Brunei? Why on earth would you go there for a long weekend? Brunei?! It’s a dry country! Why would you bother? Brunei?! Isn’t it just like Malaysia?
All questions Veronica and I had to deal with before embarking on our little jaunt to this often-overlooked little country tacked on to Malaysian Borneo. But, with a quiet and charming capital, the world’s largest water village, one of the world’s most beautiful mosques, wild, untamed jungle, and one of the most outrageously decadent hotels to experience, there’s more to Brunei than people give it credit for. And the Sultan of Brunei was celebrating his 69th birthday in the capital while we were there – a fortuitous coincidence. No, Brunei is more than worth you while…..and this write-up of our 4 day 3 night trip will tell you why.
We arrived the cheap way. Air Asia from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Air Asia from KL to Brunei. That was probably the most economical thing we did during the whole trip. The airport was immaculate, and immigration painless. A taxi to our hotel was $45. That’s Brunei dollars, or Singapore dollars (the currencies are pegged to one-another and so Singapore dollars are perfectly fine to bring). $45 is a lot more than any taxi in Singapore. Mahmoud, our polite, reserved taxi-driver, seemed to be doing well for himself. It was no surprise – there are only around 50 taxis in the whole country, and they charge an absolute fortune to ferry tourists around from A-B. We thought it a scam initially, and before getting in Mahmoud’s taxi we checked with several people, and then saw the official rate on the taxi fare board outside Arrivals.
The ride to our hotel took around 30 minutes. Streets were clean, with well-groomed trees flanking the highways, just like in Singapore. We arrived at our hotel just as a convoy of black official state Mercedes Benz and Lexus cars were leaving. “They’re dropping off the visiting dignitaries who have flown over for the Sultan’s birthday,” explained Mahmoud. So, we’d be sharing the hotel grounds with Prime Ministers from Asia and beyond then…..it didn’t take me long to see why they’d all chosen this hotel to stay at.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club is situated in a sprawling private estate, some 30 minutes from the centre of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. It’s absolutely huge. We walked in after paying Mahmoud the extortionate taxi fee, and we were greeted with smiles of the bell-boys who opened the huge glass doors for us at the entrance. Inside we were greeted with Arab decadence at it’s most…..decadent. Lavishly appointed with chandeliers the size of small houses, huge pillars with gold rising up and supporting the immense structure, floor to ceiling windows the size of which I never knew existed, marble floors, the finest leather sofas, huge ballrooms left right and centre….what a place. It costs an arm and leg to stay here, and the ocean room suite I’d booked didn’t even include breakfast, but it didn’t matter – we were at the finest hotel in Brunei, with a style and lavish over-the-top ridiculousness that only the riches from oil can buy. Only the Venetian in Macau matched the place in my experience, not in terms of real class, you understand, but in terms of absurd, tacky, garishly entertaining flamboyance in design. And I haven’t even mentioned the huge swimming pool, the saltwater lagoon circling the hotel, or the on-site movie theatre and bowling alley. Oh, and it has it’s own private beaches too. And an 18-hole golf course. And it was originally built for the Sultan’s visiting friends. He’s got a lot of friends.
Had a welcome drink (non-alcoholic of course), checked in, and went to our room. Beautiful. A well-sized balcony looking over the South China Sea. Free mini-bar (which contained 2 cokes and 2 bottles of water), and the biggest most luxurious bathroom I’ve seen since the Four Seasons in Dublin.
We relaxed for half an our, then asked for a cab to go downtown. We were told it was $30 one-way, and it was recommended we get both ways, for $60. There was no bargaining to be done. So, we got in the battered old taxi with a guy who spoke very limited English, and even more limited Bahasa Malay, and we headed to the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan. Just as we got out in front of the mall which led to the beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque, the heavens opened, and what seemed like the world’s biggest storm began. We took shelter in the mall – which reminded me of the dull (both in entertainment value and brightness) malls of downtown Jakarta of Penang. But there was nothing to do. We were trapped. We ate some old dim sum in a foodcourt, and I got chatting to the staff there, from Jakarta, funnily enough. By the time the rain stopped, it was time to be picked up. We were going to stop at the night market in Gadong, but knew it would be a wash out. We headed back to the fabulous Empire instead, and strolled around the immense lobby planning our itinerary for the next couple of days. We decided to try the Japanese restaurant at the Empire, and we had a delicious, warm meal, looking out onto the dark sea as the rain carried on unabated outside….it was romantic, and not a glass of wine in sight.
We spent the morning and the best part of the afternoon lazing in the grounds of the Empire. We chilled out by the pool and had breakfast there. It was just the tonic. We got a taxi to town with Mahmoud, the guy who took us from the airport to the Empire the day before. On the way to town, we stopped at the Istana Nurul Iman, which was closed. It opens on Hari Raya, and all are invited to feast there, and the Sultan himself hands out gifts to his people there. We headed in to town. Here, got to see the mosque again, and we also headed to the waterfront with the aim of catching a boat to take us around the Water Village, Kampong Ayer. As we were gazing at the muddy water, and the houses on stilts in the distance, a nice little wooden boat pulled up and quoted us $30 for an hour. We’d heard it was a lot more. Even better, a solo Cuban traveller strolled up and asked to join us, so it would be only $10 each. Perfect. We jumped in the boat and set off on the interesting trip weaving around the village. The houses here are built on stilts. There is an efficient taxi service that zips around the village, there is a fire-station, a police station….it’s an orderly version of the floating village in Cambodia. Incredible. Some of the houses we encountered were brand new. The Sultan gave these as a gift to the people after many houses were burnt down in an accident. “Sultan. He a great man. He provide. He give. Good man” gushed the boat driver. He’d certainly provided essential services for these people, living their lives over the water. There is also a hospital, a primary school, a secondary school, a mosque. Most stilt houses seem to have a cat. God knows how they take to living in a little wooden house over the water, not a tree to climb or a bird in sight.
The Cuban guy and Veronica were chatting away about Miami (that’s where he lived) in Spanish, so I focused on the sights, the sounds, the smells….it was an interesting little trip, and provided some insight into how the ‘other half live’ – 39,000 of them.
Trip ended, Vero and I strolled around to the Brunei hotel, where we enquired about prices and availability for the next night. I wanted to cut our stay at the Empire short. For all it was, it was still a bit sterile and soulless. I wanted to be in Bandar Seri Begawan. It was also the Sultan’s birthday celebrations on the Saturday morning, so I really wanted to be in the capital to see the celebrations.
We booked a room, and we also booked a day-trip to Ulu Temburong National Park through Borneo Guide for the next day, Brunei’s only national park reachable only by longboat up the rocky rapids of the Temburong river. It sounded like an adventure.
We went to coffee bean, then met Mahmoud and headed back to the Empire. I arranged to cut short my stay, and we also arranged with Mahmoud to pick us up at 5:45am to take us to Brunei Hotel. Sorted. Vero and I wandered the grounds of this incredible hotel once more, before retiring for an early night.
We were picked up by Mahmoud and driven to the Brunei hotel. He’d made a fortune off us, and very nearly got a free iphone to boot, were it not for me realizing I’d left it in the taxi and pelting after it. Woken up by this mad morning dash to save my phone, I was ready for the day. We checked into the hotel, dropped our bags at reception, and headed to the jetty, stopping briefly to take a look at the bustling market. From the jetty, we met the same Filipino who had sold me the tour the other day in the lobby of the Brunei hotel. She had an assistant with her, a young, fresh-faced chap also from the Philippines. It was his first trip today – he was on trial. If he did well, he’d get the job of tour guide. We got a boat up the river past Kampong Ayer, and we came to a bigger jetty at Bangar. Here, we disembarked and strolled the river bank whilst waiting for our ride to Sumbling eco village. We were lucky enough to see a crocodile chilling out on the bank open-mouthed, and we got chatting to the people who would be on our day tour – which included an Australian / British couple and their 3 children, and an interesting woman from the Neverlands of Korean descent, travelling with her 8 year-old son.
After a 25 minute jeep ride and a 5 minute walk, we arrived in the eco village. It was lovely, tranquil, sitting on the banks of the Temburong river. An English family had been staying the night, and were coming on our tour too. We were met by our jungle guide – Mal, who was wearing a Brunei Darussalem red and white tracksuit top. She studied in the only school around – and this village was the second furthest from it. It took her 45 minutes to get to school everyday. A school bus comes to pick up the village kids to take them to school. She’d been to Singapore once before – to play volleyball. She spoke great English, and spoke of her wish to play volleyball for the national team. After a cup of tea and a some toast, we put on life jackets and jumped into a narrow longboat for an exhilarating 45 minute ride up the river. It had been raining a lot, the water was high and fast, and the views were spectacular. The boat driver weaved expertly around the river, cleverly avoiding the shallows, skirting rocks that would have sunk the boat or capsized us. It was a real rollercoaster of a boat-ride. We arrived at a muddy bank, and hiked a scenic trek up a ridge before coming to the Canopy Walkway. This is a long bridge that threads across the canopy offering sweeping vistas of the national park. There’s only one way up – 300 narrow metallic stairs inside a tiny metal cage. Like hamsters you have to make your way up – never more than two at a time as it rocks the structure, and then across the bridge – again 2 at a time. Then you get to the end and go down the same kind of structure. Unfortunately when we got there we found ourselves behind a very slow, immature, giggly group of, not schoolchildren, but Asian students all studying at the University of Brunei. They grow up fast in Asia. It took them forever to get up, longer still to get across the bridge. We waited over an hour to get up there. One of the Australian / British couple’s kids professed to being scared of heights, so didn’t go at all. His rugby-playing father looked like the bottom had fallen out of his pint of VB as he realized not even he could persuade his son to climb up to see the views. Instead he sat limp, a crestfallen look on his face, wondering if his son was going to turn out straight.
Veronica and I climbed up and crossed the bridge, and we were rewarded with mesmerising views of green expanse, and sounds of a million insects and birds rasping, hissing, cooing, and screeching all around. It was worth it.
Going down was hard on the knees, and very slippery. We were thankful for the next stop – a lovely waterfall, cascading strongly thanks to the season and the recent heavy rains. We all jumped in for a refreshing dip, and then headed back to the eco village for a cup of tea and biscuits to cap it all off.
Back in Bandar Seri Begawan, we checked into our room at the Brunei Hotel, and found it a lot less opulent than the Empire, but no less comfortable. It was cosy and well-appointed, and the right choice. We headed out into the warm evening air, and found a lovely Japanese restaurant which had everything you find in a traditional Japanese izakaya – and I’d been to lots of them during my 3 years in Osaka, so I was over the moon. No alcohol was served – but when it isn’t even an option, the thought cannot tempt you, and you begin to appreciate other drinks that won’t make you repeat yourself, or do the ‘nodding dog’ attempt at staying awake, which is my speciality.
And so we ate our fill and more. We stayed for hours. It seemed the only place in town. We were the last to leave. We strolled down to the fountain in front of the little jetty where you catch a ride into the water village. It was lovely. It was peaceful. It was almost romantic. It was Saturday night in Brunei.
The Sultan’s birthday. Woke early for a really nice buffet breakfast with a delicious omelette – included in the room price, unlike at the Empire. We headed out into the streets expecting huge parades and festivities. It was the revered Sultan’s birthday after all. We went to the main stadium, where the celebrations were taking place. There were people, but it was a gentle, placid crowd. A big birthday parade was going on in the stadium – a marching band, lots of pomp and ceremony, helicopters flying the flag of Brunei and the Sultan’s handsome face. Perhaps wild celebrations are not the done thing in this culture. It was an almost British town gala affair, without the waving of little flags, and without drunken scallies around to spoil the day. The sultan himself drove past us as the royal convey left the stadium. And that was it. The crowd petered out. I went back to the hotel for an Adobe Connect meeting. We checked out an hour later and headed to the airport. We’d had quite a trip. Who’d have thought Brunei had so much to offer? We definitely want to go back.