Bandar - mosques, monkeys and water villages

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February 28th 2017
Published: March 9th 2017
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Bandar Seri Begawan may be Brunei's capital city, but it doesn't have a big city feel to it. The bus from Seria took about two hours and our hotel was just round the corner from the dark and dingy surroundings of the bus station. The Brunei Hotelwas very comfortable and, while a bit more expensive than what we normally go for, very good value because of its central location.

We have to say, the city exceeded all our expectations. This began with our visit to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. Yes, it's quite a mouthful. It is breathtakingly beautiful from the outside and non-Muslims are allowed inside. Even though we were appropriately dressed, we still had to borrow a smock each to go in. Once inside we were struck by the simplicity of the design, and we were not allowed far enough inside to see the full effect of the gleaming white cupola underneath the main dome. Outside, the location is everything. The mosque is located on an artificial lagoon, and there is some serious maintenance/expansion work going on at the moment. A ceremonial barge sits on the water and from its deck you get a spectacular view of the mosque in all its glory: brilliant white marble dripping with gold.

Walking along the river front in Bandar is lovely. There is an interesting sculpture which is in the shape of the Arabic numerals for 60. This was a gift from the people of Brunei to the Sultan to mark his 60th birthday in 2006. From there you get a wonderful view of the Kampong Ayer, the water village of houses on stilts which dominates the river. The next morning we took a water taxi over the river to explore the boardwalks of the village. First we went to the impressive Cultural and Tourism Centre where we watched a video about how life used to be for the villagers. It seems a shame that there is no longer a floating market dominated by women selling their wares from their boats underneath enormous hats which shaded them from the sun. The price of progress! Next we walked for some time around the stilted houses. Wooden boardwalks lead all over the place. Some parts of the village are beautiful, others functional, and there are some sections we didn't fancy going to as well. Everyone seemed very friendly and it was incredible to get so close to such an unusual way of life.

Our next task was to flag down a passing speedboat. We wanted to go out to the mangrove swamp and see if we could see any proboscis monkeys. The guy we stopped didn't want to take us as it was almost lunchtime! He called a friend and soon enough we were speeding down the river getting a glimpse of the Sultan's palace from the waters. Half an hour or so later the boatman slowed down and went right in amongst the trees where he killed the engine. Typically there were no monkeys to be seen! He manoeuvred his way back to the river and then we sat silently in another spot. This time the monkeys did come out to play, but they were quite a long way from us. What strange animals they are with huge, pendulous noses!! All too soon our time was up and we had to head back to the city. It was a great boat trip just for the scenery, and the monkeys really were the icing on the cake.

That evening we took the complimentary transport from the hotel to The Mall in the Gadong area of the city. This huge shopping complex clearly attracts the great and good of Brunei society as it was very busy. We managed to pick up some touristy souvenirs and ate in the food court upstairs. Then we walked over to the night market which has recently been redeveloped so that it has a permanent roof. The problem is that now the smoke from the barbecues gets trapped inside so your eyes sting! We were pleased that we had eaten at The Mall because the smoke would have been a problem for us. Russ managed to find a stall selling Spanish churros and they were excellent. Just as he was tucking into them, some local students asked him to be interviewed for a video project they were doing. He had to give his thoughts about the night market, so the churros stallholder got a good plug for his business. On the way back to the hotel, the driver kindly stopped at the Jame' 'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque so we could get a look at the biggest place of worship in Brunei. With more time on our hands, we would probably have gone back for a closer look during daylight hours.

We only stayed for two nights, so after checking out we left our bags at the hotel to go and visit some museums. We had to wait a long time for a bus to take us out to the Maritime Museum. We were dropped off by the road and then had a bit of a walk there, stopping off at the Malay Technology Museum on the way. That turned out to be the better of the two museums, although its name isn't entirely accurate. It's more a museum of Malay culture in Brunei but was very well presented and easily worth the effort. In contrast, the Maritime Museum was not so good. It was pretty boring, to be honest, with the highlight being the replica of a shipwreck which was found in 1997. It's such a shame that it was very much a hands-off experience. The shipwreck display was sponsored by the oil company Total. There were some QR codes enabling you to download a book with further information but as photography and phones were not allowed inside, they were impossible to use despite our best protests to the staff. We had just missed a bus back to the city as we tried to make our way back. We saw it pass just as the junction came into view! About 10 minutes a later we were offered a lift which we did not say no to!!

Back in the city we visited the Royal Regalia Museum. Now that is a museum worth going to. It seems bizarre that a collection of gifts to the Sultan could be so interesting but it is presented in such a way that you are constantly intrigued. The absolute highlight though is the chariot which was used for the silver jubilee procession back in 1992. On its own it is nothing spectacular but the sight of a hundred or so mannequins dressed in uniforms surrounded by photographs of the crowd is quite something. A slightly sinister twist is that the mannequins are headless! Photos are allowed in the entrance atrium only, but of all the museums we visited, this is the one we recommend.

There's a lot more to see and do from the capital. There are beaches to the north, a huge 6 star hotel resort which is apparently well worth a visit, and the jungle to explore in the exclave further East. Perhaps one day we will be back to see some more.

Additional photos below
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10th March 2017
Floating Market of Yesteryear

We enjoyed our time in Brunei....not many people go there.

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