Saturday, 5 September 2015

MEETING THE SULTAN (AND OTHER STORIES!)- A short blog about Brunei

Back in the days when airlines still gave passengers a free nights accommodation on connecting flights, we briefly stopped at Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital of Brunei) for a night,and 11 years later decided it was time for a more thorough revisit.

Anyone who has lived in or visited Brunei can tell you it's a strange place. The sultan and his family are ludicrously wealthy from the profits of years of oil production, yet traveling through Brunei and upon arriving in the capital, it looks and feels pretty much like any other South East Asian country. There's friendly and curious locals, simple produce markets, ramshackle wooden shacks, rubbish strewn landscapes and bad maintenance on the buildings. It does have some magnificent and rarely used government buildings and mosques, and the old sultan doesn't scrimp when it comes to his own residence, but the money doesn't seem to trickle down to everyone in the community.

Anyway, we were fortunate enough to stay with a wonderful Canadian Couchsurfing host and her adorable little daughters for our time there. It was lovely for us to be in a family atmosphere, and learn about the intricacies of Brunei expat life (our host was a teacher), such as grog runs to Malaysia and wading through constantly changing paperwork for visas etc. The sights are a bit thin on the ground in BSB, but we combined our days with trips to the town center on the very sporadic local bus filled with Gurkha soldiers from the nearby army base, and saw the highlights- the two beautiful mosques Omar Ali Saifuddien and Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah, Kampong Ayer (the entire south bank of the city is a "water village" on stilts, with people living very simple lives) and the Royal Regalia Museum, which was stuffed to the brim with photos of the sultan and his presents from various heads of state around the world. Evenings were spent cooking (and eating) up a storm, playing Uno and being entertained by the two hilarious girls!

 Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Brunei

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei

An unexpected sight- a crocodile! Kampung Ayer, Brunei

View of village mosque, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Finished with prayers for the day, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Jetty, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

Colourful house, Kampung Ayer, Brunei

The highlight of our visit was the sultan's 69th birthday celebrations which we happened to be in town for. There was a very orderly show with much colourful dancing and praising of Brunei, followed by a long round of personal greetings from the sultan, where Richard was lucky enough to receive a handshake and a quick conversation (while Sal got shoved into the huge, milling crowd and missed the photo opportunity)! Then followed the extremely organized free food, where we scoffed a yummy array of dishes at the sultan's expense.

Waiting to perform for the sultan, Brunei

The scrum around "The Man", Brunei

Entertaining the crowds, Brunei

All dressed up for the occasion, Brunei

Public transport around the capital was infrequent and basic (with only the foreign workers using it, everyone else had a car), but easy to navigate and quite reasonably priced (B$1 for any destination). Food costs were higher than neighboring Malaysia, but certainly cheaper than Singapore and Australia. We mostly shopped in the local supermarkets, where apart from a fantastic array of locally grown herbs, fruit and vegetables, most products were imported- mostly from Malaysia. Bruneian food in general seemed quite similar in style to Malay food, and a few Indian restaurants operated in town also.We were surprised at the casual attitude to clothes- we were expecting a stricter atmosphere with the Sharia law, but plenty of foreign workers, tourists, and Chinese and Indian residents were less covered up than the Muslims.

Overall, an enjoyable week!

Shop display, Brunei

Rich contemplating the mosque decorations, Brunei


  1. The various modes of wealth depicted in this blog gave a sense of grand lifestyles that exist in contrast to life on the waters' edge, all of which depends on flows of capital, making South East Asia such a dynamic and happening place to be.

  2. Great! :) Thanks for sharing your experiences guys. But were there any nice beaches like the ones in Malaysia?