On the way to Manila and with a layover, it was just 9 hours we had together and Brunei did not disappoint. A sovereign state on the island of Borneo, the official name is – Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace. Now, any country whose name has the word peace in it, is right up my street. Conveniently there is a number of small tours available from the airport (good thinking Royal Brunei Airlines). After an hour or so of dilly dally trying to rustle up more guests we were off. The motley crew, Patrick the hot German consultant living in Saudi, his equally gorgeous Ukrainian girlfriend Alina, a banker in Dubai. The Aussie superannuation experts Stefan and Sarah, bright and bubbly pommy Alison, legal PA also living in Dubai and The Unlikely Pilgrim… This should be interesting !
The legend that is Chris from Sunshine Borneo Tours was our leader, guide and fountain of knowlege for the day. A Filipino christian, living in Brunei predominantly an islamic nation (approx 70%). He talks us through what we were to expect and kept the troops in line on when and where it was appropriate to smoke, sit, even how to point (with the thumb, not the index finger its seems or it would be rude). Inititally, I thought we may have bitten off more than we can chew, with 3 museums, a massive mosque, lunch at a local restaurant, afternoon tea in the water village and a swing by a palace or 2. Me of little faith, in 5 1/2 hours we saw it all and didnt feel rushed, maybe just a touch tired, but it was worth it.
First stop, Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. OMG! This place was magnificent, built by the 29th and reigning Sultan in 1992. 29 is the magic number here, 29 golden domes , 29 swarovski crystal chandeliers , mahogany from the Philipines, marble from Italy , oh and a cracking gate and fence from the Aussies (a fence, really? At least it wasnt a colourbond). This Mosque known locally as Kiarong Mosque can accommodate up to 5000 people and even the shoe rack is a site to be seen. The grand entrance opened only when the Sultan is coming (through the aussie gates ofcourse) and private escalator only used by the Sultan shows the wealth of this country. Equisite tiled minarets surround the structure, espansive and perfectly manicured gardens and a water feature or two. Not to mention, by the look of the size of the speaker system, no-one is going to miss the call to prayer from here. Certainly a must see if you’re in Brunei and close to the airport so you’ve got time.
Next, the Istana Nurul Iman (The Light of Faith Palace, they do have a way with words the Bruneians). Naturally being the official residence of the Sultan and the largest residential palace in the world, this stop was just a happy snap of the gates because you can’t go in. However, every year following the month of Ramadan when the celebration of Eid Al Fitri is going on, the Sultan opens his home to the public. That’s right anyone can come. Chris tells us, you are hosted to an amazing banquet which is catered by Hyatt chefs, you can eat as much as you like, then every single person has the opportunity to shake hands with the Sultan (if you’re a man) and other male members of the royal family. For the ladies its meeting the Queen and princesses (sounds fantastic!). Finally on your way out, you are given a beautiful gift box with cakes or biscuits, all with the palace seal as a memento of the day you met the Royals. Now this is definitely on the calendar for next Eid!
We stopped for a lunch at a locals restaurant, we didn’t know what we were eating but it was all delicious (ok so the dehydrated fish wasn’t for me, everything else was yummy). Here I got some fabulous insights from Patrick on life in Saudi and tips for next year. Not so scary after all, damn the media trying to freak me out. After lunch we visited the Royal Regalia museum. It seemed to me, this is basically a building for the Sultan to house some of the countless trinkets, heirlooms and gifts from nations all over the world. No photos allowed in here and the strict staff were on to it, so I didnt dare. Chris, knew all the gossip from the divorce of the sultan amd his 3rd wife to the miniature Medina that Saudi gave to the US and they re-gifted to Brunei (honestly, just leave it in the cupboard America like the rest of us). I’m sure the Saudis weren’t loving that or the Sultan no doubt. It was interesting and I enjoyed the artifacts and the stories behind them, especially the minature replica of the grand ballroom of the Palace, to get a glimpse of life as a royal.
Next was the highlight for Alison who loved being on the water. We went on a small boat ride around Brunei Bay, to whats known as the Kampong Ayer (Water Village). Compared to the housing on the mainland, you would think that the people of the water village perhaps were not as wealthy as the land bound neighbours. Yet, Chris assures us that most households have two or three cars and maybe more and just love living on the water. Similar, I guess to buying a run down old historical terrace or cottage in the UK instead of a grand new build. The water village is literally houses built on cement and steel pylons on the banks and in the river. To the tune of an estimated 40,000 people with schools, clinics, and even a sports field all part of the development. We enjoyed a charming afternoon tea, in a quaint little house and then we were back on dry land.
Just in time for a quick stop by the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, much to Alina’s delight, who kept asking all day when we were stopping there. It again is a marvellous display of architcrural brilliance, with Mughal (think Taj Mahal) and Malay styles coupled beautifully. Opened in 1958 and closed to non-muslims at prayer times, you can understand why its the postcard shot of Brunei. All in all, a brilliant day in this tiny yet intriguing nation, wonderful memories and a new friend found in Miss Alison whom I’ll totally meet up with in Dubai next month!
So if your in transit or just fancy a hop over to a great little destination, Brunei has loads to offer, more than you would ever think.
Off to the Philippines!
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim.