Published: May 30th 2008May 16th 2008
More gold and marble than you've ever seen
Remember not to lick the stamps
It is something of an irony that the best bit of Brunei - one of the richest countries in the world - is its most run down area.
Being such an oil rich country it is hard to find cheap accommodation in the capital city of Bandar but we were lucky and bagged the last rooms in the government run hostel. The only drawback was that women slept in one wing, men in another. This was the first hint we got of just how strict a Muslim country Brunei is, although the fact that the sale of alcohol is illegal should have been a clue too!
Having arrived in the late afternoon we chilled out and wondered round Bandar for a few hours, buying postcards of the main sights and stamps to send them home. The woman in the post office looked horrified when Connie licked the back of her stamps (luckily no one spotted Tracey doing the same round the corner) and we realised it is rude to lick the stamp because it bears the Sultan's face. It doesn't seem to have done the Queen any harm over all these years,
This was the best shot we could get and you can still see chipping paint on the right
but there you go!
We were allowed inside the grounds of the showpiece mosque in the centre of the city. The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque has a huge golden dome made up of tiny pieces of mosaic, though sadly it was covered in scaffolding for cleaning. It is a shame some of the other areas weren't also closed for cleaning. The building is surrounded on three sides by water, which should be a beautiful image, but the water level was too low, showing a dirty waterline around the edges. It was grey with pollution and we could see piles of rubbish sitting on the bottom. We wondered why a country with so much money was not paying people to keep such an important attraction clean and tidy. The same applies to the mosaic boat that is 'floating' in the lake and attached to the land by an ornate walkway. The mosaic was dirty, parts of it were cracked and there was litter lying all over the place. We did not go inside the mosque because it was closed for prayers, but a glimpse through the door did suggest the inside may have been better maintained than the outside.
Marble, yes. Gold, yes. Large scale, yes. Character and soul, No
The Empire - another disappointment
Being dutiful travellers we visited all the main sites - The Empire Hotel, The Sultan's Palace and the flashy shopping mall, all dubbed as 'must-sees' and 'fine examples of the wealth and opulence of Brunei'. We really wish we hadn't bothered. The Empire Hotel - Brunei's only 6 star hotel- is unquestionably grand, but completely without soul or character.
The huge amounts of ridiculously expensive marble that have been used, along with the gold edging on most surfaces created a sterile, cold atmosphere more like a hospital than a luxury hotel. The toilets - always a bench mark for the quality of a hotel - were nothing more than average with no towels to dry hands or smart soap or hand lotion either. The highlight was actually the wooden hand rail for the staircase which had marble and mother of pearl pieces inlaid all the way along it, and also the mosaic in the floor of the lower level. Outside was even more disappointing. Sunbeds sagged with neglect and parasols hung bare, the wooden skeletons poking through what we assume were once beautiful sun shades. The whole place felt a bit like it had
High end shopping
been abandoned a few years ago and no one was really taking care of it any more.
The Roof of the Sultan's Palace
The Sultan's Palace was also a let down, though we suspect if you could actually get inside it would have been amazing. Guide books and tourist leaflets make out the best time to see the palace is at night. We arrived expecting a Buckingham Palace-esque display of lights and beauty. Instead we were able to look through huge gates to a security post which obscured all else behind it. From further along the river we could see the roof of the palace, which was lit up, but just looked like a roof. Everything else was obscured by trees. We're sure the view must have been fantastic about 10 years ago before the trees grew so tall, but for now the spectacle is somewhat muted. The Sultan does open up the palace every year on his birthday and we think it would be fascinating to be allowed up the driveway and into the building for a real look at the extravagance of his wealth. As it stands though, on a regular day it is not really
No entry for David on the royal escalator
worth going out of your way to see the bits of exterior visible through the trees.
Shopping in style
The Mall in Gadong is another 'must see' and actually it was pretty good. Lots more marble (but more stylish this time) lovely cool air conditioning, pretty mosaics and ceiling freizes, a cinema and shops that you really want to go in to but the budget won't allow. A good place to spend a few hours and stock up on anything you haven't been able to get hold of in regular shops in SE Asia. Don't go along expecting it to be huge or out of the ordinary though, because it isn't.
A great 25th anniversary present
The Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque in Gadong was built to comemorate 25 years of the Sultan's reign. He paid for it all himself and it is the most spectacular building we visited in Bandar. It has been built using pure while marble and each minuaret is decorated with beautiful mosaics, including the huge golden dome in the centre. We were allowed inside this mosque once the ladies had donned full length, long sleeved black cloaks. The decoration is stunning. The
Bird's eye view
Kampung Ayer as seen from the window of the Canadian Embassy!
lights are all gold and Swarovski crystal and the prayer mats have been specially designed with an image of the mosque sewn in to each one. The Mosque had room for over 1000 people to pray at once. Everyone, including the women was allowed into the main prayer room to see the incredible chandelier in the centre of the room. No photos allowed though incase someone tried to copy the design somewhere else in the world. Interestingly the Sultan has his own entrance for the rare occasions he visists the mosque. It comes complete with a double staircase and an escalator up the middle. Only royalty are allowed to use the escalator so the Queen was allowed to use it when she visited, but prime ministers and presidents of visiting countries may not. They have to use the staircase instead.
Kampung Ayer is home to over 30,000 people. Their families have lived there for over 600 years and most refuse to be moved by the rapid commercialisation and modernisation of Brunei despite efforts by the government to move them to more sanitary and regulated housing.
This is where we really found the heart of Brunei and
Home from home
Some of these houses are home to over 15 people
had the best experience of our whole trip there. We took one of the flying coffins (so called due to shape and speed) from the dock at Bandar over to one of scores of little jettys sticking out of the water village. Then we simply wandered around the myriad of raised walkways looking at the fascinating mix of houses all built on stilts above the sea. Some are very old and almost collapsing into the water. Others are new and beautifully decorated with pot plants outside. All are small with recently added electricity and running water, though all the drains except the loo empty straight out under their homes. Most roofs are made of corrugated metal and the walls of wood are in various states of disrepair.
There is a paradox of images everywhere you look. From the outside homes appear to be slums, but inside doorways you catch glimpses of beautiful ornate chairs. Dirty, naked children run around, but pristine white washing hangs to dry outside homes. Walkways are rickety and dubious at best, but satelite dishes hint at expensive tvs inside. We wandered along, saying hello to all the children who found it fascinating that we'd come
Don't judge a book by its cover
The inside of a house in Kampung Ayer
along without a guide. Then we were invited inside one of the homes.
It belonged to the head of the district (the whole area is divided up and organised like any other city) and was suitable positioned next to a stilty mosque. The plain exterior opened up to a suprisingly immaculate interior with a special room for receiving guests. We were ushered in and, next suprise, there was air con. Suprise 3, the furniture. We felt grubby and smelly in such a beautiful room decorated in lace and gold with the kind of chairs you'd expect to find in a throne room. Then we were given tea, fried bananas and rice. It was incredible hospitality considereing we'd just been wandering past trying to peer in to windows and sums up why this village must be allowed to survive. The people were more friendly, more hospitalble and more caring than anywhere else in the supposedly more civilised developed parts of the city.
Random ropes bring an end to our trip
And just as we were leaving Brunei a lot of cheering and grunting caught our ears. In a showground area in the centre of town huge crowds had gathered.
Not quite as fast as the 'flying coffin' boats that ferry people from the shore!
The presence of an ambulance and a loudhaler lead us to believe it may be a football match. But no. Nothing so ordinary for Brunei. It was in fact a tug-of-war contest and a very popular one at that. Some teams didn't seem that well prepared though, wearing rolled up jeans instead of any kind of sports gear. And one coach deserves a mention for his demented shouting and jumping on the sideline. Sadly his team were rubbish and in the end it was him not the grunting hulks of men straining on the ground that got all the cheers.
A strange but wonderful end to our 3 days in Brunei...Next up Sabah.