We knew absolutely nothing about Brunei before catching our smooth flight into the capital and only city of note, Bandar Seri Bagawan or simply Bandar. We arrived to find a tidy clean little airport and took a taxi ride towards the centre of possibly the quietest capital city I have ever visited. Everything is very clean, nicely laid out and kept but we can’t help but feel a certain sense of emptiness about the place, perhaps unfairly on such short impressions but things feel a little sanitised. That being said, you can certainly feel the extra wealth about the the place, from the beautiful floral arrangements in the central reservations right up to the strikingly grand mosques of stone and gold leaf. We found a very old school hostel on the outskirts and were sent into our strictly gender segregated dorm rooms to unpack our now lightened bags, thanks go to Sandra for taking the burden off us. We strolled into town and sat and watched the boats criss crossing, ferrying people to and from town from their houses in the huge floating village which houses over 20,000 people. We spent the rest of the day seemingly visiting the two primary interests of the population here, the mall and the mosque. The Ramadan street stalls shut early so we had to settle for a noodle hot plate in the basement food court before turning in, waving goodbye to each other at the doors of our respective dorm rooms, both of which were empty save for ourselves – it’s very quiet here.
We caught the bus to the spectacular Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque on the outskirts of town. A landmark from miles around the structure grows more and more impressive the closer we came. Surrounded by lush green gardens and plush water fountains, clearly no expense had been spared, it felt big enough for the entire country to come and worship together. We were unlucky in that we had just missed visiting hours for non Muslims due to Ramadan but were contented to walk around and take in the angles from the outside. Our Brunei dollars obtained in Malaysia turned out to be old notes as everyone we tried to trade with looked at us like we were handing them a slap round the face. This particularly annoyed Sarah as she missed out on a cream cake, unable to pay with our soiled dollars. We did get them exchanged eventually and took off for the boat to the other half of Brunei, Temburong. A quick glance at Brunei and you’ll see that the country is split in half by the ever encroaching Malaysian state of Sarawak, which makes the journey overland a bit long winded so most opt for the hair raising boat journey. Speeding through great tangles of mangrove forest stretching for miles, the boat was on its side most of the time as it weaved through the narrow channels of water and the older folk amongst us turned a paler shade.
This time the hostel in Bangar allowed us to stay in the same room and we swiftly headed for the big street food market opposite, frustratingly we couldn’t eat any of our goodies in public as it was during day light hours so we hid in a nearby children’s playground and gorged on samosas, spring rolls, curry and satay. The next morning was a frustrating experience as is sometimes the case when trying to visit national parks that are a little off the tourist trail. After a hour half drive to two boat houses, no drivers were either available or willing to take us the short journey up river without a government issued permit which takes days to process, of course if we would have known We would have sorted the paperwork out but to be so close and halted In our tracks by red tape was very frustrating, not the first time we would be frustrated here in Borneo. Instead we took an early bus heading east into Malaysian Borneo and Mount Kinabalu, something we have both been looking forward to climbing.