Tucked into the top of Borneo, this tiny Sultanate of Brunei sure packs a punch. This is the last Malay Sultanate which expresses its proud history through magnificent mosques and traditional water villages.
1. Land in Brunei after only a six and a half hour flight from Melbourne.
2. Visit a stunningly beautiful mosque, the Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which is the largest in the land. There are four main minarets and two golden (yes, real gold leaf) domes. Glowing during the day, and at night, illuminated, a fantastic sight.
3. Transfer from the city to Ulu Temburong National Park. Go by speed boat to Bangar (40 mins.) then transfer to a long boat and skip up the river, bouncing through lots of sets of shallow rapids. This is a stunning ride and an adventure into the wilderness.
4. Stay at Ulu-Ulu Resort, a quiet out-of-the-way place to relax and use as a base for local activities. (No mobile or internet reception here.) And except for the background soundtrack of million bird songs, and a trillion insects, it’s peaceful and serene. On arrival, it’s the traditional lemongrass, lime and lemon drink to refresh.
5. The nature resort was once a research station, so it is comfy rather than luxurious. Food is good curries and filling barbecues. Like elsewhere in Brunei, it is dry, although non-Moslem guests can bring their own alcohol into the country and the resort (customs limits apply).
6. Wake up at 4.30am to cross the Temburong River for the jungle canopy walk. Clamber through tree-root steps, then up a steep flight of 850 stairs before a little rest then head up the amazing steel structure to take you to the clouds.
7. Up ten aluminium ladders to walk across the ‘bridge’ aerial walkway, high above the jungle’s fruiting figs. After this adventure, go for a swim, or rubber tubing through the rapids or as I did, read a book in the shade.
8. Back to town to sample the fine local cuisine, made up of a blend of Indian, Chinese and South East Asian dishes – damn good food here too.
9. Walk around town, drop in to the Chinese temple, the Royal Regalia Museum and view the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
10. Visit the Water Village. (Most of Bandar Seri Begawan was a water village for living, fishing and trading for centuries before modern advancement 50 years ago.) Walk across little bridges and walkways between houses and the kampong community villages. The locals’ wave and you can catch the real life happening here.
11. The Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Museum will explain the life lived here over water.
12. After Ramadan, the Moslem world is ready to eat, and Hari Raya is time for open house and the hospitality of Hari Raya extends to the palace, Istana Nurul Iman, the largest residential palace in the world, home to His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassannal Bolkiah, who opens the palace. And anyone (including me) can line up to meet the Sultan (men meet the Sultan) women meet the Queen (which I did). More than 30,000 people visit each day for three days and the royals shake our hands and the visitors are fed. The choreography of organising 90,000 people and feeding them, and giving them a gift – turns out to be orderly and impressive.
13. After all that pomp and splendour head to the opulent Empire Hotel & Country Club for a right royal treat. Beautiful grounds, lots of splendid restaurants, eight swimming pools, a bowling alley, the Zen spa, a Jack Nicklaus golf course and a private beach.
14. For something and somewhere totally different, Brunei is the Kingdom of unexpected treasures.