Brunei. What’s in there?
Gold. Lots of it.
Well, this is both true and false. It is true because Brunei Darussalam, a sultanate southwest of the Philippines on Borneo Island, has lots of gold — from the domes of its lavish mosques to the bidets of its restrooms to the buttons of its well-loved sultan’s clothes.
But Brunei does not produce gold — well except for liquid black gold, or crude oil, which has shaped the fortune of this tiny country, allowing it to amass — nay, import — all the (yellow) gold everyone now sees in and around it.
Brunei is very close to the Philippines, but the differences are quite stark. Bruneians — the citizens of Brunei — enjoy lots of freebies, which frankly we Filipinos can do with as well: free housing, free healthcare, free education, interest-free loans. And because the country produces oil, petrol for cars is said to be very cheap.
We checked how much: according to globalpetrolprices.com, a liter of gasoline in Brunei is 0.43 USD — P18.49 — as of June 23 this year.
Most of its citizens also have two cars, and although the dwellings at Kampong Ayer — or Water Village — look rather rundown, inside are modern appliances, air-conditioning, and probably gold-plated toilets.
And oh, before we even forget, Bruneians pay no taxes. I repeat. They have no f*cking taxes.
Now, before we all pull all our hairs out of envy of their tax-free existence, allow us to take you around this tiny country’s mosques, markets, rainforests, and one of its biggest hotels.
Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
This is the biggest mosque in Brunei, locally known as Kiarong Mosque. Its domes are gold-plated, but of course you already knew that.
Malay Technology Museum
This museum, right beside Brunei Museum, displays artifacts from the earliest ways of life in Brunei — primarily in the water villages (the country’s population is predominantly Malay). These include ‘stilt architecture, boat making, fishing techniques, handicrafts’, according to Lonely Planet.
Tamu Kianggeh Open-Air Market
The Tamu Kianggeh (tamu is the local term for market) is a bustling space where local handicrafts and produce — including, if you noticed, big-ass chili — are sold. It is located on the banks of the Kianggeh River.
Like all night markets, Pasar Gadong offers fried and skewered food at cheap prices, usually under B$3.
Kampong Ayer (Water Village)
The Water Village is a local dwelling area. Brightly painted houses stand on stilts, and locals navigate through boats. This village is self-contained, with its own public facilities such as hospitals and schools.
Ulu Temburong National Park
Seventy percent of Brunei’s 5,700+ sq km land area is composed of rainforest. A part of this — 50,000 hectares — is the Ulu Temburong National Park. It is home to mangroves, various species of birds, proboscis monkeys, and crocodiles. Excursions start via water taxi from Bandar Seri Begawan, into 1,300+ steps (yes, a staircase) up and deep into the forest, ending in the Canopy Walk, a 140-foot three-tiered installation one needs to climb for a 360-degree view of the rainforest canopy (thus the name) and Mt. Kinabalu in the distance.
Sumbiling Eco Village
Sumbiling Eco Village is a usual stop for excursions to Ulu Temburong National Park.
Typical Iban longhouse. With AC and car port. :) The Iban are an indigenous tribe in Brunei. They are former headhunters, but British rule has stopped the practice. Traditionally, several families occupy one longhouse.
Bamboo chicken. According to borneoguide.com, bamboo chicken is ‘a culinary specialty we are known for, featuring succulent pieces of chicken marinated with spices and herbs, then stuffed into a green bamboo tube and carefully cooked over (sic) wood fire. The moisture contained in this particular type of bamboo ensures the tube does not break open while cooking, and also contributes to a flavourful broth without pouring in any water at anytime during the cooking process.’
Empire Hotel and Country Club
The Empire is the most lavish hotel in the whole sultanate. It has, among others, 21K gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It has 500 rooms spread over 180 hectares, and the flush knobs on its toilet seats are probably worth more than we are, combined.
So, what’s the catch?
Alcohol is prohibited. Throughout the country!
~ This trip was taken by Owen in 2013 as a photographer for AsianTraveler and was sponsored by Brunei Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. All photographs by Owen Ballesteros. Words by Nikka Book Brunei Darussalam hotels via Agoda