There is a small country in South East that the banana pancake trail has often ignored. For obvious reasons of having a strict no-alcohol policy. But the Sultanate of Brunei, has been so silent in the tourism affairs of South East Asia, that is has an almost enigmatic halo around it. I was curious about this oil-rich country which nobody went to visit. And in my case, curiosity kills the wallet.
So, there I was, on a AirAsia flight, from Kuala Lumpur to Bandar Seri Begawan, in Brunei Darussalam.
Read: Go off-the-beaten track in Kuala Lumpur. Visit the Batu Caves.
I had a few friends (interestingly, they were all employees of Shell, who have worked/visited/lived in the oil-rich Brunei) who told me that there was absolutely nothing in Brunei worth visiting. But, as luck would have it, I rarely listen to others. So, Brunei it was, for a weekend trip.
A little bit of background about the country would help here. A former British protectorate, Brunei is a relatively new country, gaining independence only in 1984. And geographically, you wouldn’t be blamed if you didn’t notice Brunei on a world map, since it’s almost hidden in the North-eastern strip of Eastern Malaysia. It is surrounded by Malaysia, and consists of 2 physically separate entities. One side consists of the districts of Brunei & Muara, Tutong, and Belait. And the other side, which is isolated from the rest of Brunei is the eastern district of Temburong.
If you though Malaysia was the most Islamic state in South East Asia, you MUST visit Brunei! The small country is dotted with lavish mosques, and a stroll through the capital on a Friday at lunch time will be the closest that you will ever get to walking in an Urban desert, because almost the entire country will be at their Friday Namaz prayers.
After a short flight, I finally landed in the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan. The airport formalities were relatively easy. I had a visa already, and even signed the alcohol permit for a bottle of vodka that I was carrying.
Read: Funny landings? Check out the most insane airplane landing I experienced, in Dili, Timor Leste.
A quick point to note here. You cannot get Alcohol anywhere in the country. A tourist can bring in up to 2 litres of Alcohol, provided that he/she is not a Muslim. And provided that he/she signs an alcohol permit which states that the booze is for their own consumption. Given the difficulty to obtain alcohol, I don’t think I would share my precious bottle of Vodka with anybody! And also note that you have to declare the alcohol, which is strongly recommended because the airport customs have absolutely no problem with you carrying alcohol, as long as you declare and sign the permit. But if you are caught without a permit, the consequences could be different.
It was only 10 AM in the morning. I was couchsurfing in Brunei, with a friend I met in Singapore, but she was to be free only around 3 or 4 PM. So, I carried my not-so-heavy backpack, and headed out of the airport to find transport to the city. On the way, I was super-elated to find my favorite Filipino fast food restaurant, Jollibee, right in the airport!
One can take a taxi from the airport to the city, but the cost would be around 20-30 SGD/B$. A better option, which I took up, is to take a short walk to the bus stop near the car park, from where you could find a bus to the city centre for 2 SGD/B$.
Oh, in case you got confused with the currencies above, Brunei and Singapore have a unique currency interoperability agreement. Which means that the value of Brunei and Singapore currencies is the same, and both are accepted in the other countries, an arrangement similar to the Indian rupee- Bhutanese Ngultrum. So, if you are travelling from Singapore to Brunei, you do not have to exchange your Singapore dollars to Brunei dollars. And the same applies vice versa. The only exception, which I was to find out when I returned back to Singapore, is coins. Brunei coins will not be accepted in Singapore, and Singapore coins will not be accepted in Brunei.
The ride to the city center lasts roughly 30 mins, and will end in Jalan Cator. Once I got down, I was left confused. I was banking on my couchsurfing host to show me some spots of Brunei, so I did not know what to see on my own in this city! I wanted to sit down and plan for a little bit, so decided to light up a cigarette. And that’s when you find out that almost nobody in Brunei smokes because cigarettes are so hard to get here! Mind you, smoking is not illegal. Its just that you will feel so weird smoking, while everyone in the country is staring at you, because they can’t. In their stares, I could sense fleeting moments of mistrust, disgust and even contempt.
I continued to walk, aimlessly, around the Jalan Cator area. When in doubt in BSB (as Bandar Seri Begawan is called shortly), just follow the sound of the Brunei River. And a short 5 minutes later, passing by the High Commission of Canada, you reach an art museum called Galeri Seni. I have never been interested in Museums, so I walked straight past it, to the Bandar Seri Begawan Royal wharf, to take a look at the Brunei river, or Sungei Brunei as it is called locally.
At one look, the Brunei river was even more muddier than the Singapore River, which I have made so much fun of in the past. So, when a boatman pulled up to me shortly, offering me a 1 hour ride on the river, I was thinking to myself: “Why would anybody want to ride a boat on this river“?
But, I had plenty of time to kill and nothing to do. So, I accepted his offer for 20 Dollars, and hopped on the boat.
If MotoGP ever gets played on water, it should be on the Brunei river! These boatmen are crazy! They ride those things in the water at speeds in excess of 60 KPH, and do not cause any accidents, or at least, I didn’t get to see any.
The main attraction on the boat ride, was the Kampong Ayer. Or Water village. The water village is an entire village which appears to be floating on the Brunei river, but are actually deep-stilted houses. In the past, these stilt houses were built the traditional way, with bamboos and stuff. But now, it is not rare to see entire concrete stilts on the river. Hell, there was even a whole primary school built on stilts!
The people on the Kampong Ayer are really nice. Everyone I saw, returned my smile with a warm and genuine smile. I am not sure if this had more to do with the novelty of seeing a rare tourist, but I can’t say that I did not enjoy it. The boat ride took me all the way to the bank of the Istana Nurul Iman, which is the residential palace of the Sultan, and is the world’s largest residential palace in occupation. It sits on an artificial hill, and is said to be estimated at around US$300 million.
When visiting Brunei, if you plan to visit the Istana, here is something that you MUST know. This palace is open to the public only for the 3 days immediately after the Ramadan (fasting month). Otherwise, it is closed throughout the year. I tried to take a picture from the Kampong Ayer, but it does no justice to the pictures of the Istana that I have seen in magazines. So, not going to upload that for sure!
The Istana will be another blog post!