Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Built in memory of the sultan that led the country to independence, this mosque boasts a 44m minaret that is the highest structure in the downtown area. Rumour has it that the nearby Islamic Bank was forced to sacrifice its top floor because it was inadvertently planned to be higher!
It was just a short 1h ferry ride from Labuan before I arrived in Muara, the port town in Brunei, population-wise the smallest country in Southeast Asia. And it was just another 30 minute bus ride before I was in Bandar Seri Begawan, the sultanate's capital. This was my second time in the country, but my first had been a work trip where I was pretty much holed up in the hotel, and shuttled from meeting to meeting in office buildings, so I was determined to explore more of the city independently this time.
Brunei has a rather sterile reputation, and in some ways its quite deserved. Being a staunchly Muslim country, the place is entirely "dry" i.e. alcohol is forbidden to be publicly sold. Having a relatively small population, especially in relation to the physical size of the country, even the downtown area seems perpetually quiet. No bustling megamalls here, let alone nightlife of any kind. But make no mistake about it, it's a rich country, with its coffers filled with oil money. And with its wealth comes also one of the richest monarchies in the world.
Historically, the Bruneian sultanate used to control huge swathes of Northern
Aka Water Village, the supposed birthplace of Brunei. This self-contained community of houses on stilts over Sungei Brunei have been around a millenium!
Borneo, including parts that are now Malaysian (Sabah & Sarawak), and even tracts of the Philippine Islands. But for reasons poorly-explained in the history textbooks, much of it was ceded to the British and other neighbouring powers. What remains are two pieces of Borneo wilderness (bizarrely) separated by Limbang (part of Malaysian Sarawak), lying within reach of rich oilfields.
Despite its size, it's also a somewhat significant regional neighbour to my home country of Singapore. Having also previously been considered for incorporation into Malaysia during the post-colonial independence movement era, Singapore and Brunei share a somewhat special relationship. I'm of course hazy about the historical details, but for some reason, the Bruneian currency is pegged to the Singapore dollar at par, and the country's monetary policy relinquished to the Singapore central bank! So Singaporean money is legal tender here in Brunei (happily for me, I can attest to it), and technically the reverse ought to be true also, (though my experience is that Bruneian money isn't that widely accepted back home). But I think the banks will take it.
This special relationship probably also explains why when I was a trainee in the Police Academy back in Singapore,
The translucent-white glob is ambuyat, basically sago paste and traditionally the country's staple because rice used to be hard to come by.
we had Bruneian trainees also in our squad, as part of a friendly exchange of sorts, between the two countries. With this visit, of course I also took the opportunity to catch up with two of them, one of whom was also my bunk-mate. Seeing him with his one-year daughter, as is the case whenever I'm in the company of friends who're already married with children, made me reflect of course over the passage of time. The eight-plus years that have passed since my time in the Police Academy have certainly flown by...
Stayed at KH Soon Guesthouse.
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