Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bandar Seri Begawan - Borneo bling

Discover BSB, the capital of tiny, shiny, secretive Brunei.

FULL disclosure: as a northern hemisphere relic until well into this century, I had no clue where Brunei was.

I thought that the oil-rich sultanate blessed with swathes of pristine rainforest stood somewhere in the Persian Gulf – next to Oman, say.

Brunei actually lurks on Borneo’s northwestern coast, bizarrely sandwiched between two slabs of Sarawak. Apparently landed from space, Brunei is the last stand of an empire that once spanned all Borneo and the southwest Philippines. Now one of the world’s smallest countries, Brunei (“abode of peace”) has just 400,000 inhabitants.

The heart of the exclusive corner of Borneo is the palm tree-lined capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, which swallows up most of the population, hosting 280,000 people.

If you cannot remember the capital’s name, just use the abbreviation, BSB, which aptly echoes an Aussie finance term meaning “Bank/State/Branch”.

At the heart of BSB stands a dazzling Taj Mahal-like monument: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The landmark merrily mixes Italian styles and Mughal architecture, and matches slender minarets with bulbous domes.

Built in honour of said Sultan, the mosque owes its existence to 20th-century Lombardy virtuoso Rodolfo Nolli. The sculptor and architect was hot at his job. So hot that he won the title Cavaliere (knight). Nolli the knight must have loved himself when the great mosque fully materialised in 1958.

Embedded in an artificial lagoon, Nolli’s creation soars 52m into the sky. Visible throughout BSB, the mosque boasts marble minarets, golden domes and, well, bling.

The most striking feature, the main dome, is coated with pure gold that presumably comes from an exotic source because much of the mosque’s material has an overseas origin.

The marble from Italy, the granite from Shanghai, the crystal chandeliers from England (which ruled the country until 1984) and the carpets from Saudi Arabia. The splashy spiritual icon’s courtyards are surrounded by a lush, fountain-dotted garden that symbolises paradise.

An arching staircase leading from paradise takes you to a bizarre concrete replica of a 16th-century royal barge. The barge, which stages Quran-reading contests, surreally seems to float like a lily on the lagoon.

Across the water, the skeletal shape of Kampung Ayer (“water village”) catches the eye. Besides homes for its 30,000 inhabitants, Kampong Ayer has mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, and a hospital – all woven together by 36km of boardwalk and community spirit reminiscent of a Sarawak longhouse.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Bandar Seri Begawan - Borneo bling

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