Many mosques to see and a village on the sea!

Trip Start Sep 09, 2007
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Thursday, May 29, 2008

With accommodation on the mounatin unavailable for a few days we had some time to kill in Kota Kinabalu so decided on an impromptu 2-day trip to Brunei - it's close by, it's one of the world's smallest and richest countries and Charlie had seen a Brunei bank note in Penang which she really liked... seemed good enough reasons to us to pay it a visit, and to drag Dave and Jen along with us!

We took the early ferry from KK and as we pulled out of port a magnificent sight appeared behind us: above the Sabah coastline and emerging from the morning mist was Mount Kinabalu in all its glory. It was an awe-inspiring sight as this majestic and domineering presence towered over Borneo like a great protector. The wispy white clouds seemed to wrap themselves around to form a protective cotton wool blanket - maybe somebody was keeping her safe until our return.

It's just a shame this beautiful moment was ruined by one of the boat staff chucking a couple of plastic bags full of rubbish off the back of the boat once we've left the Marine National Park area...

We took the bus into the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (or BSB for the sake of airports and lazy blog-writers) which gave us a chance to catch our first glimpses of Brunei, and we weren't disappointed: absolutely stunning buildings and architecture, both modern and traditional lined the roads whilst grand mansions and stately homes sat side by side with beaten-up, rusty shacks surrounded by scrap metal. The people seemed friendly and there was a very relaxed feel about the place - not at all what we'd expected after hearing stories of the strict and deeply-Muslim way of life that is supposedly forced upon the people by the Sultan.

Having arrived in BSB we checked into a cheap (well, cheap by Brunei standards!) room and the four of us immediately set out on our whirlwind, see-as-much-as-we-can-in-just-under-24-hours trip!

First port of call was Kampung Ayer, reputed to be the world's largest water village with over 30,000 people living in stilted houses on the Brunei River estuary. We hired out a boat taxi with our trusty guide Sopi, who assured us his licence was clean... BOOM BOOM! The village is a fantastic place - very quaint and basic but also home to an unbelievably developed and advanced infrastructure: there are whole communities set up on these floating wooden buildings, from police and fire stations to schools, shops, restaurants, mosques and even a football stadium, with a complete network of paths and walkways linking them all together.

As we made our way around the village we were also treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets we've seen to date, as the sky above the Sultan's palace melted into a stunning mixture of blue sky and soft white clouds, topped with a golden coffee-coloured blanket. At the same time the sky behind us was a brilliant pink above the village whilst the water rippled with the reflection of all of these colours.

Next stop was the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, considered to be one of the most spectacular mosques in Asia and again it didn't disappoint. Unfortunately there was some renovation work being carried out so some scaffolding was up around the large golden dome but it was still a beautiful sight, lit up green and gold with the moat around it acting as a reflection pool.

From here we headed to the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque (trying saying that after a few too many rums!) which is one of the grandest and most expensive mosques in the world, paid for entirely out of the Sultan's very deep pocket. The domes and minarets are all made from 24-carat gold whilst inside is decorated with Austrian Swarovski crystal chandeliers, Italian marble and English stained glass windows. The Royal entrance even boasts a SOLID GOLD escalator!? It was a mightily impressive sight.

We fuelled ourselves up with some yummy 1 dollar food at the night market before continuing the 'blitz' with one last stop that night at Istana Nural Iman, the palace over which we'd earlier seen the sun setting, which just so happens to be the largest residential palace in the world with 1,788 rooms (I've just realised this blog is starting to go a bit statistics-crazy, sorry!). The grounds around the palace were immense and we had a wander around whilst the Sultan sat inside with his feet up enjoying a chicken pie and chips and a re-run of Eastenders... at least that's what we'd like to believe. Again, the sky wanted to take centre stage and followed up the golden sunset with a lightning storm above the dome of the palace, illuminating the entire sky and the palace below. Hopefully it didn't affect the Sultan's TV signal...

The next morning we awoke early and set out of the final leg of our 'Brunei Blitz' with a trip to the Tamu Kianggeh morning market, where we gorged ourselves on some pretty damn tasty food and wrote the last of our 'we were here but not for long' postcards. We also paid a trip to the bank to see if this mythical square bank note that Charlie swears she saw in a money changer actually existed (it doesn't, and never has!) before heading off back over the border to Malaysian Borneo. On our way back we were given a special mention as the captain extended a 'very warm welcome to the English passengers we have on board today'. How can we go back to the anonymity of life back home when we're getting the celebrity treatment on a daily basis out here?!

Q. Who is the richest piece of dried fruit in the world?

A.
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