I was afraid our two day visit to Brunei was just to collect another stamp in our passports, but it turned out that we were quite taken by the beautiful little country! Two days were enough to see the main attractions in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), which is quite small.
I am not usually pro-oil companies, but the fact that Brunei is rich from drilling off shore oil has allowed it to keep its rain forest intact, rather than logging and planting palm oil plantations, as has happened many places in Malaysia. About 70% of Brunei is still covered in rain forest and much of that is protected by the government. The people of Brunei have also benefited greatly from the wealth brought in through oil drilling. Brunei has one of the highest average income levels (90,000 Brunei dollars, about US $60,000/year)– and there is no income tax! Citizens of Brunei also receive free education and medical services.
The Sultan of Brunei is head of the longest running hereditary monarchy in the world. And he’s doing a good job running the country! One of his goals is to bring the employment rate to 100%! Wouldn’t that be nice… Once a year in September for three days citizens and foreigners can go to the Royal Palace and meet the Sultan and partake in a grand feast. The Royal Palace is huge! It houses thousands of people, including members of the military and police. Since we were in Brunei in March, we were not able to go inside, though.
On our first evening in Brunei after checking into our hotel room we walked to the water front area and hired a water taxi driver to give us a tour. For 40 Brunei dollars (~$26) we got a very enjoyable 2 hour boat tour. We saw the Kampung Ayer (Water Village) where around 30,000 people live! There are many schools, fire stations, power plants, and houses built on stilts in the river. Both the boat driver and his boss were extremely nice people! As part of the tour we even got to go inside the boss’ house to see they way that people in the Kampung Ayer live. From the outside the houses may look a little warn down, but on the inside they are quite luxurious. We also got to see some more Proboscis Monkeys. Viewing the monkeys here was even better than in Sabah, since the forest and mangroves are still lush here and the monkeys aren’t scared away. We were able to float right under them! Our boat driver also spotted a coiled up snake in a tree from about 100 feet away! On the way back we also saw a large crocodile swimming in the river (sorry, no photos). I asked the boat driver if the crocodiles eat people, and he said, not to worry, that one doesn’t– it’s the 6 meter long ones that do!!!
The next day we started off by visiting the Royal Regalia Museum- where gifts and ceremonial items of the royal family are on display. It is free to visit, very nice! We enjoyed looking around at the gifts from other countries and the attire and accessories from a recent procession. I would recommend stopping by. Afterward we headed to a food court for a quick $2 (usd per/person) lunch. Then we went to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. You can go inside as long as it is not one of the 5 daily prayer times. But if you are not Muslim you can only go as far as the carpet runner. Also, if you are a woman, you have to put on a black robe and head scarf, which they will kindly provide to you at the entrance. I was wearing long jeans and a long sleeve black sweater and thought that would be sufficient, but I guess not. Too bad g didn’t get to take a photo of me in my outfit since no photography is allowed inside. Outside it was a beautiful clear day with fluffy white clouds, which made for some great photos of the mosque. The dome is made of 2 inch thick solid gold! The domes of the minarets are also gold… Unbelievable! We asked about it while inside the mosque and were told that it is written in the Koran. We were also told that the domes of the main royal palace (palace #3) are also gold!
As our final tourist attraction, George just had to visit the Empire Hotel, which was the most expensive hotel in the world to construct. The cost was partially due to mistakes in the construction, but there is also quite a bit of marble and carved wood and stone inside. It was very luxurious and on the ocean with a beach, but didn’t have the “wow” factor we were expecting. We thought about catching a movie at the hotel’s theater (since they are also cheap here at around $3 usd), but just missed the starting time. We also would have liked to have dinner there, but didn’t want to wait around 2 hours until the restaurants opened at 6:30 pm. So after looking around inside and out by the pools and mini beach we took a cab back into the city. We were able to take the local bus #57 out to the Empire Hotel (part of an experimental new route) for 1 Brunei dollar per person, but it was the last bus of the day on that route, so we had to take a 30 Brunei dollar taxi back into town! So if you want to visit, go early in the day while the buses are still running.
Brunei is high on my list of recommended countries to visit! BSB is clean, modern, beautiful, with an abundant and intact rain forest and there are no entrance fees to the sights.
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