Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) is Brunei’s capital, its largest city, its center of finance and commerce, and home to some of its most important cultural treasures including several fabulous mosques, a populous water village, and several museums; last weekend, I visited many of them. Unlike many other cities in South East Asia, there were almost no motorcycles in BSB as cars, taxis, and buses are the predominate mode of motorized land transportation. The people in Brunei were very friendly, welcoming, and engaging, and most spoke English very well.
Kampong Ayer, home to nearly 40,000 people, or roughly 10% of Brunei’s population, is the world’s largest water settlement. This small city is comprised of six sub-districts (called mukims) that are organized into forty villages with over 4,000 homes built on stilts over the Brunei River. The villages are interconnected by wooden and concrete walkways. The settlement has clinics, mosques, schools, shops, restaurants, as well as police and fire stations. Kampong Ayer was nicknamed the “Venice of the East” when Ferdinand Magellan visited in 1521 and it is said to be over 1,300 years old. Most Bruneians continued to live over the water until the early 1900s when outbreaks of cholera and smallpox caused many deaths and spurred a movement to build housing on dry land.
There are many new homes in Kampong Ayer, but even the older ones clearly have electricity, fresh water, satellite television, and internet connections. To get around, people take water ferries or water taxis that load and unload at steps or ramps near almost every home.
There is an open-air market (Tamu) on the banks of the Kianggeh River where local residents purchase fresh and dried seafood, fruits, vegetables, herbs and other local produce, as well as hand-woven baskets and trays. The market dates back to the 1960s; prior to that time, vendors sold their goods via boats (sampans) to the residents of the water villages. Although there is a car park next to the market, many of the vendors still rely on boats to bring products to their market stalls.
Masjid Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest Muslim mosque in Brunei. Built to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sultan’s accession to the throne, the mosque was completed in 1994. The mosque has four minarets and two golden domes, the interior is covered in white marble, and the exterior is adorned with gardens and fountains. The interior is absolutely enormous both in terms of the number of people who can worship inside the main prayer room as well as the sheer height of the room under the golden dome. Unfortunately, picture are only allowed outside the mosque.
Masjid Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien
The Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien mosque is built alongside an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River across from Kampong Ayer. The mosque’s large main dome is covered in pure gold; at 171 feet tall, it can be seen from almost everywhere in BSB. As with the Jame’Asr mosque, no pictures are allowed inside the Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien mosque.
In the middle of the lagoon between the mosque and the river is a marble bridge that leads to replica of a 16th century barge. This structure was built to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an to Muhammad by Allah on the 17th day of Ramadan. The vessel was completed in 1967 and it is apparently used to stage Qur’an reading competitions (just a guess, but I expect that even soccer is more interesting to watch.)
Istana Nurul Iman
Istana Nurul Iman, or the Palace of the Light of Faith, is the Sultan of Brunei’s palace that is located in the hills along the Brunei River. The 2.1 million square foot palace contains 1,788 rooms including 257 bathrooms, a banquet hall that can seat 5,000 people, a mosque for 1,500, a 110 car garage, five swimming pools, and an air-conditioned stable for the Sultan’s 200 polo ponies. It is open to the public only on three days each year at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. The roof-line, however, can be seen from the river.
The proboscis monkey is native to Borneo and is known for its large nose that can be up to four inches long. With a height of 24 to 30 inches and a weight of up to 50 pounds, the proboscis monkey is one the largest monkeys in Asia. These monkeys eat fruits and vegetation and are known to be able to swim underwater for up to 65 feet.
I hired a water taxi to take me by the Sultan’s palace and then to search for monkeys and crocodiles. We found a couple of young monkeys in a mangrove forest on the edge of the river, although they scurried away rather quickly. According to my driver, the best time to see the monkeys is either early in the morning or near sunset since they travel during the day in search of food. The picture on the right was taken from a distance and then digitally enlarged, so it is a bit pixelated. We were unable to locate any crocodiles.
Royal Regalia Museum
The Royal Regalia Museum was built in 1992 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Sultan Hassanil Bolkiah’s accession to the throne. Immediately inside the building is the royal coronation carriage surrounded by regalia from the ceremony including gold and silver ceremonial armor. A second royal chariot in which the Sultan rode during the Silver Jubilee is on display further back in the museum. This display has not only the carriage but also all the costumes and uniforms of the attendants who participated in the procession. As such, it is easy to understand the scale and scope of the royal procession. Jewel-encrusted crowns and a replica of the throne used by the Sultan are also on display.
The museum, topped by a mosaic-tiled dome, also contains gifts given to the Sultan and his family by various heads of state, diplomats, and the Bruneian people over the years. Upon entry to the museum, visitors are given a locker in which they are instructed to leave all cameras and cell phones, so unfortunately I have no pictures of the treasures on display in this building.
The Teng Yun Temple
Just down the street from my hotel is the Teng Yun Temple, or the Temple of Flying Clouds. The original Chinese Buddhist temple was built in 1918 by Chinese businessmen who were among the first to move from Kampong Ayer to dry land. The temple survived both Japanese and Allied aerial bombardment during World War II, but was torn down in the 1950s as Brunei expanded and the government needed the site for a Customs Warehouse. The current temple was built in 1960.
Makam Raja Ayang
The mausoleum for Raja Ayang, a member of the Royal Family during the reign of Sulaiman (the 4th Sultan of Brunei), is in downtown BSB. Raja lived with one of her siblings as man and wife, an offense under the Islamic religious laws that was punishable by death by stoning. Although the Sultan was a strict Muslim, he was unwilling to carry out this punishment, but he instead banished the couple to live in seclusion in an underground home buried beneath a hill. The underground chamber had adequate ventilation and the couple were given provisions and cooking utensils. As long as smoke could be seen coming from the chimney, people knew that they were alive. There is no record of how long they survived — some claim that they lived for just a week while others maintain that they survived for as long as 40 days.
There are two tombstones in the mausoleum — the one inscribed with the date 1452 is that of Raja Ayang while the other broken stone with no name or date is thought to be that of her brother. Nearby the tomb, a stone was found with the inscription: “There has been enough retribution having undergone their punishment on this earth rather than in the hereafter.” May that be true for all of us.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.