They say good things come in small packages and the tiny fascinating country of Brunei is testament to this.
I visited Brunei Darussalam – to give it its full name – during Hari Raya, the annual event of the Sultan opening his 1,088 bedroom palace to the public. It’s a day known for its infectious atmosphere, where everyone dresses in their Sunday Best (well, Friday Best, with it being a Muslim country) ready to meet the royal family. Only men are allowed to meet the sultan (women meet the queen instead), which wasn’t exactly the ‘’I met the Sultan of Brunei!’’ anecdote I’d envisaged, but I could hardly complain. A banquet was laid on for us queuing visitors (a five-hour long wait gives you quite an appetite) and then we were in. The palace is even more extravagant than you’d expect: gilded carpets, giant chandeliers and everything, from pillars to chairs, coated in gold. Meeting the queen is a truly memorable experience: before shaking her hand, a royal aide puts your arm at a certain height, so her majesty doesn’t have to alter her position. Totally worth that five-hour wait.
What to do
Visit the water village, which stretches over 8 km and is home to 30,000 people. We took a water taxi from the port (which takes around 10 minutes) and passed a water fire station (which seemed quite ironic), a police station and five schools: the inhabitants have electricity and running water and are surprisingly self-sufficient. Wander down the boardwalk and you’ll find locals inviting you in for tea and sweet delicacies. Make sure you take them up on their offer: it’s quite a comical sight watching the cook of the house using the sea as a waste disposal and men relaxing on their chez longues watching the Malay version of Jeremy Kyle.
There are numerous mosques that are also worth a visit- particularly the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with its Italian marble interior.
Where to stay
The Empire is well worth your dollars: an overwhelming hotel with marble interior and breathtaking views over the sea (look closely and you can make out the oil rigs in the distance). Book the deluxe suite with its bathtub big enough for 6 people and a balcony overlooking the sea front. The resort is kitted out with a golf course, beautiful spa, nine swimming pools, man-made beach, tennis courts and seven restaurants, so once you’ve checked in at the Empire it can be very tempting to stay put.
Complement a stay at the Empire with a few days at the Ula Ula Temburong – a haven in the middle of a national park rainforest and accessed only by waterboat. Upon arrival it’s flip-flops off (they have a no shoes policy – very bohemian) and a welcome snack of lemongrass juice and banana tapioca pudding. The resort is heavenly: modern, but still very in tune with nature. I tried out the verandah suite, with its day-bed on the porch (a quaint rope hammock). Evenings can be spent on night walks to the waterfall (give them a miss if you’re scared of wildlife) and a 4.30am wake up call precedes long treks with astounding views.
Package: £1,449 to include: 4 nights at the Empire Hotel & Country Club with breakfast; Sightseeing tours; Private transfers; Royal Brunei flights from London to Brunei via Dubai (This is based on travel 8 April - 20 Jun)
Premier Holidays on 08444 937 940 or visit http://www.premierholidays.co.uk
Royal Brunei Airlines operates world-class flights to four continents and 15 cities, including Melbourne, Dubai, Manila and Hong Kong.
Royal Brunei is the only airline that can guarantee long-haul travellers from London to Brunei seats on the flagship Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This route will be extended to Melbourne from March 2014.
Royal Brunei Airlines: 020 7584 6660 flyroyalbrunei.com/uk
By Basma Khalifa