Brunei Feb 12-15, 2014
After getting through immigration and collecting my bags, it was 1:45 AM. I was unable to reserve a room at either the only two ‘backpacker hostels’ in Bandar Seri Begawan (pop 100,000), there was no cheap transportation into town until the morning, so I planned on sleeping somewhere in the airport. It is a ultramodern place and I wandered around and up to arrivals where I would be less conspicuous. There was nothing that looked comfortable until I found the Mens Prayer Room – air-conditioned, nice carpet but bright lights. I settled in and was woken up at 5 by water running in the foot washing stalls outside the room. I hurriedly packed my stuff and snuck by unnoticed as he was washing his face. If they put you to death for smuggling drugs, what do they do for sleeping illegally in their mosques? Caning is a not uncommon punishment in these Islamic countries. In retrospect, there are couches on the arrival area (bottom floor) that would be fine to sleep on. The ATM didn’t accept my card and I killed some time until the public buses started at 7. There was no way I was going to pay $20 to take a taxi eight kms into town.
With only two days in Brunei, I had a heavy schedule planned. It was Wednesday, and as everything is closed on Thursday and Friday, this would be my only chance to see what little there is to see in BSB. Kampung Ayer, with 20,000 residents, is the largest stilt village in the world. This was the original settlement before Bandar Seri Begawan and it dates back to 1000 AD. It is built on both sides of the river but especially the south, and I took a motorboat from the waterfront promenade over to visit the Kampung Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, basically a museum explaining the history of the village. It has its own schools, mosques, police and fire brigade. The viewing tower offers good views of the entire city. At low tide the garbage is disheartening.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, built in the 1950s, has a surrounding lagoon with a replica 16th century stone boat. The inside of the mosque is Italian marble, English chandeliers and stained glass and luxurious carpets from Saudi Arabia. non-Muslims only get to stand inside the entrance so it was not possible to see the stained glass dome.
The Royal Regalia Museum is an over-the-top tribute to the sultan. The huge ground floor is devoted to a recreation of his coronation, while the rest shows all the gifts received from foreign leaders. He is on his third wife and looks like a suave guy with his goatee/mustache. Disappointingly, the Brunei Museum (devoted to culture, natural history and independence history) was closed due to renovation. Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque has 4 terrazo-tiled minarets and a jaw-dropping interior of Italian marble and gold chandeliers.
Istana Nurui Iman, the residence of the sultan, is the largest dwelling in the world, 4x the size of Versailles and 3x the size of Buckingham Palace. 200,000 sq-meter in size, there are 1788 rooms and 257 bathrooms. It is closed to the public and best viewed from the river.
I have been impressed by the general standard of living – everyone seems to drive a nice car and live in a large 2 story house set on residential lanes off the main roads. Some of the homes are palatial. I have been taking the bus everywhere, cheap and easy to navigate.
Cheap accommodation is scarce. The recommended Pusat Belia Hostel has been closed for several months. The only other cheapie is KH Soon Resthouse with $19 dorm beds. Very basic, it is a block from the bus depot and a few blocks from everything downtown. The only two travel companies in town are very close to book trips. It worked out great. The next cheapest hotel was in the $70 range and not as convenient. Interestingly most restaurants downtown close at 6 as there is no business. This is no party town.
The Temburong District of Brunei is separated from the rest of the country by a sliver of Malaysia. Ulu Temburong NP is possibly the only meaningful thing to see in the country and I booked an all day tour. At B$135 (about $110), it is an expensive day. We took a speedboat about an hour to Bangar, drove to the company’s resort and then took a shallow draft Iban longboat up the river with its many rapids to the National Park. Only about a sq-km of the park is accessible to tourists. The park’s main attraction is a canopy walk. It starts with a long climb up a stair and then a few short walkways at the top of the trees. There was no explanation of anything and our guide stayed at the bottom. We saw two hornbills flying in the distance but virtually no other birds or critters the whole day. On the way back, we walked up a short creek to a waterfall and experienced a fish spa. The forest is magnificent primary rainforest but short on animals.