Monday, October 03, 2011

Discover Borneo through Brunei, Borneo's Peaceful Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures

The oil rich Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam (Brunei, the Abode of Peace) is an aptly named little known gem of a destination, nestled on the northern shores of the huge island of Borneo, which it once ruled in its entirety in centuries past, along with parts of the southern Philippines.

As a result of numerous colonial intrusions in the past from the Spanish, Dutch and British, present day independent Brunei now covers only 5,765 km2, or less than 1% of Borneo's landmass, and is bordered on all sides by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and by the South China Sea.

Fortunately for Brunei, vast reserves of oil and gas have been discovered on and off shore, turning Brunei into one of the world's wealthiest countries on a per capita basis.

Today, this enchanting kingdom, ruled by a beloved and benevolent Sultan, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, considered the world's wealthiest monarch and descending from an unbroken royal lineage dating back to the early 15th century, provides generously for the welfare of its 400 thousand inhabitants, exempting them from personal income taxes and providing them with virtually free universal education and medical care, among many other ways to share the nation's wealth for the betterment of the population and the country in general.

With over two thirds of the population professing the Islamic faith, Brunei is ruled according to the national philosophy of the Malay Islamic Monarchy, with most people practicing a pious but tolerant brand of Islam, which encompasses as well respect and attachment for the age old Malay traditions and culture and reverence for the monarchy and its members.

Often wrongly perceived as a strict and boring place, Brunei in fact has much to go for it. Tourists who can go for a few days without a drink or gambling will find no more restrictions to their enjoyment than in neighboring countries, as long as they respect Brunei's cultural and religious traditions.

Brunei of course does not pretend to become the next Bali or Phuket. Its strengths lie elsewhere, although there is also plenty of sea, sun and clean, wholesome family fun for those looking for it.

Brunei's strong points are rather found in its natural and cultural assets: the vast stretches of virgin tropical rainforests covering over 70% of the land, and its rich Malay culture, traditions and colorful history dating back centuries and reading like the pages of an adventure epic, replete with tales of sultans, princesses, pirates, headhunters and swashbuckling European adventurers.

Despite all this, few tourists as yet can be seen around Brunei, prompting many in the know to call Brunei "Asia's best kept secret". Even now that tourism promotion and development are firmly on the agenda for the future diversification of the oil dependent economy, Brunei is likely to remain a destination for discerning, experienced travelers in quest of an untouched and seldom visited new place to discover.

This little slice of paradise is packed with a variety of easy to reach attractions, such as the tiny capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, probably South East Asia's loveliest capital, a green, airy and well maintained garden city free of the crowds, traffic jams, pollution, noise and trepidation found in the region's other capitals.

Bandar Seri Begawan, often simply referred to as Bandar or BSB, boasts of the world's largest water village, Kampong Ayer, where over 20 thousand people still live in wooden houses on stilts, linked by water taxis to the mainland and combining an age old traditional lifestyle with the amenities provided by the modern age and the wealth of the country.

Overlooking Kampong Ayer is one of the region's architectural wonders, the majestic Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, built in 1958 by Brunei's previous ruler, which is a sight to behold, especially at dusk when the fading sunlight plays with the soft toned illuminations of the dome and minarets and the call to prayer reverberates across the water village and the downtown area.

Further down by the river seats the impressive Istana Nurul Imam - the Sultan's palace and the world's biggest residential palace with 1,788 rooms, complete with horse stables, polo field and a private heliport, which opens to citizens and visitors alike only once a year during the celebrations marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Discover Borneo through Brunei, Borneo's Peaceful Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures

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