Generation Z. Cruising in an RV.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

8 Reasons Rich Brunei Should Not Underwhelm

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

From Vientiane, we flew into Don Muang International Airport, the older of two international airports serving Greater Bangkok. Since the opening of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport, Don Muang has become a regional commuter flight hub. It is Asia’s oldest and the world's largest low-cost carrier airport. We arrived at about 3 pm and we readied ourselves for our overnight layover.

Wat Don Muang,

We stayed at the International Amari Airport Hotel, connected to the airport by an air-conditioned walkway. After checking into our low-cost off-season accommodations, we visited Wat Don Muang, the cluster of temples beside the airport. We were thus encouraged to take a Bangkok night tour: dinner at the Kuang Seafood Center, shopping at the Chatuchak Night Market and some night scenes.

When we got to Brunei, I must say I was first underwhelmed. Brunei is a sovereign state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, surrounded by the South China Sea and the Malaysian state of Sarawak. She gained her independence from the UK in 1984. Extensive petroleum and natural gas fields have enabled her to attain the second-highest human development index among SE Asian nations (after Singapore), and 5th in GDP per capita and 5th richest nation out of 182.

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

On the way to our hotel from the airport, a glistening mosque was impossible to miss. Of course, we stopped for pictures. Built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the reign of Sultan Bolkiah, the current sultan, it is Brunei's largest mosque with its four terrazzo-tiled minarets dominating the landscape. The Sultan is the dynasty's 29th ruler so the impressive building is adorned with 29 golden domes. Too bad we did not see it at night when they say the mosque lights up like a gold flame.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

As soon as we checked into our conveniently located hotel, we walked to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei (the late father of the Sultan Bolkiah). It is surrounded by an artificial lagoon that serves as a reflecting pool. A 3.5 million-piece glass mosaic overlaying real gold leaf covers the main dome and a minaret of over 172 feet makes it the tallest building in Brunei. Exceeding this height is prohibited. The ceremonial stone boat sitting in the lagoon, a replica of a 16th-century mahligai where Quran-reading competitions were once held, adds more majesty.

Shopping Centre

Shopping Centre

Past the Mosque, away from our hotel is the Shopping Center. We were surprised that, though it was after office hours, there were practically no shoppers. Right after our dinner of char kway teow, a popular Singaporean dish, a heavy downpour prevented us from going back to the hotel. Hanna, a Filipina saleslady came to our rescue and called her relative. Michael arrived minutes later. We contracted him to drive us to more landmarks the next day before we flew back to Manila.

Kampong Ayer

Kampong Ayer

After our hearty complimentary breakfast at the hotel, Michael picked us up and drove us straight to Kampong Ayer, 42 contiguous stilt villages built along the banks of the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River) housing about 30,000 people. To get across the river, there are water taxis that can be flagged for just $1. Founded about a thousand years ago, the village is the largest stilt settlement in the world and is  dubbed 'Venice of the East.' The wooden houses on stilts are painted in all colors. Kampong Ayer is home to a large number of many of Brunei’s underclass, especially undocumented immigrants.

Royal Regalia Museum

Royal Regalia Museum

When you have to give a gift to one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world, you may ask, “What do you give a man who has everything?” Michael next drove us to the Royal Regalia Museum that houses the answers to this question. Family photos and explanatory texts offer a good overview of the life of Sultan Bolkiah, including a hologram of the famous man. Also on display are the chariot used during his 1992 silver jubilee procession and a second chariot used for his 1968 coronation.

Ash Shaliheen Mosque


We had some trouble looking for this mosque. Michael told us it was not one of the more popular ones,  As it turned out, it is located beside the Prime Minister's Office Complex. Completed in 2012, it really looks quite different from the two mosques we had visited. Built in the simpler Moroccan style, it sports a modern glass retractable roof for the convenience of the faithful.

p Istana Nurul Iman
Prime Minister's Office Building
Istana Nurul Iman

Istana Nurul Iman

This is the official residence of the Sultan, one of the largest residences in the world. It is more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and has the grandeur of a 200,000 square meter airport terminal. The palace is open to the public only during the three-day festivities at the end of Ramadan. I am proud to say that it was designed by the renowned Filipino architect Leandro Locsin. Before going to the Istana, we drove by the modest home of the Sultan’s late father.


Empire Hotel and Country Club

Empire Hotel and Country Club
For our last stop, we went farther out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club by the sea. Jingjing’s daughter who once worked in Brunei as a geologic engineering consultant told us not to miss a visit to this 6-star complex. From conception to completion, constructing the complex was an ambitious project over 6 years. Since 2000 when it opened, it has become synonymous with Brunei’s majestic cultural heritage. We indulged in a late lunch at the fine dining restaurant in the main country club. Of course, much of our time was spent taking our photos in the lavish surroundings.

After this final display of wealth, Michael took us to the airport and we headed back to the Philippines, to our modest homes and ordinary lives. At first I was underwhelmed because of the lavish displays of wealth in Dubai and Doha. They say I would have been overwhelmed had I taken the time to examine the interiors of the mosques. But my reaction is good. Brunei's wealth isn't ostentatious; it's elegant!