It’s the epitome of opulence. Lathered in oil money, and shimmering with whitewashed, golden-tipped Islamic imagery, it’s hard to conceive anything diverse from the wealthy country in South East Asia. At least, that’s Brunei Darussalam’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Get away from the seat of opulence and a new world emerges: dense rainforests peppered with volcanic peaks boast rustic villages and the occasional clouded leopard. After all, Brunei sits in Borneo, the Asian equivalent of the Amazon Rainforest. However, getting back to basics in the jungle takes time, a little of which I was lacking with my two-day Brunei itinerary. Thankfully, Bandar Seri Begawan, the lavishly-aureate capital you’ve never heard of, had a few features briefly worth my attention.
These sites are geographically close and can be visited in any order. Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien is best visited during the afternoon hours, particularly for photographers, when the setting sun’s rays highlight the brilliance of the golden tips.
Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien
Named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, it’s a national symbol that epitomises the religious inclination of the country. Dominating the skyline, it sits beautifully by Brunei River, a picturesque setting from all angles. Boasting a dome covered in real gold – yes, real gold – it’s the first major nod to the financial constitution of the Sultanate one sees. Surrounded by gardens, trees, a lagoon (that’s artificial, of course) and foot bridges (one of which was officially inaugurated during my stay in 2017), it’s a lovely place to wander, rest, and observe Bruneians going about their daily religious business. I’m not Muslim, however I enjoyed meandering around the mosque, appreciating its architectural dynamism and throwing smiles at devotees.
Don’t forget to don appropriate attire, as entrance to the mosque – if you wish to see the grand interior – will not be permitted if certain parts are exposed. Legs, shoulders, arms and abdomens must be covered.
Kianggeh Market (Tamu Kianggeh)
Commenced in the 1960s, the market on the banks of Kianggeh River is a local enterprise, frequented by Bruneians daily in search of fresh produce, and other less edible items. It’s also a popular hopping off point for people who live in Kampong Ayer, the ‘village in the water’ on the other side of Brunei River. There are hundreds of stalls set up in the open air (and some undercover), carpeted in an array of fresh produce: from langkubok, bamboo shoots and medicinal plants to musk-limes and chillies, there was something for every type of tastebud.
Arriving in the morning is key, as stalls begin to close between two and three pm, a lesson I learned on my first day. As it is primarily a local market, it’s a great way for travellers, particularly those interested in local culture, to get a voyeuristic taste of the Bornean way of life.
The Waterfront Promenade
Redeveloped in 2011 to spice things up and boost the area’s tourist appeal, the Waterfront Promenade is now host to some of the city’s best restaurants, as well as a handful of museums and galleries. There are small signs with snippets of historical information, a panoramic view across to Ayer Kampung, and plenty of shops. It may not be Sydney’s Darling Harbour, however a stroll at dusk is a pleasant way to pass time.
Tamu Selera Night Market
Bruneians are as obsessed about food as are Italians. A visit to a night market, whether Tamu Selera or one in Gadong, is thus a means to understanding a little more about them. A veritable feast for my eyes, options abounded as did the delightful aromas caught by my nose. Try the chilli dried squid, which is a national dish, and let your tastebuds do the talking. I sat on a seat in the centre, and was joined intermittently by friendly locals, curious to know a little about me. It’s always a pleasure, when travelling solo, to be able to engage without compunction with locals. It demonstrated the fervour they maintain for food, and how it forms a large part of their lives.
Ensure you carry cash, as booths do not accept payment by card.
Perhaps the most intriguing and noteworthy facet of the Bruneian capital is the ‘village in the water’, Kampung Ayer. Located on the opposite side of Brunei River to its modern counterpart, the water village is, simply stated, a series of small neighbourhoods comprised of stilted homes that rise out of the lapping tidal waters. Connected by dubiously ‘safe’ wooden and solid concrete bridges, getting home means arriving by boat and walking to one’s front door over large gaps in the boardwalks. It was a walk that had my heart pounding, but one I thoroughly enjoyed.
The area once served as the seat of the capital, which has since moved to the mainland. However, despite a mass exodus to the other side, thousands of people still live on stilts above the water and commute to work via boat every day. The area dates to the 16th century and, although not quite as beautiful, could be construed the Venice of the East.
Hail a water taxi from the Waterfront Promenade, and spend a few hours wandering through the villages. Do watch your step, though, as I nearly lost my feet several times through large gaps in the boardwalk.
There are opportunities to pay and stay with a local in a stilted home, something I didn’t do, but wish I had. It would have been idyllic, and perhaps nicer than being enclosed in a non-descript hotel room.
Iconic, and inherent to life in Brunei, is getting on the water. Getting from the city to Ayer is one thing but gliding in and out of inlets and up to Istana Nurul Iman is seeing everything anew, from a different perspective: at water level. The one-hour tour, a price suitably negotiated with the ‘captain’, included a distant view of the Sultan’s home, a diverse picture of the mosque, and a zigzag through and under homes of Kampung Ayer. If you have a few additional hours to spare, you can travel further upstream (for a marginally higher price) to visit the home of proboscis monkeys, surrounded by beautiful ecosystems teeming with mangroves.
If I had my time over, I would opt to spend only one day in the capital, and another three to four days on a jungle expedition. The city, in my opinion, was lacklustre, and to be completely frank, a little boring. The people I met were friendly and kind, but the city itself doesn’t possess much joie de vivre. The Bornean jungle, however, would likely present an entirely diverse image of the bitesize South East Asian nation. The ‘jungle tours’ seemed quite touristy, another travel snare I try and avoid. Do your research and find one – if you’re intrepid in nature – that’s a bit more authentic.
For flights to Brunei Darussalam, compare the following websites to locate the most reasonable fares:
The author stayed at LeGallery Suites Hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan.
For those on restricted budgets, like me, there is a single hostel, but it was poorly maintained, void of life and run down. I opted to spend a little more on this occasion and stayed in the cleanest two-star hotel I could find.
Consult the following websites for up to date information regarding prices and availability of accommodation in Bandar Seri Begawan and Brunei Darussalam in general:
The currency utilised in Brunei Darussalam is the Bruneian Dollar. Please refer to the following website for current and up to date exchange rates: