What to do and see in Brunei
Sprawling Bandar doesn't lend itself to wandering tourists, especially under the tropical sun. The Royal Regalia Museum, Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and Kampong Ayer (Water Village) are located in the city centre (and are included in our tailor-made walking tour,), while the remaining sights orbit central BSB several kilometres away. Small sights, like the Kota Batu Mausoleum, have been woven into our walking/taxi tour. Buses, taxis and private vehicles are the best ways to explore these spots. The main bus and taxi terminals are located on Jin Cator (pronounced 'kay-tor'), two blocks from the waterfront.
If you intend to visit a mosque, please dress appropriately. (Preferably long pants and polo shirt for men, and covered shoulders and knees for women. A full-length gown and scarf are provided to women at mosque entrances.) Also note that places of worship are not open to tourists during prayer times. The best times of day for a visit are between Sam and 11am, 1.30pm and 3pm, and 4pm and 5.30pm. Visits on Thursdays and Fridays are usually forbidden.
Royal Regalia Museum
A celebration of the sultan and all the trappings of Bruneian royalty, the Royal Regalia Museum belongs at the top of any Brunei itinerary. The 1st floor is dominated by a recreation of the sultan's coronation day parade, including a huge gilded royal cart, on which the newly crowned sultan was pulled through the streets of BSB.
On the mezzanine floor of the museum you'll find a selection of gifts received by the sultan. Of course, when you are called upon inevitably confront the question: what do you give the man who has everything? Here you'll see how various heads of state and royalty have answered this question (hint: you'll never go wrong with priceless gold and jewels). We particularly like the mother of all beer mugs given by Queen Elizabeth, the fine abalone-shell chest given by the Philippines, and the Benjarong porcelain from Thailand.
Visitors must remove their shoes before entering and photography is strictly prohibited beyond the main foyer.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Named after the 28th sultan of Brunei (the late father of the current sultan), the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque (222 2623; admission free; S Sam-noon, 2-3pm, 5-6pm & 8-9pm Sat-Wed) was built in 1958 at a cost of about US$5 million, and stands next to Sungai Kedayan in its own artificial lagoon. The 44m minaret makes it the tallest building in central BSB, and woe betide anyone who tries to outdo it - apparently the Islamic Bank of Brunei building nearby originally exceeded this height, and consequently had to have its top storey removed by order of the sultan. Listen for the call to prayer that echoes throughout the city centre, starting before dawn or at dusk.
The interior is simple but tasteful, though it's no match for the stunning exterior. The floor and walls are made from the finest Italian marble, the stained-glass windows were crafted in England and the luxurious carpets were flown in from Saudi Arabia and Belgium. Jigsaw enthusiasts can admire the 3.5 million-piece Venetian mosaic inside the main dome. The ceremonial stone boat sitting in the lagoon is a replica of a 16th-century mahligai (royal) barge.
The external compound is open between Sam and 8.30pm, and non-Muslims may enter the mosque itself outside prayer times. Remember to dress appropriately and to re-move your shoes before entering. You may also be able to take the elevator to the top of the minaret or walk up the winding staircase (ask permission from staff first). The view over the city and Kampong Ayer is excellent.
Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
The largest mosque in the country, Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque , was built in 1992 to celebrate the 2Mh year of the current sultan's reign. While some prefer the facade of the Omar All Saifuddien Mosque, the interior here is best described as jaw-dropping. The sheer volume is in itself amazing, not to mention the myriad woven rugs scattered across the men's prayer hall. At the grand opening, the sultan gave every attendee a gold-embroidered prayer rug.
The structure's four main minarets and two golden domes are a fantastic sight when illuminated in the evening and can be photographed from several locations around town. Oh, and yes, it's Hassan;/ and not Hassana/ like the sultan (we asked around - no one knew why!)
It's located en route to Gadong, about 2.5km northwest of the city centre. To get to the mosque, take bus 22 or 1 (Circle Line) from the bus station in BSB centre.
Housing an estimated 20,000 people, Kampong Ayer is made up of 28 water villages built on either side of Sungai Brunei. This jumble of wooden planks and shacks is considered to be the biggest water village in the world, and the locals love calling it 'Asia's Venice' (there's really no resemblance, though -well, other than the turbid water part).
If you've never visited a water village before, now's your chance. A new Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery was just opening its door when we visited. This brand new information centre will focus on the history, lifestyle and crafts of the Kampong Ayer people. A viewing tower offers panoramic views of the bustling scene below. Walk across one of the planks west of the Yayasan Complex and you'll find yourself in the heart of the action. Or, you can charter a water taxi for B$30 (a bit of negotiating is a must) to have a look-see from the river. Finding a taxi won't be a problem, as the boatmen will have spotted you before you spot them. Afternoon rides are ideal, especially if you'd like to check out the Istana Nurul Iman (opposite) as well.
Sitting on a bluff overlooking Sungai Brunei, the Brunei Museum is 4.5km east of central BSB. The main building contains the excellent Islamic Art Gallery, which has some wonderful illuminated (decorated) copies of the Quran, as well as an incredible model of the Dome of the Rock, executed in mother of pearl and abalone shell.
In the same building, the Oil and Gas Gallery is surprisingly interesting. It answers all of your questions about how they get the stuff from under the ground to your nearest gas pump. Finally, don't miss the Brunei Traditional Culture Gallery, also in the main building. It's got good exhibits on all aspects of Bruneian culture, from circumcision (ouch!) to the invigorating sport of grass sledding (?).
Descend the stairs from the car park behind the museum, then turn right to reach the Malay Technology Museum .A pair of rooms here have interesting life-sized recreations of stilt houses with accompanying information on traditional cultures. Gallery 1 features water villages and includes reconstructions of how kampung (village) architecture has evolved over the last 150 years. Gallery 2 has exhibits of handicrafts and fishing techniques practised by the people of the water villages. Gallery 3 shows the tools and techniques used by the indigenous tribes of the interior for food gathering, agriculture and hunting.
To get to the museum, take bus 39 from the bus station in central BSB.
Istana Nurul Iman
The best way to measure the grandeur of a structure is by counting the bathrooms. The sultan's Istana Nurul Iman (Jin Tutong) has 257, making it the largest residential palace in the world. With a price tag of over US$350 million, this 1788-room behemoth is, if you can believe it, more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and three times larger than Buckingham Palace.
Designed by Filipino architect Leandro Locsin, the design aesthetics of the palace draw heavily on an airport terminal concept. From an art-historical perspective it feels more like a Monet - from far away it's quite a sight, but from up close the whole thing doesn't really make sense.
Those who want to get inside the palace will have to time their visit with the Hari Raya festivities at the end of Ramadan - the sultan only opens the palace doors for three days in September, shaking hands and giving out goodies to his faithful subjects.
If you're visiting Brunei during the other 362 days of the year, then the best way to check out the palace is from Taman Persiaran Damuan - a large landscaped park along the riverbank just beyond the palace when travelling from the city centre. The palace's back-yard can also be viewed from a water taxi along the river. Your boatman can also take you past Pulau Ranggu, in the middle of the river, which is home to a large colony of proboscis monkeys. The best time to head out is late afternoon, so you can catch the monkeys around sunset and then get dropped off at the park to see the palace in the evening. Asking prices will probably start at B$40, but you should be able to hire a boat for B$28.
Arts & Handicrafts Centre
Built to help develop local craftwork, the Arts & Handicrafts Centre sits on the waterfront towards the Brunei Museum like an aged Floridian timeshare. It's visible from town and within easy walking distance. While the concept of such a centre is a marvellous idea, it's a little disappointing if you're interested in traditional crafts; only new silverwork and weaving produced by the students are available, and some items are very expensive. If you're really serious about investing some cash, you can pick up the Directory of Handicraft Entrepreneurs here.
Bandar In Brief
If you're short on time, most of Bandar's main attractions can be tackled in a single morning. Start at the Royal Regalia Museum for a lesson in Bruneian Sultans 101. If you're captivated by the country's well-documented history, then check out the taxi tour add-on below. After perusing rooms full of priceless (and useless) artefacts, head down Jin Sultan passing Dewan Majlis, home of the legislative assembly. In Brunei, criminal indiscretions, like petty theft, are handled by the so-called English Court, while the Muslim Court controls religious matters, including divorce, and never the two courts shall meet. Pass the Tugu Clock, the 'ground zero' from which all dis-tances in Brunei are measured, as you head to the stunning Omar AN Saifuddien Mosque. Next, walk to the Yayasan Complex (5) for an obligatory food break. Stop in the Hua Ho Supermarket to sample Brunei's best-known sweets.
If you have time, hop on a water taxi and head across the busy Sungai Brunei to check out Kampong Ayer, the world's largest stilt village. See p578 for more information about the floating city.
Taxi Tour Add-on: In the Footsteps of the Sultans
If you have a bit more time, and a few extra Brunei bucks to burn, consider adding on the following taxi tour, which details the colourful and fascinating history of Brunei's sultans -the world's longest bloodline.
Start at the Kota Batu Mausoleum, on Jin Kota Batu just before the Brunei Museum. Here you'll find the final resting place of Brunei's greatest sultan, Bolkiah, who at the height of his reign, pulled all of Borneo and part of the Philippines under Bruneian rule. He was known for using a mix of charm and intelligence rather than his sword when negotiating territorial disputes. See p578 to learn more about Brunei's 'Golden Ruler'. Also on the sacred grounds are the buried remains of Sharif Ali, Brunei's third sultan. Sharif married the daughter of the second sultan and ascended to the throne when there were no male heirs to take his father-in-law's place. He was very well respected, and ruled his sultanate with a great deal of religious discipline, which earned him the nickname Sultan Berkat, or 'Blessed Sultan'. Brunei's first mosque and stone fortress are also among his accomplishments. He was a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed. Archaeologists believe that the remains of Brunei's first sultan, Muhammad Shah, are also buried at this riverfront site.
Hop back in the car and head towards central BSB along Jin Kota Batu, which turns into Jin Residency. While driving along the waterfront you'll pass the gabled Twelve Roofs House (Bumbungan Dua Belas; admission free; (39am-4.30pm Mon-Thu & Sat, 9-11.30am & 2.30-4.30pm Fri), which was once the residence of the British High Commissioners. Today the complex displays photos illustrating British involvement in Brunei and the 'special relationship' between the two countries. After centuries as a local hegemony, Brunei gradually lost its grip and was taken over the British. The sultanate gained complete autonomy in 1984, but keeps close ties with Queen Elizabeth II.
Follow Jin Tutong over the Edinburgh Bridge towards the Royal Mausoleum, the final resting place of several sultans, including Omar Ali Saifuddien III, known as the 'Architect of Modern Brunei' for the significant advances that were made during his reign. Conspicuously absent from the deceased is the 22nd sultan, Muhammad Alam, who enjoyed the kind of reputation usually reserved for a Mongolian warlord. Dubbed the 'King of Fire', Alam finally realised his unpopularity and surrendered to his siblings, and when mercifully given a choice of execution, opted to be publicly garrotted...
Continue on to Istana Nurul Iman, the sultan's palace. The palace guards get a bit flustered if you slow down to take pictures at the gate, so it's best to continue on and grab a couple of snaps from Taman Persiaran Damuan - a quiet picnic area along the river with great views back to the palace.
Back in the city centre, it's worth stopping by Istana Darussalam, the birthplace of the current sultan. The traditional Malay home sits rather inconspicuously beside a makeshift car park in desperate need of some weeding, but the structure itself is quite elegant. Access is not allowed, although its worth a glimpse from the outside, as it is a lot smaller and humbler than one might think an old istana would be.
Head down the aptly named Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Highway to Brunei's biggest roundabout (the country has more roundabouts than people!), home of the stunning Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque .
Take a few minutes to drive around Kampung Klarong, just south of the mosque. This com-munity, sandwiched between the mosque and the royal palace, is home to a variety of distin-guished locals - most are relatives of the sultan.
TAXI TOUR FACTS
Start Kota Batu
Finish Empire Hotel
Time Two hours
Taxi per hour BS40 to BS50
Rental car per day B$130 to B$150
Head back onto the highway passing several buildings sprouting up from the tropical floor. These are some of the recent billion-dollar blunders made by the sultan's brother, Prince Tefri. Brunei's two biggest white elephants sit at the end of the road: the erstwhile amusement centre, Jerodung Park playground and the sultanate's seven-star resort, the Empire Hotel.
It's a cinch to get around Bandar under your own steam, but for a trip to beautiful Temburong, or for a 'night safari' along Sungai Brunei, we rec-ommend linking up with a tour.
Major tour operators in the city include the following:
Borneo Guide (876 6796; www.borneoguide.com; Block B 1st fl, Warisan Mat Mat, Gadong) Excellent service and a variety of eco-programs around Brunei and Borneo.
Freme Travel Services (223 4280; www.freme .com; 403B-407B Wisma Jaya, Jin Pemancha) Offers a variety of tours, including the city and Kampong Ayer, and trips to Ulu Temburong and Pulau Selirong.
Mona Florafauna Tours (223 0761; www.i-s-d-s .com/tnona; 209 1st fl, Kiaw Lian Bldg, Jin Pemancha) Specialises in outdoor and wildlife tours around Brunei.
Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel ( @ 244 6509; www.exploreborneo.com; No 2, Simpang 146, Jin Kiarong) Runs tours of the city and at the Ulu Ulu Resort in Temburong. They also have a counter at the airport, an office at the Empire Hotel and an office in Kiarong.
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