Bedazzling Brunei

(as published in Travel NOW Magazine and

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque: Hands down the best spot for photography. The grandeur of the mosque against the sky makes for a flawless Facebook cover photo. 

One of the best things about living in the Philippines is its proximity to its Asian neighbors. If you think about it, although located on a relatively isolated country, Manila airport seems like the perfect jumping-off point to major international destinations (by air; see it for yourself on the map): many cities can be reached within two hours (again, by air) while most others (including those in East Asia) can be reached in under four hours – perfect for those of us whose maximum threshold for flying in a cramped budget airline is this long. This is one reasons to check out Brunei, although more popular locally among foreign workers than tourists, which is one of those countries that can be reached within two hours.

Brunei is a small country and its only airport, Brunei International Airport, is found less than 15 minutes from downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, its capital. Despite its relative size on the island of Borneo where most of the land belongs to Malaysia and Indonesia, Brunei is regarded as one the richest countries in the world thanks to its vast oil fields. In fact, the Brunei Dollar is at par with the Singapore Dollar with a conversion of 1:1 and both currencies should be accepted interchangeably in either country.

Brunei is also a safe country and you’ll be pleased to know that the recently enforced Shariah Law is no cause for concern. It was quite reassuring to see non-Muslim women carelessly strutting around in short shorts and locals of different sexual orientations expressing themselves openly. But as with all Muslim countries, Friday is the day of worship and most establishments are closed on this day.

I noticed that very few locals take public buses and instead, they take water taxis. Both fares start at BND 1. As for hotels, there are very limited options in the city (and almost none for budget accommodations) so it’s all about selecting which one offers the best value for money. For us, it was without question Capital Residence Suites. Not only do they offer complimentary airport transfers no matter what time your flight is, but they also have an available shuttle van to drop you off and pick you up at any of the tourist attractions. On top of that, the service provided by the friendly local and Filipino staff is commendable.

Here is my proposed itinerary to make the most of a few days’ stay. The best part is, most attractions can be reached on foot within a couple of minutes from each other.

Perfection. The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

Seriously, how often do you get to visit a tropical jungle with a waterfall, and one conveniently located in the middle of the city at that? Start the day off by testing your fitness levels at the family-friendly Tasek Lama Recreational Park. Here you can enjoy the wild flora and fauna along its many hiking trails and a great view of the city from the peak. Do bring a small towel for the humidity and do not show the macaques any of the snacks you brought to prevent them from being overly friendly. Afterwards, you can proceed downtown to cool off inside the Royal Regalia Museum. The name itself is pretty self-explanatory: this museum contains keepsakes given by foreign dignitaries to the Sultan and other delicately preserved memorabilia of the Bruneian Royal Family. The most noteworthy of which is the majestic golden hand-carried carriage of the king, which is truly fit for no less than royalty. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside but you can totally make up for it at the next attraction, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Possibly one of the first icons you’ll notice in the city, you can’t miss its towering golden domes. Constructed and named after the highly-revered 28th Sultan of Brunei, its exterior grounds are almost palatial; the distinctly-shaped windows are an elegant touch and the ivory-like marble gives off a peaceful, cleansing feeling. Needless to say, this area is one of the best for photography both during the day and at night.

Zoom! The Kampong Ayer Water Village.

From across the mosque, you can enjoy a short break at the Yayasan Shopping Complex which comes with a supermarket, department store, shops and international fast food chains. From here, a stone’s throw away is the Kampong Ayer, which isn’t just any water village. It is the largest in the world and people have been inhabiting this area for over a millennium. Getting to the village is the perfect chance to experience riding a speeding water taxi and seeing them zip by from one end to another is quite a sight. Despite being located above water, the village is remarkably a self-sustaining community which has electricity, cable TV, telephones, internet and other conveniences of modern technology. Schools, police and fire stations can also be found here. You can truly immerse yourself in the local culture by interacting with ordinary folk and how they go about their daily lives in simplicity. After checking out the Culture and Tourism Gallery, you can take another water taxi (for BND 20 or less) to further see the proboscis monkeys, found only in the Borneo region, in their natural mangrove swamp habitat.

Tamu Kianggeh: a vibrant and happening market!

Afterwards, you can opt to get off at the Arts and Handicrafts Center for some local jewelry, woven fabric and other souvenirs. For more exotic finds, walk over to Tamu Kianggeh, which is similar to other Southeast Asian wet markets. This area is connected to the city by means of a bridge over a narrow brook where water taxis come to pick up and drop off passengers. This market is a great place to shop for unique fruits, medicinal herbs, dried fish and spices.

At this time, you can head back to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque for equally stunning photos of it at sunset and at night, when it becomes brightly lit and reflects marvelously on the water. Specifically, the area across the lake enclosed by a fence offers the best views of the entire mosque complex.

On your next day, you can explore the farther corners of the city. From afar, you can see the four towering minarets (pillars) of the Jame' Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the largest mosque in Brunei. Unlike the previous mosque, this one was built to honor the reigning Sultan. Nonetheless, it also looks striking at night as it does in the daytime: tranquil yet awe-inspiring fountains in its grandiose complex will remind you of Princess Jasmine’s palace in Disney’s Aladdin.

The Mall. I believe somehow they made the interior of it similar to that of a place of worship.

Close by is what I considered to be the highlight of my trip. Gadong Night Market came as a surprise as it was relatively unknown and had few foreign visitors, but we were accommodated well by the English-speaking vendors. It was reminiscent of the night markets in other parts of Asia with its affordable picks of grilled barbeque, fried pastries and colorful layered drinks. Ubiquitous Malaysian dishes such as the nasi lemak (coconut milk rice with anchovies) and nasi katok (with fried chicken) cost as low as BND 1 for small servings. Be sure to try out Brunei’s signature pandan leaf-wrapped glutinous rice cake dish kuih wajid which is very similar to the Filipino biko and other types of kakanin. Basically what I’m trying to say here is, there’s no way you’re walking out of here hungry.
After having early dinner at the night market, you can burn it off with a window-shopping stroll inside The Mall, but not without ending your day on a sweet and elegant note. A great discovery we made was the Rizqun Coffee House, which is connected to the five-star Rizqun Hotel. By 8pm, take advantage of the café’s unbeatable buy one get one promotion where you can get two gourmet cake slices for only BND 3. A great combination would be the delectable Sicilian cheesecake topped with chocolate and fresh strawberry and the light, moderately sweetened tiramisu which is one of the best I’ve ever had, if not the best. Alternatively, you can get your evening coffee fix at the newly-opened (2014) Starbucks all the way over at Mabohai Shopping Complex. Despite its name, it is actually more of an upscale mini-mall which houses the first and only branch of the popular coffee chain in the entire country. If you have a lot of spare time the following day, you can also take a day tour outside Brunei to nearby Malaysia where you can legally get a drink or two. Reach the cities of Miri in 4 hours and Kota Kinabalu in 8 hours by bus.

Gadong Night Market: the highlight of our trip!
In the Philippines, these are called kakanin.

Various fried rice, segregated by color. What is this, the 1950s? Kidding.

Iced jelly drinks perfect for the hot and humid weather!

Sometimes, you have to see something for yourself to believe it, or prove the contrary. I’m glad that prior to my trip, I wasn’t discouraged by constant remarks online that there was nothing to do in Brunei. Instead, I refused to believe previous reviews, took them as a challenge and eventually proved otherwise. After all, never having tried something such as visiting a certain destination is always enough reason to give it a shot. Surprises, not knowing what to expect, or not expecting anything at all could possibly let you have one of the best and most memorable travel experiences.


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