Brunei is a tiny nation of about 400,000, located on the north coast of Borneo and surrounded by Malaysia. It has been a sultanate since the 14th century, and at its peak controlled much of Borneo and part of the Philippines. Brunei gained full independence from the UK in 1984. Coincidentally, we arrived the day after its 30th anniversary celebrations and on the Monday official holiday.
Brunei has been ruled since 1967 by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. He has pretty much absolute authority. And boatloads of money owing to Brunei’s extensive oil and natural gas resources. In addition to his title of Sultan, he is the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Finance, and probably anything else that might matter. Our driver said the Sultan is generally beloved by the population, but I think some are less than thrilled he is implementing a Shari’ah penal code in phases beginning in April 2014. Instituting a penal code that includes hand-chopping as a legitimate punishment is rarely seen as progress. I spent a lot of time googling how this happens (e.g., do they do it surgically? Just chop it? Do they stitch it up after?), and making absolute certain to use my VPN whilst doing said research, given the warnings popping up on the hotel’s WiFi network that the government may monitor usage. The nation is predominantly Muslim, but there is a church and a few Chinese temples.
A few other random observations of Brunei: they are really into their flag. Tons and tons of flags everywhere. You also see basically no motorbikes here, perhaps because gas is so cheap, a gas-guzzling vehicle is not as difficult to afford. Lastly, there are no cigarettes sold in the country (legally at least) and you can’t smoke in public.
Brunei doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff on offer, aside from an opportunity to get your voyeur on ogling the details of the lives of the royal family. And the obsession is full on Britney-during-the-head-shaving-saga, Bieber-fever, Hasselhoff-in-Germany type obsession. I suppose it makes sense, that in a nation of only 400,000 people the most interesting man in the, well, nation strikes a fascination of the people that would fill Brunei’s version of People magazine from cover to cover. I can’t lie, I got bit by the paparazzi bug and found myself wanting more and more of the juicy details on these guys.
We visited only the capital and largest city, Bandar Seri Begawan, and explored the city’s main highlights in a half-day guided tour. There was a mix-up and the guide was really a driver not a guide, so we didn’t get edumacated quite as much as we’d hoped. We visited the two famous mosques: the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. The former was closed when we first attempted a visit and so we had to circle back later, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a function (I believe our driver claimed it was a Koran reading contest, I had no idea that was a thing) at the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and so we weren’t allowed in at this one, either.
It is a very beautiful building though, and we got a little paparazzi glamour and excitement when we heard a member of the royal family was on his way. We camped out by the entrance in anticipation since we’d heard the Sultan himself loves to shake hands with visiting tourists. Unfortunately, it was only one of the princes: the non-crown Prince Abdul Malik. But it was still really cool to see his secret service style brigade of cop cars line up and salute his arrival. We were fascinated to learn that despite being one of the richest people in the world, the Sultan opts to drive himself everywhere, and even flies his own jets when he travels by air. I don’t know, I think I’d want to take advantage of that private 747 lounge if it were me.
We also visited the Sultan’s palace, which is apparently the biggest palace in the world, containing 1,788 rooms including 257 bathrooms. You can’t see much from outside the gates, and we were sad to learn that we were not in town on the three days it’s opened to the public (for Hari Raya at the end of Ramadan). Our more immediate timing was just off as we passed the Crown Prince flying by in one of his baller cars (I think it was a McLaren but can’t be sure) on his way to the palace a few minutes after we left. Too bad, but that technically counts as two royal sightings on our one day in Brunei. The Crown Prince, by the way, has somewhat of a reputation as a bad boy and rumor has it that this is the reason his father has yet to hand over the throne to this grown ass kid. For a country instituting Shari’ah law it’s curious that one or more of the royal princes are known for partying and gambling with their rich and fancy friends over in Londontown. Something tells us they aren’t going to be punished for these alcohol-related sins.
The royal display of wealth is something relatively new. The former sultan’s palace is maybe 1/100th the size of the current Sultan’s Guiness record holding abode.
You can get a little more of a voyeuristic look into the Sultan’s and royal family’s lives by visiting the Royal Regalia Museum. We really enjoyed wandering around here, checking out the accoutrements and chariots used in royal ceremonies like the Sultan’s silver jubilee. What’s maybe the most fascinating is the insane collection of gifts given by visiting dignitaries. I can only imagine what the gifts he keeps in his palace are like. We also learned that the Sultan is into sports. Don’t say anything, but his golf game needs work based on the picture showing the total breakdown of his left elbow on the backswing.
Lastly, we visited the world’s largest water village (Kampong Ayer). It’s an entire city built on the water, with overwater homes, schools, police and fire stations, even a mosque. Though we still don’t quite understand why, given that people do not eat the fish from this water and there appears to be plenty of land. Our guide was not so adept at explaining this. Some of the homes were quite modern; the one we visited had two flat screens and a karaoke setup that was just absurd. That said, a number of the homes are quite rustic, and their waste management consists of dropping it into the water below. But photos of the Sultan hang on the walls, and picture books of the royal family sit on the coffee tables. It struck us as a bit mysterious how the Sultan could be so popular when his wealth is so over-the-top and flaunted, yet the resources don’t appear to be generously distributed to the people or the weathered feeling city. Although Brunei is very wealthy on a GDP per capita basis, it doesn’t feel as wealthy or modern as we expected. It is nothing remotely like Dubai, where Ferraris and five-star hotels run rampant. We are speaking with very imperfect knowledge, but maybe this is because the Sultan has all the money here whereas Dubai is really a trading and financial hub with a large tourism industry. That said, citizens do reap the benefit of very cheap petrol – roughly US$1.50 per gallon.
Aside from our half-day tour we did relatively little, largely because Jenni was exhausted from what turned out to be meningitis. But let’s be honest, it’s not like we missed a whole lot. Alan did make it out for a bit to peruse Tamu Kianggeh, a small, riverside market with fruits, vegetables and lots of dried fish. The eating stalls did not call his name. He did grab the nasi katok, $1 chicken and rice meals that are available throughout the city. We skipped the Gadong night market due to Jenni’s physical condition and the fact that we were a bit night market-ed out at this point, but we’d heard good things. We opted in lieu for the Radisson’s buffet dinner. Jenni couldn’t have been feeling all that sick because as she stood in front of about ten dessert options Alan overheard her murmuring quietly to herself, “alright, we might as well get started here,” completely deadpan, like there’s a lot to do here so procrastinating won’t help. We had a great laugh when he called her out on it.
We had read that given its petroleum wealth, Brunei has had an easier time preserving its above ground treasures and thus still has much intact rainforest. Our brief stay did not allow exploration, but we saw a monkey sitting beside the highway on the drive in, and I believe one may find the awesomely hilarious proboscis monkeys elsewhere in Brunei.
The Brunei Dollar is interchangeable with the Singapore Dollar, and the current exchange rate is about 1 USD = 1.27 BND. We use “$” to indicate Brunei Dollars.
Transportation: We flew from Kuching to Miri (the second largest city in Sarawak, big on petroleum, palm oil and timber) where we had a driver for the ~2.5 hour trip to Bandar Seri Begawan. We departed on a Royal Brunei Airlines flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. They are doing construction on the Brunei airport; presumably it will soon be much better than the current version which is weak. We were told the departure tax is $12, but it is only $5 if you are flying to Kota Kinabalu and I think maybe anywhere in Malaysia or Singapore.
Note that we arrived to Brunei on Monday February 24, a national holiday. The line of cars waiting to cross from Brunei into Malaysia that morning was insanely long. Our driver estimated perhaps three hours. Had our flight into Miri arrived in the afternoon instead of the morning, we might have been waiting behind all those cars when they returned to Brunei after shopping.
In the very unlikely event you are headed from Miri into Brunei and need supplies, there is a huge complex near Miri called eMart that roughly approximates Costco.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Radisson Hotel downtown. It is quite nice and the WiFi works well, just beware the government may be monitoring you. Oh wait, they are in the US anyway. There is a pool and fitness center. The Empire Hotel is a bit outside the city, and our driver says it is the nicest resort in the country. It has a golf course and is located on the beach.
Food: Nasi katok is Brunei’s signature “fast food,” basically a packet of rice, sambal and chicken or beef sold for $1. “Katok” means knock in Malay, and the origin of this dish is said to be the olden days when there were no 24 hour restaurants so a hungry soul had to knock on the door of a food seller and get him out of bed. I tried this dish at the chain Nasi Kotak Mama. The sauce is sweet, there is no spicy option. You pick your piece of fried chicken out of a container. I didn’t realize I chose neck. But after eating chicken feet the last two days, I guess balance was in order.
The Gadong night market is said to have ample food options, and there are food stalls nearer our hotel that I think offer “pick your seafood and how you want it cooked” dining. We opted for the $25 buffet at the Radisson, and it was not bad at all.
After visiting Kampong Ayer we had lunch at Kaizen Sushi at the jetty. This is a proper Japanese restaurant, the kind of spot where business meals happen. The menu is incredibly extensive and it was great, and reasonably priced all things considered.
Activities: The Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan and the largest palace in the world. Visit during Hari Raya for a chance to go inside. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. Kampong Ayer is the floating village. The Royal Regalia Museum was worthwhile. The Brunei Museum was largely closed during our visit but might be nice when open. The Gadong night market. Ulu Temburong National Park.
February 24-25, 2014 (Monday-Tuesday)