Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sigh of contentment in Brunei

Last year's end of Ramadan offered a long weekend. So I took the chance to visit a Muslim country. Sadly, my research wasn't as thorough as it should be. 

1. Mosques (which are major tourist attractions in Muslim countries) are closed to non-Muslims during the month of ramadan.

2. Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya (the end of ramadan) is based on the appearance of the moon, meaning, it is on a different date for every country.

But I made the trip. And it wasn't so bad. 

Flying Royal Brunei Airlines (USD300 due to procrastination, it's cheaper the earlier you book), I arrived in Brunei near Bandar Seri Begawan or BSB to make my life easier, the capital lunch time. I quickly checked in at Brunei Hotel (booked through Agoda for USD271.52 good for 4 days) and then crossed the street (literally) to visit the first tourist destination. 

Tamu Kianggeh is the local market. I looked about their local food but it's pretty much the same with the Philippines. Nothing caught my fancy.

Nearby, walkable from the hotel although in merciless heat is the Royal Regalia Museum. They provide lockers wherein you can store your things. This is also where you leave your cameras since it's not allowed within the museum save for the lobby with a few displays. Inside though are a lot of cool things begging to be captured and brought home. One day, I swear I'll buy a hidden camera in my eyeglasses! But for now, all I can rely on is my good old memory.

Inside the museum are gifts to the sultan from different countries. Some are inspiring artworks like one that I'm inspired to copy (the idea at least) where a house was drawn in pen and colored using real gems mounted together. Some are just boring.  There was also a display of the parade of clothes, accessories and the float used during the sultan's coronation. Well, the whole museum pretty much is an ode to the well-beloved sultan.

In the lobby, where picture taking is allowed, are more of the parade accessories. I was told, though I'm not sure how true, that these are the actual ones they use for the parade. 

This is definitely worth a visit especially since you need not spend a dollar to go in. :) It's open from 9am to 5pm only.

Since I couldn't stand the heat, after 2 hours in the museum, I headed for the nearby (everything in the city is quite near) Yayasan Complex which is supposed to be the biggest mall in the country. I thought it wouldn't be much fun to shop around though since Muslims are all covered up but I had fun looking around and actually bought silk scarves and some cloth which I plan to be made into a maxi dress. (sadly, it's still a plan after more than 6 months.)

When I felt that the heat's more bearable, I unloaded my purchases. Across the street where the local market was, I went down the steps to the river and went on board a boat. The boatman's first shout is 50 bucks but he agreed for 30 bucks. This isn't a bad deal specially since the boat could easily seat more than 5 people. (of moderate weight of course. :D)

So round we go Kampong Ayer.

It was such a great experience. Just being aboard, with the cool wind blowing on my face, with a beautifully serene view in front of me seemingly endless. It's an added bonus that the boatman pointed out some proboscis monkeys before they went to hide deeper into the mangroves.

Soon after that relaxing ride, all I wanted was to keep the serenity inside me for as long as I can so I went to sleep already. Besides, Brunei is not a country for any nightlife.

The next morning, I booked for a tour around the gas and oil manufacturing plants (BND110).

First stop was the museum but it's unfortunately closed during Mondays. This is a let down. The agency should've known better than book this tour during mondays but they did.

Second stop is the Billionth Barrel Monument which is basically an arch. The story that comes with it is quite inspiring. The arch itself is nothing much though. It's therefore pointless to visit without a guide. 

I had lunch in an eatery in the area. I was given a $7 budget for food. Beyond that, I have to pay. This eatery is where I discovered Teh-Si as in tea with milk and honey. YUMMY! :)

After lunch, I was brought to Jerudong Park. (This part wasn't supposed to be part of the tour but it was included in replacement of the museum.) It's a grand theme park that is now closed. I just nosed around to see how it is.

The Empire Hotel & Country Club radiates such elegance and luxury that it might just be worth it to pay the premium amount to stay here for a night, if only it had a better location. As it is, the hotel is a destination in itself that it is quite a distance from everywhere else. I fancied having a lunch or dinner here, even perhaps tea, but there wasn't enough time. :(

Moving on was a special request of mine. Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque (Don't even think I memorized that name. Thank you Wikipedia!) is already inside BSB city but a bus ride away from the heart of it. (The city couldn't boast a good public transport system owing to the fact that most residents would prefer to use their own car with their fuels available at very low rates.) I took advantage of the tour and asked to drop by this place. Ooh, it's so beautiful! It looks like an exotic mosque to me compared to the next mosque I'm visiting.

Back in BSB, I took a short rest and bounced out again. I walked the two-block distance to Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. Because we're close friends, I just call it the Saifiddin Mosque. This is by far the grandest mosque I've seen so far. It looks a lot better at night. I've passed by this mosque walking around the first day but decided to return at night for pictures. It's nothing but pure glory. It has 28 domes to honor the 28th sultan that commissioned its building. I just might return to Brunei just to explore more of this mosque.

Near the mosque is perhaps the most popular restaurant in Brunei which is Nasi Katok. I fancy bringing it here in the Philippines. The business is so simple and straightforward yet such a hit with the locals. 

For my last full day, I went to explore the Brunei part of Borneo. There were many choices and I finally chose Temburong National Park for $120.00. The British mother and child I toured with were surprised that a Filipino would still be amazed by nature's beauty when we have much of it back home. That's when I realized that Westerners especially Europeans have only home plants for greenery and street cats for wild life. That must be really sad. 

So early morning at 6 am, we went to the ferry station right beside the Tamu Kianggeh market and waited for an hour for an available ride. It was quite a busy season since people were going home to their provinces and the government had hired half the ferries for the use of its employees. Our ferry finally arrived and we rode for an hour and a half. All the while, I was just eavesdropping on a Chinese tour guide explaining things to his guests. One particular thing that I remember is that he was telling them that the Proboscis Monkeys have a huge overhanging nose that goes straight pointing out when they're angry.

After the rough ferry ride, we transferred to a van which travelled for another hour until we finally reached the long boat station. The tribe in Temborong lives in long houses and travels in long boats. They must be nicknamed the Long Tribe but I'm not quite sure, this is just a guess. :D

Traveling on the long boat was quite... calming though it made me nervous at first. But this is only because the water was murky due to the rain the previous night. I was half fearing that a crocodile would suddenly come out of the river. Of course, there wasn't any crocodile in the water at all. It was just me and the movies I watched. :)

We made several stops. One was to an island where we trek through the jungle looking at the minimally disturbed jungle. 

Second was the island that had a very high canopy which when you climb, you'll be rewarded by a mountain-top view that should be breath-taking. The only bummer thing is that there are only a certain number of people that can go up at a time so you can't really dilly dally up there unless you don't mind people waiting because of you.

The next stop was an island where we did flat ground hiking from the river to a small falls. The Westerners I was with were so amazed when the fishes started to nibble their dead skin cells away. They kept giggling, feeling tickled by the fishes. Yup, inside Brunei's jungles are fish spas! :)

After the quite tiring hikes, we were rewarded by a yummy picnic late lunch in another island. This is also where you can pitch a tent when you're spending the night. Tourists can also swim in the river when the guide deems the water calm enough. No one realized that we'd have the opportunity to swim so no one brought any swim suit. After some hanging about, we went back aboard the long boat and went back home. 

After we were back in BSB, it was quite late in the afternoon. I took a quick shower and changed then caught the free hotel shuttle ride to Gadong Night Market. I tested out the street foods and local delicacies. There were lots of food since they're anticipating the Hari Raya festivities. Imagine finally being able to eat normally again after a month of fasting! No wonder they were all so famished! The food didn't disappoint. They are the typical oh-so-yummy street foods! They're not the cheapest though, compared to street foods in the Philippines. A stick would cost a dollar at the very least which would be Php 30+.

After fueling up, I walked around the nearby mall and the surrounding streets. There's nothing to buy since they have a very subdued shopping mall and stores. When I got tired, I went to Rizqun International Hotel to ask the concierge to call Brunei Hotel to have me picked up there. It's nice that they are so accommodating even when I'm not a guest in their hotel. :) The shuttle picked me up. It was bye bye Brunei the next morning. :(

After two days and a half in Brunei I felt I barely scratched the surface but it's not exactly lacking since nature is not faraway from my home. What I love about Brunei definitely isn't the very hot weather but the people. They're very simple and are nature-loving. They aren't exactly friendly but they are very courteous. Best of all, Brunei feels soo safe even for solo travelers. 

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