10 o'clock in the morning and I am on the flight from Bangkok to Brunei. Nothing indicating that I will really 'visit' this little Sultanate. I was expecting to only have a quick stop-over in Brunei on my way to Sabah (Malaysia). But how quickly a day can change and instead of being on the next flight out, I was walking around in Brunei instead. How? And why? Well, that's long story :-)))) But I'll try to tell you about it in short.....
Upon arrival in Brunei we went straight to the transfer desk, as we were told to do by our travel agent. Here we would receive our tickets for our final part of the journey from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia). But noooo, that didn't happen! "No tickets, no travel" said the man behind the transfer desk... eeeeeks, is he serious???! Well, it looked like that! He didn't know anything about tickets, so we had a BIG problem...
After a lot of confusion, making phone calls and the kind help of the man behind the desk, we finally found out how to get the flight tickets. Phew, what a relief! There was one bad thing though, we had a 6 hour stop-over in Brunei. Ouch, what a long time! I thought we were supposed to have a quick stop here and than be off to Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia). But unfortunately this wasn't the case; we had to wait until early evening before we could leave the Sultanate.
But rescue was at hand! We found the ones that should have given us the tickets, Danny and Danny, our guide and our chauffeur for the day. They were patiently waiting outside the airport upon our arrival with the tickets in their hands. I was really happy to see them, and they had some good news! Instead of waiting in the o-so-boring airport, we got a complimentary tour of Brunei! An unsuspected surprise! Not a bad ending at all to this little inconvenience during our trip :-)))
All aboard in the minibus! It's time to explore Brunei! The capital city 'Bandar Seri Begawan' is close to the airport and easy to reach by car. Perfectly located for a quick visit when you have a few hours at Brunei airport.
Before I start telling about my trip I want to tell you a bit about Brunei first. The official name of the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam. It is only a small country, located on the island of Borneo in South-East Asia. It is bounded on the North by the South China Sea (with a coastline of about 161 km long) and on all the other sides it is bounded by the Malaysian State of Sarawak. The capital city is Bandar Seri Begawan and that is the only part of the Sultanate that I've visited.
Brunei is a tiny oil-rich Islamic Sultanate which has only around 300.000 inhabitants. I think the country is best known for the enormous wealth of the Sultan. But the population get their share of the wealth too, having one of the highest incomes per capita in the world. There is a price they pay for that though as the country is not a democracy, ie they have no freedom of speech; the Sultan is the absolute ruler of the country.
In the picture you can see the 'Simpor', the flower of Brunei. If you don't get the chance to see this flower for real in Brunei, you can always take a look at the front side of the Brunei one-dollar note, where you will find a picture of the Simpor flower :-)
Now that you know a little bit more about this tiny Sultanate, lets get back to my travel story.....
In all the confusion at the airport we never thought of that we might need some Brunei Dollars during the day. Oops.....
We were all quite hungry so we decided to search for an ATM machine. After some running up and down the shopping mall we found one. And yep, there they were, some precious Brunei Dollars :-) The magical machine in the wall produced the banknotes without any problems again, even in Brunei ;-))
We were dropped off at a big modern shopping mall by the two Danny's and got an hour time to have a quick thing to eat. In the shopping mall we found lots of typical American-style fast-food restaurants like KFC. But none of us (Åke, me and Olle, another Swede doing the same travel) felt like having any of that. We rather wanted to try out some more 'local' food.
On the top floor of the shopping centre we found the 'Brunei-fast-food-corner'. One big restaurant, but with lots of mini-kitchens where you could choose from all kinds of dishes. We just picked one of those little food-stalls, having no clue which one would be best. We were pleasantly surprised by the food and enjoyed our noodle dish a lot :-) Full of new energy we were ready to explore Brunei!
Not knowing much about the country I was quite surprised with what I saw. Western influence was quite clear, especially in the shopping mall. There were many big shops which names I recognized, with the same products, only now advertised in a different and strange language to me.
On the square in the middle of the shopping centre I saw this big fountain. You can clearly see that money is not a real problem in Brunei. The public buildings are well kept and decorated with large features like for example this fountain. Since I just travelled from busy bustling Bangkok; this calm city with lots of space between buildings, wide roads and quiet streets was quite the contrast.
Big pots full of exotic plants, clean streets, everything so well-kept; that was my first impression of Brunei: clean, very clean and rich. And maybe also a bit boring ;-) But there are some really nice things to visit in the capital city like the Omar Ali Saiffudin Mosque, Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and the Kampung Ayer (water village).
The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is located in the centre of town. It is very impressive to see from he outside and dominates the city centre of Bandar Seri Begawan. The mosque was built in 1958 and is named after the 28th Sultan, Omar Ali Saifuddien. Its giant golden dome just glitters in the sunlight, giving the mosque an unreal look. I thought it looked so impressive and so beautiful. It is said that it is one of the most magnificent mosques of South-East Asia, and I can believe that. I wish I could have taken a look inside as that must be just as amazing as the outside. The interior is luxurious with Italian marble walls, gold mosaics and English stained glass.
Upon entering the mosque you have to take of your shoes. Woman are asked to cover their heads and dress conservatively.
The Royal Regalia Building, is one of the museums in Brunei. It is located in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan and it was built in 1992 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Sultans accession to the throne. Not only the inside is worth seeing, also the outside is worth while taking a look at with is gold pattered dome.
Inside the Royal Regalia you can see a collection of priceless Royal items and jewels. The main feature when you enter the building is seeing the amazing and huge Royal Chariot (see picture). Further inside the museum you can see a replica of the throne, gold and silver ceremonial armoury and the traditional jewel-encrusted coronation crowns.
When you enter the Royal Regalia Building you need to take off your shoes before entering. You can take pictures inside, but only in the main hall where the Royal Chariot is (see picture). And the only place to do that from, is from a red carpet surrounding the area. So that limits your possibilities a bit to take pictures :-) Although the options for taking pictures are limited, it was fun to give it a little try anyway. So bring your camera if you can.
One problem while taking pictures is that the Royal Chariot is HUGE! So huge that it is hard to fit into the whole chariot into the lens of the picture, hahaha, but I think I managed to get most of it in :-)
When you enter the rest of the museum you must hand in your camera for the time being. Besides the Royal Chariot you can also see some gold and silver ceremonial armoury in the main hall (see the next few pictures)
These are the multicoloured umbrellas with a golden top. I just thought they look so cheerful and sunny, but they are probably terribly expensive. They are carried by the Awang-Awang (Aristocrats) who stand on either side of an area below the Peningkah Lapau.
Another colourful item that is carried by the aristocrats during the ceremony. In this picture you can see the brass spears together with the colourful shield. The whole parade much be an amazing thing to watch, huge colourful and made to impress people.
These are the four Pedang Kerajaan (Royal Swords) which are carried by the sons of the Cheterias (Common Nobles). In their left had they hold the Perisai Kerajaan (Royal Shields). Pay attention to the many diamonds in the shield. I don't even want to guess what one of these shields might cost, a fortune for sure!
In the rest of the museum you can see and read much more about the history of Brunei, but especially about the Sultan and his family. I think the Royal Regalia Building reflects a lot of the feeling you'll get when visiting Brunei. There is one main character in the country: the Sultan, the Sultan, and again the Sultan.
I got a bit of a weird feeling though when we entered the room with the traditional jewel-encrusted coronation crowns. The guard in the room followed our every move to make sure we didn't do anything that was not allowed. Our guide seemed much more careful as well with what he said in this particular room. Well, let me say, it was a 'different' experience to visit this place. It was interesting and nice to have been there, but I won't do it again :-))
The current Sultan of Brunei is Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah and this is the entrance gate to his palace. The Sultan's palace, the Istana Nurul Iman, is said to be magnificent, but all you can see of it most of the year is this entrance gate. Far away in the background you can see a golden dome of the palace glittering in the sun. The palace is located about 3 kilometres west of the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.
There is only one occasion that you can go inside the Sultan's palace and that is after the fasting month of the Ramadan during the festival of Hari Raya Puasa. The palace is open to the public for three days in a row. If you are here that time of year I think it is absolutely worth while in trying to go.
From a distance you can already see this impressive mosque: the Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. It was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Sultan's reign. This mosque is the largest mosque in Brunei and it is clearly visible along the main route into town from the airport. And as you can see it is beautiful and impressive! I think it is a must see on a visit to Brunei.
But before we entered the mosque we spend some time walking around it and admiring it architecture. In the picture you can see one of the blue and white tiled minarets. And of course the minaret is topped with a golden dome, as there is a lot of gold used in this mosque. The towers are so high that it is hard to capture them from top to bottom in one picture.
The first thing that probably will catch your eye is the brightly shining dome, made of 24-carat gold. The official name of the mosque is Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, but the locals often refer to it as the Kiarong Mosque. I thought it looked amazing, hahaha, and so did my camera, because it didn't want to stop clicking pictures ;-)
It's time to take a look inside the mosque. Before entering the mosque you must take of your shoes and woman are asked to dress modestly. As I had no clue I was going to visit Brunei, let alone a mosque, I wasn't properly dressed for the occasion. Eeks! And I wanted so badly to see the interior of this beautiful mosque!
I felt a bit embarrassed about the fact that I wasn't dressed right to enter the mosque and apologized to my guide before hand. But he told me it wasn't a problem at all and that they would have robes that I could lend so I could enter the mosque. Phew, what a relief! So here I am, happily smiling, and enthusiastic to see the mosques interior.
Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside, so I just have to tell you that it is worth the visit to take a look inside. I especially liked the way the light came in to the prayer hall, just beautiful.
The mosque was built by the current Sultan, which is the 29th Sultan of Brunei. And that number is symbolic throughout the whole mosque. Everything you count will add up to 29. Like when you take the steps for instance, there are exactly 29 of them. In the whole mosque you can see that there has been put a lot of thought and attention to the architecture and details of the building.
The mosque is surrounded by some beautiful gardens. It is has a park-like setting, with water fountains and well-tended lawns and flower gardens. A beautiful place to stroll around, relax and think over all the impressions of the day.
A luscious flowering Bougainville, with its abundance of pink flowers contrasting against the clear blue sky. For you maybe a normal sight, for me simply beautiful.
I've seen the beautiful flowering bouganville more often during my trips, but it never seizes to amaze me. I only know the Bougainville as a houseplant, hahaha, impossible to keep into flower. But here it seems to love the climate, the sun and is able to show off all its beauty.
One last look at the mosque, the sun is starting to go down, the day is getting to an end. The light reflected beautiful on the golden domes. A day that seemed to be starting as a bad day with a long stop-over and no flight tickets has turned into a wonderful moment. How quickly life can change. How happy you can be with just the tiny things in life, just a moment, a look, an emotion. For me this tiny moment has turned into a wonderful memory :-)
A heavy contrast in the city centre forms the Kampong Ayer (Water Village). On the one side of the Brunei River you have the modern buildings, clean streets and the beautiful Omar Ali Saiffudin Mosque (see previous tips) and on the other side of the Brunei River you see the Kampong Ayer (Water Village). The two just don't seem to belong to the same world. But they are! Don't be fooled by the appearance of these houses built on stilts, the houses have most modern comforts. TV antennas and satellite dishes are not the exception around here.
Going to the water village is not difficult. As soon as you arrive to the pier there will be several water taxi's hovering around offering you a ride to the other side of the river.
The Kampong Ayer is huge. It is a collection of 28 water villages built on stilts and around 30,000 people live in this area. It stretches for several kilometres along the banks of the Brunei river. The village has its own markets, mosques, schools, police and even a fire station. In this picture you can see the golden top of the mosque and its minaret glistering in the midday sun.
I have to admit that I didn't take a water taxi to visit the water village. We were feeling tired and just wanted a cup of coffee and after that it was time to catch or flight home. We didn't order any beer though, as you can't buy that here in Brunei. So coffee and tea it was.
Together with the coffee we were served this bowl of peanuts. Not normal ones (not for me anyway) as they serve little fishes mixed together with the nuts to spice it all up. I enjoyed it lots though, yummy. I've seen it more around during my trip, hahaha, so it's not that exceptional. I just don't know it here in Sweden ;-)