Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
The alarm went at 8:30am and we took our bags down at 9:30am to check out. We left our new North Face bag and the other items we didn’t need in Brunei at reception and caught the metro back to Sentral station and then a bus to the airport (10 Ringgits each, 75mins). As we just had hand luggage we were able to use the self check in machine, and we boarded our Air Asia flight after eating at O’Brien’s Irish sandwich shop.
We touched down in Brunei Darussalam, officially the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace. This completed ten out of ten ASEAN countries for mark (just nine for me, as I am missing Indonesia, but Bali is very easy to visit from Perth, so we will do it soon no doubt) and probably the smallest country of our trip with just 400,000 citizens. Like in Malaysia the women wear brightly coloured burkas. Our hotel pickup met us at arrivals (10 Brunei Dollars) and whisked us off to our hotel, the Traders Inn (£30 per night). It was a long three-storey building next to a small shopping centre in an out-of-town location with flakey WiFi. We braved the rain and dashed the short distance to the large supermarket called Supa Save where we stocked up with snacks and supplies before heading back to eat and sleep.
Thursday 22nd January
We had our cereal in the bedroom and met our driver who was to take us on a tour of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (7 stops for £50). The day began with a false start as we had to return to the hotel because we had forgotten the camera. We headed off for the second time, past a modern Police HQ covered in grid-like square windows to our first stop, Agro Park. This was a horticultural place set in the countryside with animals, birds, ornamental gardens and flowers (entry free). The main entrance led us past a series of elevated walkways and gardens towards a field full of deer, a cage of small turkey-like birds with blue and red faces and another with peacocks inside. We saw more deer, sheltering from the rain, a group of long-eared white goats eating, ostriches, and what could have been emus. We then turned right towards a collection of greenhouses, in front of which were beautiful examples of topiary and metal sculptures of insects. Heading back towards the exit we stopped in a large modern glass house in which we found great examples of orchids, lettuces, herbs and other plants for sale, before heading off to the opulant Empire Hotel & Country Club. Set in a vast set of grounds the hotel was a spectacular modern edifice of marble, gold and stone. We entered the palatial lobby with its dome and chandeliers, and headed down two gold escalators with the roof soaring above us to get into the swimming pool area at the rear. The main pool was huge, and had canoes in it, but there was a children’s pool too and two small beaches (one of which was surprising covered in litter!). Next stop was the city’s principal mosque, the beautiful Jame Asr’ Hassanil Bolkiah. With its blue and white tiled walls and glorious golden domes, it was a sight to behold. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed in as it was closed to visitors for the day but that didn’t stop us admiring the staircases, minarets and tree-lined entrance. After that we visited the Royal Regalia Museum (entry free) which was full of presents from overseas dignatories received by the Sultan. It also showed copies of the Sultan’s coronation chair, throne and the chariots used on his coronation in 1967. We then were taken to a Brunei version of KFC for lunch and then on to see the floating village known as the Venice of the East. This was an area of houses built on stilts over the river. There were a couple of boatmen offering to talk us on a tour but we declined thinking we might do it in conjunction with a trip to see the monkeys another day. Just down the road was the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque a large, square, white building with the obligatory gold domes that reminded us of the Jesus Christ Cathedral in Moscow. To one side, in the river, was a traditional boat made of concrete and beautifully decorated to complement the mosque. Again we were denied access due to it not being a day when they accept tourists (tourists are only allowed Saturday to Wednesday and not during prayers). Our final tourist stop was the Istana Nurul Iman Palace, the largest residential palace in the world, and occupied only by one family, although the Sultan does have 19 children. The general public is only allowed in during certain days of the year, so we had to settle for some photos next to the oppulent gates, and of the royal guards on sentry duty. We stopped again further down the road to see another view of the palace over the river, although only the pointy roof and golden dome was visible. On the way back to the hotel we stopped in the Yayasan Shopping Complex and I bought three t-shirts for £6 in the sales but there wasn’t much else we needed and by then we were tired so we headed home. We rested a bit in the room, and I had a nap before we went to bed.
Friday 23rd January
Next day we decided to have a rest day, which proved to be a good idea as it rained strongly for most of the day. For lunch we went to the Traders Inn Cafe, one the corner of the hotel building which had working internet. Mark had flat noodles with vegetables which were very nice and I had fish and a carrot juice. We went to Supa Save, showered and watched some films in the room before bed.
Saturday 24th January
The day after, as arranged, the driver Erwan met us at 1pm and drove us once more to the Omar Ali mosque (15 Brunei Dollars return). This time we were able to enter but not before adorning ourselves with one of the long, black robes by the entrance (free entry and free robe hire). Inside the large space was decorated with chandeliers, carpets and stained glass windows and there were half a dozen men on their knees praying. There was a smaller area behind a wooden screen for the women. After taking it in we drove to the pier by the floating village nearby in order to hire a man and a boat to take us on a trip to see the Proboscis monkeys (20 Brunei Dollars). Erwan joined us too and the four of us sped off down the river until all signs of civilization disappeared and it was just us and the mangrove forest. I saw a glimpse of what I thought was an iguana swimming although no one else saw it. We continued past the Istana Palace and its private pier and soon turned into a small inlet, killed the engine and starting scanning the trees for signs of life. Despite us all doing our best monkey noises nothing appeared. We continued along the river, stopping here and there looking for our orange-coated friends but with no luck. We turned starting to head back and the boat driver said the monkeys tend to sleep at this time of day. We had just about given up hope when I saw them in the trees to our left. We got as close as we could and watched them in the treetops playing. One walked along the branches in front of us in profile and we could see his famously big nose. They were larger than the Malaysian monkeys we saw and had a dark orange face, light orangey-brown coat and a dark tail. Returning to our pier we saw another drop briefly into the water and the boat driver saw a crocodile but we missed it. Back at the hotel we tried a Chinese restaurant for our late lunch. I had a fish and rice dish and dumpling soup and Mark had sweet and sour chicken and rice. We then went back to the room for an evening of telly and watching ‘Friends With Better Lives’ on Couchtuner.com. I also called home to wish Bruno all the best for his six-month Colombia trip he won at University funded by Santander, as he was flying the next day, and we called it a night.
Sunday 25th January
The following day the hotel let us check out late so we spent the morning online doing our things and they took us to the airport at 2pm (10 Brunei Dollars). Mark had a whopper meal while we waited and I had a caramel sundae with extra caramel, as I was in pain already so there seemed no reason not to. We then boarded our AirAsia flight back to KL, Malaysia.