October 5, 2017
We’re currently spending 2 days in Brunei and I have to admit that we almost didn’t come here. We were not sure whether it was worth coming here and whether we would have something to do even for 2 short days. Those concerns turned out to be completely unfounded. There are a few seriously beautiful sites to see in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital.
Plus, seeing how this small but rich country functions has also been an interesting experience. For example, pretty much everyone drives here – which is probably not surprising given the extremely low oil prices here. Most cars that you see on the roads look very new and expensive. Public transport is almost nonexistent (or “difficult”, as the locals put it). Taxis are few and far between, and they stop working around 7 pm. Everything is clean and well maintained. Every Friday between 12 and 2 pm it’s prayer time, so everything is closed then. There is lots of construction work going on everywhere.
And yet, not everything is new and modern and shiny. Brunei also still has its old parts, such as the biggest village in the world built on stilts – see photos below. Some houses in that village are abandoned (although the village is in the center of Brunei’s capital), some are still used but barely standing. The animals (chickens, roosters, cats) in this village are all locked in cages – for their own safety maybe? Nevertheless, it’s nice that this piece of history is still standing and not being demolished to make way for more modern developments, for which clearly there would be enough money and ideas.
There is immense respect here for the Sultan and his family. By pure chance, we got to see the Sultan (once the richest man in the world and now still the richest monarch in the world), as he went for the Friday noon prayer into a mosque and we happened to be there too. Our guide for the day recognized the sultan’s car in front of the mosque and told us to wait 20 minutes for the religious service to be over, if we want to see him. So we did, and we were surprised at how simply he came out of the mosque, no bodyguards in sight, surrounded by people pushing each other to be near him. He took his time to greet people, shake their hands, let them take selfies with him. Then he got into his car and drove himself away. All very simple and normal.
We got a glimpse of the sultan’s palace from a boat on the river. The palace is only open to visitors for 3 days per year at the end of Ramadan. It has 1788 rooms, of which 257 are bathrooms, a surface of 200’000 square meters, and is thus the largest private residence in the world. The garden looked huge too, but I’m not sure about its exact size. We had a better view from our boat of another palace built on top of a nearby hill. Our guide told us the sultan built that for his third wife. That palace also looked huge. The sultan used to have a collection of 2000+ cars, but I understand most of them have been abandoned and he now “only” maintains and uses about 100 cars (but fortunately he always takes the same car when he goes to the Friday prayer, so it’s easily recognizable).
There are 2 main mosques in Brunei’s capital and they are both very impressive.
The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque was built in honor of the previous sultan of Brunei and is surrounded by an artificial lagoon. The main dome of the mosque is covered in pure gold. The interior is for prayer only, so as tourists we were only allowed to take a look inside from the entrance and taking photos of the interior was forbidden.
The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque was built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the current sultan’s reign. It’s the largest mosque in Brunei. The sultan has his own private entrance to the mosque.