Thursday, December 10, 2015

7 places to visit in the ‘Abode of Peace’

Brunei Darussalam, with its “strict” Islamic laws and high cost of living, is an unlikely travel destination, even for tourists from neighboring Southeast Asian nations. The country, if not totally unheard of by others, is only arguably famous for 2 things – its oil and its Sultan, who was once the richest man in the world before the advent of tech billionaires.

During my travels in Indonesia and Malaysia in 2012, I’ve made many Bruneian friends who intrigued me with tales of their country. This, aside from the fact that we shared the same humor and interests, made me want to go to Brunei. So I made a promise to visit them when I had the time and money.

In April 2015, I was finally able to fulfil my promise when I went to Brunei (and Kota Kinabalu) with my college friends for the Holy Week. When I told my Bruneian friends that I’ll visit them when I booked our flights in September 2014, they were very excited. I knew we were going to have a good time.

We arrived in Brunei International Airport via Royal Brunei Airlines from Manila on April 2. The flight took less than 2 hours and it was quite an experience flying in a Muslim-owned airline. I’d recommend RBA for any traveller for its comfortability and service.

‘Logistical concerns’

Public transportation is either difficult or expensive to access in Brunei. There are no busses or trains from the airport to the city center and cabs are expensive. Make sure you arrange an airport transfer from your hotel, as we did. You’d pay a much cheaper price compared to taking a taxi.

Aside from public transportation, it’s also difficult to find cheap accommodation in Brunei since there are very few choices for travellers. So it’s a good thing we booked our hotel a month before our arrival through Agoda. We paid a relatively cheaper price for 2 rooms and 3 nights compared to the usual 4-star and 5-star accommodations available in the country.

The welcome I had from in Brunei is one of the warmest I’ve ever experienced. Since it was difficult to take public transportation, my Bruneian friends drove us around the places of interest. They showed us the cheap but excellent food places to eat in and even invited us for high tea in one of their homes. It was Bruneian hospitality at its finest!

That being said, here are the 7 places that I suggest for travellers visiting Brunei.

1) Masjid Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah

As the name suggests, this mosque was built to celebrate the current sultan’s 25th year in power in 1992. Its 29 golden domes are symbolic of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s place as the 29th ruler of his dynasty.

Located in one of the suburbs near the city center, the magnificent Masjid Jame, as the locals call it, is one of the most beautiful ones in Southeast Asia and the largest one in the country. It is intricately decorated with picturesque gardens and quaint fountains.

Inside the mosque are huge decorated prayer halls for men and women. Every pillar and stairway shows the devotion of Bruneians to Islam.

Tourists can actually go here for free as long as they wear the proper attire. Women are required to wear black robes before being allowed to roam inside the mosque. People can visit any day except Fridays when Bruneian men have their afternoon prayers in Masjid Jame.

2) Masjid Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saiffudien

Considered as the major landmark and tourist spot in Brunei, this mosque tops the beauty of Masjid Jame. It was finished in 1958 by the father of the current sultan. Since then, no buildings were allowed to be built higher than this masjid – about 52 meters – so it naturally dominates Bandar Seri Begawan’s skyline.

It’s a great example of modern Islamic architecture with marble minarets and golden domes. Beside the mosque is an artificial lagoon and barge, which was added in 1967 to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of the coming down of the Quran.

The interior of the mosque, adorned with imported items from across the world, is actively used as a place of worship for Bruneians. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the prayer hall but tourists can go around the vicinity of the mosque for free.

We visited the mosque at sunset and the view was breathtaking.

3) Royal Regalia Building

As if the mosques they built are not yet enough testaments to the wealth of the Brunei royals, they’ve also built a museum to house the treasures they own.

The Royal Regalia Building is home to the royal regalia – the royal chariots, crowns, and jewelry, among others – of Brunei’s monarchs. Since this was built to celebrate the current sultan’s silver jubilee in 1992, all the gifts from foreign presidents and kings are also displayed here.

Among the sultan’s collections were golden swords from Middle Eastern countries and small replicas of famous landmarks from across Southeast Asia. Even former president Corazon Aquino’s gift to the sultan was displayed, proof of the longstanding good relations between the Philippines and Brunei.

The museum is located in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Tourists can enter for free but are only allowed to take photos in the main gallery.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: 7 places to visit in the ‘Abode of Peace’