Most people who visit Southeast Asia usually skip the small country of Brunei Darussalam, located on the island of Borneo and nestled in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia, along the coastline of the South China Sea. This Islamic country is tiny, with a small population; but due to the abundance of petroleum and natural gas, is very very wealthy.
I made a one day stop in Brunei to visit a friend and to explore the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. The city is pretty safe and quiet (no touts and pushy cabbies), and walking around is possible, just remember to take the necessary precautions. If you prefer to take the public transport; there are buses to most of the sights for B$1 (US$0.7) and cabs without meters– it is not easy flagging one down, so get them at hotels, shopping malls or the bus terminal. I was lucky to be driven around by my local friend. There is not much to see though– a day is more than enough to look around. Here’s my one day itinerary and some of the interesting sights around Bandar Seri Begawan.
One Day in Bandar Seri Begawan
I arrived the night before, so I made it a point to start the day early the next morning. I was taken for a drive around the city center to get a quick view and orientation of the place. Living in the neighboring country of Malaysia, I wasn’t expecting much difference from my country in terms of culture or architecture– so it was a surprise to see the signboards mainly written in Jawi (Malay Arabic letters) and Malay; and unlike most Southeast Asian cities, the city center and the roads were almost empty. The Bruneian rules are really strict; no alcohol, no smoking in public, no cigarette sales, no pork, no littering; it is a Muslim country, so I guess it is expected.
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
The buildings in Bandar Seri Begawan are pretty plain; but the mosques are simply stunning. We didn’t visit them, but we passed by and saw them from afar. The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest mosque in Brunei, completed in 1992 to commemorate the current (29th) Sultan’s 25th year reign. It is grand and majestic, especially with its 29 golden domes. I think it is most beautiful when seen from afar at night. This mosque is located a few kilometers away from the city center, and is open to visitors when its not used for prayers.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
This mosque is considered one of the most magnificent ones in Southeast Asia. Its huge dome of pure gold glistens in the sun, and can be seen from anywhere in city. The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, and was completed in 1958. It is open to visitors outside of prayer hours, but I think the best way to admire it is when you’re cruising down the Brunei River– it is located by the river bank.
Royal Regalia Museum
This is a museum filled with beautiful and expensive gifts, given to one of the richest men in the world– the Sultan of Brunei. The Royal Regalia Museum houses priceless gold and jewels from dignitaries and royalties from all around the world, as well as royal accessories used for coronations. I guess a person can never get enough of such grand gifts, and this is the Sultan’s public vault.
Brunei River Cruise
This is a must do while in Brunei. We didn’t book ahead, but it wasn’t difficult to talk to the many boatmen at the jetty, agree on a fair price, and hop onto one of the traditional wooden river boats. I enjoyed zooming across the river with the wind in my hair, and watching the skyline of buildings slowly change to greenery as we headed down the river. It was low tide; so the banks of the river were much higher, the tangled roots of the trees in the mangrove forest were showing, and village houses looked like they were built on higher ground. Because of that, we couldn’t venture further into the mangrove, but we were lucky enough to spot a crocodile and proboscis monkeys! I was so excited.
Kampong Ayer (Water Village)
On the way back to the jetty, we were taken for a quick tour of the water village– a small community living in buildings on stilts above the Brunei River. The boatman pointed out several interesting sights as he navigated through the village; the mosque, the school, the fire station and the many small houses on stilts linked together by wooden walkways. The government of Brunei has been helping to preserve the place, so most of the buildings have modern facilities like electricity, satellite television and internet connection. It was an interesting tour, seeing and learning about the way of life of the people living here.
High Tea at the Empire Hotel
Brunei’s best, biggest and most extravagant hotel can be considered a tourist attraction. Overlooking the South China Sea, the Empire Hotel and Country Club offers beautiful views of the ocean. My friend brought me here to have a look around, and to enjoy a traditional English High Tea in a classy setting. I had a nice time walking along the beach and the walkway overlooking the sea, and exploring the huge hotel with its lavish architecture and intricate designs; before sitting down for some scones, sandwiches, cakes and a nice hot cuppa tea. Relaxing at the hotel was a great place to unwind after the day’s activities and to end my trip to Brunei.
If you’ve been to Brunei, share with me other interesting places I’ve missed!