Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Relax with Sultan of Swing in fairytale Brunei

THE Sultan of Brunei has 7000 cars in his private collection and built the hotel you're staying in for $1 billion from the money his country makes from oil and gas. Yes $1 billion.

Some days he drives one of his 7000 motor vehicles - he is said to favour his Lamborghinis on Sundays - to your hotel, as his security entourage struggles to keep up on the highway out of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. If you don't get to see him, you'll feel his otherworldly presence around this, the Empire Hotel and Country Club.

The hotel features more gold than an ancient Incan city and the lobby more Italian marble than Florence, and the club's links course was designed by the world's greatest golfer, Jack Nicklaus.

A visit to Brunei is like visiting a children's fairytale. It's one of only two sultanates left on Earth and is a place of Islamic grandeur with its gold-domed mosques and a ruler (from the oldest reigning monarchy in the world) who resides in the largest residential palace on Earth.

While Bandar Seri Begawan is one of Asia's sleepiest capitals (and its driest - non-Muslims are permitted to bring alcohol into Brunei but you won't find a single bar selling alcohol anywhere in the country), Brunei's greatest attraction is that nothing is far away, including bars across its border with the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

When you come to play golf at the Empire, the wildest jungles of Borneo are only a short journey away.

Brunei is one of the world's smallest countries - the last remnant of an empire that once included all of Borneo - and so accessing its virgin rainforests, which are its greatest asset and are among the best preserved in South-East Asia, takes barely any effort at all. In fact, it can be done in less than a day before you're back in the golden grandeur of your hotel.

I took a water taxi past the city's historic floating villages and the mangroves of Sungai Brunei where shy, rare, proboscis monkeys (you'll find more of them here in Brunei than anywhere else on the planet) jumped from tree to tree and crocodiles lurked in the shallows, through the open sea of Brunei Bay and further east along the Sungai Temburong River. After a short bus ride, traditional longboats took me to the Ulu Temburong National Park.

It was a thrilling ride in - although barely three hours' journey from my hotel - down a fast-flowing, chocolate-coloured river where gigantic hornbills fly by and one of the world's most diverse ecosystems waits.

The Iban river people, who paddled my boat, live there. Most of Brunei's population now live in or around the capital but the Iban prefer to live as they always have. They guided me through thick jungle, past tailless Bornean gibbons, to one of the world's longest rainforest canopy walks, which takes hikers 50m up past the trees and into the skies.

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