To many Singaporeans, simply mention Brunei and their instantaneous response would be, “It sounds boring. Is there anything to do there?” In this travel series, Malcolm explored the Abode of Peace and shares the hidden treasures from the last sovereign Malay Sultanate in the world.
My alarm woke me up. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. I made a quick trip to the bathroom to freshen up before making my way to the hotel lobby. I had two hours to shop and explore downtown before the agreed time to meet up with our tour guide. It was my first day at Brunei and I was curious to find out more.
We were hosted in Rizqun International Hotel. Conveniently located in the central business zone of Bandar Seri Begawan and connected to The Mall – one of the main shopping venues in the capital of Brunei. This four-star hotel welcomes travelers with its elaborated glass art decorations in the lobby. The swimming pool complements the needs of family with young children. Published rate for this hotel goes from B$320.00 but they run promotions from time to time with room rates starting from B$145.00 per night.
If you find the hotel’s wifi service pricy, simply hop over to The Mall to purchase a 3G SIM card. There are many shops selling mobile phones and related services. 3G SIM card are available at B$30, comes with a value of B$5. We also got a top up card of B$10, which last us through our 4 days 3 nights trip in Brunei. Special thanks to our friends at Royal Brunei Airlines who understood the needs of social media addicts like us, who cannot live without updating our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and included the 3G SIM cards in our welcome package.
Surprisingly, The Mall and the surrounding areas of the town have every brand we have in Singapore. But instead of a spam of cookie cutter outlets in the malls of Singapore, most of the common brands have only a single shop in Brunei, at least that is true for McDonald’s.
I was able to spot Giordano, Pizza Hut, KFC and even Jollibee in Brunei. And Sushi Tei has recently opened an outlet in Bandar Seri Begawan. I also spotted a number of men in their traditional costumes. In Brunei, it is not uncommon to see men wearing Baju Melayu as an alternative dress code for work. Unlike Singapore, our Malay men normally only wear it during major celebrations like Hari Raya Puasa.
A chat with my tour guide, Tom from Sunshine Borneo Tours, I found that there is no goods and services tax (GST) in Brunei and Bruneians do not need to pay any income tax. Basically,they get to keep what they earn! Education is free up to university-level. Also medical and petrol are heavily subsidized as well. Bruneians only need to pay a token fee of B$1 per consultation for healthcare and if the medical assistance is not available in the country, they are sent overseas at the government’s expenses.
Another interesting fact is that Brunei practises ‘No Plastic Bags’ days from Friday to Sunday. I was rather surprised and certainly impressed with this oil-producing country. Our thoughtful tour guide also made it a point to remind us to bring a reusable shopping bag with us.
We began our Brunei by Night by first filling up our tummies at Portview Seafood Restaurant, a popular spot for locals. It is extremely busy at the end/beginning of the month when people received their paycheck. The restaurant offers an unobscured view of the water village at the opposite site of the bank.
Dinner that night consists of a sumptuous seafood steamboat. Fresh prawns, fish and crab caught locally were arranged neatly together with fishballs and crab sticks on a bed of cabbage and greens waiting for us to drop them into our choice of tom yum soup or chicken both.
After dinner, we took a stroll towards the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) Mosque. We froze in awe and paused for photographs as the view of the gigantic honeycomb of gold came into our view. I had seen many mosques in Singapore and Malaysia but seeing the SOAS Mosque glowing at night was a very special experience.
Do you know that there is an International Quran Reading Competition? The national Quran reading competition in Brunei is held annually at SOAS Mosque and I heard that the winner of the Quran reading competition will be rewarded with a lifetime monthly stipend of B$2,000 courtesy of the government.
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, or JAME Mosque for short, is the largest mosque in Brunei and is considered one of the grandest monuments in Islamic culture. It was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. We managed to make it in time to snap a few postcard worthy photographs before the mosque closed for the night.
By the request of TIffany, we made a side trip to Fitness Zone Health Club. This gym is opened by Brunei-born Taiwanese celebrity, Wu Zun (formerly) of Fahrenheit. We heard that sometimes overseas fans of this popular singer/actor will travel to Brunei and camp outside the gym in hope of catching a glimpse of their idol. At least, Tiffany didn’t have to sleep outside Fitness Zone that night.
The final highlight of the evening was the trip to the night market at Gadong shopping area, located 5-10 minutes walk away from Rizqun International Hotel where we were staying. It offers a glimpse into the local cuisine culture and as bloggers, we entertained ourselves that night by making funny poses and engaging in food photography, much to the amusement of the locals.
We spotted a stall selling B$1.00 Nasi Katok, a dish of hot rice served with a side of spicy sambal, and a piece of chicken or beef or pusu (anchovies). Nasi means rice in the Malay language and Katok means knock. Back in the old days, there was no 24-hour eateries, so the only way for a hungry person to get a midnight fix was to knock on the doors of a food outlet and get the owner out of bed. The sleepy owner will then prepare a simple dish which evolves into the present day Nasi Katok. (Click here to read more about the story of Nasi Katok.)
After having some snacks from Gadong night market and tea in my hotel room, it was time for us to turn in for the night. I will be sharing about Ulu Ulu Resort and Ulu Temburong National Park tomorrow, so stay tuned.
Thank you Royal Brunei Airlines, Brunei Tourism and Omy.sg for sending me to Brunei. And blogger friends Andy Storm, Deenise Glitz, Karen “Renzze” Ashley and Tiffany Yong for sharing their travel photos.
P.S. – There are no public bus or train service in Brunei. You may take a taxi to an attraction but it will be difficult to find a cab back to your hotel. The best way to explore Brunei is to book a tour package.
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