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!

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