Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
23 July 2007 - Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB)
We are anchored in the river right in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. It’s 4.00am and all is quiet – the river like glass. (So different from last night when the entire water surface was cut up by the wakes and spray of taxi boats hurtling through the dark, back and forward across the river and along it, each with a handheld spotlight. Skiff-like boats with 50 and 60 horsepower engines.)
Nearby, in one direction, swathed in trees, the gold onion-shaped cupola on the sultan’s (1700 room!) istana is lit up. In the other direction I can just make out the spotlit dome of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque behind the silhouetted roofs of the kampong and the business centre.
The call to prayer has started in some of the many mosques. A subdued, mournful song in several voices....
Bandar Seri Begawan has 60,000 people, 30,000 of whom live in modern stilt village kampongs on the opposite side of the river from the magnificence of the rest of the modern, opulent capital of Brunei Darussalam. It was the Sultan’s birthday on 15 July and for two weeks thousands of flags are flying in yellow, black, white and red. The city is draped in coloured lights and every night there are outdoor shows and foodstalls under giant photos of HRM.
Stilt village left, modern city right.
Sandwiched in between Sarawak to the south and Sabah to the north, Brunei is a surprise in lots of ways. We knew very little about it – that their sultan was one of the richest men on earth, that it was a strongly Islamic country and “dry” and had cheap fuel.
We have arrived to find all of the above, but also that Brunei is actually in two separate parts. (On the world maps we have looked at, Brunei is so small we couldn’t see this detail). Unlike its neighbours, it hasn’t been logged and one of the parts of Brunei is quite undeveloped and has a population of only 9,000 people. It is ruled by the Sultan with the help of a few hand chosen ministers and is a peaceful, wealthy, clean and attractive place. Apparently.
Our first anchorage in Brunei was not far inside the “mouth” of Brunei Bay in front of the Royal Brunei YC. To get into the bay you must enter through the “cut” in a big reef that protects the bay. The trick is to be sure to enter the channel way out at the fairway buoy because there is a wall along the south side of the channel just below the surface which runs almost to the seaward end.
The Royal Brunei Yacht Club is about as “royal” as someone’s loungeroom. It reminds us quite a bit of the Gove Yacht Club, but with more upmarket furniture and finishes. The same beachfront location with palms, big flowering trees and lawns, and picnic tables but with a swimming pool, library and roll down timber blinds instead of aluminium windows. A charming place.
And it buzzes! One of the places in town where expats can drink alcohol and the women can wear skimpy clothes and cozzies, it is a very comfy hangout. You can buy every sort of food from the bar there as well as find glasses, ice, soft drinks etc. But any alcohol you have to bring and serve yourself.
Brunei is expensive compared with the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah either side. Prices seem to be about the same in Brunei dollars in Brunei as they are in Malaysian ringgit in Malaysia – except that a Brunei dollar is the equivalent of a Singapore dollar, or worth about 2.5 times the ringgit. Diesel is quite a different matter. Brunei is one of those legendary places around the world where fuel is still very inexpensive. We filled our tanks with diesel and all our jerrycans with petrol for the ouboard for under $AU550!
While we were in Bandar Seri Begawan we visited some of the local attractions – mostly variations on the theme of “opulence” – the Royal Regalia Museum, the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the museum…There’s something Cinderella-style fascinating about seeing wealth like this. If you’re just plain rich, it’s crass to have Ferraris, jets, helicopters etc AND gold domes, cut glass dining suites, gold walls, 1700 room palaces, gold furniture, private harbours… But I reckon if you’re going to be royal, you ought to flaunt it.
So, can you believe me when I say that the Islam Gallery at the Brunei Museum is THE most impressive collection I have ever seen. Collected and owned by the Sultan but publicly displayed, it includes Islamic artifacts from around the world. While most museums struggle for budget to buy the exhibits they want, it’s clear that this one doesn’t.
The collection absolutely isn’t tacky or showy (well maybe a bit showy, if you count the antique pure gold sword handles or fly swatters with inlaid diamonds, emeralds and tiny seed pearls – but superbly crafted). Korans from ancient times in a language we can’t understand – handpainted in gold and colours with strokes so fine I had trouble seeing them; Koran stands and covers, ink and pen sets in exquisitely inlaid cases, krises and ancient decorated guns.... I think everything in that gallery is probably the best and most beautiful available. Seeing the fine workmanship I couldn’t help imagining pre Renaissance times when Islamic cultures led the world in refinement, wealth, and scholarship.
Brunei Darussalam is a Sultanate – not a democracy. The Sultan owns the country’s oil wealth and gives (some of) it back to the people in the form of free or inexpensive housing, schooling, medicine, inexpensive loans, beautiful surroundings. So, really, everything is a bit royal…
It seems to be a very nicely landscaped, peaceful and comfortable place with good community facilities, a good place to bring up children – sort of Canberra with minarets.
It is also a very interesting and different country in many ways from others we’ve visited on this cruise. The prominence of the mosques, the domed-roof-and-arches style of much of the architecture and the alcohol-freeness gives it an “Arabophile” feel, despite its largely Malay population. Then there are the “grand schemes”. One of these, apparently built by the Sultan’s brother, is Jeredong harbour. This totally man made harbour is enclosed by a giant breakwater (with helipad) that sticks out into the South China Sea. Inside the harbour is a man made island, curved to provide perfect protection from any swell that might find its way into the harbour. A perfect haven for any cruising yachties who happen to find their way there. Other than those, though, there is nothing, no-one there. Totally empty of ships, docks, shoreside facilities, wharves, bollards, buoys. (Have a look at it on Google Earth.)
Historically, Brunei WAS Borneo until the rest of it was gradually ceded. We were told that its oil wealth has protected its environment so its forests are pristine. So here is a photo of a Brunei oil well:
There are lots of these in the waters just off Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah.