What is the capital of Brunei? Bandar Seri Begawan. Never heard of it until recently, and now we are on a bus going from Miri to the main city of this little sultanate tucked away amidst Malaysia on Borneo.
We were not sure what to expect of this place. On the one hand, things looked expensive. The currency is the Brunei dollar, which is about 75 US cents. The prices of the hotels were much higher than anywhere else we have been so far. According to the guidebook, there is not too much to see there. It almost seemed like we were only going there to get another stamp in our passport. Had it not been on the way, I am not too sure we would have made a diversion to go there.
We were pleasantly surprised. We arrived late in the evening and got off the bus on the side of the street. We had one hope for cheap accommodations and it was a BND$10 per night hostel which was not described very positively. On the map, it was halfway across the page. Much to our surprise, the center of Bandar Seri Begawan is extremely small–only about one square kilometer–and our hostel was only a five minute walk from where we were. The hostel itself turned out really nice as well. It was some sort of YMCA-like facility with a pool and other amenities, and the dorm rooms were clean cozy and had great air conditioning. The only minor downside was that men and women were in separate buildings.
After settling down and cleaning up a bit, we headed out into the city to grab a bite to eat. Ola and Paddy were still not feeling well after their misadministered Doxycycline malaria medication (prophylactic; no one has caught malaria yet) so they went back to the hostel to get a good night’s sleep. Tomek, Weronika, Iza and I headed out into the night to see BSB at night.
We walked around the mosque in the city center, through the mall, and over a plank walkway into the Kampong Ayer. Kampong Ayer is a wooden village on stilts on both sides of the river which passes through BSB. It is a peculiar place. Houses on stilts, in various states of dilapidation, stick out of the water. Boats are anchored here and there. Wooden walkways connect clusters of these houses. Occasionally a concrete building can be found, perhaps a school or administrative center. It has the feel of a sleepy wooden village forgotten by time, except for the fact that it is built on water.
The next day we woke up early and went swimming in the warm pool at our hostel. It turns out this place is run by the sports and recreation ministry of Brunei. The sultan is subsidizing our stay.
There are not too many things to see in this city. There are two magnificent mosques, the royal regalia museum, and the sultan’s palace. We decided to see it all. We started off at the royal regalia museum, where we learned a whole lot about the sultan and not too much about the country itself. It is a tribute to his greatness and a display of all the gifts he has received, ranging from gold statues from heads of government to cheesy photos from a local photo processor. Altogether, it was quite interesting, and considering how much the sultan figures in this country, we feel culturally enriched.
The next destination was a sushi restaurant for lunch. We were told that Brunei has the best sushi in the world. This came from some Singaporean traveler we have met along the way, who have heard it from some friends of friends who were once there. With this sound recommendation, we set out, searching for a cheap sushi restaurant which Tomek has found out about, but failed to remember its name or location. As logic would dictate in such a situation, we go into a taxi whose driver has never heard of this mysterious restaurant whose name starts with “ex”. This driver, clever as he was, drove us to a mall. Surprisingly, after asking a few people, this sushi restaurant, whose name we now knew (Excapade), was quite close to the mall we were at. After a bit of walking and asking directions we arrived, only to be dissuaded by the prices, which while not out of this world for a sushi establishment in a modern country, did not fit into the budget for a six month trip. So instead, we headed off to the mall, where we ate a fine affordable lunch at the food court. This, it turns out, is the thing to do here, as the national past times in Brunei are shopping and eating.
Near the mall was one of the mosques we wanted to see. The book describes it as having a “jaw dropping” interior. Unfortunately for us, we arrived just as one of the numerous daily prayer hours was starting, and heathen visitors were not allowed inside until 5pm. We had two hours to kill. So we walked around admiring the golden domes, marble columns, and mosaic walls and gardens around the mosque. Time was not passing nearly quickly enough so off to see the sultan’s palace we went.
The bus dropped us off at the gate of a sprawling compound. This was the Astana–the sultans magnificent sprawling 1500+ room palace, four times bigger than its British counterpart. Except it was nowhere to be seen. Visitors are not allowed inside the compound 362 days out of the year, and it was just our luck that we were not there during the three days when the palace is open to the public. So we walked along the fence until we were able to catch a small glance of the building and notched off another sight in Brunei.
Weronika and I wanted to go back to the mosque to experience its jaw dropping glamour. The rest of the group was not so adamant about it so we split up. It was 5pm and we only had one hour left to get there. We took a bus, but not all the way back to the city center, and instead got off at an intersection and decided to walk the rest of the way. It did not take too long before we found ourselves walking along a highway. We were going in the right direction because we could see the golden capped minarets off in the distance ahead of us. About three hundred meters ahead uf us was a car stopped on the side, and as we approached it, a window opened. The people in it said that we looked lost and offered us a ride. We already experienced that people in Malaysia and Brunei are very friendly and nice, but we were surprised as to the extent of their kindness. We got dropped off right in front of the mosque.
The inside of this mosque was rich. As in any mosque, there were no furnishings, statues, or paintings. It was a giant room whose floor was covered with prayer mats. The walls were marble with exotic wood doors and gold details. The entire chamber was capped with a magnificent white cupola decorated in an intricate yet tasteful manner. Perhaps it was not as jaw dropping as the guide book described it, but it was still a very nice thing to see.
We met up with the rest of the group in the evening. They hired a fantastic sunset boat ride along the river and through the water village. We ate supper at a food court overlooking the river.
Our experience of Brunei was a pleasant surprise. The city of Bandar Seri Begawan is very quiet, and is probably the cleanest place I have ever been to. Even in Singapore you find the occasional piece of rubbish on the ground, whereas here it was spotless. We are happy we had a chance to see it.