Travel: Discover Brunei through these must-visit places

Located on the northern coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, the place is known for its pristine rainforests, Islamic architecture, and thriving oil industry

By Sandip Hor

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Published: Thu 15 Feb 2024, 7:45 AM

Last updated: Thu 15 Feb 2024, 7:51 AM

The first thing that greeted my eyes immediately after coming out from the international airport terminal at Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, was a nice little mosque, which signalled that I was entering a country where Islamic heritage takes centre stage. However, the outside world knows Brunei more as an oil-rich country, led by a monarch who is super-wealthy and enjoys a luxurious lifestyle. Reading several media stories about him and his wealthy empire, many including myself conceived a perception that everything in Brunei is wrapped in gold from the water taps to mosque minarets.

When I tried to verify this common-person belief from my tour guide Mohammed while driving from the airport to Brunei Hotel, he proudly stated that their king is wealthy enough to have several Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris in the garage and surely there are things in Brunei that are made of gold or gold-plated. These include domes of the city’s two key mosques and the royal palace and some of the artwork engraved on the royal regalia and interior of the seven-star Empire Hotel.

Laid on the Borneo Island in South-East Asia along with some parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, Brunei began its journey as a trading port. The kingdom, referred to as a Sultanate, has been ruled by Muslim rulers called Sultans since the 14th century. In the late 19th century, Brunei became a protectorate of the British Government, with the Sultan managing all internal issues while the British controlled external relationships. The discovery of oil in 1929 radically changed its fate, swiftly propelling it to become one of the wealthiest nations globally through the sale of petroleum products.

In 1984, the British ceased all protective arrangements by granting full independence to Brunei and transferring power to His Majesty Hassanal Bolkiah, the current and the nation’s 29th Sultan, who has been on the throne since 1968, the year after his father abdicated. His vast wealth, worth around USD30 billion, and lavish spending trend have created a sensation in the media worldwide. It’s said he owns countless luxury cars and private jets, and an opulent home which is the world’s largest residential royal abode as per the Guinness Book of World Records. The public can view the palace, called Istana Nurul Iman, only from outside but nothing much can be seen other than the ornamented gate guarded by a friendly royal sentry who was happy to pose for a photograph with me.

Sultan Hassanal’s father, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, elevated opulence to new heights by constructing the imposing Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the capital, which stands today majestically like a national emblem. Built in 1958, this architectural marvel is the nation’s most photographed icon featuring blend of styles from Italian Renaissance to Indian Mughal dynasty. That’s why when I looked at it, the wondrous Taj Mahal struck in my mind. Following his father’s footsteps, Sultan Hassanal built the equally impressive Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in 1994, which represents Turkish Ottoman flairs. Both mosques have their domes made of pure gold, glittering under the sun as well as in the evening under the lights.

To see more of the golden glitter, I visited the Royal Regalia Museum, which houses the Sultan’s full royal regalia, including exhibits commemorating the silver and golden jubilee celebrations of the present monarch’s reign. My jaws dropped seeing the expansive golden artwork on the chariots, which carried the Sultan through the city streets during the anniversary festivals. More gold, rather gold plating was visible when I toured the seven-star Empire Hotel, which was originally built as a 500-room palace where the columns and balustrades are ornamented with gold-plated artwork.

Brunei’s affluence is not just reflected by the gold crowning of the mosque domes and the wealth of their king, it’s also displayed by the government’s welfare granted to its 450,000 people who pay no tax and enjoy free education and health care, subsidised housing, and premium petrol at around 40 US cents per litre when the rest of the world pays almost four times. The nation’s richness is also demonstrated by several initiatives undertaken by the government to develop and maintain the infrastructure that aid the people.

The government’s latest reward to its people is the 30km long road bridge across the Brunei Bay waters that connects the capital to the Temburong district, referred to as the crown jewel of Brunei’s green landscapes. Built in 2019 at a cost of around USD 1.6 billion, it’s an engineering feat that showcases how the government is utilising its wealth for the people. This bridge has drastically cut down travel times of Bruneians to visit Temburong and escape into its famous national parks to shake hands with pristine nature.

Another option for getting closer to nature is by taking a leisurely cruise along the mangrove-lined Brunei River, which flows through the capital before emptying into Brunei Bay. It’s almost a mandatory activity for visitors, particularly to spot Proboscis monkeys in the edging forests and crocodiles in the flowing water. The bonus for me from that cruise was to seize a closer glimpse of Kampong Ayer — the famous water village of Brunei, which comprises neighbourhoods of traditional houses, schools and mosques built on stilts above the riverbed.

Another experience you shouldn’t miss is rubbing shoulders with locals at the Gadong Night Market, which after sundown becomes a great dining place, selling a range of mouth-watering food from fried chicken and grilled tilapia fish to banana fritters. I left Brunei with my mind filled with many golden memoirs.

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