Discover the magnificent Brunei
Brunei Darussalam on Borneo Island offers rainforests, some of Asia’s most beautiful mosques and almost a complete lack of tourists. But sadly, the tiny Sultanate doesn’t register on most travelers’ radars. Here are some attractions that would get visiting Brunei into your must-do list.
Royal Regalia Museum
When called upon to present a gift to the sultan of Brunei, you must inevitably confront the question: what do you give a man who has everything? At this entertaining museum, you'll see how heads of state have solved this conundrum. Look out for a solid silver model of Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Nazca Lines–shaped silver pins (Peru) and a model of the Grand Mosque of Mecca made of precious metals and stones (Saudi Arabia). Family photos and explanatory texts offer a good overview of the life of the sultan, who is himself depicted in myriad forms (including a hologram) from childhood through military service at Sandhurst to his lavish wedding and sporty adult life. Also on display are the chariot used during the sultan's 1992 silver-jubilee procession (the chariot is accompanied by an army of traditionally dressed headless mannequins representing those present on the day) and a second chariot used for the 1968 coronation.
Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
Completed in 1958 Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin – named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei (the late father of the current sultan) – is surrounded by an artificial lagoon that serves as a reflecting pool. This being Brunei, the interior is pretty lavish. The floor and walls are made from the finest Italian marble, the chandeliers were crafted in England and the luxurious carpets were flown in from Saudi Arabia. A 3.5-million-piece glass mosaic overlaying real gold leaf covers the main dome. The mosque's 52m-high minaret makes it the tallest building in central BSB, and woe betide anyone who tries to outdo it – apparently the nearby Islamic Bank of Brunei building originally exceeded this height and so had the top storey removed by order of the sultan. The ceremonial stone boat sitting in the lagoon is a replica of a 16th-century mahligai (royal barge) where Quran-reading competitions were once held. Come evening the grounds surrounding the mosque are basically the happening centre of city life in Bandar. Folks come for prayer, then stroll along the waterfront, around the illuminated fountain and the baobab trees, or promenade along the pedestrian bridge across the Kedayan River.
Istana Nurul Iman
The sultan's official residence, the world's largest residential palace, is more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles. It has 1788 rooms, air-conditioned stables for the sultan's polo ponies, gold door handles and 257 bathrooms. The palace is open to the public only during the three-day Hari Raya Aidil Fitri festivities at the end of Ramadan. The best way to check it out on the other 362 days of the year is to take a water-taxi cruise. Istana is located 3km southwest of the town centre. Designed by Filipino architect Leandro Locsin, the palace mixes elements of Malay (the vaulted roofs) and Islamic (the arches and gold domes) design with the sweep and oversized grandeur of a 200,000-sq-metre airport terminal. Nonetheless, it's relatively attractive from a distance or when illuminated in the evening. The crystal teardrops in the royal reception room, sinuous wooden ceilings above covered walkways, and the glass ceiling features of the grand banquet hall are the work of Khuan Chew, responsible for Dubai's Burj Al Arab.
Pulau Selirong Recreational Park
At the northern tip of Temburong District lies this 25-sq-km mangrove-forested island reachable only by boat (45 minutes from BSB). Intrepid Tours runs half-day guided trips for around B$100 per person. Two kilometres of elevated walkways lead through the mangroves, which are the untamed habitat of proboscis monkeys and flying lemurs – if you're lucky you might spot one gliding down from the trees. Pulau Selirong is also known as Mosquito Island; bring repellent. At certain times the tide levels are such that it is not possible to access the island.
Labi is a small Iban settlement about 40km south of the coastal road with four longhouses: Rampayoh, Mendaram Besar, Mendaram Kecil and, at the end of the track, Teraja. How much of a longhouse you are able to see if you go without a guide will depend on whether there's an English speaker there to show you around. The cost of such a tour might be B$3 per person. To visit Teraja longhouse, register at the police station nearby. These longhouses are a mix of the modern and the traditional: you will see women weaving baskets, though nowadays they may be plastic rather than rattan, and the longhouses have 24-hour electricity. Outside, among the fruit trees and clucking chickens, there is a rustic shelter for a row of gleaming cars.