The Sultans of Bling

Yesterday, I was atop Malaysia’s tallest mountain. Today, I was aboard a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei (officially named the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace). A nation overlooked by many Bornean backpackers (I may have too had it not been for Bucket List 196), although I was determined to discover as much as anyone possibly could about the miniature Islamic nation – indeed the smallest majority Muslim nation on earth (in terms of population). Brunei is separated into two parts, split by the Malaysian district of Limbang, and is currently the one hundred and sixty-fourth largest nation in the world. I had just three days to wander and explore the country before I was required to catch a flight back to Kota and so quickly made my way from the airport to the centre of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to get right in the mixer, as it were.

Mixer is not really the word I should have used to describe the hubbub of the Bruneian capital – as there was none. Every street, restaurant and park was extraordinarily quiet. Not a raised voice or car horn to be heard and even the breeze appeared to be turned down. BSB’s main attraction (indeed the only thing you will see on any postcard from here) is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which looks like a structure straight out of Aladdin. As the interior of the mosque is for prayer only (not camera-wielding tourists), I had to content myself with wandering the ornately-decorated grounds, which were pleasant if not life-changing. The mosque’s iconic golden dome can be seen from almost anywhere in the city and can blind onlookers at four hundred paces (if the sun’s reflection is well-placed).

A short walk from the mosque, as is everything in the capital, is the Royal Regalia Museum – a homage to the Sultan and his extraordinarily large family (at last count he had twelve ‘legitimate’ children). You only have to think of Game of Thrones to guesstimate how many other little sultanas remain unknown to the world. The building is brimming with artefacts and exhibits depicting the entire life of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s rule of Brunei, which will enter its fiftieth year in 2017. Within a few seconds of entering the museum, it is quite easy to ascertain the Sultan’s favourite colour: gold. With a wealth estimated at US$20 billion, he can afford to gild almost every conceivable item in gold: cutlery, cannons and condoms (the last one was a joke, of course, he never uses them).

You may have guessed from my tone that I was not all that impressed by the Abode of Peace just yet. The streets remained silent. No locals attempting to sell me their pointless wares, no historic buildings or cultural marvels and no restaurants or food stalls to try Bruneian cuisine. However, as day turned to night, that was about to change quite dramatically. Pasar Gadong, or Gadong Market, sits a few kilometres north of the waterfront and is the site of exactly what I was searching for. At 4 pm every day, the place comes alive as the locals finally make an appearance and open their food-laden stalls. I’m not lying when I say it was the smell of cooked meat that brought me here, from a good two kilometres away, and my nose did not let me down.

All manner of satay (Malaysian-style kebabs), as well as grilled beef and fish, adorned the racks of every stall, accompanied by a smorgasbord of rice and noodle-based dishes. It truly was a feast for the eyes, along with the nose and ears, as the all too silent BSB woke up from its slumber to the sound of street sellers and grilling food. With Brunei being one of the most expensive nations on earth, the night-market provides an essential cheaper alternative for both locals and spendthrift tourists (me) alike. It was midnight before you could say Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, and as the stalls began to close, I began the thirty-minute walk back to my Airbnb in the suburbs of the capital with a full stomach and a far more positive outlook on my time in the country and of life in general.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Brunei as I got off the plane and walked through the deathly quiet airport terminal, and my initial findings were somewhat bleak. I think Brunei is definitely one of those destinations where having a local to show you around is hugely beneficial. A strong local culture certainly exists, I just struggled to find it. It must also be said that there are plenty of things to see/do in the rainforests that exist just a speed-boat ride away from the capital, although I was saving myself for wilder jungles back in the northern reaches of Borneo. That is where you will find me next, in Sandankan: the gateway to the Malaysian Jungle.


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