Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"

September 24, 2018
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"




STRANDED IN BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, THE CAPITAL 
OF BRUNEI AKA “THE MOST BORING COUNTRY 
IN SOUTH EAST ASIA” (MAYBE EVEN THE WORLD)


“Why...” my step-grandfather frowned quizzically, “...would you want to go to Brunei?” Coming from an expert on Borneo (Malaysian, Indonesian, and Bruneian - here’s a photo of him as a schoolboy giving The Duke of Edinburgh the lowdown on Bornean industry), this was not encouraging. “Well,” I explained, “My mission for this year is to visit all the countries of South East Asia that I haven’t yet, and I thought Brunei would be the easiest since it’s only an hour flight from here.” We were in Kota Kinabalu, one of the two East Malaysian states that comprises North Borneo. “Besides,” I continued, “I know there’s not that much to see, so I’ll just be making a day trip to Bandar Seri Begawan...”  My Uncle Robert snickered, “That’s one day too many.”  I ignored him: “...I’ll have more than enough time to see the capital’s highlights and be back in time for dinner.” Or so I thought. You know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions?” Well, despite my best of intentions to debunk Brunei’s reputation as The Most Boring Country in South East Asia; despite my research, preparation, and aptitude at speaking the language, I would find myself trapped in purgatory thanks to a series of unfortunate events. So much so that I was traumatised by my day trip to Bandar Seri Begawan and hadn’t touched these photos in 5 months. Well, it’s time to crack open Pandora’s Box. I shall tell you my story, or rather, cautionary tale. So many questions to be asked! Is Brunei really a dry country? Does B.S.B - the abbreviation for Bandar Seri Begawan - actually stand for Boring, So Boring...? Is this what it sounds like when doves cry? Read on...







Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"


Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
Before I tell you the tale of how my trip went awry, let me first introduce some of the sights I enjoyed in Bandar Seri Begawan. 


JAME’ ASR HASSANIL 
BOLKIAH MOSQUE

Let’s answer one of the most common questions about Brunei - are the streets really paved in gold? No, but the dome of Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is. It’s the country’s largest mosque, built to celebrate the 25th year of the current sultan's reign. With four terrazzo-tiled minarets and 29 golden domes, the complex is impossible to miss. And so you shouldn’t - it’s one of the grandest sights in Bandar Seri Begawan. Knowing that Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is on the way to the city from the airport (about 3km from the city centre), it was the first destination of my day trip. I tipped my taxi driver to wait while I had a nosy around the vast grounds, sneak a peek at the interiors (but I didn’t go inside as prayers were happening) and gasp at the lavishness of it all: from the Sultan’s personal escalator at his private entrance (below) to the rows of Gucci loafers lined up outside the prayer halls.



Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
CAPTION
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
CAPTION
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
CAPTION
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
CAPTION
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"


Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"


SULTAN OMAR ALI SAIFUDDIN MOSQUE

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is the most iconic sight in Bandar Seri Begawan, the likes of which you’d find on postcards and that sort of thing. A ceremonial stone boat (a replica of a 16th-century royal barge) floats on an artificial lagoon against the backdrop of yet another gold-topped mosque. In the evening, the grounds around the mosque is the place to mingle, pray, and promenade. Not necessarily in that order, but more or less an accurate description of nightlife in Brunei. The interiors are lavish, if a curious juxtaposition of Islamic and Florentine style: Italian marble, chandeliers, and mosaics. Photos inside the mosque are not usually allowed, but the staff were so impressed that I could speak fluent Bruneian/Malay - your run-of-the-mill Chinese woman of a certain upbringing who speaks fluent Malay is uncommon enough; but one that is also tall, has a British accent, and looks vaguely mixed race? I’m a unicorn, baby - that I was okay-ed to take two photos. These exclusive images that follow are brought to you by my linguistic talents and exotic charms.


Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"





KAIZEN SUSHI

The most highly-rated and apparently best restaurant in B.S.B is...a sushi restaurant. Which suited me just fine - Bruneian cuisine is similar to Malaysian, and damnit, I didn’t come here to eat nasi lemak in a warung when I can get the same thing back in Kuala Lumpur. Besides, the rain was coming down and I knew that Kaizen Sushi was on the waterfront, with a view of Kampong Ayer floating villages. So I settled in and waited out the storm with sashimi, sushi (dragon rolls), and chawanmushi (steamed egg). I daresay it was rather good.


Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
KAMPONG AYER

I politely declined the many offers from water taxis to ferry me across Sungei Brunei (Brunei River) to Kampong Ayer. I was perfectly happy to just appreciate from a distance the 1,000 year old floating village - the largest stilt settlement in the world where 30,000 people call home. A century ago, half of Brunei's Malay population lived here, and even today many Bruneians still prefer the lifestyle of the water village to residency on dry land. It’s an interesting mix of contrasts: modern houses next to traditional timber ones, gleaming luxury cars parked on the banks across a neighbourhood that looks like what Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta described in 1521 as the 'Venice of the East'. That description of Kampong Ayer is a bit of a reach; but the village does has its charms - visitors can see traditional artisans at work; such as boat making and weaving.



Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
ROYAL REGALIA  MUSEUM

Some of us post flatlays of our presents 
(#BirthdayMonth #LeoBaby #SoBlessed ) - and then there’s the Sultan of Brunei, for whom only an entire museum will do. If you’ve ever wondered “what do you gift a man who has everything?” then head to the Royal Regalia Museum for inspiration. The answers, apparently; range from a solid silver model of Angkor Wat to jewelled miniatures of mosques. Even more mind-blowing is that the display of gifts to the Sultan of Brunei is on constant rotation to make room for shiny new presents. This is a “PR Unboxing” on a whole new level.

Both shoes and cameras are banned for most of the museum; the latter allowed only on the ground floor, where a life-sized replica of the Sultan’s 1992 Silver Jubilee chariot dominates. Throughout the rest of the vast, marble-clad museum are photos depicting the story of his life (including a photo of the Sultan smiling at his circumcision ceremony, which has very “Get Ready With Me” vibes). In a hot, tropical city with not much else to see; the Royal Regalia Museum was the highlight of my day: for whiling away the long hours, for the opulence of it all, and for the air-conditioned relief the museum provides.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"






RIGHT, ENOUGH PRETTY PICTURES & INTERESTING TRIVIA. 
LET’S HEAR THE DRAMA OF YOUR TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE!



When did I realise that my well-laid plans would unravel? Quite literally from the moment I stepped foot in the country. I flew into Bandar Seri Begawan on the first, early morning flight from Kota Kinabalu with plans to take the evening (about 6:00pm or so) flight back. As I got off the plane, trundling sleepily toward immigration, I was met by airport staff bearing a placard with my name on it. Sweet! Am I being singled out for special treatment? Not really. The airport staff asked me, apologetically, “Miss Yip, were you made aware that your return flight this evening has been delayed by 3 hours?” I blinked as I registered the fact, and half-jokingly said: “No, otherwise I wouldn’t have got on my flight here.”

 But that’s fine...! I would simply take a more leisurely pace on my day trip in B.S.B. Unfortunately, it’s hard to go slower in a city where the pace is already glacial. Two of the attractions I wanted to visit - Bubungan Dua Belas (Twelve Roofs House) and Istana (Palace) Nurul Iman were closed to the public Not even a verrrrry slow walk around Galeri Seni (Arts Gallery) at Customs House, depicting Brunei’s relationship with Singapore, could help while away the extra hours. And there were a lot of extra hours - B.S.B was a lot more compact that I had prepared for; and even its landmarks did not warrant more than an hour per visit. I spent up to 2 hours at these 4 destinations above - also out of necessity, as the rain came down hard which made a visit to the floating villages seem like a very bad idea - and yet the hours dragged on.

When I reached the airport, I learnt that my flight was further delayed...to past midnightAt least 6 hours past the original departure time, in a city where time is not of the essence. I narrowly escaped another mishap when I resisted the urge to book another flight back to Kota Kinabalu: at the last minute, that flight too was delayed to past midnight. I couldn’t have boarded my (very, very delayed) flight quickly enough. When I finally landed in Kota Kinabalu International Airport - hot, sweaty, exhausted, and bored out of my mind - I practically wept and kissed the tarmac, vowing to never again complain that Malaysia is dull!




Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: A Day Trip in the Capital of "The Most Boring Country In Southeast Asia"
Oh, Malaysia. Your quality of life and your currency may not be as high as Brunei’s. The streets of Kuala Lumpur are not as clean nor as safe as Bandar Seri Begawan. But I’ll choose your chaos, your confusion, and your colourful ways over this peaceful, 
sterile, and sedate country; anytime.





DOES B.S.B REALLY STAND FOR BORING, SO BORING? 
SHOULD YOU VISIT BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN?



First and foremost, to a Malaysian such as yours truly, Brunei’s charms are nothing that I can’t find at home. Government-commissioned travel pamphlets boasts mosques (a dime a dozen in Malaysia), rainforests (we have those too, and ours have orangutans), water villages and markets (ditto), and cuisine that is more or less the same.

But for visitors further afield, the cultural differences as well as lack of tourism resources can pose a challenge. First of all: Brunei doesn’t seem to have yet fully capitalised on its potential for tourism.  Taxis are few and far between. In the one taxi I managed to get to the airport (which I did by lingering in a hotel lobby), the driver told me there were about 40 taxis in the whole city, half of which serve the capital. Even so, he said, the taxi drivers struggle to find work as car ownership here is high, about one car per every 2 residents. Then there is the tourist information or rather lack thereof. When I googled “Brunei tourism board” I was led to 3 options; one being the website for the Tourism Development Department (government news and stuff), this website, and finally; another that says “Under Construction”. If anything, the website for Royal Brunei, the country's national airline, is the online portal with the most information for tourists.

The other issue some travellers may have is Brunei’s status as a Muslim nation and hence dry country, which means zero nightlife (everything closes at 9:00pm) and zero alcohol. The only way to get turned up is to drive to its border to the Malaysian town of Miri, where you’ll find many locals hitting up the booze at bars. This isn’t an issue for yours truly - who likes to be in bed by 10:00pm with a sheet facial mask and a book - but might be pose a head-scratcher to those with nocturnal (and alcoholic) inclinations.



So the question is: Is Bandar Seri Begawan a worthy destination? Yes, if you manage expectations. Don’t come looking for nightlife: the capital’s offerings are purely cultural and thoroughly wholesome. Brunei is extremely safe and the locals are very friendly: at the sight of a foreign face they’re keen to strike up a conversation with you in perfect English.

Consider, too, Bandar Seri Begawan as a springboard to the rest of the country. Brunei has its share of Bornean wildlife; from the pristine rainforest reserves of Ulu Temburong National Park, the mangrove forest island of Pulau Selirong Recreational Park; and reef and wreck diving.

If you’re already in the region and it won’t put you out, you may want to pop in and see for yourself the so-called “most boring country in South East Asia”. If not for its natural charms, then for the novelty factor and to tick it off your list (which is what I did). Brunei itself may hold more interest for you than it did for me. But as for the capital, my day trip to Bandar Seri Begawan was more than enough.

Royal Brunei fly direct from Kota Kinabalu to Bandar Seri Begawan. I highly recommend making Bandar Seri Begawan a day trip from Kota Kinabalu. As for currency, Singapore dollars can be used in Brunei (and vice versa) along the Bruneian dollar as are both on par. The language spoken in Brunei is the same form of Malay as in Malaysia, and most Bruneians speak fluent English.

Have you been to Bandar Seri Begawan? Do you think Brunei's moniker as the "most boring country in Southeast Asia" is deserved? What is the most boring travel destination you've ever visited?

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