Though made wealthy by its oil deposits, Brunei Darussalam’s capital is remarkably humble — indeed, it may be the quietest capital in Asia. Nevertheless, it carries its long history proudly, making Bandar Seri Begawan a worthwhile stop before embarking on trips to the country’s famed rainforests.
About Bandar Seri Begawan
The small, oil-rich country of Brunei is ranked fifth among the world’s wealthiest nations, based on GDP (PPP), but visitors arriving at the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan will find a distinct absence of opulence here. Don’t expect to find glimmering shopping malls housing luxury brands or roads packed with shiny new cars; instead you’ll find a rather austere city that does its best to live up to its distinction as a darussalam — “abode of peace”.
Brunei occupies 5,765sq.km, or only about 1% of the total land area of the island of Borneo (the rest is divided into Indonesian territory, approximately 73%; and Malaysian territory, 26%), and counts just under half a million people in the population. Brunei is a relatively young country, having gained independence from the United Kingdom only in 1984, and remains an absolute monarchy under the rule of a sultan. But as the seat of the ancient Bruneian Empire — which peaked in the 16th century and included what is now Manila — it has an extremely rich and proud history that lurks just under the surface of its modern-day incarnation. His Majesty The Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the last remaining absolute monarchs in the world, and whose family has ruled Brunei for over 600 years.
Bandar Seri Begawan might just be the quietest capital in all of Asia, figuratively and literally. Not only is there far less vehicular traffic on the roads (a feat, considering that Brunei has about 667 cars per 1,000 people — one of the highest per capita rates in the world), but as individuals, Bruneians are also typically rather reserved. They may be some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, but don’t expect to be invited to any rowdy gatherings.
Travelers should note that the government began implementing Sharia law in 2014, stepping up its implementation in 2019. Visitors are enjoined to respect local customs and laws, and check with their home embassies for advisories.
Highlights for the traveler
Most travelers may be in a hurry to start on Brunei’s famed nature and wildlife tours, but Bandar Seri Begawan is worth stopping by a couple of days to get one’s bearings and visit the capital’s museums and other cultural landmarks. Among one of the more unique stops is Kampong Ayer, a settlement comprising 42 contiguous stilt villages that is the largest of its kind in the world, and which will provide a close-up view of the Bruneian way of life. For a fuller experience, drop by the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery for an overview of the area’s history and samples of Bruneian crafts produced in the villages; then walk up the viewing tower for a bird’s-eye view.
For a look at the other side of Bruneian society, there’s the Royal Regalia Museum, which is devoted to Sultan Hassanal’s life, leading up to his coronation day in 1968. Besides the sultan’s regalia, visitors will find a replica of the throne, a chariot used at his 1968 coronation, and lavish gifts presented to the sultan by various dignitaries. While there, you can’t miss the stunning Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which was also built for the sultan’s silver jubilee in 1992. The country’s largest mosque has 29 golden domes — Sultan Hassanal is the 29th sultan — which, when lit up at night, make for a striking view.
If you’re lucky enough to be in town during the Hari Raya Eid al Fitr festivities to mark the end of Ramadan, you can join the queues to get in to the Istana Nurul Iman, the sultan’s dazzling official residence. With 1,788 rooms bedecked in gold, it is more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles, and it looks every inch a fitting home for one of the world’s wealthiest men. Those with an eye for architecture may recognize the sweeping lines of the istana as the work of Filipino national artist Leandro Locsin, who designed the palace in the 1980s.