A One-of-a-Kind Holiday in One-of-a-Kind Brunei

February 15, 2010 at 10:19 am | Posted in Asia, Brunei | Leave a comment
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by J. Thalia Cunningham

Brunei mosqueOn my last trip, going from Singapore’s mall-mania for the tranquility of Brunei was akin to jiggling out of a tight pair of jeans  in sweltering weather: welcome respite indeed.

Brunei Darussalam (literally “Abode of Peace”) is a small, luxuriant beauty dot adorning the upper lip of Borneo, an island shared by chunks of Indonesia and Malaysia. And tiny though it be — 2,228 square miles (5,770 sq. km) — it packs an impressively diverse wallop of travel options (more on that later).

Besides Oman, Brunei is the world’s sole remaining sultanate, and as with Britain, fascination with all things blue-blooded buffs its mystique.  Unlike Britain, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (currently the world’s second-richest monarch) and the rest of the royal family do occasionally emerge from their palace to mingle with the hoi polloi;  most locals with whom I spoke had met at least one of the royals.

Islamic Brunei isn’t about bars, nightclubs, and the like; alcohol isn’t generally for sale (one headline during my visit: “Loitering Youths Caught With Beer”  — it was 18 youths and 22 cans of beer) and caning is on the penal menu. On the other hand, this is Islam-lite, filtered through Malaysian culture; females aren’t required to cover their heads, and travelers can bring in their own tipples, declaring at customs. Nothing like sipping a smooth chard on a private balcony, listening to the muezzin’s chants and watching the sun’s gold dome mirroring that of the nearby mosque as it sinks into the sea.

Virtually crime-free, the sultanate is 80-percent blanketed by rainforest, and ecotourism is right on your doorstep, even via day trips. This is eco-luxe, mind you — no slogging with backpacks, wishing you’d brought more  insect repellant and hoping your toilet paper lasts. Instead, a speedboat (dubbed “flying coffins” for their shape rather than their safety records), whisked me from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to the mangrove forest in what seemed like the blink of an eye. As our boat sloshed against the shore, the guide pointed out egrets, eagles, king cobras coiled in trees. A large monitor lizard skulked by, thankfully bored by the gaggle of humans, and  I spotted more crocodiles than I’d seen in my many combined trips to Africa and Asia. Meanwhile in the trees, proboscis monkeys (unique to Brunei) chattered and played, performing astounding gymnastic feats. Our guide warned us, though, to avoid getting their urine on our heads, which beyond the obvious yuck factor can both render one bald and attract crocodiles.

Kampong Ayer, BruneiAlso a quick boatride away, Kampong Ayer, a grouping of villages on stilts over the water, is a window into the country’s traditional lifestyle (although despite dating back to the 16th century, its current houses are just 40-60 years old), complete with schools, clinics, and police station. It was fascinating to navigate the wooden walkways and watch people go about their daily lives.  You can venture even farther into the jungle and back in time with an excursion to visit the Iban (covered in this blog this past September). Since migrating from next-door Malaysia in the 1930’s, many still live in traditional wooden longhouses two hours west of Bandar. Though once warlike headhunters, today these folks drive Mitsubishis and Corollas to government jobs, along with rice farming, soldiering, and blue-collar work. All the children go to school, doing homework on the longhouse computer while adults watch television.

Back in the capital I discovered fascinating sites to explore, too. The Brunei Museum traces Brunei’s history with prehistoric earthenware, ancient artifacts, traditional costumes, games, and weaponry. The Jame’ Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, built by the previous sultan in 1988, sports 14 tons’ worth of gold and crystal chandeliers and is capped by 29 solid 22-carat-gold domes (he was the 29th sultan, you see).

His current majesty’s palace, the world’s largest, is closed to the public, but you can catch a glimpse from the riverside park Jalan Tutong. A quarter-mile long, also with 22-carat domes,  the palace boasts 1,788 rooms,  a banquet hall for 4,000, a sports complex, health clinic, cinema, helipad, and more.  He and the queen meet and greet their subjects here — including a banquet and a gift for everybody — during the Muslim holiday Eid in August or September.

Otherwise, those hankering for a taste of the royal lifestyle have to settle for the Royal Regalia Museum, which houses the sultan’s throne, crown, ceremonial sword, chariot, military and coronation costumes, and wedding and coronation gifts from assorted monarchs and world leaders. After being dazzled by all that gold,  when I came upon MacDonald’s golden arches later day, it was like spotting a over-the-hill hooker at a debutante ball.

Actually, I got an even closer-up taste of royalty by staying at one of Asia’s most singular resorts. A destination in itself, the Empire Hotel & Country Club sprawls across 45 beachside acres (180 hectares) —  the size of Vatican City — and was originally built as a palace for but never occupied by the sultan’s black-sheep brother.  A tiered wedding cake of gleaming white marble frosted with 21 carat gold, it’s got a half-dozen restaurants, several swimming pools, both a stage and movie theater, conference center, shopping arcade, and watersports center with scuba, waterskiing, Jetskiing, parasailing, and boating. The attached country club adds a gym, Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course, and full-service spa.  Just entering the towering lobby is a jawdropping experience — shared by the likes of Bill Clinton, Princes Charles, China’s president Hu Jintao, and an A-list roster of celebrities. Yet nightly rates start at just B$250.*

An interesting aside: hotel staff wore  labels reading “Fever Free”; when I asked what was up, I was told that all employees enter through a special thermal-sensitive entrance that checks their temperatures; anyone with a fever is sent home or for physician evaluation.  Now that’s service.

Well, that’s Brunei.

*at press time, approximately US$177; £113; €130; AU$199; NZ$253; R1,368.

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Cavort Like A Sultan at Brunei’s Empire Hotel and Country Club

December 16, 2009 at 10:15 am | Posted in Brunei, resorts | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

It’s just nine years old, but as you’d expect, this resort on the South China Sea beachfront in the small Malay sultanate ruled by one of the world’s richest men — originally built as a royal palace by the sultan’s kid brother to the tune of more than US$1 billion — has been in the front ranks of Asia’s top hostelries ever since. With 420 rooms, suites, and villas on a lushly landscaped 45-acre (180-hectare) spread, the palatial joint is awash in soaring columns and all manner of sumptuous finishes — marble, teak, silk, gold, you name it.

Plus, everything here is big — from the atrium lobby to the guest rooms (we’ve been in some Manhattan studios smaller than these bathrooms), and the amenities just go on and on: not just a lagoon beachfront, five restaurants, five pools, tennis courts, gym, and 18-hole Jack Nicklaus links, but even a movie theater, live stage theater, and bowling alley (one big drawback for the non-abstemious: no booze, according to Islamic practice). The Empire makes a great base for exploring the mosques and water villages of the sultanate, along with ecotourism in the Borneo rainforests that begin right outside the gates. Rates are more reasonable than you’d imagine, starting at B$250 (US$180/£108) per night, with special promotions sometimes even less. More info: www.TheEmpireHotel.com.

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