The main entry point to Bandar is via Jalan Tutong, which crosses the Sungai Kedayan tributary at Edinburgh Bridge, providing the first views of Kampong Ayer and the golden dome of the mosque. The road becomes Jalan Sultan, which cuts past a handful of museums and a small grid of shophouses, before hitting the waterfront. The city centre is bordered to the west by Sungai Kedayan, and, barely 500 m to the east, by the narrow Sungai Kianggeh tributary. Along its banks is the Tamu Kianggeh, an open-air market.
A number of the city's more interesting sights are located along the picturesque road that follows the river east out of town. Jalan Residency runs past the Arts and Handicrafts Centre and the old British Residency itself, before becoming Jalan Kota Batu and bypassing the tombs of two sultans, the Brunei Museum and the Malay Technology Museum.
The suburbs of Kampong Kiarong and Gadong are several kilometres northwest of the centre. The former is a residential quarter, home to the enormous Kiarong Mosque, while Gadong is the main commercial centre, with department stores, restaurants and an excellent
(night market). North of town, near the airport, are the government offices and the impressive but ghostly quiet National Stadium.
When people think of Bandar Seri Begawan, they think of Kampong Ayer, the stretch of stilted homes that extends for more than 3 km along the banks of Sungai Brunei. Officially,
Kampong Ayer is not part of the municipality of Bandar - a reflection of the government's
aim to rehouse the villagers on dry land. Not so long ago, however, Kampong Ayer was all there was of Bandar; it was the British who began to develop the town on land, starting with construction of the Residency in 1906.
The architecture of Kampong Ayer is perfectly suited to the tropical environment, making use of local materials and allowing for excellent ventilation. The oldest houses stand on mangrove and ironwood posts, with walls of woven nipa palm. The modern buildings stand on reinforced concrete piles, which allow for double-storey structures. Many of the houses are painted in a profusion of colours, with pot plants and bougainvillea spilling from verandas. It may look primitive, but take a closer look and you'll notice that all houses have electricity and a piped water supply; many have satellite TV and internet.
Records of Kampong Ayer go back 14 centuries. In its 16th-century heyday, the 'village' had a population of 100,000 and was the centre of an empire stretching across most of Borneo, Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Though it still claims to be the world's largest water village, today's population is a mere 25,000 to 30,000. The village is separated into 42 units, each governed by a
(headman). These units are grouped into
(wards). The community is self-sufficient, with mosques, shops, schools and clinics - even fire stations and floating petrol stations.
The future of Kampong Ayer looks somewhat uncertain. Many villagers have taken up the government's offer of free plots of land and subsidized housing and have moved on land. Meanwhile, the traditional cottage industries associated with each of the village units are giving way to new professions (today's young Bruneians aspire to become lawyers or computer programmers rather than blacksmiths or boat builders). Still, there are plenty of artisans left, and some will open their doors to passing visitors.
To visit Kampong Ayer, jump aboard any of the water taxis (
) by the pickup point just south of the Yayasan Complex. The boatmen will compete for your attention, then haggle with you over a price. The going rate is about B$20 for an hour's tour, or B$15 for half an hour. Most boatmen are happy to pass by the Istana (the best views are from the river); you may want to combine the tour with a trip downriver to spot proboscis monkeys.
You can also access part of the village by foot: set off along the boardwalk that runs along west from the Yayasan Complex and you come to a bridge across the Kedayan tributary. From here are good views as far as the copper-domed Masjid Kampong Tamoi, an elegant mosque on the water's edge.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
This mosque, built by and named after the 28th sultan (1950-1967), has become the symbol of Brunei, the nation's definitive monument. It is certainly one of Southeast Asia's finest-looking mosques, elegant and somehow modest, despite its great golden dome, its setting beside an artificial lake and its nightly illumination in unearthly green light.
Built in 1958 in classical Islamic style, the architecture is not overstated, although along with the sultan's hugely extravagant palace, the mosque was one of the first obvious signs of Brunei's oil wealth. When flakes of gold began falling from the central dome, due to
contraction and expansion in the searing heat, the mosque quickly became something of a wonder to the villagers of Kampong Ayer (whose boardwalks run tight up to the edge of the mosque). Novelist Anthony Burgess' arrival as a teacher in Brunei coincided with the ceremonial opening of the mosque, and in his autobiography he recounts how this falling gold was “taken by the fisherfolk to be a gift from Allah”.
The materials used to build and furnish the mosque came from right across the globe: carpets from Belgium and Arabia; chandeliers and stained glass from England; marble from Italy; granite from Shanghai; and, topping the central onion dome, a mosaic of more than three million pieces of gold-leafed Venetian glass. In the middle of the lake, which envelops the mosque on three sides, is a replica of a 16th-century
(royal barge), used on special occasions and for Koran recital competitions.
Brunei's national museum holds a mixed bag of galleries, although it's certainly worth a visit. If you have limited time, head straight for the
, an outstanding collection of artwork and artefacts from the sultan's personal collection. In pride of place on a marble pedestal in the centre of the gallery is a page of ornate calligraphy written by the sultan himself, in which he encourages his subjects to memorize the Koran. Around the pedestal, in rooms 1 and 2, are the real McCoy: Korans and beautifully preserved pieces of calligraphy dating from as early as the ninth century. Across one wall is a talismanic banner from 18th-century India, on which the whole Koran is transcribed in tiny script. Further rooms hold collections of pottery and ceramics from the Islamic world; gold and silver jewellery and coins dating back to AD 661; delicate perfume bottles alongside a collection of Indian and Ottoman sabres; and several oddities, such as a decorative wooden boot with
compass, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Also on the ground floor is the mediocre
and the obligatory
which charts the discovery and extraction of Brunei's black gold. Upstairs is the
Traditional Culture Gallery
, with examples of
(spinning tops), traditional dress, hand-crafted kites and board games such as
. Traditional customs are explained, too (after birth, a date is placed on the tongue of a newborn and the placenta is either hung from a tree, buried or floated downriver).
A staircase leads down the hill from the back of the Brunei Museum to the
, where a series of dioramas explain the development of fishing techniques, boatmaking, stilt house construction, metalwork and
(hats worn by Muslim men) weaving. The top floor includes examples of indigenous dwellings (from the Murut, Kedayan and Dusun tribes), along with tools such as blowpipes and fishing traps.
Bubongan Dua Belas
Along the road between the museum and the centre of town, look out for the tombs of two of Brunei's greatest sultans.
(1426-1432) was the founder of Islamic rule in Brunei, while
(1485-1524) presided over the 'golden age' of Brunei, conquering Sulu and the Philippines.
Arts and Handicraft Centre
Bubongan Dua Belas, which means Twelve Roofs, served as the British Residency until Brunei's Independence in 1984. It was built on the side of a hill overlooking Kampong Ayer in 1906 and is one of Brunei's oldest surviving buildings, with traditional wood shingle roofing and hardwood floors. The building now hosts a small Relationship Exhibition, celebrating the ties between Brunei and the UK. There are charts and maps of the Kampong Ayer area dating from the time of the first British contact in 1764. There is also a fascinating report on Brunei, penned by Acting Consul Stewart McArthur, which led to the appointment of the first British Resident in 1904. He describes the “strange and picturesque” ceremony of the
harvest festival: “Everyone was feasting and I regret to say that, when I left, nearly everyone was overcome by
, an extremely nauseous drink made locally from
and of which I was forced to partake.”
The Arts and Handicraft Centre was established as a means of preserving traditional skills, such as weaving, brass casting and
making. The centre is focused more on workshops for young Bruneians than attracting tourists, though there is a handicraft shop selling hand-crafted jewellery, basketry,
(traditional fabric woven with gold thread),
(hats worn by Muslim men) and other gifts.
Royal Regalia Museum
Round the other side of the handicraft centre, past one of the most enormous strangler figs you're ever likely to see, is a small
, with exhibits by local artists.
Dedicated almost exclusively to the present sultan's life, this is the flashiest of all Brunei's museums, set in an extravagant domed building in the centre of town. Bring an extra top - the main galleries are air conditioned to fridge temperatures - and try not to take too much notice of the guards, who are armed to the hilt, each with truncheon, dagger and gun.
The museum's opening in 1992 coincided with the sultan's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and many of the exhibits relate to this event. The Royal Chariot - an enormous gold-winged thing that looks like a movie prop - is the largest exhibit, while the strangest is probably the creepy golden hand and forearm, used to support the chin of the sultan during the coronation. There are hundreds of photos, too, and a mass of ceremonial costumes, armoury and other regalia items.
Next door is the
which serves as a centre of research for documenting the history and genealogy of the royal family. The centre is open to the public, but there's not much to see.
Parks and green spaces
The enormous building across the road is the
, site of the 1968 coronation ceremony. The hall is closed to the public.
For the best vantage point of Bandar and Kampong Ayer, head for the
Bukit Subok Recreational Park
, which rises steeply off Jalan Residency. The entrance to the park is just before Bubongan Dua Belas. A boardwalk loops through the forest between a series of viewing towers. The going is steep, so avoid visiting during the middle part of the day.
is a more sedate option, with a picnic area, small waterfall and reservoir. It is situated about 1 km north of the centre. To get there, head north along Jalan Tasek Lama and turn right opposite the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien College. From the park gates, it's another 500 m or so to the waterfall.
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