Bandar Seri Begawan

Overview

Introduction

Named after the current Sultan's father (Bandar simply means "town"), Brunei's capital is neither wholly modern nor ancient. Bandar Seri Begawan (also known as BSB) is full of modern, oversized buildings, but the city did not have a traffic light until 1967, and there's still a sleepy, backwater feel to most of it.

In particular, some areas of the "Water Villages"—collections of homes built on stilts in the Brunei River—seem positively ancient. The majority of the city's residents still inhabit these dwellings, even though efforts have been made over the years to relocate everyone to the mainland. They use motor boats to commute to the shore. Don't let the plainness of the exteriors fool you—the nation's prosperity has filtered down to even these residents, and the poorest-looking house is likely to contain modern household amenities. In fact, many residents own cars—which they keep in garages on the mainland. Allow half a day to see the villages: You can reach them by hiring a small boat at the end of the main pier, driving across the concrete bridge, or walking across the wooden footbridges at the edge of the embankment near the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.

The Saifuddin Mosque, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, is an attraction in itself. It has a gold dome, a lagoon and an observation deck in one of the minarets (a great view over the city). Completed in 1958, it has some of the finest marble, carpets and furnishings found in any mosque in the world.

But it's not the most opulent building in town. That designation goes to the Sultan's palace, Istana Nurul Iman, the world's largest palace still in use (it has 1,788 rooms—388 more than the Vatican). Among the facilities is a royal banquet hall that can seat 4,000 guests, 12 apartment suites for the sultan's family, an underground parking complex for the sultan's collection of almost 400 cars, a sports complex and a polo field (Joe Montana taught American-football skills to the Sultan's children there in 1994). The Sultan's many horses are kept in air-conditioned stables on the palace grounds.

You are allowed inside the palace for a peek only on the Sultan's birthday (15 July) or at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, but you can get a good view of the huge complex from the park just to the south—or, better yet, from a boat on the river.

Other sights in town include the Handicraft Center, the Tamu night market, the Lapau (the Royal Ceremonial Hall—allow half an hour, minimum), the nearby Dewan Majlis (legislative building—a drive by is sufficient), the Brunei History Centre and the Hassanal Bolkiah Aquarium (indigenous marine life). An attraction in town is the Royal Regalia Museum, formerly the Winston Churchill Memorial Museum, now devoted to the life of the Sultan (it includes his golden coach and models of his palace and throne). Also situated in this museum is the Constitutional History Gallery, which traces the history of Brunei from the early 1800s to the present day. Another religious structure is Jamae Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque (in the nearby town of Gadong).

Two decent beaches are situated near BSB: Muara, northeast of the capital at the end of the peninsula, and the more popular beach resort and entertainment venue at Jerudong. The latter contains a huge amusement park right at the beach, along with the private Jerudong Park, where the sultan keeps his polo horses. The golf course and other sporting facilities are only open by special invitation, but the amusement park is free and lines for the rides are nearly nonexistent.

Most of these sights could be seen in a day, although it would be truly rushed. There are a few sights that can be seen on excursions from the capital, including the "nodding donkeys" (wells at the Seria Oilfields, an hour from BSB), Wasai Waterfall in Medaram (it takes almost a full day to see it and return), the town of Kota Batu and some of the rural villages, such as Kuala Belait. 25 mi/40 km northeast of Tasek Meribun.

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