A Kingdom of unexpected treasures

I’ve been procrastinating this post for a while. It’s now been a month since we got back from Singapore and I haven’t even mentioned the other country we visited during our time away – Brunei.  We knew next to nothing about the place except for the fact that it’s home to a super rich dude and there’s a ban on alcohol there. Not really two major selling points to be honest but we were pleasantly surprised with our jaunt to the tiny, uber clean and quiet country.

Upon arrival we felt a bit lost as we waited for a bus at the airport. After standing in the sweltering heat for all of five minutes our patience was up and we boarded a taxi. It’s a lucky thing that we did too as our driver cheerily told us that the buses only come when the friends or family of the drivers are flying in. We were clearly not on the right flight either (apparently most drivers are from Indonesia so they snub the incoming flights from Singapore). Our taxi driver turned out to be quite the talkative chap, it was just unfortunate that he was mostly interested in telling us how little there was to do in Brunei. I believe his words were “there is no social life in Brunei” and when asked what sights we should see replied blankly “there’s nothing much to see for tourists”.

Thankfully our driver was proved wrong. I would argue that just being in Brunei is an interesting experience for a foreigner.  Given that most of Southeast Asia is now largely encumbered by truckloads of tourists, it’s a novelty to be in a place where you basically have the country to yourself. People aren’t leaping out of their way to sell you anything…actually people aren’t leaping out anywhere because nobody walks the streets. Everyone drives and the only people silly enough to walk around in the heat are the five or so tourists in the country at one time.

After settling in to our hotel we went for a wander around town. It seems that no matter where you’re standing in the capital city of Bandar Beri Bagawan, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the most famous structure in town – the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. The dome is made of 24 carat gold and needless to say it’s stunning.

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Despite being the most iconic and popular tourist attraction in the country, we were the only people there.

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We had to dress the part to enter which was both fun and very hot (hence the shine factor).

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We saw this guy on our travels around town. We’re used to seeing tiny geckos in Vietnam but this lizard was about ten times their size. I was hiding behind Tom while he took this shot.

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Here’s another popular spot in town – the mall. Given that there is so much money in Brunei, you’d think the place would be heaving but we were one of around twenty or so people inside.

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Bruneians have it pretty sweet (aside from the lack of wine that is). Not only do they not have to pay taxes but if their income is considered too low to support their family properly then the Sultan (the rich dude I was talking about) will supplement their income…in some cases by up to $5,000 a month!

The Sultan is actually a pretty amazing person as we found out from the person who made our trip a success – the lovely Sham. I am so grateful for our chance meeting. Tom and I were wandering the deserted streets looking for somewhere to have dinner when Sham struck up a conversation with us. We got talking and after determining that he was not a homicidal maniac, agreed to be driven around town to look at the sights.

First stop for the night was the Sultan’s palace. You can’t go in obviously but you can hang outside the gates and peek. Although as Sham told us, once a year the Sultan does open his gates to the public. Anyone (and I mean anyone) is able to go into the palace, enjoy an elaborate feast and shake hands with the Sultan. This kind of public generosity is what the Sultan is all about and as you can imagine, works as excellent PR.

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Unfortunately we missed the annual open day and if it weren’t for Sham we would have only be able to stare blankly at the impressive gates guarded by several police (24/7 and they’re only allowed to move every hour or so for the changing of the guards). However, thanks to our new friend we were treated to a history of the royal family including some juicy gossip! It turned out that Sham had many friends who are close to the family and so we got the inside word on the latest marriages, breakups and extravagant purchases made by the Sultan.

In Islamic culture it’s acceptable to have up to four wives (so long as you have enough money to support them). Needless to say, the Sultan had a few on the go at once. At the time we visited he was down to two after giving the third the flick. Amazingly they both live with him but as the palace – which is the biggest in the world! – has over 1,000 rooms, they rarely bump into each other.

Another bit of royal gossip that Sham shared with us was about a woman who was lucky enough to be engaged to one of the Sultan’s sons. It was two weeks out from the wedding. The invites had been sent, the $250,000 dress had been purchased (!) and the girl was looking forward to marrying a prince and living every little girl’s dream. However, it was not to be. After an extensive background check on the girl’s family, there was some unsavoury information discovered about her father. We’re not sure exactly what but it was enough for the royal advisors to stop the wedding. The prince is currently engaged to a new woman. The anti fairytale!

Sham was once a tour guide so he knew not only the local goss but all the hot spots in town. He knew exactly where to take us for dinner and we had some delicious Bruneian specialties. We were the only foreigners in the place which was packed to the brim with families. As there is no bar scene, eating is the most common form of entertainment in Brunei (a place after my own heart).

We munched our way through many delicious dishes during our visit but the most memorable would have to be the Nasi Lemak. Traditionally this is served for breakfast and it consists of coconut rice, egg, cucumber, meat (usually fried chicken), peanuts and dried anchovies? Sound retchworthy? Well, it’s actually not bad. Somehow the flavours and textures just work together and it makes for a very tasty and satisfying dish.

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We were (again) the only foreigners in this restaurant and by the looks we were getting from the regulars who managed to tear their eyes away from the Bollywood film being screened down the back, we potentially were the first ever to drop by.

Despite what most think, there is certainly more to do than just eat in Brunei. After our dinner on our first night in town, Sham took us to Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque- the largest mosque in Brunei. I’m so glad we got to see it at night.

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You can just see the entranceway on the bottom right of the picture below. There are two entrances – an escalator in the middle that’s reserved for the Royal family and stairs for the regular folk. Pretty surreal seeing an escalator on a construction like this.

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This entire passageway was constructed as a place for people to leave their shoes.

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After the mosque visit we were driven all over town and given an insiders’ commentary on life in Brunei. We were shown the local stadium, the one hotel where you can get a drink (but only if you’re a foreigner and promise to keep it hush hush!), the parliament building and many other massive and incredibly impressive structures that Brunei seems to consist of. It was a money couldn’t buy experience and we felt very lucky when Sham dropped us back to our hotel.

That was not to be the end of our adventure though. Sham had another friend who happened to be a water taxi driver and offered to take us on a tour of the water village – Kampong Ayer – the following day. More on that next time…and an even bigger scarier lizard (I’m talking Jurassic Park material) pic to come!

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