[Wanderlust Tips October 2019] Brunei is not one of the must-visit destinations on many travel itineraries to Southeast Asian countries, however, I decided to visit to fulfill my ambition of visiting more off-of-the-beaten-track countries.
When thinking of Brunei, the first thing that springs to mind is that the country is an infamous, wealthy and isolated oil kingdom and tourism is not its strength. Nevertheless, you could hear stories 1000 times but they do not equate to seeing the city with your own eyes once. Great writer Mark Twain once said, “Moving will kill prejudice, stubbornness and selfishness” and my trip to Brunei proved that what he said was true.[rpi]
AN INCREDIBLE ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE
It can be said that the most striking thing about travelling to Brunei is the Islamic architectural works and iconic culture. I have learnt about Islam through my Central Asian friends. Even when I travelled to Indonesia, a country that has the largest Muslim population in the world, I still did not fully understand or appreciate its unique culture. Arriving at Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan international airport at midnight, I caught sight of an impressive mosque located close to the airport. The mosque serves as a reminder of the Islamic beauty to all tourists.
I spend most of my time living slowly and enjoying a thrilling life in this beautiful city. Spanning an area of 100.4sq. km with a population of only 100,700 people, the little city boasts a peaceful atmosphere compared to many other capitals I have travelled to. The locals are educated thoroughly and religion is at the forefront of their lifestyles. I was surprised and impressed with Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah, the first mosque I visited during my trip because there were so many pupils and students taking graduation photos.
In the afternoon, I also took a stroll around the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Interestingly, I also encountered many female students holding their diplomas and taking photos in Islamic dresses with brilliant smiles across their faces. If you are interested in the Islamic culture in Brunei, visiting the mosques is the best way to broaden your horizon.
Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque was located a stone’s throw from my accommodation, so I decided to take a stroll around. It is also one of the two national mosques in Brunei. With the largest area in Brunei framed with 29 golden domes and a huge campus, the mosque can accommodate up to 5,000 people for prayers. Nevertheless, if it’s the wow factor you’re looking for then Omar Ali Saifuddien really impresses every visitor. It is named after Omar Ali Saifuddien III – the 28th Sultan of Brunei, who initiated its construction.
The magnificent architecture of the Omar Ali Saifuddien dominated the skyline of Bandar Seri Begawan. The building was completed in 1958 and is a spectacular example of contemporary Islamic architecture. In addition to these two national mosques, I also explored other Islamic architectural masterpieces in Bandar Seri Begawan. This city is home to many impressive Islamic structures. For instance, the Ash Shaliheen Mosque located alongside the Prime Minister’s Office is the prayer venue for heads of state and staff in the office.
The mosque sometimes prohibits visitors from going inside if the heads of state are in prayer. The site is quite isolated and far away from the city centre, but the architecture is still impressive. The Ash Shaliheen Mosque was constructed in a Moroccan style in a sandy colour with a harlequin roof and was completed in 2012. Before waving goodbye to Brunei, I visited and admired the spectacular architecture of the mosque at the international airport. This small mosque has a large blue dome and three stupas. Although the mosque does not open to tourists, you can still admire the exterior and take some stunning photos from the outside. The second floor of the airport is the best place to take a panoramic photo of the structure.
THE BEAUTY OF LOCAL CULTURE
After the spending two days strolling around the iconic mosques, I spent the third day on my travel itinerary visiting Kampong Ayer (meaning the water village in Malaysian). From the wharf at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, I paid one Brunei dollar to cross the river to Kampong Ayer. It consists of a cluster of traditional stilted villages built on the Brunei River, mainly located in the vicinity of Pusat Bandar.
Commonly called the “Venice of the East”, the Kampong Ayer has historically been the principal settlement of the Bruneian Empire for a few centuries, but officially vanished in the early period during British imperialism in Brunei. It is said that many people are not fond of this shabby residential area which is traditionally inhabited by the poorer locals. Here, you could see children going to school over a wooden bridge, their settlements and even schools were built on stone stakes. The local people freely decorate each house with a different colour depending on their preferences.
Most impressively, the residents do not need to cross the river to the city centre because of an amazing variety of public structures. For instance, parks, museums, schools, mosques built on wooden pillars are available and meet all of their requirements. If you have a true passion for photography, especially human and culture, the Kampong Ayer is a truly perfect canvas for snapping many authentic artistic photographs of daily life. Catch a glimpse of children on the way to school, the elderly sitting leisurely on the sidewalk, a man diving in the muddy waters to fix a canoe or cats who do not care for passers-by sprawled across the gas pipes.
My friend and I were fascinated here, so we spent the whole day wandering around this maze of wooden structures. Whenever we felt sleepy and wanted to return to the city centre, we just needed to wave down a motorboat as there is an array of wooden ladders down to the water’s edge in Kampong Ayer. Kampong Ayer is extremely beautiful at sunset with a myriad of brilliant colours painting the sky in pink and orange contrasting with the wooden houses on the ground. Sitting on the canoe, Kampong Ayer gradually disappeared and the modern city centre appeared again before my eyes.
On arriving back in the city, we went on a search for dinner. Gadong night market is the first dining venue to spring to my mind. After a ten-minute bus journey from the water’s edge, I reached Gadong. A far cry from the quiet and serene the Kampong Ayer, the Gadong night market impressed me with its hectic and bustling atmosphere. Located alongside the market, The Mall – the biggest mall in Brunei is buzzing with people toing and froing. Obviously, this night market is not as large and well known as the infamous night markets in Taiwan. However, the sharp contrast between the peaceful streets of Brunei and inside the Gadong market has surprised many people.
Although the market has existed for many years, it used to be a makeshift market with tents set up in the parking lot on the side of the market. Today, the night market has been transformed into a long-term market, having opened in early 2017 and officially named in Malaysian – Pasar Pelbagai Barangan Gadong. Take a stroll around the night market and you will have the opportunity to embark on a unique culinary journey, taste beef Soto, lamb kebab skewers served with delicious spicy tamarind sauce and Roti John (an omelette sandwich dish served with mayonnaise and ketchup). The items here are generally inexpensive costing between BND1 and BND4. The opening hours are from 4 pm to 10 pm. In the morning, the market mainly sells bonsai and fruits.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL
According to the 2020 calendar, Ramadan begins from 23rd April to 23rd May 2020. During this time, it is more difficult to find food due to restaurant closures. It is recommended to visit Brunei at a different time to really get the most out of your experience.
TRAVEL TO BRUNEI
>> From Saigon: You can take a long-haul flight with Royal Brunei Airlines. My round-trip air ticket cost VND6 million, the price included meals, 30kg of luggage and access to a television screen during the flight. Alternatively, you can also opt for other transit flights. For instance, you can take a transit flight in Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia or in Singapore with Singapore Airlines. The AirAsia tickets cost around VND4,5 to VND5 million excluding luggage.
>> From Hanoi: You can only opt for a transit flight with AirAsia or Singapore Airlines.
TRAVEL AROUND BRUNEI
Do not rely on public transportation as bus transport can be extremely unreliable. Instead, it is recommended to take a taxi or travel on foot. Taxis can also be extremely difficult to catch because Bruneian tourism has not yet developed, thus, taxis are mainly spontaneous cars. When I waited at a bus stop, a car driver came and asked me where I wanted to go, then I got in the car and was transported to the place for BND5.
From the airport to the hotel, I managed to find a car for BND15/way. After the first day of transportation issues, I decided to ask the hotel staff how to order a taxi, so they advised me to download the “Dart Rider” app. This ride-hailing app resembles Grab in Vietnam. You can travel to many places in the city for approximately BND5. It only cost me BND9 to go from my hotel to the airport, it is a lot cheaper than taking a taxi on the road.
In Brunei, people use the Brunei dollar (Currency code: BND), which is interchangeable with the Singapore dollar at par. BND1 ~ VND17,200. Occasionally, USD and Singapore dollar is accepted. You can exchange the Singapore dollars in Vietnam and there is no place to exchange the Brunei dollars in Vietnam.
In Bandar Seri Begawan, an array of hotels ranging from luxury to budget are available. I opted for the Higher Hotel at the price of VND950,000/night for 2 pax, the rooms were quite modern. There were convenience stores and local restaurants nearby and the hotel provided an easy transportation service. These services are essential here because the city has not developed in terms of tourism, the shops often close early and moving around the city can be very difficult.
FINE DINING SITES
Bandar Seri Begawan is not a tourist city and you can count the number of food and beverage outlets on one hand. However, you can still find delicious dining venues with reasonable prices. Recommended popular some dining sites:
>> Gadong night market: If you are excited about traditional Bruneian food, visiting the market is a must.
>> Thien Thien Restaurant Kiulap specialises in serving Chinese, Malaysian and Bruneian culinary delicacies. Notably, chicken rice is a must-try dish.
>> Located on the 2nd floor of Seri Q-Lap Mall, Le Keris Cafe & Restaurant offers a diversity of European – Asian fusion cuisine. If you have had enough of Bruneian delicacies, you can experience different flavours here.
> > Farmbasket Kopitiam: I found this restaurant by chance when I accidentally went to the back of my hotel. The food here is delicious and rich, especially the salted egg sauce dishes. Three Color Rice Rendang Chicken and Nusi, Kerabu Salted Egg Ayam Penyet are two must-try exceptional delicacies here. >> Picolo Cafe: This lovely cafe has two branches located alongside the river near Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Lavender Latte is a must-try drink when visiting here.
>> Excapade Japanese Cuisine: I decided to eat Japanese food on my last day in Brunei. I was impressed with the diverse menu, creative cooking and affordable price of VND700,000/meal for 2 pax.
Ly Thanh Co | Wanderlust Tips