Published: December 6th 2009November 22nd 2009
We made the round trip back to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah from the Philippines because of the 21 day visa limit. Of course you can extend the visa but we'd planned to do this when we returned and flying in and out of the country was a cheaper alternative to extending it twice so it was a bit of tooing and froing but this is the way things worked best for us. Rather than just fly in and straight out again we decided to stay a week and make the short trip across to Brunei.. it just seemed rude not to go when it's only a few hours away!
There are a few ways to get to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, but we chose to get the bus from KK to Menumbok (RM15), then a speedboat to Labuan Island (RM15), a ferry to the Serasa Ferry Terminal in Brunei (RM34) and finally a shuttle bus from the terminal to the town ($2). It was all very straightforward and one journey led straight on from the next so although it took the best part of a day to get there it was hassle free with the only stress
being the usual scrum to get on and off the boats before everyone else!
We really didn't know what to expect from Brunei, for us the only real things we knew about this country was that it had a very rich Sultan and was a strict muslim country. We had imagines of all the houses being gold plated and everyone wearing lots of expensive jewellery but it's really not like that at all. As you drive into the city the majority of the houses are pretty much the same as you see in the rest of Asia but having said that we did spot more than a handful of huge mansions lining the road. The city centre is tiny, we'd planned for a few days to have a look round it thinking there would be lots to see but it's probably only the size of a small town in England so an afternoon is more than enough really.
We'd got there quite late as darkness was falling so it was too late to do much that day. When we got off the bus we were met by Danny, a tour guide and rolled our eyes as he latched
onto us in the usual fashion telling us about the city and helping us to the cheapest gueshouse in town ($30 or £13.50) but things were kind of different here.. he didn't want paying or tipping and genuinely was helping us out by giving us a bit of info. Of course he mentioned that he was a guide and told us about what he could do for us but he was in no way pushy and we left it that we'd leave a message on reception for him if we needed his services.
With the evening to fill we took a walk into the city to see what there was to see. The centre is dominated by the beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. This is probably the most iconic symbol of the city you'll see on photos and it really is quite something both in the day with the sun shining down on it and at night when it's all lit up. Having took this in we went to the shopping centre, again not too much going on here with a small department store and a few eating places so we left and found a nice cheap restaurant
round the corner that was to be our place to eat for our stay there.. honestly if you are after a huge choice of restaurants don't come here as there really isn't much of a selection!
We hadn't really made any plans on how to fill our days here so decided to just have a bit of a look round the city the following day. We'd both read about the Royal Regalia Museum and intended to spend our afternoon there as it sounded fascinating. With the morning to fill we had a short walk around the city but it was so hot we retreated to an internet cafe to while away a few hours in the air conditioning. Come 1pm the museum had opened again for the afternoon so we walked up there keen to learn more about the Sultan of Brunei.. a name that people associate with immense wealth but what else...
Like most things in the city the museum was built by the Sultan himself and it really is one of the best museums we've been to in terms of holding your interest. Inside we found information on his life and his family; saw the real
items used in his coronation locked up in a big glass box with an armed guard.. crowns, swords, throne and even a gold hand that was used to support his chin through the whole ceremony; a mock up parade of the people involved in his coronation but best of all and probably the most interesting were various gifts from countries around the world for his birthday, anniversaries etc.
So what do you get a Sultan who has so much money that he could literally buy anything he wanted? Well... mostly a load of old tat.. but expensive tat of course! We had to wonder why all these things were on display in the museum, maybe he didn't like these gifts or maybe he already had one of those things already. We both walked round imagining that he must have thousands of cupboards in his 1,700 room palace full of gifts he didn't really like.. and if he doesn't like it does he throw it down like a small child saying that he didn't want that one and why didn't people get him the things he really wanted!?
Whilst most of the items really were blinging gaudy items, the
huge mirror mosque model was probably the most hideous, there were also some really nice things that if he needed a new home for them we'd be happy to take them off his hands. Brass copies of the Nazca Lines from Peru, a beautiful Mother of Pearl box from Indonesia and a lovely carved wooden chest from Trinidad were among our favourites. Things that seemed to be favoured gifts were desk pen sets, desk gongs, tea sets (Thailand had given 2 already!), photos & paintings and gold copies of the Koran. Full marks had to go to the people who decided that a piece of rattan string would appeal.. it was original anyway! There were hundreds of gifts there.. our Queen had decided that a crystal green bowl with oak leaves would be nice, thankfully this was one of the nicer items in there even though he didn't like it!
We spent hours in there pouring over all the items on display, it was a bit like nosing though his house really and everyone loves things like that. The museum was of course built in marble and was very grand indeed. It wasn't the best laid out museum we'd
been to but it was free so no one can complain on that point really and if anyone does visit Brunei we'd put a visit here towards the top of your list as it makes for a fascinating afternoon.
So having seen all things blinging we were left with what to do to fill our second day. Probably much lesser known is that Brunei is home to some of the best preserved primary jungle in Borneo, this is because the country has so much money in their oil there was no need to log the jungle to gain income from the wood. More good news is that this jungle is also home to some of the best wildlife in Borneo because hunting is also banned here. Keen to experience a bit of the wild side we looked into a few tours and after much deliberation between a group tour and Danny's private tour we settled on going with Danny as we felt we might not only see the wildlife but also learn a bit more about this country too.
So our second day we booked Danny to take us out to the Brunei River, the trip also visited
the water village which is the original home of the Brunei people, so we got to see quite a few elements which made for a varied day. We went over to the water village first with Danny telling us about life in Brunei as we went. We learnt many interesting facts about life here which may be of interest... people don't pay tax (the Sultan foots that bill!), they get free healthcare & schooling, car tax is only $30 (£13) a year, petrol is only 25c a litre (£0.10p it's subsidised by the Sultan), there is virtually no crime (speeding is the only crime), if you need land to build a house you can have it, there are no homeless and whilst they do have poor people like any country no one is so poor that they don't have a roof over their head and adequate medicine & shooling. Sounds good?! Well we thought so. Certainly His Majesty Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah looks after his people and from those we spoke to he is very well respected and liked which is a good job as he is not only the Sultan but also the Prime
Minister, the Head of Defence and the Head of Finance so what he says pretty much goes!
After having a look around some of the water village houses we made our way up the river and past the Sultans Palace. You can't really see that much of it was you pass by but Danny told us that it has 1,700 rooms, the mosque next door really does have a roof of gold and yes it has a swimming pool (Sophie asked!). Not content with just the palace, we also passed his 'activity area' which has a garage housing two
black hawk helicopters, then another garage with jet skis and other toys as well as countless other smaller palaces and houses for various members of his family. We were also lucky enough to see his private jumbo jet flying overhead most likely whisking him off to some exotic place around the world with one (or all) of his three wives. WOW INDEED!
So having learnt about Brunei, it's peoples lives and that of it's leader we were onto the second section of our trip.. and probably the bit we were most excited about... the wildlife bit! Up the river
we went until we turned off into a small tributary. Danny had mentioned crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and a whole host of other things that we might see, but as with any trip like this we always think the worst so we aren't disappointed if we don't see things.. but this trip was to be no disappointment. We'd only just turned down the engine and started to peer into the trees then the boat man pointed up and we saw a monitor lazing on a branch. Just a few more metres along we virtually came face to face with a troop of Proboscis Monkeys right next to the boat, we'd seen them in Sabah but here we were much closer and with it being the morning the light was much better to take in their fabulous features and colours so we spent a while watching them do their thing in the trees with the huge male leading his hareem of ladies.
In previous trips like this we'd only caught fleeting glances of crocs and were desperate to see them up close.. but not too personal! This trip was to be that time as there are loads here and as we
went along we spotted 4 or 5 of them lazing around on the mud before they got too scared and took a dive into the water. The best sighting was a huge one who we think was hunting a troop of monkeys as they picked berries off bushes a little too close to the water, sadly for him we spoilt his breakfast and he swam off as we approached probably cursing the tourists as he went.
As well as the proboscis monkeys we also saw macaques, lots of beautiful kingfishers and other river birds and then a snake curled up in branches right above our heads. It really was so much better than we could have hoped and we would even go so far as to say that this trip outdid the Kinabantan one for us both in terms of what we saw and the quality of the guide & boatman. How they manage to spot all these things really is beyond us and must be a skill learnt over many years because had we been on our own we would have seen virtually nothing as the animals are so hard to spot.
As we sailed back to
town we saw for ourselves why there are so many fire stations in and around the water village because we saw a huge house fire in full force, Danny explained that the fires are very common here for obvious wood structure reasons, thankfully no one was hurt though but it certainly put a dampener on someones weekend. Our trip was finished off with a surprise in the form of a trip up the city's highest building to get a 360 degree view which was awesome and not something that every person gets as it's a restricted area so we felt quite privileged.
After our initial reservations we would highly recommend Danny to anyone coming to Brunei and looking for a likeable, knowledgeable and super friendly guide. It really would be hard to beat him and although his trip was a little more than we have paid elsewhere it was worth every single cent and more (if anyone would like his details please email us).
With just a few hours to fill with our last afternoon in this tiny country we took a walk up to one of the park viewpoints next to the river. It was a nice
walk to stretch our legs but involved a lot of steps which took it out of us in the virtual 100% humidity and by the end of the walk we were both reduced to dripping messes so enjoyed the ice cold showers for once!
Having not expected that much out of Brunei we were amazed at what a lovely overlooked country this is. It's never really needed tourism as a source of income in the past so people have not focused their attention on coming here, but with the oil looking like it will run out in the next 20 years we were told that they are having to think up new ideas for income and tourism will no doubt be high on their list. At the moment there is a small handful of people who venture here so it feels quite untouched which is always nice. It is however a strict muslim country with no alcohol let alone bars or clubs so if you are looking for a wildly exciting time this is not the place to come with or without your allowed duty of 12 cans! We were left a bit bemused about the $800million Empire Hotel,
supposedly one of only two 6* hotels in the world, who stays there? We really couldn't imagine that many celebrities would make use of the $16,000 a night suites when they can't sip champagne on the terrace so who does stay there? Answers on a postcard please!
There are more photos below