Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bandar Seri Begawan (Part 1): Exploring Around

Let me say right off the bat that Bandar Seri Begawan (capital of the tiny country of Brunei) has never been on any of my travel lists, or bucket list or whatever. So i'm as surprised as you that i actually went for a brief visit to this place recently.


Some fast facts: 

1. Their currency is the Brunei Dollar (BND).

2. They are ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. He has an outsized presence in this country. Aside from being the Prime Minister, he is concurrently Defense Minister, Finance Minister, AND the head of the church of Islam. 

3. Oil and gas industry accounts for some 80% of their GDP. Shell has a monopoly here, with their joint venture with the government having a 50-50 percent revenue-sharing arrangement. 

4. NO personal income taxes!

5. There are only 40 official licensed taxis in the entire country (yes, 40). More on this in a later post. 

6. Being a Muslim country, no nightlife and no alcohol (although i read online that some restaurants offer 'special tea'  [wink, wink]). 

 We booked a half-day city tour with the leading operator in Brunei, Freme Travel. Our guide, Mr. Zul (let's hope i spelled his name correctly) duly picked us up at our hotel on time; and off we went to our first stop: The Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.
Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.
Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.


Standing at the parking lot and gazing up to that golden dome and pillars, it really looked awe-inspiring. Apparently, this was the new main mosque - described by Mr. Zul as a gift of His Highness Sultan Bolkiah to the citizens of the country. 

Here's a closer look as we went towards the entrance. 


 The mosque is closed to non-Muslims on Thursdays and Fridays (Friday is considered their holy day, and all establishments are mandated to close during the period 12:00 NN to 2:00 PM)

 

Photography is prohibited inside, so this was the farthest point where we have photos. Also, visitors who are not properly attired (meaning shorts/skirts/sleeveless tops/etc.) have to wear a black robe for modesty. 



 Suffice to say, the main prayer hall and other parts were extremely impressive. No expense seemed to have been spared. Mr. Zul waxed poetic, and pointed out that the huge chandeliers came from Austria; the white marble on the floor from Italy; the thick narra wooden door from the Philippines, etc. 

I was impudent enough to ask how much this whole thing cost. Mr. Zul averted his eyes slightly, and replied that no one really knew - it was kept secret. But the rumour was that this mosque cost around USD400 million. 

Whew! That's some serious cash. But my friend Ricky and i agreed it was well worth it and seemed reasonable enough. 

Outside, we passed by this winsome fountain on the way back to our vehicle.

 

Second stop was the Sultan's Palace, known officially as Istana Nurul Iman.
To be more accurate, we were actually visiting the gate of the palace, as it is only open 3 days in a year, after their Hari Raya festival. The rest of the year, proletariat like you and me just peek over the grills of the gate. (Yes, leaping over the gate did cross our mind, hahaha!)
 

According to Mr. Zul, the palace has over a thousand rooms, so it is an immense compound. Incidentally, his security force has 2 Blackhawk helicopters. 

During the few days it is open, anyone can go inside with no need for an invitation. One simply had to dress up a bit; and partake of a sumptuous buffet, shake hands with His Royal Highness, and take home a souvenir, to boot!



 

Next was the Royal Regalia Museum, which focuses on the royal family. Exhibited were various gifts received by the sultan from other heads of state, as well as ceremonial attire, and a replica of the main ceremonial hall of the royal palace. 

Below was the carriage used during the induction as Sultan. Incidentally, this year marks the 50th year of his rule, so Mr. Zul said some festivities will definitely be in order. ("Without alcohol, of course" - i quipped in my mind ;-D)



 Next, we went to the Malay Technology Museum. which proved to be interesting, yet was a total misnomer. Its name suggested some high-tech, space-age museum. 

In fact, it exhibited the life during pre-oil age Brunei, where the citizens were living mainly on wooden houses on stilts built right on the river (i.e. water villages, or known as Kampong Ayer). Mr. Zul himself lived in the water village, and dispelled our notion that it was unsafe and unsanitary (apparently it now comes equipped with electricity, plumbing and Wi-Fi!); and he pointed out it was actually very convenient, as well as cheap (no rent!). 

Last stop was a brief phot op outside the older mosque, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.  Lovely, isn't it? 



 Please stay tuned for the second part of this series, Getting Around BSB!


Saturday, December 17, 2016

OVEREATING IN GUANGZHOU: TIGER PRAWN VIETNAMESE

 

 Friends know Guangzhou is NOT on my list of Top 10,000 Cities to Visit, but i was there for a brief trip a few weeks back. Fortunately, my friend Shanna recommended Tiger Prawn Vietnamese Resto as a 'must-visit'. I was initially skeptical (well, i am skeptical about almost everything), but a cursory look at Trip Advisor revealed this joint was ranked No. 2 in Guangzhou. Hmmm, interesting huh?

So off i went. Pretty far from my hotel, around 45 minutes by taxi. After alighting and wandering around a bit, i spotted their sign (above). 

There was a long line of people waiting at the door. Good omen, i think. 

This lady at the door controlled the flow of patrons into Tiger Prawn. She gave out color-coded bits of paper with numbers written on them, and you just wait to be called. (Nope, no use bribing her to get you in quickly :D)




While waiting, one can peruse the very extensive menu of Vietnamese, Thai and Singaporean dishes, as this man was doing. The photos will whet your appetite.


 Once inside, the atmosphere is very festive and the resto is jampacked.
   

 After much indecision, I finally settled on my orders. The food came fairly quickly, considering how busy they were. First up was the Fish Fillet Hanoi Style (RMB48.00).


Next was the BBQ Marinated Pork Neck (RMB48.00). Quite delectable-looking from the get-go, don't you agree? :D 


 Here's a closer shot of the pork neck.



I included a Seafood Fried Rice with Basil and Lemongrass (RMB38.00), so here below were all my orders in one shot. The astute reader will realize that i had ordered enough food for 3 persons!


 The food proved to be quite excellent. The rice was very flavourful, and could be a complete meal in itself. The fish fillet was had the right consistency, and the sauce wasn't overpowering. And the pork neck! The pork neck! Tender and firm with a hint of smokiness, i could eat this every day. 

Suffice to say, not only had yours truly ordered food for 3 pax, i actually inhaled obliterated wiped out food good for 3 pax!

 Here's a photo of the Tiger Prawn ladies with their colourful prints on their shirts. It took a lot of effort to get them all together, as they were so busy bustling about taking care of customers. 


 I heartily recommend Tiger Prawn to any travellers to Guangzhou. Here below is the address in Chinese characters to show to your non-English speaking cabbie.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

SHOTS FROM LONDON (Part 7): The House with the Blue Door

(This is the last part of our series on the London trip, and i hope everyone had as much fun reading these posts as i had visiting it. Cheers!)

If you are like me, a huge fan of the Julia Roberts / Hugh Grant romantic comedy "Notting Hill", then a stroll around the Notting Hill area is definitely in order. 

First of all, Notting Hill is definitely quite a posh part of town. Lots of huge mansions and handsome flats here.




It's quite easy to search online for 'self-guided walking tours' of Notting Hill, should one wish to see where various spots where the film was shot. And that's exactly what i did on my last day in London, before taking the evening flight back to my home country.

Among the highlights were: 


This was Max and Bella's house in the movie, located at 91 Lansdowne Road. Diehards will recall that Will Thacker (Hugh Grant's character) surprised his friends by bringing Anna Scott (the famous American actress played by Julia Roberts) as his dinner date for the house party. 

The main commercial strip is Portobello Road, well known for its weekend antique market. It is worth exploring, with interesting stores; and an inordinate number of coffee shops and gourmet burger bars. 


Here's the travel bookshop where Will and  his funny assistant Martin worked, located right on this main street:


Well, of course it wasn't a travel bookshop in real life. It's actually a gift shop selling trinkets that hapless tourists fall for.


The highlight of the walk was to check out the famous house with the blue door, where Will lived. If one recalls, he accidentally bumped into Anna on the street, spilling orange juice all over her shirt. He pointed at the blue door, and offered to take her there, where she could change clothes and be back on the street in a "non-prostitute sense." Then they had their "surreal but nice" conversation, and kissed, and ...okay okay, i'm not gonna narrate the whole movie ;-D 


 Write this down. It’s located at 280 Westbourne Park Road. And if you look at the area map closely (see above photo), it is actually featured there.

To digress a bit: The house with the blue door was actually owned by the movie's screenwriter, Richard Curtis. He eventually sold it (after its value went up after the movie, so you could say the movie was the world's most expensive and elaborate real property advertisement ;-D). The new owners got tired of tourists (like me) who search for it, and painted the door black (boo!) and removed the number (boo!). Eventually, they changed heart (cheers!) and now it is back to its familiar blue colour. 


Ah, back to our stroll. Westbourne Park Road intersects Portobello Road, so it is quite easy to find. Here's a tip: It's the junction where there are three coffee shops: 








The house is something like ten steps away from the Starbucks. And here it is. Wallah!



Don't knock, though. Will and Anna are in the US, and Spike is having a hot tub bath.