Brunei Darussalam: A Sultanate of Smiles
As Indonesia and Brunei seek to cooperate with each other in the tourism sector, Colours makes a stop in Brunei’s capital to embark on a journey of discovery, uncovering the country’s true treasures.
Words Jay Tindall
I didn’t know what to expect of the tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. Online reviews noted a country that was ‘no fun’, but beyond that I had few preconceptions of the destination, which just happened to be a convenient stop on a journey from Sabah to Bangkok.
Having arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan late at night, I woke early to venture into town and find out what Brunei was all about. As the city unfolded before me, I recognised in it some essence of Singapore – not the downtown Singapore we all think of, with its towering skyscrapers and designer shopping, but rather its tranquil and immaculately clean suburbs. The Islamic influence is notable in the architecture, with colourful mosques peeking out through the skyline, and in the traditional dress of the men and the women sporting headscarves. During my research, I had noted, among the warnings that there was little to get excited about, a distinct lack of photos of Bruneians online. It became, therefore, a goal of mine to meet and photograph as many people as I could.
Our first stop was at Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, the largest in the country, built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Sultan’s reign. It was impressive, with large blocks of marble incorporated into the structure. However, without a doubt, Brunei’s most recognisable landmark is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The most striking element – besides the abundant use of gold which coats its huge dome – was a life-sized reproduction of the ceremonial floating barge that sits in the waters in front of the mosque. Completed only six decades ago, this mosque is known worldwide as a symbol of modern Islamic architecture, uniting Mughal techniques with Italian styles. Though it isn’t possible to visit the Sultan’s residence, a wander around the Royal Regalia Centre provides an interesting glimpse into his life and the country’s culture. On display are chariots from his Silver Jubilee, elaborate jewellery and displays re-enacting key moments from the Sultan’s coronation, which was clearly a key part in the country’s history.
After a morning of sightseeing, we made a stop for lunch and enjoyed a delicious spread of spicy Malay-style beef rendang and creamy nasi lemak at a local restaurant, and then headed to the market – which was overflowing with fresh vegetables, fruit and dried fish products. I always find the markets to be a great place for encounters with the locals, and this was no exception. The vendors and shoppers here were remarkably friendly, with wide smiles and none of the hassle and haggle you often find in markets where tourists are perhaps more common.
We spent the afternoon on the river, speeding downstream in a water taxi to the Kampong Ayer Water Village. With
a population of just under 40,000 people and nearly 30km of footbridges linking smaller villages within the area to one another, this is certainly not a tiny development. When I saw a group of students getting dropped off at their floating school, we went over to say hello. Judging by their reactions, we were among the first foreigners ever to do so. They smiled for photos, clearly excited by the novelty of our visit, and I was once again struck by their warmth and guilelessness. We also had the chance to visit a family in the village and get a glimpse of their over-water lifestyle.
We continued along the river, beyond the city to the surrounding mudflats and mangroves. I was disappointed that it was high tide, since I’d been told that at low tide the area was crawling with crocodiles. We did, however, see several troupes of proboscis monkeys, with their distinctive squashed and trunk-like noses – each group heralded by one male with his harem of females and babies. These endangered creatures are still relatively common here and in Brunei’s national parks, along with a rich array of other exotic flora and fauna. Blanketed by pristine rainforest, many of the parks are criss-crossed with elevated walkways so you can immerse yourself in the canopy and discover its natural wonders.
That evening, I made my way to the city’s night market. Though not sprawling, like many I’ve been to, Pasar Gadong was extremely clean (this was becoming a theme), and I was surprised how appetising the food looked. Fresh, vibrant fruits and vegetables lay alongside thick cuts of lamb, grilled fish, sausages, beef with noodles, satays and other local dishes, and there was even one stand selling burgers Brunei-style. Once again though, my strongest impression was of the vendors’ easy charm and wide smiles as I approached them to sample their wares.
Arguably the reason for the pervasive happiness of the people of Brunei is the country’s social system. It’s a good one – with no income tax, fuel at 30 cents a litre, free medical care and significant housing subsidies – plenty of reasons to smile, you might say. But, perhaps it is the fact that despite their city being among the cleanest I’ve visited, and their being surrounded by gorgeous natural rainforest, they are largely left alone.
As a country with an undeserved bad reputation, it is avoided by visitors looking for the flashy bars and nightlife of more obvious Asian destinations, which means mass tourism hasn’t taken hold or been allowed to make the changes it usually does. In turn then, the people of Brunei are at liberty to be genuinely friendly and welcoming to those visitors who do venture in, revealing the real charm of this place – the people.
Jakarta to Bandar Seri Begawan
Frequency 6 ﬂights per week
Joint passenger with Royal Brunei Airlines
From Colours August 2016
5 Senses – Scent
For the irresistible aromas of Brunei, you needn’t venture further than its markets. Stroll amid the neat stalls and breathe in the fresh fragrances of fruit and vegetables and the spicy scents of sizzling coconut curries, expertly seasoned with spices. A rare treat, the markets here tend to be very clean, so you can enjoy all the delicious scents without encountering any less tempting ones.