I spent a long time debating whether I should spend a weekend in Brunei. On the one hand the flights and accommodation aren’t exactly cheap, and I already knew there wasn’t much to see / do there. On the other hand I wanted to tick another country off my visit-list and collect another stamp on my passport. After all it’s not like I would ever come here after I leave Singapore. Curiosity got the better of me and I set off on Saturday morning.
Public transport is limited in the city; most people have cars and buses operate at 20min intervals with the last bus finishing at 6pm. I stayed at Capital Residence, which operates a shuttle service covering the main sights including airport transfers. To be honest the staff were so friendly and easy-going they would have dropped you off anywhere you asked.
My flight landed in the afternoon and the city was like a cranked-up oven. It was a different kind of heat to Singapore; it was dry, skin-splitting kind of dry. I walked to Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, aka SOAS or the old mosque. The city centre was eerily quiet on a Saturday, most probably because no one in their right mind would choose to be outdoors at 38 degrees. Despite being the main sight, there were just a handful of tourists. I was given a long black robe to cover up, then I joined the other 4 people on the small mat inside. There isn’t much to see given we were confined to the entrance, but given it was fully air-conditioned, it was a nice place to cool off.
After walking around the mosque, I strolled along the river overlooking Kampong Ayer, a water village built entirely on stilts. There were plenty of water taxis offering 30-min tours around the village for $20. Alternatively a boat trip to cross the river is only $1. I didn’t bother as I have seen these in Penang.
In the evening I checked out the Gadong Night Market. The city was much more welcoming in the evening without the blazing sun. The covered market had a mixture of household goods and food stalls. Nothing like street markets in Thailand; maybe 30 food stalls split into 3 rows, jam packed with cars weaving between the stalls. There was a selection local delicacies including barbecue skewers, kebabs, nasi lemaks, satays and oddly enough Japanese Takoyaki with tuna (!) or chicken (!!) filling. Prices were cheap - most items were going for $1-2. With an iced milk tea in hand ($1), I bought 2 sets of satays, chicken and beef ($2), 3 chicken wings ($3) and a mixed kebab ($2).
The kebab was out of this world - the meat mix was so juicy and loaded with a delicious marinade packed with flavours, mixed with a generous dollop of mayo - it was wickedly indulgent. The satay and chicken wings were great, excellent value for money. There stalls selling chicken wings also sell skewers of ‘chicken tail’, or some would call them chicken assholes. I wasn’t brave enough to try; it’s pure fat wrapped in chicken skin, which basically means poison.
There wasn’t a designated eating area with tables and chairs, as most locals come by car to pick up takeaways. I just munched away as I wandered around.
Before heading back to the hotel, I made a stop at Jame’ Mosque (Jame’ Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah), which is the new mosque built to commemorate the current Sultan.
I made a detour to the Palace entrance briefly just to marvel at its size and was hoping to catch a glimpse of the 1000 supercars the Sultan owns. The driver spoke very fondly of the Sultan. He explained he used to live in Kampong Ayer when he was younger, but a fire wiped out his house and the Sultan just gave them a new house near the airport. Orphans are also taken into the palace under his majesty’s care.
Final stop for the evening was the SOAS mosque to see it at night. The promenade by the mosque was flooded with people, not worshippers, but with Pokemon-Go players. I heard the game was rolled out to Brunei the day before and the craze took over the city…
After a hearty breakfast, I wandered down to Kianggeh Market. There’s nothing to see there. The Royal Regalia Museum, however, was most impressive. It hosts a spectacular display of royal accessories and gifts for the Sultan around the world during coronation. The reconstructions were magnificent.
With half a day to spare before catching my flight, I had exhausted all points of interest in town. There is a trio of malls near the airport, so I decided to check out the cinema at Times Square. Tickets were going for $7! Suicide Squad was a bit meh, but it was great way to kill a couple of hours. Before leaving for the airport, I tried Lee Loi Fatt foodstall, I heard they made their name by serving superb fritters. I went for a cucur udang, keladi & taufu (shrimp, taro and tofu), served with a generous pool of hoi sin and chilli sauce. It was delicious; a light and crispy batter with soft and fluffy fillings.
People said it was very possible to walk to the airport from the mall. Well, no one told me that I’d be walking on the highway and crossing a couple of massive roundabouts. I guess people don’t usually walk here. Well… I did. Thankfully traffic was light, which made crossing the highway exits a bit less nerve-wrecking.
I’m glad I made the trip to Brunei. People are helpful and easy-going, food is cheap and good, though mostly Malaysian. Fair enough it’s not the most exciting destination, but the sleepy sultanate is unique in its simplicity and laid-back ambience.
Brunei - check.