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?