“Just go up the forested hill back of the hotel,” says our cheery breakfast server to our query of where to see monkeys. It is our first morning in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. As suggested, we approach a paved road veering upward from the side of the Radisson. “Hey, this climb is good for at least a few hundred calories,” I say to Rick as inspiration. A break in the trees mid-way awards us a glimpse of the city below and a breath-levelling moment.
At the top is a dirt path into dense foliage. We proceed along a twisting route over tangles of roots. Chirping, buzzing and rustling rainforest sounds fill our senses. Suddenly the tops of trees begin to sway and there they are – long-tailed macaques, some leaping over our heads to reach the trees on the other side! “How’s that for monkey-business our first morning here!” Rick exclaims, the strenuous climb forgotten.
Within days we know our way around Bandar Seri Begawan (a.k.a. BSB or Bandar), with its population of 241,000 (2016 estimate). On our many walks we glean why we are almost the only ones gracing the wide sidewalks in this ultra-clean city. Locals drive everywhere, no doubt with the air-con blasting as the temperature hits a high humidity +30, and also because petro is 51-cents a litre and diesel 31-cents in Brunei currency (a BDN$ is almost equal to our CAN$).
Going by the name Brunei to most, the country’s official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam (Negara is “Nation” in Malay – the official language. Darussalam means “Abode of Peace” in Arabic, the language of the Quran, Islam the state religion). Located on the northwest side of the island of Borneo, it is about the size of Canada’s smallest province Prince Edward Island (or Delaware in the US), making it one of the smallest countries in the world, yet one of the richest with its development of off-shore oil reserves in the 1960’s. The citizens pay no income tax, schooling (including post-secondary), and medical treatment are government paid.
Brunei has been sultanate ruled for centuries and during the 15th and 16th it held sway throughout most of Borneo. Fast forward to 1838 when British adventurer James Brooke helped the sultan put down rebellions of inland tribes….but also appointed himself Raja Brooke and whittled the country away by a series of treaties, dividing the country in half – as it is today. The country became a British protectorate in 1888, and gained independence from Britain 1984.
The current Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, born in 1946, is the 29th of his line, and his son Crown Prince Muhtadee Billah is preparing to be the 30th.
Sultan Bolkiah is one of the richest men in the world. Want to know what to buy for a man that has everything? Well, you could add to his collection of 7,000 high-performance cars in air-craft hangers or 200 polo ponies in air-con stables – a few of his favourites. However, one can’t go wrong with gifts of solid gold and priceless jewels…like we see in the Royal Regalia Museum displaying gifts from various heads of state and royal families, particularly for the sultan’s coronation day.
Other jaw-dropping items in the museum is the gold-leaf royal chariot that pulled the newly crowned Bolkiah through the capital at his 1968 coronation ceremony, and another for his silver jubilee celebration on the throne with headless mannequins dressed in traditional attire in front and back of the chariot.
We hire a taxi to whisk us to the palatial Empire Hotel & Country Club.
The South China Sea lapping out front, eleven floors of grandeur in glass and marble, a cinema building, a Jack Nicholas designed golf course are just some of the ‘wow factors’. This sensational complex costing 1.1 billion is a prominent reminder of the sultan’s younger brother Prince Jefri who around 1997 is said to have gone on a spending spree to the tune of US 16-Billion. He was eventually reeled in by his brother and forced to hold an auction in 2001 wherein many of the prince’s prized possession went under the hammer. And if hotel guests feel the need to venture from this lap of luxury, Jerudong Park Playground is a nearby sprawling amusement area, with a water park, dazzling musical fountain, rides, and mini-golf, and more!
This city is a shopper delight with its myriad of malls. With map in hand we set out for Gadong Mall, the largest in the city. Soon lost, I ask direction of a shop manager who graciously insists his employee drives us to Gadong…and within no time are wandering around the modern and spacious complex!
Bandar streets are mostly empty after dark, with little night life. Brunei adheres to Islamic observances; the strictest of these is announced by the pilot on Brunei Airways before landing, “drugs brought into the country is punishable by death”. The law is more lenient for visitors in regards to alcohol. Although sales are banned within the country, foreigners are allowed to bring a certain amount with them for personal use, to be claimed at customs.
In the midst of the city are plenty of green spaces. A special find is a mere four blocks from our hotel to Taman Peranginan Tasek, a lush park with a small waterfall and hiking trails…and more macaques! The critters swinging down from trees are not skittish in the least.
Even kids playing on squeaky equipment does not faze them. Some sashay within inches of Rick’s feet then proceed to a ledge where they sit and munch leaves like popcorn at a movie – the feature being “us”.
Cruising Brunei River
One day we roust ourselves early for our tour to see the long-nosed Proboscis Monkeys, endemic to Borneo. Our tour guide, Yusri, arrives at our hotel door at 7:00 a.m. to transport us to a jetty where we board a small boat to take us into the mangroves.
The river narrows. “Left of the boat are rain forests, and on the right are mangroves where we hopefully will see Proboscis nibbling tasty leaves,” Yusri announces.
Shan suddenly cuts the engine and calls “Crocodile!” We follow his pointing finger to what looks like a huge greyish floating tree trunk…with eyes. Cormorants, Sea-eagles, and lizards are other wildlife sightings before pulling into a small mangrove bay, where we wait in silence.
It is not long before the leaves in the tall trees begin to rustle and sway furiously! “It’s a troop of about 5 or 6 Proboscis….golden brown colour…see, see?” Well, barely…as other than periodic spurts at lightning speed they are hidden by the thickness of their choice munching spots. Our navigator steers into a narrow mangrove path and as if on cue, a young male comes out from behind leafy branches! Hooray!
We are now content to leave the mangroves for a stop at Kampong Ayer (Water Village); home to about 30,000 inhabitants living in stilt-houses along both sides of the Brunei River. This traditional way of living dates back about 1300 years.
Boardwalks join the houses, schools, shops, eateries in the various buildings. Fishing, river traders, artisans fashioning silver,brassware, woodcarving and fabric weaving are some of the resident’s occupations. We hop out of the boat and enter one of the houses. The spacious living room is set up with multiple chairs to receive tour-visitors, and we are treated to pastries and tea.
What a grand finale to our Brunei visit! The sights of Bandar and our river cruise were fine experiences, from delving into the sultan’s riches and the lifestyle of citizens, to the natural beauty of the country and that wildlife being so close at hand – each activity enhanced by locals with welcoming words and a smile.
Brunei Tourism Department: