Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Posted by Rachel on December 20, 2014

New Foods Discovered: Ambuyat, Sugar Cane Juice, Glutinous Rice Cake

Link to full photo set of Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Brunei! We’ve been very excited by the prospect of going to such a small and obscure nation. Brunei is a tiny sultanate on the north side of the island of Borneo. Given that we were already so close, we chose to make a week-long detour to Brunei to explore this curiosity of a country.

Brunei has a long history on Borneo; at one point encompassing almost all of what is now Malaysian Borneo in addition to several islands in the Sulu Sea that now belong to the Philippines. Ruled as a monarchy since the early 14th century, it has seen 29 sultans over the course of its existence. In 1963, all Malay states voted to join the newly formed independent Malaysia, with the exception of Brunei, which chose to remain a protectorate under the British. In 1984, Brunei gained full independence from the UK as a “democratic monarchy.”

Culturally, Malaysia and Brunei are very similar. Much of the same food is consumed and Bruneians speak Bhasa Malay—the national language of Malaysia. We did however find more fluent speakers of English in Brunei than in Malaysia.

Brunei is first and foremost a conservatively Muslim nation. Pork is nowhere to be found—in fact it is illegal to raise pigs in-country. Most women wear headscarves and the Muslim call to prayer, the At’han, can be heard five times a day across the entire capital city. Last year, sharia law was declared to supersede British common law that governed Brunei for over 100 years. Sharia law will be slowly phased in over the next few years; punishment for offences such as sodomy or adultery is death by stoning. An entire building in the capital is dedicated to enacting and upholding sharia law:

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Despite the seemingly archaic theocracy that has come to be in Brunei, the 400,000 people living here enjoy a higher standard of living than just about everywhere else in southeast Asia. Education and healthcare are free, cars and pilgrimages to Mecca are subsidized by the government, crime is nearly unheard of, the streets and sidewalks are new, clean and well-kept. The roads are filled with brand new BMWs, and the population density is sparse. It is a world away from neighboring Malaysia.

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From where does all of this abundant wealth originate? Oil of course! In 1929, the Seria oilfield was discovered within the borders of Brunei and has since made Bruneians vastly wealthy. Tall, shiny office buildings line the streets of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, filled with offices of foreign oil companies. Brunei enjoys diplomatic relations with some of the most powerful countries on earth, only for the simple fact that its reserves of black gold are impossible to ignore. It is friends with Islamic nations we deem enemies, yet also finds the United States interested in friendly ties.

You don’t get very far in Brunei without becoming acquainted with its most famous citizen, the Sultan. His official name is a mouthful:

Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu-izzaddin Waddaulah Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan Dan Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Brunei Darrusalam.

He is not only the Sultan, but also the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Supreme Head of Islam and Chief of Police. He has three wives and twelve children. The Sultan of Brunei is also one of the richest men in the world, worth $22 billion. He lives in a palace with 1,788 rooms, owns two Boeing 747s, has two aircraft hangars to house his five thousand cars, as well as air-conditioned stables for his two hundred polo ponies. His list of colossal, over-the-top, and lavish assets is long.

The fanfare afforded to this single man is one of the most humorous and entertaining aspects of visiting Brunei. The entire country is dedicated to him—museums about him, streets and parks named for him, mosques dedicated in his honor. His is on all the money, every bill and coin. Every restaurant and home is adorned with his likeness.

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We enjoyed the display in our hotel lobby, nothing short of a shine to his majesty (not pictured are the commemorative plates located in the hotel manager’s office)

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He is highly regarded among his subjects for bringing such wealth to the populace. It is said that if a citizen of Brunei needs help, he should simply ask the Sultan.

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight did an excellent segment on the current state of Brunei. We highly recommend giving this a watch for more context on this fascinating country.

To get to Brunei is a bit of a chore in of itself. There are three options—boat, bus or plane. Flying to Brunei is very expensive, so we opted to bus there and boat back. A one-way ticket by bus costs 100RM ($30). The bus ride is prolific. Brunei is split into two pieces and is completely surrounded by the Malaysia state of Sarawak. We hopped on a bus from Kota Kinabalu early in the morning and rode for nearly 9 hours, only 5 of which we actually spent driving. The remaining 4 hours is spent waiting in line in various immigration buildings crossing the four borders between Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Seri Begawan. That’s eight passport stamps—two pages worth of stamps! Here is a map to better visualize this process:

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The stamps in order of acquisition:

1. Exit the Malaysian state of Sabah (internal border) at Sinduman
2. Enter the Malaysian state of Sarawak (internal border) at Marapok
3. Exit Malaysia at Mengkalap
4. Enter Brunei at Labu
5. Exit Brunei at Ujong Jalan
6. Enter Malaysia at Pandaruan
7. Exit Malaysia at Tedungan
8. Enter Brunei at Kualah Lurah

When we finally arrived in Bandar, we found a very small and walkable city. Our bank was right next to our hotel which was a mere block from the bus stop. The main part of the city is maybe five square blocks and a select few attractions less than a half kilometer from the central area. Situated on a river, the opposing bank is home to one of the largest water villages in the world.

We chose to stay at the only budget option in Brunei, the KH Soon Resthouse.

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We paid the highest price for a room yet $B40 ($30) and received a simple bedroom with a window and air conditioning. It was relatively clean and had bathrooms across the hall. It was about as simple as could be. The higher cost of living in Brunei was palpable. 

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The row of bathrooms had only squat toilets, something we have come to know and love.

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Over the sink is a showerhead and tank less hot water heater, a common occurrence in Asia. The entire room is tiled and has a drain so it can get completely wet.

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We spent our first night in Brunei relaxing and enjoying the sounds of the At’han, or Muslim call to prayer. Loudspeakers are attached the minarets of every mosque in town so that the sound carries to every part of the capital:

The following morning we set out for the Royal Regalia Museum. This museum is a collection of all the gifts the Sultan has received as well as thorough history on the man himself. The museum itself is an imposing piece of architecture feature an enormous spiked dome.

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Upon entering, we were required to remove our shoes, another common practice in the Muslim world. We have had to take our shoes off in a variety of places in Malaysia, though this was our first barefooted museum. It felt unusual to be treading through marbled hallways and ornate carpets with no shoes on.

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We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but were permitted to photograph the entrance hall. One of the fanciful royal chariots graced the cavernous room surrounded by numerous, glistening gold shields.

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As soon as we entered the main displays, we immediately regretted not being able to capture the oddities in pictures. Over the top gifts from heads of state, paintings from school children, TripAdvisor awards, portraits of the Sultan in needlepoint and then in rhinestones—all enshrined in this collection. There were crystal mosque miniatures from the Shah of Saudi Arabia, a bronze eagle from Ukraine, beaded necklaces from Zimbabwe, daggers and toy boats and china and statues. It was as if every nation on earth had the Sultan’s birthday on their calendar (July 15th if you were curious). Some countries seemed to understand the Sultan’s taste very well—flamboyantly garish. If it was shiny or extremely colorful, the Sultan was guaranteed to favor it.

We also had the opportunity to explore the Sultan’s history in a winding hall filled with images from his childhood, marriages, political achievements, royal visits with heads of state, and more. The ornate coronation throne sat on display behind glass along with the coronation accessories, bejeweled crowns, scepters, and a golden hand to hold up his majesty’s head. The entire display raved of the Sultan’s wisdom, kindness, strength, and leadership abilities.

After we explored every inch of the Royal Regalia Museum, we headed to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Built by the current sultan’s father in 1958, this gold-domed mosque in the most outstanding feature in downtown Bandar.

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The glistening minaret stands 44m tall, no building in Brunei is allowed to top that. It is equipped with loudspeakers so the At’han can be heard for miles around.

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The mosque is surrounded by a manmade lake, with a boat gracing the center. The stone boat is modeled after the official royal barge from the 16th century.

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Geometric patterns adorn the architecture, with every detail tuned.

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We were allowed to enter during non-prayer times as long as we stayed in a small cordoned off area close to the entrance. We were not permitted to take pictures. Inside was even more extravagant than the exterior. Italian marbled lined the floors and walls in stunning patterns. Colorful prayer rugs from Saudi Arabia covered the marble. Inside the large golden dome was brilliant stained glass art from the UK comprising of over 3 million pieces. The scale and wealth of the architecture is absolutely astounding.

On our way out, we spotted a small computer kiosk, labeled the “e-Islam Kiosk.” We asked one of the guards what it was and he explained that it was a network of mosques throughout Brunei. You could look up the details of any mosque in the country, of which there are over 100 (that’s one mosque per every 4,000 citizens). We had a short conversation about it with the guard who was curious where we were from. When we told him we were from the US, he was very excited and had positive feelings for our country—a sentiment we discovered throughout Brunei.

The following morning we set out on the longest walking adventure we took during our 5 days in Brunei. Our destination was a restaurant we found online that is famous for its ambuyat. We had read about ambuyat quite a lot online. If Brunei has a national dish, ambuyat is probably it. Prior to this, we had spoken with more than one individual who confirmed that not only is this an interesting dish for foreign travelers, but that it is often served in homes and makes up a significant part of their diet.

Ambuyat is made from sago which is a starchy substance harvested from the trunk of a Rumbia palm tree (we are finding out that here in the tropics there is a huge variety of palm trees and that they have an equally large variety of uses). Once harvested sago is sold as a dried powder and is reconstituted with hot water just before serving. The process for getting the powder to turn into a consistent translucent glue like substance is apparently quite complicated as it goes from a liquid to a solid very quickly. Once prepared, the completely tasteless substance is typically served with a dipping sauce made from chilies and a local sour fruit called binjai. The sauce has a sour and distinctly fishy flavor. The meal set is finished out with a plate of sliced fresh vegetables and a couple small plates of meat (in our case fish).

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Once it all arrived the waiter noticed the perplexed look on our faces and offered some assistance. He handed us each a bamboo stick that looked a lot like chopsticks. Before we understood what they were, Jeremy immediately broke his in half which caused the waiter to sigh heavily. He smiled and headed back to the kitchen for a new set.

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Apparently, these were not chopsticks at all, but instead are referred to as chandas. As the waiter demonstrated, this pronged fork-like object is used to gather a bit of the ambuyat on the end and roll it up like spaghetti before dunking it in the binjai sauce. Once it is in your mouth, chewing is not really an option, so it's best to just let it slide down your throat. After a few bites of this, we looked at the fish. One pair of them was grilled over a flame, and the other was sautéed in a chili sauce. The fish were only about 18 cm (6") long so they contained very little meat. However, they were still too big to eat whole. We weren't quite sure what to do with them and wound up looking around at the other tables for hints. Even so, as we ate them, it proved very difficult to pick out the small bones and what little we could was sort of dry and fishy. Lastly the plate of vegetables was completely uncooked and had no apparent connection to the meal at all and we wound up eating the sliced carrots and cucumbers on their own. 

In all the experience is not the most enjoyable experience we've had with food and both of us agree that it was probably the most confused we've ever been at a meal. We intend to make it at home some time, but we will likely change up the serving style a bit. A mango or strawberry dipping sauce seems like it would accompany the ambuyat a bit better than the sour fish sauce. 

 

After lunch we headed west again. We had seen the minarets of a large mosque in the distance and were heading that direction. On our way we came across a large park set between the highway and the river. We got in a bit closer and it turned out to be dedicated to—you guessed it— The SULTAN! This one was commissioned for the diamond jubilee he threw to commemorate his 25th year of rule. It was very a lovely park and contained a large raised monument to his majesty with his name emblazoned along the side in large gold lettering.

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After the park we walked another half a mile westward toward the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. Commissioned in 1992 to also commemorate the Sultan's silver jubilee, it is truly an architectural wonder. The first thing you notice as you approach is that it's MASSIVE. This mosque makes the white mosque downtown look small. It has 29 golden domes (one for each sultan that has ruled Brunei) and is covered in intricate mosaics of blue, grey, white, and black tiles.

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It is oriented so that the front of its two prayer halls (one for men another for women) face northwest toward Mecca. It is surrounded by a huge parking lot with corridors leading in from two directions lined with racks to place your shoes. Near the entrance is a hall where you wash your hands and feet before going in to pray. The feet are very significant in Muslim culture and everyone is required to remove their shoes to enter the mosque. Another requirement is that women are required to cover themselves with a loose fitting black robe that looked downright dashing on Rachel.

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Since it was not prayer time at the moment we were allowed to enter the prayer hall. We were unable to take pictures of the inside, but suffice it to say it was absolutely breathtaking. Every detail was attended to in the most ornate manner possible. One of the most interesting things we noticed is their use of geometric patterns throughout the building. There was an 8 sided star that featured most prominently and they incorporated it in a variety of ways on floors, ceilings, walls, and any other place they could find room.

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We spotted these eight-pointed stars all over Brunei--from ceilings to sidewalks. The eight-pointed star, or khatim--seal of the prophets, is an important symbol is Islam and can be seen in Islamic art, country flags and insignia, and of course mosques. It has symbolism relating to how the Quran is divided up as well as astronomical significance. 

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 The main entrance included some amazing stair cases and the marble work was out of this world. We spent quite a long time oohing and ahhing over the whole thing before heading out to the road in search of transport back to the city. 

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The bus system in Brunei sounds pretty complicated when you look up schedules and times. There is no system-wide route map and few of the routes seem to connect to one another. The pickup times seem to vary depending on where you read them and everyone agrees they're unreliable. However, in practice they are quite simple to use. There is a single terminal downtown from which all buses emanate. There are around a dozen lines that go out in a star pattern to different parts of the city and one line (the #1) that circles around connecting most of the main tourist sites around the core of the city. You can see the small colorful busses all around town, and when you want to ride one, just wave them down. They'll stop for you pretty much anywhere and come along every few minutes. The fare is B$1 ($0.75) and comes with a free transfer in case you need to connect. It proved to be a very quick and cheap way to get around and was a much better option than the taxicabs which will charge you B$25-30 for a ride across town. 

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On the third day of our visit we planned a trip across the river to the water villages that house a large portion of the city's population. Prior to the discovery of oil in 1929, most people in Brunei lived lives that revolved around water. The original settlements in this valley were formerly known as Brunei town and were built on stilts over the river as is done throughout this region. This settlement dates back over 1000 years and has been continuously occupied. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Sultan of Brunei actually built his palace in the water village and visiting dignitaries and heads of state (as well as everyone else) accessed it by boat. Today, the village is a proud part of Brunei's national identity and this lifestyle has been upgraded by oil money to create a very interesting place where middle (and even upper middle) class folks live in the silt village and commute across the river for work and prayer throughout the day.  Boatmen operating the "flying coffins" are always on hand for anyone seeking to cross the river.

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Currently this village, Kampong Ayer, provides homes to over 30,000 residents and has all of the trappings of regular city.  Plumbing, electrical, and cable television are run to each residence. Extensive housing development projects have been built that resemble those you'd see on land and the walkways connecting some of the nicer ones almost feel like city sidewalks. As you walk down the pathways the concrete and steel walkways give way to rail-less wooden plank jetties that form a labyrinth of connections that goes on seemingly forever.  

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What was most interesting about this place was the difference between it and other water villages we had seen in Borneo. In both KK and Semporna we encountered similar villages, however those ones were mostly created by illegal immigrants and lack any kind of infrastructure. This one on the other hand was not only legal, but provided a source of pride to the people of Brunei. When we arrived in the village there was a small museum with a few artifacts of the time when the village was a center of commerce and there were pictures of numerous visits by the sultan to a place he obviously values very highly.

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Attached to the back of the visitor's center was an observation tower that gave us a great view.

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There were even billboards. This one is ironically selling cars in a place with no roads...

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The village also featured (full-sized) schools, mosques, police stations and the most important...fire stations. Fire is a major issue in a town with wooden roads, and they obviously take this issue very seriously.

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As we headed out of the village we decided we'd finally take up one of the boat operators on their offer of a tour. Whenever we ventured close to the water at least two boats would stop and ask us if we'd like to go see the monkeys. When pressed for a price they would give us numbers upwards of B$40 ($30). We worked a couple of them against each other and managed to get down to B$20 ($15) for an hour ride and this proved to be a very good value. Our boat operator took us east down the river and we were treated to some wonderful views of the Bandar skyline before the city abruptly gave way to thick mangrove forests. It was surprising how quickly we went from the urban landscape of the city to seemingly untouched forests in a matter of minutes. 

As we zipped across the smooth river and in to the forest we saw large flocks of egrets hunting and at least one crocodile. After 20 minutes or so, our driver slowed the boat and crept slowly into a gap between the trees. Having never seen mangroves in person before we were both really enjoying taking photos of them up close. It is obvious why these places are dense with animal life as the trees almost seem like they are designed to hide small creatures. 

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After trying a couple different clearings, the driver brought us in to one where we heard rustling in the trees. We looked up and saw a big group of proboscis monkeys not more than 50 meters away. There was a few females and some juveniles. They carried on with their business for a few minutes before one of the young ones noticed us and raised the alarm.

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Once he started squealing they all started moving at once. What followed was at least 10 monkeys all jumping out of the trees at once. The sound of the larger males jumping from branch to branch is intense. They weigh nearly as much as a human and bend and break branches all around as they move. We watched them for a good 30 minutes before they were finally out of sight and our driver turned back.

This experience strongly reinforced or decision to skip the riverboat tours near Sepilok as they cost nearly $150 per person to see what we just got to experience for around $8 each. It was clear that our guide enjoyed seeing the monkeys almost as much as we did and was excitedly pointing them out as he saw them.

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That evening we took a bus out to a large mall. We had been told that it was the site of the Pasar Gadong night market and was not to be missed.

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We headed to the market around dinner time and were treated to wonderful sights and smells. Dozens of stalls were set up cooking up a storm. Our senses were filled with the spicy smell of flame cooked chilies and a huge variety of colors and sounds

One of our favorite Malaysian foods was these little rice treats made with rice flour and coconut milk. We never got the proper Malay term for them, so we just called them glutinous rice cakes. The term flows so naturally off the tongue.

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Other than that, there was a high abundance of barbecued chicken products, and of those, most were the chicken asses we'd been seeing all over Malaysia. Apparently these are a local favorite. We decided to just go ahead and take their word for it. 

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Another thing we found we really enjoyed was Sugar Cane Juice. It's much tastier than corn syrup based beverages and leaves a nice flavor in your mouth.

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Before we even left for Brunei, we decided we would return to Kota Kinabalu by boat. Supposedly a much quicker (and slightly less expensive) journey, we were looking forward to an easier voyage than the bus trip in. We took the first bus out of Bandar headed for the ferry terminal 25km away. There we caught the 7:45am ferry to the island of Labuan, Malaysia and switched boats to continue on to KK. We waited around the Labuan ferry terminal until it was time to depart at 1pm. This was a longer voyage, but again seemed like an easy three hours.

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The boat was surprisingly small for a ferry, but the path was not supposed to veer far from the shore line, so it did not seem like a problem. We were shown to our assigned seats in the very front of the vessel. An enclosed room with about 25 seats and windows just high enough that you could not see out of them while sitting down. Bundles of plastic bags hung ominously from the ceiling in case of seasickness.

It wasn’t more than an hour in before it started. A small toddler in the row of seats to our left threw up copious amount of sour milk all over the seats. Her parents rushed to clean up the mess and console the baby. The smell permeated the cabin. The small boat rocked up and down in intense waves, occasionally crashing into large white caps. The front felt the most sway. Two girls in the row in front of us both grabbed for the plastic bags hanging overhead. Both dizzily swayed with the bags over their mouths until their nausea turned to vomiting. I stood up to make eye contact with the horizon and steady my stomach. The woman behind me started puking. I focused on the water outside and began to feel better as I blocked out the sound and smell of all the sick passengers. Jeremy lasted until the last hour before turning totally white and needing to stand up to gain equilibrium. We both finished out the journey on our feet carefully watching outside, our eyes, ears and nose affixed to anything but the illness of everyone around us.

Three hours felt like three days. The boat docked back in KK and we hurried out of the boat as quickly as we could, elated to be back on dry land.

We’re back in Kota Kinabalu for the last time on this trip. We’re heading for Hong Kong where we have rented an apartment for the next month. More adventures to follow!

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