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Continental Drifter

In Brunei, a most lavish slice of life

By ELLIOTT HESTER
Published May 25, 2003

photo
[Photo: Elliot Hester]
The fortresslike Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, visible from nearly every place in the city, was built in 1958.
See map of author's journey

I came to Brunei purely by accident.

While trying to book a flight from Darwin, Australia, to Bangkok, Thailand, I found that Royal Brunei Airways offered the cheapest air fare. Rather than endure the eight-hour wait between connecting flights in Brunei, I decided to spend a few days in this tiny Muslim sultanate.

Although at times I found myself rummaging around for something to do, I managed to see one of Southeast Asia's most remarkable structures and had the best hotel experience of my life.

The country's complete name is Negara Brunei Darussalam, which loosely translated means "Brunei - abode of peace." Fair enough: Serious crime is rare, liquor consumption is forbidden, nightlife is practically nonexistent, and the country's largest city, Bandar Seri Begawan (pop. 60,000), seems to shut down before dark.

(Even during rush hour, when the streets of BSB, as it is called, were jammed with late-model Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, I never heard a horn honk.)

Located in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo, Brunei is less than half the size of Rhode Island, with just 350,000 residents. They are ruled by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, better known as the sultan of Brunei and also better known as being about as as rich as Bill Gates.

Living here, the sultan has a lot less on which to spend his money.

The abundant revenue comes from offshore oil wells at Seria and Muara. The sultan's people enjoy free education, free medical care, a high minimum wage and no taxation.

Everyone is entitled to a pension, as well as low-interest loans and subsidies for automobile purchases, which might explain the abundance of Benzes and Beemers.

After checking into the Brunei Hotel, which proved to be clean and just $32 a night, I walked the quiet streets of BSB and within less than an hour I'd seen just about everything.

The city has three notable features: Kampung Ayer, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, and the Sultan's palace, which is off-limits to the public.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is justifiably visible from nearly every place in the city. Built in 1958 and named after the present sultan's father, the fortresslike mosque is topped by a huge golden dome, with several smaller domes perched atop rectangular pillars.

Inside the main dome is a mosaic comprised of 3.5-million pieces. The walls are made of exquisite Italian marble, as are the floors, upon which intricately woven prayer mats are laid.

Outside, I gazed at the mosque's shimmering image in its reflecting pool. As if on cue, the Muslim call to prayer drifted from speakers suspended beneath the domes. Sung by a crier, or muezzin, the call to prayer has a rhythmic, mesmerizing quality that is heard five times each day.

A few steps away from the mosque lies Kampung Ayer, a stilt village. Poised on rotting wooden poles above the Brunei River, many of the shacks are crumbling but brightly painted wooden structures.

Farther upriver there is a proliferation of new, characterless, prefabricated shacks, on stilts made of concrete. A maze of wooden plank walks connects the villages to each other and to schools, mosques and convenience stores.

About half of BSB's residents live in these above-water communities. Each morning the typical villager walks the planks from his home, flags down a water taxi and crosses the river to a job in BSB's city center.

After ambling aimlessly along the plank walks, and receiving hesitant nods from residents along the way, I found myself with an empty itinerary and two nights remaining before my flight departed for Bangkok. Hoping to find a bargain, I placed a call to the Empire Hotel & Country Club (www.empire.com.bn) a member of the prestigious consortium, the Leading Hotels of the World. I was surprised to learn that a standard room cost only $131 (weekend rate). I made a reservation for the following day and prepared for 24 hours of opulence.

Three things struck me as I entered the Empire Hotel: the expansive lobby with its huge crystal chandelier, the marble floor motif, and the seven-story atrium, in which white marble columns stand as tall as California redwoods.

Like all of the 423 rooms and suites, my room had a balcony facing the South China Sea. The bed was fitted with sheets made of fine Egyptian cotton. The bathroom was a marble palace, with a tub deep enough to swim in.

Because I don't play golf and didn't feel like bowling, I eschewed the flood-lit 18-hole course and the high-tech, six-lane alley that are part of the Empire. Instead, I walked next door and watchedLord of the Rings: The Two Towers at the Empire's lavish, three-screen cinema. Furnished with deep leather sofas instead of chairs, the theater provided the best movie experience of my life.

My most vivid memory of my stay in Brunei was the arrival of His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the prime minister of Bahrain. The hotel actually did lay out the red carpet for him. I stood along the edge of that carpet, in the crowd of oglers assembled at the lobby door. After an hour of waiting, he appeared, dressed in a flowing robe and headdress, and and was whisked away by hotel executives.

Later, I was told that the prime minister and his staff had taken 49 rooms, including the Emperor's suite, which cost nearly $13,000 per night.

I wonder if he got the weekend rate.

NEXT STOP: Bangkok, Thailand.

Elliott Hester is the author of "Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet." He's given up his day job to travel around the world for one year. His dispatches appear regularly in Travel, and readers may contact him at megoglobal@hotmail.com or they can visit www.elliotthester.com

[Last modified May 23, 2003, 12:37:23]

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