Bandar Seri Begawan or B.S.B as it is popularly known is the capital of Brunei. It is located on the North West coast of Borneo, the third largest island in the world (Borneo is administered by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei).
The present day settlement of B.S.B is on a relatively new site as the entire area was heavily bombarded by the Allies during the Second World War.
The origins of B.S.B can be traced back to the 7th century, as there are signs that a water village (Kampong Ayer) existed at the site of the present Kampong Kota Batu and the National Museum. The capital was located at many sites during the ages along the Sungai Brunei River which formed the focal point of the marine activities of the Brunei Malays. The move away from the river based settlement to the land locked settlement of today was begun by a British resident Mc Arthur in 1906 who encouraged people to move and settle on the reclaimed land on the left bank of the Sungai Brunei .The Sultan moved in 1909 and he was followed by the Chinese shopkeepers in 1910. This was followed by the creation of the municipal board in 1921 and a new mosque and palace was built in 1922. Bandar Seri Begawan was in fact known as Brunei Town until 1970. Today the city is the center of finance, commerce and the government of Brunei.
Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984. On January 1st 1984 Brunei got independence from the British. The Sultanate of Brunei is small but fabulously wealthy due to its oil reserves. The present Sultan His Majesty Sultan Hassanlal Bolkiah came to the throne in 1967 when the previous Sultan his father voluntarily abdicated the throne. He is according to the Forbes list one of the richest people in the world but he looks after his subjects by providing them free education, health care and even a pension. The citizens don’t pay taxes and the Bruneians get a minimum wage which is the highest in Asia. The fabulously wealthy sultan owns a number of luxurious hotels world wide namely the Dorchester in London, The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles and the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
The weather in B.S.B is quite similar to that of Singapore and Malaysia. The climate can be classified as tropical or equatorial. Rains come to the city from December via the northeast monsoon and this rainy season lasts until March. The southeast monsoon also brings rain in the months June to October. B.S.B receives rain almost all throughout the year and the average daily temperatures are 32°C which sometimes go down to 23°C because of the rains. Due to the rainfall the humidity is high all throughout the year too . The wettest month tends to be December.
The official language spoken in B.S.B is Bahasa Melayu. However the free education sponsored by the State is in English as a result English is widely spoken as well. Mandarin and other Chinese dialects as well as the native languages of Borneo are spoken by different sections of the population.
Getting to B.S.B
The Brunei International Airport is strategically located at Mukim Berakas in the Brunei-Muara District. It can be accessed easily from all parts of the country. It is served by several international carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Philippines Airlines and even the low cost carrier Dragon Air. The country’s own Royal Brunei Airlines flies to twenty cities in South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
By Water Taxi and Ferry
Regular water links are used on the Brunei and Temburong Rivers. The water taxis run to the Malaysians towns of Limbang, Lawas, Sundar and Labuan. A ferry service to the Malaysian island of Labuan departs from the Serasa Terminal in Muara. The ferry journey to Labuan takes an hour and a half.
Buses serve the city and they operate at a frequency of 15-20 minutes, fares start at Brunei $1. There is a Bus terminal located at Jalan Cator car park in the downtown part of the city. The buses to other towns such as Seria and Kuala Belait leave from this terminal. However the residents of the city prefer to travel in private or use the inexpensive taxis rather than use the bus service. In fact tourists say that the streets of B.S.B are hardly populated by the locals who prefer to ride in the air conditioned comfort of their vehicles rather than walk or ride the local bus.
There are metered taxis which ply on the roads of the capital and are available from hotels and shopping centers.
These are used to access the Kampong Ayer (Water Village) and the eastern most Temburong district as well.
Cars and chauffer driven limousines are available from hotels as well as at the airport from international car rental agencies as well as local agencies.
A variety of hotels and accommodations are available in Bandar Seri Begawan. These range from the seven stars ultra luxurious ‘Empire Hotel and Country Club’. This resort can be accessed via its website which is www.theempirehotel.com and the phone number of the resort is (673) 2418888. The resort is equipped with a golf course as a part of its facilities The Sheraton Utama is another luxury hotel and is part of the international Sheraton group. It’s specialty is great service with a hint of Bruneian hospitality, it is centrally located and can be accessed via its website www.sheraton.com/utama and by phone on (673) 2244272.
More reasonably and tourist and business friendly hotels are also found in Bandar. Most are centrally located with easy access to the sights of the city. They too provide a service which is a fusion of Bruneian hospitality with western amenities. Some of these are the Brunei Hotel which can be accessed at www.bruneihotel.com.
Istana Nurul Iman
The most famous sight of B.S.B is the lavish residence of the Sultan. He in fact owns four palaces, the Istana Nurul Iman, Istana Nurul Izzah, Istana Darussalam and the Istana Darul Hana.
The biggest and the most renowned is the Istana Nurul Iman. It is situated on Jalan Tutong and one cannot visit the Palace except at the end of Ramadhan which is the Muslim holy month of fasting. It is the largest residential palace in the world with 1788 rooms and it is rumored to have cost US$400 million to build.
The Palace is built on the top of a hill and is the glittering symbol of the monarch .The palace is believed to have a large banquet hall which can accommodate 4000 people; the Sultan’s soirees are well documented as often he flies down western performers to perform at his lavish parties. It also has a mosque within its folds as well as air conditioned stables for his prized Arabian stallions. The Sultan has a lavish fleet at his disposal consisting of aeroplanes, helicopters and 165 Rolls Royce.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
Touted to be Brunei’s most important landmark this mosque is a fusion of Islamic and Italian style. It is situated on the banks of the Sangai Brunei River on an artificial lagoon. It is surrounded by the Kampong Ayer (Water village). The Dome of the mosque is covered in pure gold and is visible for miles around. The mosque itself stands 52metres (171 feet) high and consists of marble minarets and courtyards. Lush gardens adorned with fountains are located in the environs of the mosque and contribute to the air of tranquility that surrounds the mosque.
The tallest minaret of the mosque from where the muezzin delivers the call for prayer at sunrise and sunset is built in a style which is unlike that which is found in other Islamic houses of worship. The minaret is an exponent of the fusion of Italian and Renaissance architecture and it has an elevator which can take one to the top in order to have a panoramic view of the city. The mosque was built largely of imported components with the marble coming from Italy, the granite from Shanghai, the chandeliers from England and carpets from Saudi Arabia. The interior of the mosque is equally breathtaking as it is composed of a mosaic stained glass and many semi domes and arches. In the lagoon of the mosque is a boat made of stone where one can read the Koran.
The Kampong Ayer
The name itself in Malay means water village. It is composed entirely of wooden houses on stilts which look like shacks. The village is built over the Brunei River and the government has made an effort to restore this historic village so that people continue to reside there. Schools and other modern amenities such as electricity, sewage and water systems as well as internet access are available in the water village and it encourages the people to continue to live there. If by chance a wooden home in the Kampong Ayer is destroyed by fire it is not reconstructed but the inhabitant moves to a new ‘real’ dwelling.
The Museum of Royal Regalia
The Museum houses the magnificent treasures of the Brunei throne including the royal regalia of the ruler and his royal chariot.
The Brunei Museum
This is another museum one must visit in order to see its displays of antique cannons and carved daggers as well as an exhibit of glided Korans. The museum also houses a collection of Borneo ethno graphs as well as treasures recovered from shipwrecks of the coast of Borneo.
The Mausoleum of Sultan Bolkiah
Situated near the Istana Nurul Iman is the mausoleum of the Sultan Bolkiah the father of the present Sultan who abdicated his throne in 1967. It is a verdant, tranquil alcove which symbolizes the respect the Bruneians have for their monarchy
The House of the Twelve Roofs
A symbol of Brunei’s colonized past can be witnessed at this museum. Like the home of Jim Thompson in Bangkok, this museum was the home of a British Resident in B.S.B. The museum is used to entertain foreign dignitaries as well.
The Brunei History Center
This center contains archives which trace the origins of the Royal Family as well as other records and documents which catalogue the history of the nation.
Churchill Memorial is a memorial to the erstwhile British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is housed in a building with a gold Chinese style roof and it houses the collection of Churchill memorabilia which was collected by the former Sultan who was a great admirer of Churchill.
One should try and shop at the traditional handicraft centers that dot the city and sell many of Brunei’s rich and varied handicrafts. These include luxurious materials woven with silver and golden threads and called Jong Sarat. Other collectible textiles made here are called Kain Tenunan. The Jong Sarat is worn at weddings and other important occasions. Brasswares, Silverware, gongs, baskets and of course the traditional dagger called Kris are all exponents of Brunei’s rich handicraft industry. These can be purchased at various Handicraft stores around the city as well as the International airport. Apart from handicraft centers one can see modern malls on the landscape of downtown Bandar Seri Begawan. The most famous of these malls is the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex and the Mall. In the areas of Kula Belait and Seria in B.S.B there exist other air conditioned outlets as well as the traditional shop houses peculiar to this region These outlets are popular with both tourists and locals alike.