Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Brunei is an oil-rich country, home to nearly half a million people, described as the green HEART gateway to Borneo. Brunei is ruled by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, whose official title runs into some 31 names. As an absolute monarch, the Sultan combines the roles of prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and monarch, with various members of his family forming the government.
On becoming a Malay Muslim Monarchy in 1991, alcohol was outlawed in public, creating an underground drinking scene, including the non-muslim Chinese restaurants serving up wine and beer surreptitiously from traditional teapots and expats regularly making the 90 minute round trip to the first off licence over the border into Sarawak.
Due to the Sultan's wealth from the oil resources found in Brunei at the turn of the twentieth century, most things are subsidised, including the pilgrimage to Mecca.
According to the Brunei Times, tourism is on the up with nearly 200,000 visitors in the first nine months of 2013; however you would struggle to believe this on arriving at the capital Bandar Seri Begawan known locally as BSB.
Brunei is over halfway through their five year tourism initiative and so far, they have failed to reinstate the centre's tourist information, which was closed in 2008 and the remaining counter in the airport was withdrawn within the last year. There was also no evidence of their '8 hour transit tours' which had previously run for those with long connections. Buses which are scheduled to pass by the airport do not, with the car park man stating 'maybe tomorrow' when enquiring about the bus.
The night before our flight, we stayed at a hotel in KL Sentral, which had a dual aspect view.....of the monorail looping around our building, at the same height as our window. Just beyond that was a mosque, which issued its first call to prayer at about 4am. It is incredibly disorientating having an Arabic prayer call, something you associate more with the middle east, penetrating your sleep when you are fast approaching your eightieth hotel of the trip, and you were pretty sure you were still in Southeast Asia when you went to bed.
On our flight, the air steward double checked we were in fact travelling to Brunei as a final destination before handing over the landing cards. As we left the plane, we were wished in an unsure voice, 'a good time in Brunei'.
On landing, it was announced that there were renovations going on in the airport, causing disruption and delays at immigration. Knowing it could never be as bad as clearing immigration in London, we were pleasantly surprised to find separate desks for Brunei, ASEAN communities and foreign passport, with a clear run for us.
Our accommodation was the newly renovated four star Radisson, which has to be our poshest hotel to date. Out of town sits Brunei's one and only contender for a Dubai style six-star hotel in the Empire Hotel and Country Club. With rooms starting at £200 a night, this was sadly beyond mine and Chris' meager £17.50 a night budget. Maybe next time?
First impressions Of Brunei, with its pristine new tarmac and immaculately maintained painted pavements, are of a wealthy nation; however a lot of the buildings are low rise concrete eyesores, which could have done with being demolished, shortly after they were built in the 1960s. BSB is often compared to as a diappointing low key concrete version of Dubai, yet I would say that was not doing the place justice as a destination in its own right. BSB is a quiet Islamic capital with a wealth of culture and makes for a pleasant change from other more Buddhist Asian countries.
The whole centre of the capital takes barely 15 minutes to cross on foot with a lush green jungle like park called Tasek Lama on the outskirts. We set off on a short 1.7km loop, which for the first third was on a tarmac road, with overly maintained flowerbeds. It was still a better park than the supposed botanical gardens we attempted to visit in Georgetown. A third of the way round there was a viewing platform, which offers great views of the park. After this, you squeeze down a narrow concrete path past a water plant and the terrain completely changes. The remaining kilometre or so involved you scrambling up and down muddy near vertical tree root covered hills in a mature jungle. As we had set out for a stroll in the park, I was, as ever wearing my inappropriate Birkenstock sandals with their worn smooth soles after 5 months of continuous wear.
Down by the entrance, there was a group of monkeys playing around in the trees, swinging from the branches over the stream before letting go when the branch stopped swaying. They were having so much fun cooling off and pulling each other by the tail as they scrambled up the bank ready to go again.
Afterwards we returned to the hotel with a dripping wet Christopher and enjoyed a refreshing swim in the pool. I have my suspicions that this pool could have been chilled rather than heated.
The following day we visited the local market, which is said to be its busiest on a Friday morning. (Today.) The market is squeezed on to the riverbank and sold every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. There were a few other stalls selling cooking equipment and the odd one selling food.
The majority of BSB's housing can be found in the village of Kampung Ayer, which literally translated means 'water village'. This village, which is home to 30,000 people, sits on stilts within the rivers Kadayon and Brunei. A water taxi across the river takes you to the Kampung Ayer Tourism and Culture gallery, which serves as an excellent starting point to explorations of the water village. This centre shows village life through the centuries and includes a viewing tower, which offers 360° views of the village.
Kampung Ayer water village
Towards the front of the village, immediately outside the centre, you will find a collection of large new builds, with smart painted wood cladding, which look better suited to dry land. It seems incomprehensible that such a large and proper looking house could be built over water. These identical, soulless new houses have concrete walkeways between them with railings along the edge. Every street is the same. Fortunately behind these houses lies traditional Kampung Ayer, with interconnecting rickety walkways between the traditional wooden built houses with large veranda gardens out front. These houses are a lot bigger than you would expect and also other houses we have seen on water. As we wandered around, the locals would call out to us, one of them you could hear the faint end of a hello, turned round to find a guy some 20 metres away madly waving.
Within the village are schools, police station, fire station, grocery stores and medical clinics. Although it seems strange that a capital city's accommodation in a rich country is timber built housing on the river, it is through choice and tradition, as there have been many attempts to try to relocate the families to land, but they do not wish to be moved. It would be interesting to see if more of the area is given over to spacious new two storey housing as time goes on. For now, it makes for a very pleasant and authentic walk along the maze of interlinking wooden walkways.
Unsurprisingly, Christopher was drenched after this trip in the midday sun and so as everything shuts for lunch on Friday, it was time to return for a dip in the pool.
We headed back out to the Royal Regalia museum. The main entrance is a large domed round room with a magnificent chariot for transporting the sultan during parades. Around the perimeter were various rooms exhibiting photos of the sultan from his childhood, including one from his circumcision ceremony. The majority of the museum housed the many gifts the sultan has received from different countries, including an cross stitch portrait which looked like an unfinished child's school project. The head was completed, and the person had clearly begun the yellow background, covering a square inch with thread. But that was all, therefore the background was just the yellow hessian material it had been done on.
In the evening, we tried to visit the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the centre, which is sat in the middle of a pool of water and has a large long boat in front of it. This mosque is a grand white building with a large gold dome in the centre and several smaller domes off of turrets around the edge with a high minaret to the side. It is the simplicity of this white mosque reflecting in the water with the ornately decorated blue and yellow mosaic patterned boat in front which makes this mosque so beautiful. We returned at night to see it lit up with some questionable green lights to take some photos.
As Brunei is dry, before dinner we enjoyed a coffee overlooking the river, watching the water taxi speedboats zip up and down, wondering how they manage not to crash all the time.
We headed to the food market, which has been dubbed the most atmospheric place to dine. We had high hopes after the one in Georgetown; however this was clearly more for locals. The food was really well presented, as if we were in a classy restaurant; the drinks came in a 1.5 lite plastic bottle served into china mugs.
Our final day in BSB started early with a boat trip at 8am in search of the proboscis monkeys. Brunei is one of the best places to see Borneo's native proboscis monkeys, identifiable by their oversized noses. These are larger and more pronounced on the male, flapping up and down when they call out. You can do an official tour from $85 (£42.50) each for an hour's trip, or book privately with one of the local water taxis for $10, the difference is they might potentially speak little to no English and lack of lifejackets. Chris and I can both swim and dislike organised tours.
We found a boat man and clearly struck gold. He obviously enjoyed doing this trip as much as we did, was very good at spotting the monkeys and even imitated their calls in an attempt to get them to appear. He named all the males Bob, and females Betty. We had a running commentary most of the way and when our hour was up, as we had just found a group of ten monkeys swinging in the trees, we just stayed for an extra half an hour, watching them jump through the air between two sections of trees. We also saw a family of three sat on some half metre high mangrove bushes right by the water's edge. We were so impressed with the wildlife on this trip which also included sightings of two crocodiles, a monitor lizard, kingfishers and an otter.
The trip along the river to where the proboscis monkeys hang out passed along the two kilometres of the Kampung Ayer before opening out to dense tranquil mangroves along both sides. Another kilometre or so up the river, you pass the royal palace and a little further along, perched high up on the hillside overlooking the river is the new palace which is currently under construction.
We were dropped off in the Kampung Ayer village, on a different section which is attached to the mainland and wandered through to the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, where before entering, despite wearing a long sleeved shirt and trousers, I was still required to put on a gown and as well as the headscarf.
Me in my Muslim attire
Inside, the ceiling was very grand with simple gold patterns. We didn't see as much of this mosque and were not offered a brainwashing, I mean tour. Next stop on our mosque trail was the Jame 'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah mosque, which was a bus ride out of town; however we could not enter as it was closed to non-muslims due to a function. All the same the outside is so grand, it made it worth the trip just to wander around the grounds. This temple had lustrous temple towers rising high above the glistening gold central dome, with intricate mosaic patterns around the edges. The car park for this mosque was larger than your average supermarket car park, with two 25m long archways leading up to the mosque serving as shoe racks.
Jame 'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah mosque
Our hotel was offering complimentary late check out, which was perfect for us with a 7 o'clock flight. We tried our luck leaving the 'please make up our room tag' out and were very surprised to find the bed had been made and fresh towels! I am definitely more suited to this style of backpacking. After lunch in town, we passed the final couple of hours at the pool before showering and taking a taxi to the airport, where due to torrential rain, our flight was delayed by an hour. Could be worse I suppose.
Bandar Seri Begawan served as the perfect weekend city break being one of our more relaxed city breaks. Without a guidebook, you would struggle to know what there was on offer in BSB, but it is most certainly well worth the effort of finding out.