Archive for January, 2019

The self-proclaimed 7-star Empire Hotel and Country Club looks palatial off a stretch of shore overlooking the South China Sea. The experience maybe closer to 5 stars but hey, those are still 5*. It makes for a great convention and holiday/spa resort for sure, and yes, “very instagrammable”. It is, after all, Brunei’s only beach hotel, within some 160 hectares of paradise. Also, it was originally intended as a royal guesthouse when it was built under Prince Jefri’s watch. This same complex houses the air conditioned stables for the Sultan’s prized polo ponies. There’s more. I’ve never seen picture windows this size. Imagine yourself stargazing while slouched inside the Atrium lobby with a million dollar chandelier hanging from a ceiling that rises so way up there. Such glitz.

The lush gardens, beach and pool are visible from the Atrium lobby on the 5th floor that looks more like a royal court – an almost sublime experience. This hotel is huge! And for avid golfers, here’s the good news: Empire Hotel has its own golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus no less. There’s also a cinema, bowling alley, polo grounds and a shopping arcade. There are swimming pools facing the South China Sea and we noticed there were not too many guests. Many tables were unoccupied in the Lounge yet the meticulously-uniformed but seemingly confused service staff are all over to cater to the guests’ whims. We are concerned the hotel isn’t making money but judging by how well-maintained it is, money doesn’t seem to be a problem. Perhaps we are simply overthinking, in a place reeking of opulence and pomp, and where guests should expect only to be pampered. After all, this grand, luxurious hotel opened in 2000 is owned by the Sultan. For sure, financial issues are the least of their concerns.

From these opulent surroundings we moved to the Kianggeh Market by the riverside and a Mall to buy local fruits and for some souvenir shopping. The Mall was quite underwhelming and we could have skipped it to go directly to the Gadong Night Market where we soaked in the vibrant local scene. I like the vibe here more than in Kianggeh and the Mall. We quickly claimed a table here to eat some of the local food bought off the food stalls — grilled salmon, various noodle soups, barbecued meats and the ubiquitous chicken and rice. We also found some sticky rice with either meat or prawn fillings, and some fried rolls and banana fritters. More local fruits like Durian but that was “settled” in Kianggeh. One can have very, very cheap meals here and as we found out, dining here isn’t exactly the exclusive turf of the locals as we found some tourists checking out the food stalls too. I had my cheapest meal of beef noodle soup (good for 2) and 4 sticks of sticky rice with prawn fillings wrapped in (not banana) leaves. How much? All that for B$5. That is about US$4. Can you beat that?

What To Do In Brunei?

Brunei never made it to my bucket list. Nor any of my friends’. But here we are, spending 4 days, 3 nights in its capital, Banda Seri Begawan. I knew absolutely nothing where we are booked, which hotel we are staying in and who’s coming. It was a case of a couple of friends going with a few more at a time free of any travel and personal plans. Swell! I joined on the solitary reason that I’d be in good company. These fun trips with friends never fail!

When I think Brunei, I think gas, oil and Bolkiah. It’s a tiny but very wealthy nation off Borneo ruled by one of the world’s oldest reigning monarchies. As in the last 600 years! Sultan Bolkiah’s fame is rooted on his wealth and extravagance. Think 9,000 cars, 17 planes including a custom-designed 747, a private zoo, his own golf course, and an air conditioned stable for his 200 polo ponies. This man and his family lives in the world’s largest royal residence — even bigger than London’s Buckingham Palace. And guess who was the architect of this royal abode. No less than our own Arch. Leandro Locsin whose iconic masterpieces in the country include the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theatre, PICC, Sofitel, Intercontinental Hotel (now demolished), Hyatt (now Midas), Mandarin Oriental (likewise demolished), Saint Andrews Church in Makati, Philamlife and Filipinas Life Insurance Buildings, to name a few. I’m a big fan of this National Artist and would always be enthusiastic to find more of his masterpieces. Especially this royal residence built in 1984 which established his masterful international calibre.

Banda Seri Begawan is easy to navigate. Most landmarks are located in the City Center, and I suspect every interesting site is only 2 hours or so away by car. Aside from the royal palace, I am curious of the 2 mosques here: the Sultan Omar Ali Saiffudin Mosque, more famously called the Brunei Mosque, and the Jame Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque or simply, Bolkiah Mosque but likewise called Kiarong Mosque owing to its location. The 2 mosques were built by the current Sultan and the one before him. Brunei has Malay traditions and deeply rooted in its Islamic faith. Its people are principally Malays, with a small minority of Chinese and Indians. Its cuisine is largely influenced by neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia — heavily spiced!

So, what to do after hitting a royal palace and 2 mosques? Well, there is the Royal Regalia Museum housing many of the Sultan’s memorabilia including the chariot he used in his coronation ceremony in 1967. The chariot was held and supported by 24 men in front and 24 more at the back weaving through the capital for a good 2 hours! Quite interesting to know more of this man who now rules this tiny wealthy kingdom.

We also checked out the Water Village or “Venice of the East”. If you ask me, I think the village is nothing more than stilt houses lining the river that spills out to the South China Sea. Some cost Bn$10,000, others maybe more. I can give this a skip and instead enjoy tea or coffee in Empire Hotel And Country Club instead. Or maybe a better experience can be had in either Gadong Market or Kianggeh Market. Wherever, so long as the group enjoys. πŸ‘