamat Hari Raya’ — a Bruneian greeting to mark Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration of the end of Ramadan.
But upon coming face to face with 66-year-old Hassanal Bolkiah — who looked regal in his charcoal-grey cara melayu trouser-suit — I shook his proffered hand but could only blurt out a truncated, “Your majesty.”
Like most visitors, I’d spent two days seeing the usual highlights of this tiny oil-soaked sultanate in northern Borneo: a city tour of Bandar Seri Begawan’s monumental golden-domed mosques; viewing endangered proboscis monkeys sporting Cyrano de Bergerac noses; overnighting in the wild Ulu Temburong National Park.
But I was more excited by the prospect of meeting the sultan himself — one of the world’s richest men. If you visit during the annual holiday festival of Hari Raya, there’s a chance to greet him inside the world’s largest residential palace. Istana Nurul Iman boasts 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, and cost $1.4bn (£900m) to build.
The palace only opens to the public for the three days after Ramadan, when 100,000 Bruneians (one-quarter of the population) arrive to shake the sultan’s hand — or that of his wife, the Raja Isteri, if you’re a woman.
“There will be 30,000 people today and the royal couple will shake hands with all of them,” said my Bruneian guide, Tom.
I entered the whitewashed palace amid a throng of well-wishers, dressed in colourful traditional Malayan clothing. Pillbox hats topped cara melayu suits, while women dazzled in silky baju kurong floor-length dresses, with matching headscarves. I think Tom was a little worried by my own sartorial offering, yet a smattering of Manchester United T-shirts set me at ease.
The queuing process is efficiently regulated, so there’s no chance to go off-piste. The first room we entered in a palace that melds near Bauhaus modernism with Islamic-Malaya design is the warehouse-size reception-cum-dining hall.
Hundreds of tables were crammed with Bruneians enjoying the sultan’s buffet: everything from nasi goreng to spaghetti and vivid-green tofu desserts. The waiting time to meet the sultan is about an hour and Hari Raya songs blare out from giant video screens to entertain the thousands of excited, waiting well-wishers.
Next up, we pass through a sort of pharaonic antechamber. Beneath a 165ft-high ceiling, spherical chandeliers resemble bubbles trapped in the rafters. An immense golden portal door glitters in their light.
Beyond this, I shuffle in line into the sultan’s reception hall: a green room with matching flock wallpaper and gold thread-laced carpet plus exotic bouquets of flowers. A smartly dressed man ambles over and we engage in polite chat about the British weather and the Olympics. I have no idea, until Tom tells me, that he’s HRH Prince Jefri, the sultan’s brother.
But there was no mistaking the head honcho as His Majesty heads a procession of male royals. During one minute, I estimate he processes some 30 handshakes, while receiving bows, or kisses to his hands. With a dark, clipped goatee he looks younger than his years. My turn arrives. I deliver my handshake, mess up my platitude, then proceed down the line, greeting the Crown Prince, brothers, and grandsons.
That day, the royal couple shook hands for around five hours and, I later learned, greeted a staggering 39,448 well-wishers.
It was a fleeting dalliance with royalty, but from the joyously charged atmosphere among the Bruneians, I sensed those few precious seconds with Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien (to give him his full title) would last for the rest of their lives.