Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam

This post recounts the morning of a stopover I spent in the tiny and fascinating city state of Brunei in May 2011.
Brunei is a strange little country. Much bigger than Singapore, but with a tenth of their population, you never quite feel like you’ve properly arrived. Brunei is officially known as “Brunei Darussalam”. Darussalam is an Arabic word, which means “Abode of Peace”, so officially, it’s “Brunei the Abode of Peace”. Could this be paradise? It certainly is peaceful – not a lot happens in Brunei! Leaving Brunei‘s small (only) international airport, where nothing seemed to have changed since 1990, I joined a free city tour which is offered to any passengers transiting in the mirco-nation for more than four hours. The first thing I needed was five Brunei dollars to buy my transit visa to enter the country. I asked the man at the transfer desk, who also functioned as our tour leader/tour guide/check-in clerk/airline rep, where I could find an ATM or money changer. He replied “There’s only one – it’s outside the airport”. I then looked at him as if to say “well how can I get my visa then?” when he casually said “oh don’t worry about it – just go through customs without a visa, get the money, then come back in and go through again”. I liked the place already!
Downtown Bandar Seri Begawan

Downtown Bandar Seri Begawan

The capital of Brunei is Bandar Seri Begawan – foreigners sometimes call it BSB, but for locals it’s just “Bandar”, literally “The City”. Begawan is a nickname for Brunei‘s sultan (king) and “Seri” means “shining” or “gleaming” in the local Jawi Malay dialect. So Bandar Seri Begawan is “Begawan’s Shining City”, although it has to be said that not every part of this 300,000 strong capital shines. Bandar is also known as the “Venice of Asia” due to its setting on canals and estuaries, although the dirty water bit is where any similarities end. It’s a staunchly Muslim nation, which explains why they use Jawi (a Malay/Arabic hybrid) rather than regular Malaysian language. Alcohol is illegal, pork is never seen on menus (publicly, at least) and mosques follow the style of North African architecture. For all this, Brunei kept surprising me. Just when I thought I’d stepped into a conservative Muslim society, I’d see scores of girls in Western dress strolling between shopping centres and restaurants. Brunei might call itself the “abode of peace”, but I’d say that “abode of intrigue” would be closer to the mark.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan

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.

Brunei River, Bandar Seri Begawan

Brunei River, Bandar Seri Begawan

Setting off from the riverfront, I walked the streets of colonial facades which seemed to be crumbling under the strain of mother nature – vines climbed their walls, ferns sprouted from cracks in their bricks and the occasional patch of mould clung to the paintwork. Many facades had been maintained from the days of the British, while their insides had been completely refurbished and transformed into variety stores or cool cafes (as in both “cool” trendy and “cool” air conditioned) .
Shops along Jalan MacArthur, Bandar Seri Begawan

Shops along Jalan MacArthur, Bandar Seri Begawan

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?

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Bandar Seri Begawan

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Bandar Seri Begawan

Have you been to Brunei? What did you think of it?

Comments (4)

  • Andrew Reply

    interesting – havent been there before. Royal Brunei Airlines often seem to have a few bargains, so I imagine they get a few people stopping over. I like the entrance to the mosque on the water!

    September 22, 2015 at 2:50 pm
    • Tim Blight Reply

      You’ll need to add it to your list!! 😀 And yep, that mosque is simply beautiful 🙂

      September 26, 2015 at 10:06 pm
  • Elena Reply

    My impressions were very close to yours. I’ve ventured into Brunei for two days during my trip around Borneo this summer. Bandar was lovely and the mosque is absolutely stunning in terms of visual aesthetics…however, I cannot imagine what you can actually do in the country for longer as a tourist.

    It’s quite, peaceful and the locals seem rather content with their being, but for me Brunei felt lacking some action.

    September 24, 2015 at 5:58 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Yes I totally agree. The stopover was enough for me – although perhaps there is more to do if you get out of the city and into the small rural area of the nation. Thanks for stopping by, Elena 🙂

      September 26, 2015 at 10:09 pm

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