Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
When I arrived in Bandar Seri Begawan it was 7am and a humid 26 degrees. Bandar’s CBD is tiny – I walked around it three times! The languid waters of the Brunei River fringe the city, which is flanked by lush, forest covered mountains on either side. The city seems to perfectly fill the little valley between the steamy jungle on either side, the river in front and the tropical hinterland behind. Canals divide the city and provide floating highways for trade, tourism and local transport. Gardens spring up from between buildings and roads, and spill over from balconies and terraces. It’s as if, despite all efforts to civilise the place, the rainforest has fought back through the very centre of the city – it’s very beautiful. It has a frontier feel – forest all around, and standing on the river bank, looking out to the jungles of Borneo on the opposite shore, is like standing on a peninsula and gazing out to sea.
I hadn’t been going long when I caught sight of the Omar Ali Saifuddein Mosque, Brunei‘s foremost attraction. Rising out of a lagoon in the centre of the city, the palatial mosque is glistening white Italian marble all the way to its golden dome. Soaring beside it is its majestic forty-four metre, minaret, also flawless white and topped gold; the tallest building in Bandar. Sitting just outside the mosque, floating in the lagoon, is a ceremonial royal longboat, made from stone and ornately decorated, just for show. As I walked away from the mosque and back into the tropical humidity, I could hear women’s voices reciting the Qur’an at a Sunday school class. So again I found myself baffled again – am I in a Muslim stronghold, or am I in a storybook?