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Low-rise buildings with large parking spaces greeted us as our bus slowly pulled from the airport. Properties were greatly distanced from each other, attempting to fill the vastness of the lots available. They reminded me of old business districts, not fully developed yet somehow have thrived through time.
Fifteen minutes after, we arrived at the Orchid Garden Hotel. This was where we met Lazel Hernandez, its Filipino Duty Manager. “Maraming Pinoy dito,” she smilingly said. We agreed and shared that it was so refreshing to hear janitors speak in Tagalog at the airport restroom. Lazel has been working in Brunei for the past six years, renewing her contract every two years. Delighted to meet new Filipinos, she told us that work is more manageable here and that the pay is good. “I can bring my family here on vacations and holidays. The only downside here is that you need to get out of the border, in Malaysia, to have a few drinks.” Alcohol is not sold anywhere in Brunei and consumption in public is prohibited by law. But our tour guide Haji from Freme Travel Services said that they can drink in the comfort of their own homes, but it would be tricky to get the alcohol in, especially for the locals.
What it means to live like a Royal
“Okay, photo stop for five minutes,” Haji announced, but nothing quite prepared us for what the vista offered. It was the sparkling Istana Nurul Iman, which sat distantly from its main gate, the guards standing erectly inside. Completed in 1984, this sprawling definition of grandeur is the official residence of Brunei’s current Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah. It also serves as the seat of the government and is used for all state functions. Almost 200,000 sqm in size, it earned the Guinness World Record title of “world’s largest residential palace,” having almost 2,000 rooms , 300 bathrooms, and a mosque that can accommodate 1,500 people. It also houses the Sultan’s ridiculously grand collection of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Rolls-Royces, just to name a few. It looked so extravagant in every way that we were surprised yet very proud to hear that it was designed by the late Visayan architect Leandro Locsin and constructed by Ayala Corporation.
Domes peeked as we came near the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. The largest mosque in Brunei, it was built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the Sultan’s reign. Its minarets are tiled with dark sun patterns contrasting with its whiteness, and its bright green roof makes it unique and memorable. Honoring the Sultan as his dynasty’s 29th ruler, the compound is adorned with 29 golden domes. We hastily took photos of the façade and didn’t go inside as we were pressed for time. Too bad we were really curious of what’s inside. 2017 will mark the golden year anniversary of His Majesty’s reign. Who knows what form of lavishness Brunei will pursue?
We were all blessed at lunchtime with the air-conditioning at full blast at the Radisson Hotel. “Okay guys, eat,” commanded Vernon, our host in Surabaya. “Wait, no, let me take a photo of you people first.” We were all silent, looking intently at our phones, relishing the wifi, and finally taking a break from the hop-in-hop-out marathon since 3 AM. I felt somehow relieved to be in a city hotel that is close to what we have back at home. After six days of running out and about in Indonesia and Brunei, with all things foreign, no pork in the menu, and driving at the other side of the road, I was ecstatic to eat the pasta and red velvet cake served at the buffet.
A museum filled with things used once
“Please take off your shoes,” said Haji, as he pointed to the shelves by the entrance. The Royal Regalia Museum boasted of the impressive Royal Chariot as the main display, wowing us the moment we entered. It was used, we learned, for the Sultan’s silver jubilee coronation in 1992. Surrounded by circular shields with flags in Bruneian colors of red and yellow, the chariot was screaming in gold. Taking photos was not allowed as we went further inside, so we listened to Haji as he narrated the history of the royal family. The museum housed family portraits and the members’ interesting personal flags, headless mannequins in traditional uniforms a famous designer would envy, a golden bench on which the Sultan and Queen Saleha once sat in an important event, a crown studded with jewels and a golden hand used to support the Sultan’s chin when he wore it, and of course, the gifts given by world leaders to a man who has everything. Every turn in the museum is a mark of excess I didn’t even think existed – it was mind-blowing.
Bruneian daily life
In a large boat, we went to visit Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest water village situated on Brunei Bay. With more than 30,000 inhabitants, it was made up of small villages connected by foot-bridges, complete with mosques, shops, restaurants, schools and even a hospital. In 2013, a decree was made to build modern, two-story houses on stilts not made of wood but of concrete to make the community sturdier and safer for people. Residents rode boats to the pier where their cars were all parked. “People have a choice where they want to live: on land or on water,” Haji explained. Kampong Ayer was anything but poor; in fact, I was convinced most of them own boats.
“We are not rich,” cleared our local guide. “Most of the systems are just regulated by the government and we’re all fine with them.” Alright, I thought, but I figured it was fairly easy to live in Brunei. Water and fuel are subsidized and one only has to pay 1 Brunei dollar (Php35) for education registration – everything else would be shouldered by the government. Most people are government employees, and in the Bruneian system, taxation doesn’t apply to them. There are only 40 taxis available in the city; the rest have their own cars. The richness of the rulers spill down to their people, and this visitor was impressed no end.
A taste of majestic luxury
White pillars with gold fixtures left me dumbfounded, and that was just the lobby. The ornateness, elegance, and Old World charm were omnipresent, from the rooms to the furniture, and down to the ice bucket made of pure silver. The rooms were nothing short of its 6-star glory, meticulously designed and committed to the Bruneian cultural heritage, with linens as clean as they can be, and bathtubs fit for royalty (or anyone feeling like one). I was not surprised to hear that with all the furniture imported from Italy, an overnight stay would start at USD400.
It started to rain hard as we exited the enormous hotel. The grandness displayed in every place we toured still hadn’t sunk in and in the pace we did, they were like flashes of a dream. But no, I had to remind myself that Brunei is real and so is its indescribable splendor.