A half an hour’s drive from the Southwest port, and you are in the small-town feel capital of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), home to 45,000 residents, about 15% of the country’s population. The cultural mix of Malay muslims, Chinese, and members of indigenous groups, and foreign expatriates ranging from blue collar to CEO’s. Accommodating 60% of the country’s tropical rainforest, the understated capital explodes with lush greenery and unfurling splashes of color. Urban life moves around office complexes, restaurants and shopping malls. BSB has a few museums focused on sites or on major historical figures and contains the largest water village in the world. The widely talked about Islamic state limits alcohol brought into the country, and are only allowed in limited quantities for non-muslim visitors.
Upon reaching my hotel in BSB after a nine-hour-long journey from Kota Kinabalu on May 14th, I didn’t want to rest, in fact I wasn’t tired at all, but was worried that I might not be able to see the nearby attractions before nightfall. I stayed at Jubilee Hotel, located in close proximity to major attractions, restaurants and the waterfront. The ground floor of the hotel had a restaurant and a convenient store. The reception staff was courteous and friendly, they provided tips about travelling around the city as well as good areas to try local food. I noticed that at the time I checked in, the room air-condition was switched ON, the temperature was nice and comfortable, however, the bathroom water had an unpleasant smell, probably from the aged and rusty water pipes, the building is very much rundown and was in urgent need of a major refurbishment.
The room had a television, a mini-fridge which wasn’t stocked with beverages and munchies, so I had to get them from the convenient store. The wifi was sporadic, it was very unstable and I had a tough time downloading office emails to my laptop; I even carried the laptop out to the corridor and would download all the emails and go back into the room, once the responses were ready, I would again go out to send the emails.
I freshened up and took off to explore the sights and sounds of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Built on an artificial lagoon on the Sungai Brunei river banks, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque first appeared more of a memorial monument than a place of worship. But, it really was meant to offer prayers to Allah; and its people are proud of the country’s Muslim population, the golden domed mosque was built to honor it. The marble pillars and the floor were imported from Italy, granite was brought in from China, the carpets from Saudi Arabia and the crystal chandeliers from the United Kingdom.
Having cost $500 million to build, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque remains as the most beautiful structure in Brunei and many people consider it as the most magnificent mosque in the Southeast Asian region.
The Venice of the East and the world’s largest water village, a neighborhood of 42 inter-connected villages built along the river banks of Sungai Brunei. Half of the country’s population lived here 100 years ago, even in the present day, majority of Bruneians prefer life in the water village instead of dry land. There are schools, offices, mosques, police stations, fire brigade and fuel stations at the water village. In recent years, modern over water bungalows have been built that could withstand the monsoon storms.
Visitors in the area are particularly taken by the fascinating wooden speedboat taxis, used to transport passengers across the water village. To get across the river, just flag down a boat no matter where you are. A single trip down the river costs just one Brunei dollar (B$1).
I watched as the sun sank into the South China sea, it started getting dark, and then I realized I was getting tired and hungry. I didn’t feel like walking long to experience the local food, so I opted to grab a quick dinner at the nearby KFC at Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex, the meal wasn’t cheap at B$6, I couldn’t even have it all by myself. I rushed back to the hotel to sleep early to get up by 0700 hrs the next morning to go exploring the Ulu Temburong National Park (I will be writing a separate post about my experience at the only rain forest in Brunei). Only after I returned from the Ulu Temburong National Park tour, I found out that I left my iPhone charger at the camp, my phone battery was at 12% and I didn’t have a choice but to run to the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex to buy a new iPhone charger which costed me B$26. I really wanted to visit the night markets in Gadong, but missed the last bus which left BSB at 1800 hrs, the hotel reception staff told me that the bus operations discontinue from 1800 hrs onward. I thought I’ll not spend B$50 on a taxi to go and come back, instead decided to rest the night so that I would be up early the next morning for more sighseeing in BSB.
Royal Regalia Museum
What do you gift a man who practically has everything? The Royal Regalia museum features a vast collection of lavish gifts given to the 29th and current Sultan of Brunei, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, by heads of states, government officials and influential businessmen. The museum also houses family portraits depicting childhood and early years of the sultan, priceless antiques, discarded relics, the most notable exhibit was the Royal Chariot, that carried the Sultan during his 1992 silver jubilee through the streets of BSB. It was documented in a life sized replica with a scale to model of the royal parade float with numerous uniformed soldiers representing his guard of honor.
As I observed the scores of gifts received by the Sultan, I stumbled upon three interesting artifacts gifted by former Maldives’ President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on April 22, 1999. One of them was a wooden vase with intricate designs presenting the Maldivian history and traditional lacquer works. The other two represented replica’s of Kalhuohfummi, the legendary boat in which Bodu Thakurufaanu, Maldives national hero and his forces lead the historic guerilla battle, that eventually led to the freedom of Maldives.
Admission to the museum was free, however, I had to store all my belongings, including my camera and phone in a locker and sign a log-book at the counter to enter the premises, and signed-off the log-book and collected my belongings during exit. For a moment I wondered: if such valuable gifts do not even make it on a shelf at his own palace which is the largest residence on Earth, how wealthy is the Sultan?
While I found a couple of hours in the morning to visit the Royal Regalia museum on May 16th, I had a flight to catch to Kuala Lumpur at 1610 hrs. One of the best things about the Jubilee Hotel that I stayed in BSB was that it offered free airport shuttle, while the check-out time was at 1200 hrs, they let me use my room until 1300 hrs and the shuttle dropped me and a few other guests to the airport at 1330 hrs.
Many travel blogs say “Brunei is boring”, for me Brunei is not a boring country, in fact it is an incredible destination that I will visit again. If you begin comparing Brunei with other regional cities, that’s where the misconception will start. I believe the definition of boring is not the place, it’s more the personality – how we perceive the place reflects our own personality.