My kind of place: While it’s not an obvious South East Asian destination, Brunei is well worth taking a chance on, writes Nick Boulos.
The wild and wonderful attractions of Brunei
They say that good things come in small packages and that’s certainly true when it comes to Brunei Darussalam: not only one of South East Asia’s tiniest nations, but also one of its most overlooked. While travellers flock to Borneo for its jungle-clad national parks and tree-swinging orang-utans, few venture to Brunei – located on the island’s northern coast, sandwiched between the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and overlooking the South China Sea.
Those that do are rewarded with a kingdom that glitters. With one of the world’s wealthiest men calling the shots as head of state, oil-rich Brunei (and its much-loved Sultan) is big on bling. Dominating its compact capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, are two larger-than-life mosques with gargantuan, gold-topped domes and tall gates encrusted with precious stones. Elsewhere, and barely visible through the tall trees, is the world’s largest residential palace (no prizes for guessing who lives there), with almost 2,000 rooms and ceremonial halls that accommodate 4,000 people. Far more interesting than all the glitz, however, are the heady night markets and untamed jungles that are home to remote lodges and endangered wildlife.
A comfortable bed
Fit for a sultan, the Empire Hotel and Country Club (www.theempirehotel.com; 00673 241 8888) is Brunei’s most palatial pad. Not just for the 522 rooms (think rare marble bathrooms and bed linen of fine Egyptian cotton) but also for the heavenly spa, sandy beaches and lagoon-style swimming pool. Ostentatious, it was originally built as the private residence of Prince Jefri, the Sultan’s younger brother. Double rooms from 400 Brunei dollars (Dh1,157), including breakfast.
For a night on the wild side, book one of the 17 rooms at the Ulu Ulu resort (www.uluuluresort.com; 00673 244 1791), deep within the Ulu Temburong National Park. Surrounded by dense jungle with trees more than 50 metres high, it’s a favourite escape of the crown prince, although he tends to arrive by helicopter. For mere mortals, it’s a bumpy but thrilling journey by road and boat. Rise early for the vertiginous canopy walk to see the dawn mist linger over the treetops. Doubles from 290 dollars (Dh839), including meals and activities.
Find your feet
Dissected by the muddy Brunei River, Bandar is a small capital that can be explored on foot in less than an hour. Start at the waterfront, where dozens of water taxis tout for business. Across the road and impossible to miss is the Mughal-style Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which was built in 1958 by the previous sultan. Pop inside to see the Persian carpets and Venetian stained glass. Local law decrees that no other building can be taller than its 52-metre marble minarets. A nearby bank had to remove its top two storeys for breaching the rule.
Stroll north along Jalan Sultan to the Royal Regalia Museum (00673 224 4545) for a glimpse into the Sultan’s haul of priceless possessions, including his three-kilogram golden crown.
Meet the locals
Across the Brunei River is Kampong Ayer, home to about 40,000 people who live in wooden houses on stilts above the water. The sprawling community – complete with its own mosques, schools and football stadiums – first took shape 1,000 years ago and was once a thriving centre for fishing and metalwork.
The locals are welcoming and easy to interact with. Front doors are left wide open, while families are often found fishing on the wobbly boardwalks and inviting visitors to join them for barbecued baby clams or a game of sepak takraw (a cross between football and volleyball with a ball made from rattan cane).
Be sure to visit the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery (00673 220 0874) for an interesting background into the village’s past and humble beginnings.
Book a table
Sapphira (00673 223 2021) is a charming restaurant and cake shop with beautifully carved wooden panels and tiny birdcages hanging from the ceiling. The menu is Malay based – slurp on the laksa Sarawak (soup-based noodles with fresh fish and lemon grass, 6 dollars [Dh17]), but save room for the nasi lemak (sweet rice cooked in coconut milk, 6.50 dollars [Dh19]).
A Bruneian staple is ambuyat. It’s a thick, gloopy and starchy delicacy made from the sago palm tree. Eaten using chandas (bamboo chopsticks connected at the top), the tasteless ambuyat is rolled and dipped in a condiment (usually a sour and spicy durian sauce), before being swallowed whole. Try it at Aminah Arif (22 dollars [Dh64], 00673 265 3036), but be warned: it’s an acquired taste that even divides locals.
Beyond the uninspired malls of Bandar, filled with boutiques and luxury brands, are one or two worthwhile options. Try the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Centre or the Kianngh Market, a collection of ramshackle stalls under low tarpaulin sheets, beside a canal. It’s an intriguing place for a stroll, the air thick with the smell of dried fish, fresh chillies and ginger. Also on offer are pearls and pastel-coloured powders used during wedding ceremonies.
What to avoid
Tong keng: skewers of honey-coated chicken posterior sold at Gadong Night Market.
A day trip to Ulu Temburong National Park. This wild slither of land to the south-east of Bandar is separated from the rest of Brunei by Sarawak. No need to pack your passport, though – the speedy shuttle boats zip through Malaysia and into the vast Brunei Bay before reaching the jungles of Temburong. Look out for the traditional longhouses of the indigenous Iban tribe. Within the park, hike along mossy rainforest trails, take a dip beside remote waterfalls and keep watch for gibbons in the treetops.
Royal Brunei Airlines (www.flyroyalbrunei.com) flies direct from Dubai to Bandar Seri Begawan on its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Return flights cost from Dh2,215, including taxes. Flight time is around eight hours.
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