Stop: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images of Brunei
came to Brunei purely by accident.
trying to book a flight from Darwin, Australia, to Bangkok, Thailand,
I happened upon Royal Brunei Airways which offered the cheapest
airfare. Rather than endure the 8-hour wait between connecting flights
in Brunei, I decided to spend a few days in this tiny Muslim sultanate.
Although at times I found myself rummage around for something to
do, I managed to see one of Southeast Asia's most remarkable structures
and had the best hotel experience of my life.
country's complete name is Negara Brunei Darussalam, which loosely
translated means "Brunei - abode of peace." And what a
peaceful abode it is. Serious crime is rare, liquor stringently
forbidden, nightlife is practically nonexistent, and the country's
largest city, Bandar Seri Begawan (pop. 60,000), seems to shut down
before dark. (Even during the height of rush hour, when the streets
of BSB were jammed with late-model Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, I never
heard a horn honk.)
in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo, Brunei is less
than half the size of Rhode Island and supports one-third of the
population. The 350,000 predominately Malay citizens are ruled by
His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muíizzaddin Waddaulah,
better known as the Sultan of Brunei. The 29th in a long line of
Sultans, he supports two wives and is believed to be as rich, or
nearly as rich, as the worldís richest man Bill Gates.
to abundant revenue from offshore oil wells at Seria and Muara,
the Sultan is a multi-billionaire and his people enjoy free education,
free medical care, high minimum wages and no taxes. Everyone is
entitled to a pension, as well as low-interest loans and subsidies
for automobile purchases (which might explain the abundance of Mercedes
Benzes and BMWs).
checking into the Brunei Hotel, clean and relatively inexpensive
digs (US$32) in the center of BSB, I walked the quiet streets and
within less than an hour I'd seen just about everything. Aside from
the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex, a posh shopping
mall commonly referred to as the Yayasan, the city has 3 notable
features: Kampung Ayer, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, and the
Sultanís private palace which is off-limits to visitors.
from nearly every vantage point in the city, the Omar Ali Saifuddien
Mosque is a sight to behold. Built in 1958 and named after the present
Sultan's father, the fortress-like edifice supports a huge golden
dome, with several smaller domes perched high atop rectangular pillars.
Inside the main dome lay a Venetian mosaic comprised of 3.5 million
pieces. The walls are made of exquisite Italian marble, as are the
floors upon which intricately woven prayer mats are laid.
I gazed at the mosque's shimmering image in the reflecting pool.
As if on cue, the Muslim call to prayer (the adhan) began drifting
from speakers suspended beneath the golden domes. Sung by a crier,
or muezzin, the Arabic song has a rhythmic mesmerizing quality that
permeates the city five times each day.
few steps away from the mosque lay Kampung Ayer, one of BSB's famous
stilt villages. Poised on rotting wooden stilts above the Brunei
River, many of the shacks are crumbling, brightly painted wood structures.
Farther upriver there's a proliferation of new, characterless, pre-fabricated
shacks with stilts made of concrete. A maze of wooden plank walks
connect the villages to each other and to schools, mosques and mom
& pop convenience stores. Half the city's residents, some 30,000,
live in these above-water communities. Each morning the typical
villager walks the plank from his home, flags down a water taxi,
and crosses the river to a job in BSB's city center.
ambling aimlessly along the plank walks, and receiving hesitant
nods from residents along the way, I found myself with an empty
itinerary and 2 nights remaining before my flight departed for Bangkok.
Hoping to find a bargain, I placed a call to The Empire Hotel &
Country Club (www.empire.com.bn), the best hotel in Brunei and a
member of The Leading Hotels of the World. After inquiring about
rates, I was surprised to learn that a standard room cost only $131
(weekend rate). A mere pittance compared to rates at luxury hotels
in other countries.
made a reservation for the following day and prepared for 24 hours
of 5-star opulence.
things struck me as I entered the Empire Hotel: the expansive lobby
with a huge crystal chandelier in the shape of an inverted-pyramid;
the sprawling marble floor motif; and the 7-story atrium, where
white marble columns stand as tall as redwoods.
all of the 423 rooms and suites, mine had a private balcony facing
the South China Sea. The custom-made king-size bed, fitted with
Egyptian cotton sheets, turned sleeping into a coveted event. The
bathroom was a marble en-suite palace which happened to be larger
than many of the hotel rooms Iíve stayed in during my around-the-world
I don't play golf and didn't feel like bowling, I eschewed the flood-lit
18-hole course and the high-tech 8-lane alley. Instead, I walked
next door and watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers at The Empire's
lavish 3-screen Cinema. Furnished with deep leather sofas instead
of chairs, the theater provided me with a level of comfort that
exceeded any previous movie-going experience.
the end, I stayed for 3 nights. My bill, including taxes and all
meals (most of which were delivered to my room) came to exactly
$500. That's $106 over my daily budget for this trip. But when you
order toast with breakfast and room service instead delivers 4 slices
of bread and a polished silver toaster on a heavy silver tray well,
a man's gotta splurge once in a while.
my most vivid memory is the arrival of His Highness Shaikh Khalifa
Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the Prime Minister of Bahrain. The hotel
literally laid out the red carpet for him. I stood along the edge
of the carpet, amid the crowd of oglers assembled near the lobby
door. After an hour of waiting, His Highness finally appeared. Dressed
in a flowing robe and headdress, he stepped from a limousine with
his entourage and was whisked away by a team of hotel managers.
I learned that the Prime Minister and his staff took 49 rooms, including
the Emperor's suite which cost nearly $13,000 per night.
wonder if he got the weekend rate.
here for more images of Brunei
stop: Bangkok, Thailand.
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