It’s 9 a.m. on our first full day in Brunei on the streets of its capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan (or BSB, more colloquially), and it’s oddly quiet. Despite the early hour, the sun blazes overhead and the heat is already borderline oppressive. Hardly anyone is out, but a few market stalls cling to the edge of a nearby park in hope that someone will come. In an effort to cool off and quench our burgeoning thirst, we wander over and point to the sweating plastic tub full of ice-cold plum juice, which seems promising. As it turns out, it is sour plum, and tastes absolutely vile, unless you like the taste of salty vitamins (someone must, I suppose).
Looking for a trashcan and a shady spot (in vain, of course), we wander through deserted laneways wondering where everyone else is. It’s our intention to do some sightseeing, to make the most of the few days we have in Brunei, but the sights are mostly not to be found. Noxious drink in hand, we head for the enormous mosque dominating the end of the street. Occasionally a ratty purple bus full of people roars past, chased by dark clouds of exhaust. The city feels less like a hub of commerce in a natural-resource rich country than a backwater outpost that no one wants to live in. However, we soon discover that it’s a backwater outpost with a few examples of spectacular architecture.
If you are only going to do one thing in Brunei, see some of the mosques.
Throughout the day the haunting calls of the muezzin echo off the buildings, and the minarets of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque are visible from most of downtown BSB. Brunei is an Islamic country and it shows, to the point that Arabic script is frequently adopted on signs and buildings beside the Bahasa Melayu. But there is no more evident symbol of Brunei’s official religion than the mosques.
Short of going to some countries that your embassies would really rather you not visit, there aren’t too many places outside of Brunei where you can see a visual demonstration of the Islamic faith on such a grand scale. The mosques in BSB are splendid. Splendid in the way the Arabian Nights would use the word. They are the embodiment of decadence. Gold, marble, colonnaded walkways, gilt doors, stained glass and soaring minarets all await your wondering gaze.
Domes and spires and filigree, oh my!
We only see two of Brunei’s many mosques, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, but it’s hard to imagine how any of the others could compete with the ones we visit. I think our experience is all the more impressive thanks to the fact that we are largely by ourselves for most of our time in the mosques (which isn’t all that difficult to achieve, given as we seem to be the only tourists in the entire country). We wander through massive, empty galleries and peek into spotless ablution rooms. Our footsteps echo on cool marble. Yawning prayer chambers large enough to accommodate 3000 people sit beneath domes festooned with flowing script and intricate patterns.
We’ve been in Asia for a while now, and we’ve seen a lot of religious structures built by a diverse company of faiths, but few, if any, leave us so overawed by their scale as these mosques. Not only are they enormous, but they are so stunningly detailed that it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer amount of care and effort that has been poured into their construction. Certainly there is nothing more spectacular in Brunei than these religious edifices.
That’s not to say that there is nothing else to see, and we intend to do more than just see mosques, though we forgive you if you do not. The Royal Regalia museum is just up the road from the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and as it happens, it is air-conditioned. We make the short walk and beat a hasty retreat from the sun through the tinted doors of the Regalia building. It’s not much to look at from the outside, nothing like the soaring minarets and golden domes of the mosques, but we discover that, much like Aladdin’s cave, its true treasure lies inside.
Imagine if Elvis had been king of Memphis (legally speaking) and had lived a few extra decades. Graceland would be his Regalia museum, and his pink Cadillac would be the Sultan’s gigantic, human-powered throne-wagon-float thingy. Now you have a flavor for how our visit to the Regalia Museum is beginning to play out. Since all of the placards are in Malay, the only takeaway we’re really able to gather as we meander through shelves of swag is that the Sultan has received A LOT of gifts, so many, in fact, that he built a building to house them all. Beyond that, we also have to presume that these are the second-string gifts, since we imagine the man with the world’s largest private residence has some shelf space back at home reserved for the really good stuff. The halls are replete with glittering crystal models of ships, shimmering gemstones, statues made of precious metal, and (our personal favorite) portraits of the Sultan—in his trademark sunglasses—made from tiny crystals glued to black satin. Outrageous, but in a kitschy and kind of fascinating way.
If you are going to do two things in Brunei, first see the mosques. Then go to the Brunei Museum.
The Brunei Museum isn’t what I would call a headline attraction, but proves a more interesting pit stop than is immediately apparent. Like most of the rest of BSB, it feels a little, well, shabby, and about 20 years out of date. The design is straight out of the mid-90s, when so many designers were overcome by the “gee, it’s a computer” syndrome and abandoned timeless aesthetics for something a little more “flashy.” And let’s just say that the collection is… eclectic. Two decades ago the museum was probably a modern marvel, but now it just feels kind of tired.
[Like so many of the rest of the attractions we visited, photos were generally not allowed, so you’ll have to be content with what we took in the lobby.]
So why visit? In short, the museum is a little like a metaphor for the country. It’s a little out of the way, the displays are more than a little out of date, it was clearly expensive to build, and an elegant air of neglect pervades the entire complex. Not the kind of neglect that leads to decay, per se, but the kind of neglect that makes visiting feel like a trip to your grandma’s house, where nothing has changed for decades simply because there has been no reason to do so. It feels a bit threadbare, and the disparate nature of the exhibits, with their seemingly schizophrenic organization, is an oddly accurate reflection of our own feelings about the country.
There is a whole area dedicated to the history of Brunei but, frankly, it’s a bit opaque. We know that people liked to make gifts out of small canons and that female circumcision was a big thing until recently, but otherwise it’s hard to learn much about the country from the displays. There is a traditional Bruneian game prominently featured with no mention of how it is played, and many displays have no explanation whatsoever. There are hints everywhere about the rich history of the country, and even an entire room with a panel dedicated to every single sultan, but after wandering through the gallery the official picture of the country as a whole still feels oddly fuzzy.
The Islamic art section of the museum looks like a flea market stall, but it’s filled with exquisite pieces that demonstrate real beauty and craftsmanship, and is certainly the nicest collection in the building, and the musty antiquities vibe works in its favor. Though you wouldn’t guess it at first glance, this wing houses one of the best illuminated Islamic manuscripts collection in all of South East Asia, and on that basis alone is worth a visit. It absolutely trumps the Biodiversity of Brunei exhibit, which all started when a man ran over an owl. Really. As a result, that collection is mostly taxidermy with a healthy dose of big, fiberglass models of random animals.
What then, to say about the museum and, by extension, Brunei? We see hints of elegance. There is some real beauty and brilliance. Other odd areas range from dull to incomprehensible. Most things are wrapped in a veneer of grandeur, often too steeped in the era in which they were constructed to be truly, timeless or impressive. It feels like it should be nicer, and we expect it to be nicer overall. And that’s it, really. Just like the country it calls home, the museum is an odd mixture of dishevelment, mediocrity, wonder and mystery all at once. It has moments where it is compelling, but mostly we’re just ready for something a tad more interesting.
We step out of the dark, slightly dank museum and squint at the afternoon light as the suffocating heat wallops us once more. We slowly walk up the embankment to the highway and wait for one of the infrequent purple buses to chug around the corner of the empty road. We watch as a well-dressed man stops his S-Class Mercedes in an empty lot across the street so he can urinate on the retaining wall in front of his expensive car. We’ll be buying our bus tickets to western Borneo later and leaving the next morning, heading towards what we hope is a greater adventure than what we found here. It’s hard to imagine ever coming back as it seems during our time here we fumbled with greatness rather than grasping it in our hands, but then again, perhaps that is in and of itself quintessentially Brunei.
Tell us: Have you ever visited Brunei? What’s the most impressive mosque you’ve ever visited?