48 Hours in Majestic Bandar Seri Begawan

(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – As one of Southeast Asia’s sovereign states, Brunei Darussalam isn’t at the top of the holiday destination list for travellers or tourists from Indonesia. Apart from its climatic condition, which is very similar to that of tropical Indonesia, what other things do Brunei Darussalam offer for visitors from Indonesia? I set out to find out more. 

Brunei Darussalam is about 5,765 km2 in size and is located on the northern coast of Kalimantan (the island traditionally known as Borneo, the third-largest island in the world after Greenland and Papua). 

Brunei’s geographic location is quite strategic, directly facing the South China Sea. It is completely surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and separated into two parts by the Sarawak district of Limbang. Nearby, to its east, is the Malaysian state of Sabah. 

A convenient and practical way to reach Brunei Darussalam for Indonesian travellers other than flying direct from Jakarta with the Royal Brunei airline is by land along the northern part of Borneo. One can opt for a route via Kuching, which borders West Kalimantan or via Kota Kinabalu which borders North Kalimantan. 

The duration of the two overland travel options can take up to eleven hours, given the geographic condition of Kalimantan which is still covered by dense tropical rainforest and is divided by natural rivers with strong rapids. 

Administratively, Brunei Darussalam is divided into four districts, namely, Belait, Brunei-Muara, Temburong, and Tutong. 

Even though it is small in size, Brunei is one of Southeast Asia’s most developed countries because since gaining its independence from Britain in 1984, the monarchy has become prosperous, thanks to its large petroleum reserves and oil industry which produces millions of cubic meters annually. 

It is not surprising that Forbes ranked Brunei as the 5th richest country in the world, due to the vast oil and gas fields which have been able to create prosperity for the country. Since 1967, it has been ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the son of King Omar Ali Saifuddin III. Bolkiah is the 29th king in the lineage of Brunei Darussalam rulers. 

The Seria and Kuala Belait Districts are the two largest petroleum producing regions in Brunei Darussalam. The capital city of Brunei is Bandar Seri Begawan, popularly known as BSB. 

The name of the capital was only officially used in 1970 to honour the legacy of King Omar Ali Saifuddin III who fought for the independence of Brunei Darussalam from Britain. Before, it was called Brunei Town, the name given by its colonial master who ruled the place since the 18th century. 

Usually, an overland trip from Bandar Seri Begawan to the Malaysian border on the south (the town of Miri) will certainly pass through Seria and Belait. Oil and natural gas exploration is the main industry that defines these two cities and its busy economic activity. One can see many oil wells dotting the landscape. 

I myself visited Brunei Darussalam through Miri, the Malaysian border town in Sarawak which is also the closest city to Brunei. There are many international buses operating between Miri and BSB. They make a round trip twice daily (in the morning and evening). 

My journey to Brunei started from the Miri bus terminal in Pujut, not far from the downtown area. There is only one bus operator serving the Miri to BSB route, namely the PHLS Express Bus. The fare is around RM45 (or the equivalent of Rp157,000). The fare will be higher if you make a return trip from Bandar Seri Begawan, which is BND18 (or the equivalent of Rp180,000). 

If the road isn’t too congested or one isn’t stuck for too long at the immigration checkpoint, the trip usually takes around 4 hours. 

The bus from BSB to Miri departs at 7am and 1pm. For the return trip, the bus will depart from Miri at 8.15 am and 15.45 pm. From BSB, one can catch the bus to Miri in the downtown on the waterfront side, across from the jetty to Kampong Ayer. 

If we look at the map, Brunei’s geography is separated by two parts – west and east – by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The capital city of BSB, along with Kuala Belait and Seria, are on the east side, while on the west side is Temburong, home to the state’s national park and natural reserves. 

Temburong, hilly and still covered with dense forest, is rich with exotic native Bornean fauna and flora. This is a haven that no nature lover should miss out exploring. 

Brunei’s climate is tropical all year with high temperatures and humidity. During the day, even in the rainy season, the weather will be hot and humid. Thus, sporting a hat and light jacket is highly recommended if you want to get around BSB comfortably by foot. 

The language used in Brunei Darussalam is Malay with the prevalent use of English reaching 95%. 

The gateway to BSB by land is the Brunei Bay with a jetty which also connects downtown BSB with Kampong Ayer, the largest floating village in Brunei Darussalam. 

The old quarter of BSB was along the Brunei Bay. As the oldest commercial centre in BSB, there were rows of shop houses or offices whose architecture defines the rich history of the city. 

Unfortunately, the trace of the old city has been lost because the waterfront area was severely damaged during World War II. Then, BSB was used as a base for allied troops fighting the Japanese in Asia Pacific. 

Currently, the architecture along the Brunei Bay is heavily influenced by modern retro style popular during the 70s. 

Interestingly, other than an absolute monarchy, Brunei is also known as an Islamic country. One would find many shop signs originally in English, including international brands, are translated into and written in Arabic alphabet. 

Not far from the waterfront, one will see the imposing structure of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III Mosque. As the royal mosque of the Sultanate of Brunei it is considered the most impressive mosque in the Asia Pacific. 

This mosque has become an icon of Brunei Darussalam because of its success in combining the exotic Mughal architecture with modernist Italian styles. This hardly comes at a surprise because it was designed by Italian architect Cavaliere Rudolfo Nolli in the 1950s, in collaboration with a renowned architectural firm from Malaysia, Booty & Edwards Chartered Architects. 

Built on a lagoon on the banks of the Kampong Ayer River, this 52-meter high mosque seems to float on the water. Its grandeur can be appreciated from its marble minarets and dome gilded in gold leaf. Visitors are also treated to the sight of fountains and beautiful garden around the mosque. It’s a scenic spot many travellers spend their time taking pictures. If you haven’t seen the golden mosque, you haven’t been to Brunei! 

Interestingly, inside the mosque minaret there is an elevator to the top so one can enjoy a panoramic view overlooking BSB from a height. 

Not far from the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is the Royal Regalia. The museum has been open to the public since September 30, 1992. It is located right on Jalan Sultan, the main street in Bandar Seri Begawan. 

Not only does the Royal Regalia Museum feature a stunning luxurious architectural design, it also has a collection of royal items and jewellery replicas as well as the regalia of the Sultan and the royal family, from the past to the present. 

Most of the collections in the Royal Regalia are gifts from the world’s heads of state to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, but several collections go back to before the sultan officially took office as head of government in 1967. We can also marvel at gifts from several Indonesian officials for the Brunei ruler. 

Before entering this luxurious building, visitors are required to take off their footwear and put them on the racks located next to the entrance. There are two officers at the entrance to greet visitors and explain the rules, including their having to deposit their belongings. 

Each visitor is required to register in advance and deposit their belongings in a locker. Except on the ground floor, cameras (including from cell phones) are strictly prohibited while one is in the exhibition gallery. 

The museum is spacious and ultra clean. The floor is covered with thick carpets and the room is air-conditioned. The collection is also very well preserved. There are officers who will go around to monitor visitor activity and make sure they don’t take pictures. 

The Royal Regalia is open for visits every day of the week from 9.00- 17.00 with the exception of Friday (break from 11.30-14.00) and Saturday (opens at 9.45). 

After exploring the collection at Royal Regalia, I decided to visit another iconic place at BSB, the first mall in the city. Located on Jalan Sultan, the same street with the Royal Regalia and the Sultan Omar Ali Mosque, the mall seemed a little worn and quiet. There was a large sign that reads “Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation” that looks like a typical shopping centre signage style. 

There are not too many tenants inside the three-storey mall. Most of the space is filled by local and international chain restaurants – a popular hangout place frequented by locals. One can also buy typical Brunei Darussalam souvenirs such as T-shirts or various trinkets. 

In the mall’s yard, we can see a large hallway with marble benches which has become a popular place for locals to enjoy the sunset. There is an inscription in the middle of this wide, black-marble veranda which reads “In commemoration of the Sultan’s 60th birthday on July 15, 2006.” There is also a ball-shaped monument and sculpture in the shape of number seven decorated with gilded strings. 

Another must-visit spot in BSB is Kampong Ayer (water village). Located in the Brunei-Muara district, the interlinked traditional houses built on stilts are home to more than 20,000 people. 

Dubbed “Venice of the East”, one can witness the historic settlement and traditional way of life of the old Brunei, where the river and sea were an integral part of the country’s social and economic life. 

I learned that this village was built around six centuries ago. Currently, this well-maintained floating village is made up of around 4,000 houses, all of which are made of wood. 

Motorboats are the only means of transportation connecting mainland Bandar Seri Begawan with Kampong Ayer. On the pier next to Brunei Bay, there are many wooden speed boats offering their services to take us across. 

Fares vary from BND 50 cent to cross from the waterfront (near BSB Bus Terminal) to the central pier at Kampong Ayer. There are also dozens of jetties (smaller piers) scattered in Kampong Ayer to go around. 

Exploring this dense but neatly-arranged Kampong Ayer is done along a wooden platform. The nearly 30 km long walkway serves as the veins connecting all aspects of life this floating village, from schools to art galleries. There is even a police station and fire department. 

From Kampong Ayer, one can continue the journey to Gadong subdistrict which is known as the centre of night culinary. It’s like a mix between a night market with a food court. One can easily find various local delicacies featuring authentic Malay cuisine. 

To visit the Gadong, one can take a bus from the BSB bus terminal, costing BND 1. Along the way you will be amazed at the cleanliness of the city and also the serenity the Brunei capital has to offer. 

Not far from Gadong, there is the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque which is no less magnificent with its 29 towering domes. Also, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the luxurious Nurul Iman Palace nearby. Even though entrance is prohibited, we can take pictures in front of the palace gates. 

All in all, Bandar Seri Begawan offers a little more than your average tourist destination. This relatively quiet city offers an escape away from the hustle and bustle typical of other big cities. It only takes 48 hours to fall in love with this charming and welcoming city. (Freddy Wally)