Brunei: South East Asia’s Best Kept Secret
January 1, 1970
The beauty of Bandar Seri Begawan (“BSB”), Brunei is definitely one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets, like being shared in hush-hush only to a privilege or lucky few. We were privileged and lucky, indeed, to have our Brunei vacation.
On a random sale of Philippines’ Cebu Pacific airlines, I chanced upon a cheap flight to BSB. BI only know 3 things about BSB when I bought my ticket: 1) it boasts of a majestic white mosque; 2) the price of oil is cheaper than drinking water; and 3) BSB does not sell alcohol.
But since I wanted to visit a new country this year, I, along with three others, booked a flight for a two-night/two-day trip for PHP3,000.00 (roughly USD60.00) to BSB. We arrived on a Thursday night and left on a Saturday night.
Where is Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), Brunei
A quick Google search of BSB will reveal that it is the capital of Brunei Darussalam (officially the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace). Brunei is a small country, which lies in the south-eastern part of Asia. Weather in BSB is similar to Manila. It was around 31-32 degrees Celsius when we visited in July.
Brunei’s currency is its own Brunei Dollars (B$). It has the same conversion rate as the Singapore dollars.
Where to Stay
Originally, there were five of us going on the trip. We booked 3 double-bed rooms for 2 nights at Le Gallery Suites for a total of B$300.00. Le Gallery Suites is located 900 meters away from Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, the beautiful white mosque. However, when one of our friends couldn’t make it, we canceled our reservation and booked 2 double-bed rooms for 2 nights at Trader’s Inn for a total of B$216.00. Trader’s Inn, located in Gadong, was more convenient for us because it was near a supermarket (Supa Save) and several Bruneian/Chinese/Malaysian restaurants.
What to See
We booked a private 4-hour tour with our hotel for B$20.00 each (total of B$80.00 for a regular van). While we could have easily toured BSB on our own considering BSB’s bus lines are efficient, we wanted to see all the tourist sites in one day. Renting a private van was relatively cheap, convenient and effective, given our short trip. We only stayed in Brunei from July 21 to 23, 2017.
Jame’ ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
Our driver first brought us to one of Brunei’s national mosques and the largest mosque in the country, Jame’ ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah. It is reportedly a waqf (a charitable endowment under Islamic laws) of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the current sultan of Brunei. The mosque has 4 minarets and 29 golden domes making it even more beautiful at night. It also has a beautifully-landscaped garden at the back, perfect for pictures and yes, even quiet meditation. Entry was prohibited at the time we visited the place, but according to TripAdvisor, entry is allowed on Sundays to Wednesdays at 8 am – 12 noon, 2pm-3pm and 5 pm – 6 pm.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
The next site on our tour was the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, the main reason why I wanted to see Brunei. This majestic white mosque is the other national mosque of Brunei and was named after the previous sultan, Sultan Saifuddin. It’s built on an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River at Kampong Ayer, the water village.
The white mosque is probably BSB’s answer to Sydney’s opera house. Its main dome is covered in pure gold, making its grandeur to be seen practically anywhere in BSB. According to residents we talked to while we were there, entry to the white mosque is only allowed for Non-Muslims outside of prayer times. But I’ve read that the interior is equally beautiful. The mosque even has a stained-glass window inside.
One of BSB’s interest tourist spots is Kampong Ayer, a water village tagged by Antonio Pigafetta as the Venice of the East. We took a boat ride for B$10.00 each and explored the entire water village for an hour. Our boatman also acted as our guide. Kampong Ayer has its own floating primary schools, secondary schools, restaurants, a makeshift gasoline station, a hospital, a police station and a fire station. Residents of Kampong Ayer navigate their village in small bancas and motorboats. A beautiful view of the white mosque can be seen from the boat.
Among the tourist spots we visited was the Royal Regalia Museum (free admission), which showcases the history of Brunei. You can also view the gifts from presidents and prime ministers of different countries to Brunei. Souvenir items can be purchased inside. Opening hours are from 9 am to 5 pm, daily (on Saturdays it opens at 9:45 am). We also stopped by Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan, for picture taking. Entrance to the grounds was prohibited at that time because it was the Sultan’s birthday.
Our driver also took us to the biggest mall in BSB, named “The Mall”. He said it is one of the usual spots tourists frequent to.
We had a quick bite at BSB’s Gadong night market for authentic Bruneian cuisine before heading to the Empire Hotel and Country Club, located in Jerudong, to witness the sunset.
Our driver said that there is an amusement park, Jerudong Park, near the Empire Hotel, but we did not have the time to visit the place.
What to Eat
We had Nasi Goreng and Mee Goreng at Gadong night market. But since our time there was pretty quick, we didn’t get to explore the entire area. Gadong night market opens daily from 3 pm to 12 am.
On the Hunt for Alcohol (a visit to Kuala Lurah)
Alcohol sale is banned inside Brunei. Thus, this is where Kuala Lurah comes in. On our second day in BSB, we traveled by bus to Kuala Lurah, where the border of Brunei meets the border of Malaysia. A walking distance from the immigration stop, you can find a Duty-Free store selling all kinds of alcohol, including my favorite, Disaronno. Beer is sold in restaurants nearby. I heard that people often spend their weekends in Kuala Lurah just to hang out and drink. The purple bus, No. 48, from the bus terminal will take you to the border stop/immigration stop of Brunei for B$1.00. You may then walk to the immigration stop of Malaysia and proceed to the Duty-Free area to enjoy all the alcohol you want.