We flew Royal Brunei Airlines to and from Borneo, and they have a pretty clever trick for the homeward journey. Our very short flight from Kota Kinabalu got to Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital city of Brunei) quite early in the day – shortly after 9.00am. But the next flight onward to Melbourne didn’t leave until the evening. That left us with a day in Brunei. I had already arranged a day tour with Irene from Tours By Locals to make the most of our time.
Irene met us at the airport, then we headed straight for Jam’Asr Mosque (His Majesty’s Mosque). This mosque was built by the current Sultan of Brunei, and can hold up to 5000 worshipers. There are 29 golden domes (he’s the 29th Sultan, therefore 29 domes) and four minarets with height of 58 metres. I read somewhere that it cost over US$1billion to construct. The Sultan has his own private escalator entrance on one side. The workmanship and detail in this mosque and the surrounding buildings and gardens is absolutely exquisite. It was shoes off for all and long black coat on for women to go inside. We were able to tour the area where the men pray – women pray separately, and that area was not accessible to tourists.
I really love this style of architecture, and the tiled patterns and designs used for ornamentation. The colour combinations and the mosaics really are beautiful. Seeing this mosque reminded me of visiting Spain, Egypt and Morocco in my mid-twenties.
That’s a sneaky interior photo – isn’t that ceiling and the stained glass stunning! There are no picture or photos of people inside mosques – decoration is all colour, shape, pattern and text.
The building in the photo below was designed for people to leave their shoes in when attending the mosque. There’s a central raised bench to sit on to make it easier to put on and take off your shoes, and a number of racks to place them in. But this building is a victim to poor planning – because then you still have to walk a significant distance (shoeless) to the main mosque building then around to the side to the steps where the entrance is located. So rather than using this building, everyone takes off and leaves their shoes at the main entrance to the mosque.
From the mosque we headed to the river to jump onto a water taxi for a tour of the mangroves and the water village, Kampong Ayer. The village has been inhabited for centuries, and was the original capital of the areas of Borneo that are now Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Settlement on land really didn’t begin until the twentieth century, and there are still more than 10,000 people living in the water village. It has a pretty amazing infrastructure, including primary and high schools and it’s own mosques and police and fire stations (fire is a pretty common occurence in these timber stilt houses). Electricity, drinking water, phone lines, tv and internet are all available. Sewerage services however are variable.
That’s a primary school in the photo above.
We started our visit by heading out to the mangroves along the river to see if there were any proboscis monkeys there. It was pretty much the middle of the day, so unsurprisingly we didn’t see any. It was low tide though, and there were plenty of crocodiles sunning themselves on muddy banks, being closely watched by herons.
Houses seemed to vary quite a bit in the quality of their construction. There were derelict and burnt out buildings dotted throughout, in various stages of either being disassembled prior to reconstruction, or just being left to slowly rot away. And there were others that were clearly being constantly improved. The water village also contains pubic housing; double storey buildings that can be purchased with extremely low cost government loans.
We were fortunate to be taken to our water taxi driver’s own house for a light lunch. He is the second youngest of eleven children, and lives in his parent’s house with his wife and young son. His father is a fisherman, and when we arrived the day’s catch was being sorted on the deck by the women of the house.
The house was built on a very large platform, with railings around the outside. The kitchen was on the platform, with all the mod cons incuding fridge, oven and stove top. In the centre of the large platform was another large building with a door.
The door led us into a loung room, full air-conditioned with wi-fi! Honestly, sitting in the lounge you’d have absolutely no clue that you were in a house built on stilts above the water. This house has seven bedrooms built off two living areas. Amazing! We were served some delicious local dishes – chicken and rice, beautifully flavoured, fish crackers, then the most divine thin and crispy banana fritters I’ve ever eaten. Brunei has lots of different types of bananas; clearly the perfect type had been chosen for the fritters!
That’s the living room from the outside – you can see the windows from the inside and the outside in the previous two photos. The cats were in their own enclosure – probably a good thing when you’re sorting fish a couple of metres away!
Time to carefully climb back down the ladder to the boat and continue on with our tour. This visit was really a highlight for me – I love seeing how people live. Maybe I’m just nosy! The next photo is the house from the water as we drove away.
People commute back and forth from the water village and the land for work (if they don’t work in the water village itself). Most catch a water taxi, as boats are expensive to buy. Many people have cars that are parked in lots on the land, so they travel across the water to their cars and then drive to where they need to go.
As Irene had noticed our interest in the ways that people live both now and in the past, she next took us to the Malay Technology Museum. The puzzle that Dan is attempting to solve is a traditional Bruneian game, Salok Salokan. We were quite entertained by the Museum’s toilet rating – this was a A grade toilet! Did you know that there is an ASEAN Public Toilet Standard?
The museum shows the traditional way of life in Brunei, and has three main galleries:
- Water Village Traditional House Gallery: This gallery shows architectural structure of houses in the water village – Kampong Ayer in the late 19th up to the mid 20th century
- Water Village Traditional Technology Gallery: This gallery depicts various types of handicrafts and cottage industries found in the water village. The display includes boat construction, roof-making, gold smiting, silver smithing, brass casting and cloth weaving
- Inland Traditional Technology Gallery: This gallery contains exhibits of indigenous technologies of the inland people. It shows models of Kedayan, Dusun and Murut houses and a Punan hut. Techniques of production of Sago, brown sugar and handicrafts are also displayed.
Our next stop was to see the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque (the previous Sultan’s Mosque). This mosque was completed in 1958, and is considered one of the most beautiful in South East Asia. That’s 24K gold covering the main dome.
A park nearby contained this HUGE frame, positioned to perfectly highlight the mosque.
We had arrived at the mosque with only a few minutes up our sleeves to see the inside, so had a whirlwind visit. Once again it was shoes off for all, and this time a black hooded robe for all the women. Very Harry Potter. We snapped a couple of quick sneaky photos under the direction of our guide. This was an extremely beautiful building, in a different style to the current Sultan’s mosque. Nearly all the materials used in the mosque were imported from overseas.
Brunei became super rich when oil was discovered, although I believe that as a small country with a small population the Sultanate had aquired considerable wealth prior to that time. The Sultan’s family has been in control of the country for centuries, and the Sultan is one of the richest men in the world. Oil and gas production accounts for 90% of GDP, and a fair chunk of the profits go to the Sultan. We stopped briefly outside the gates of Istana Nurul Iman (His Majesty’s Palace).
The palace is gigantic – 1788 rooms! From there we headed to The Empire Hotel and Country Club. This was funded by the Sultan – and once again, it has to be seen to be believed. The marble, the gold, the mosaics, the swimming pools, the restaurants, the shops, the air conditioning, the detail, the architecture – and the toilets here were more than A grade! The building was immense. There are not major hotel chains in Brunei – it’s just not big enough – so this hotel more than fills the need for a luxury hotel for visiting celebrities/politicians/heads of state/anyone who can pay. There was an ASEAN tourism conference taking place in some during our visit. There’s no doubting that the Sultan is rich. Beyond my imaginings. He’s also a controversial figure in the west – you might be interested in this article and this one – although all those we met during our day in Brunei spoke extremely highly and respectfully of the Sultan and how he cares for the people of Brunei.
From there it was back to the airport to catch our overnight flight home. Flight time from Brunei to Melbourne is a little over six hours; not long enough for a decent sleep. When we eventually walked through the door at home it was 7.30am and we were exhausted!
The photo below shows you our souvenirs – fabric, bedspreads, a scarf, gifts for others, baskets, beadwork, coffee, tea and some masks. A few things that will bring back very special memories as we use them. It was a really wonderful time.
We’re now settled into our usual Melbourne routines, with Dan back to work and the kids getting ready for school. Clare starts year 12 and Stella starts year 7 in a few days time, so we’ve got a big year ahead. I’ve also got quite a bit of work booked, including some that’s interstate. Looks like I’ll have some time in airports and hotels to start planning our holiday for January 2021- to Japan!