The sunsets in Brunei are around 6pm which is a lot earlier than what we are used to in Singapore. But along with the early sunset in Brunei, comes with a sort of gentle calm that is pleasantly unusual for me.
Sunsets in Singapore are always a time of chaos because it’s usually around the peak hour period where everyone seems to be rushing somewhere. Trains are full, traffic is slow, food places are packed and even getting home is a pretty stressful affair. In Brunei, however, you don’t see any crowds at all, most offices (excluding retail) closes at 5pm and because alcohol is prohibited in Brunei, instead heading out for a drink, most Bruneians take after working hours as time to spend with family. Family bonding is a focal point in the Bruneian way of life which includes the extended family of uncles, aunties, cousins, close friends and so on. They admire how they still manage to retain a strong sense of kampung spirit that most cities lack.
I loved standing by the river front watching the speed boats and water taxis go by; seeing the twinkle lights from the houses at Ayer Kampong Water village reflect on the surface of the waterways. It’s completely different from the river side view that most Singaporeans have at our very famous Clarke Quay. No loud music, no crowd, no touts and no pubs.
The restaurant we were having dinner at showcases the river scene to complement their sumptuous seafood menu.
We headed up to the 2nd level of Portsview Restaurant where a table was reserved for us. It was a relatively quiet night for this popular restaurant and our guide, Tom, explained that this restaurant gets really crowded at the beginning of each month when the locals get their paychecks and are prepared to splurge on an evening dinner out at a good restaurant.
The restaurant specialty is seafood steamboat. Two large steamboat pots were placed on the table and you have a choice of a tom yum soup base or a herbal chicken soup base. Then came a mountainous plate of seafood and noodles to be added into the soups. The seafood were exceptionally fresh and huge! You could hear a chorus of “Wow”, “Yummy”, “Shiok” and “Soooooo good” coming from our table.
Unfortunately, I am allergic to shellfish so their excited gasps just increased my self-pity. Unable to resist, I had a little sampling of the soups and it was so tasty. I seriously wished I could have more!
Thankfully, once they heard of my food limitations, Tom arranged for the restaurant to bring me a plate of fried chicken rice. Even their humble plate of fried rice with tender chicken pieces was really tasty. It carried a fragrant wok-fried taste; a sign of a well-cooked fried rice so even with that one plate, I left with a pretty satisfied stomach.
By the time we were ready to leave the restaurant, the moon had fully risen and it shone big and bright, like a spotlight over the whole river scene.
The best way to work off such a heavy meal was to take a short stroll and that’s exactly what we did. Although the climate in Brunei is similar to Singapore, the air is distinctively fresher and it’s not as humid which made walking in the city quite pleasurable.
Less than 5 mins walk away was the iconic Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) Mosque. I have long heard that this mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in Asia Pacific and standing in the light of its beauty I can understand why.
The mosque is built in an artificial lagoon with marble minarets and golden domes that can be spotted even from afar. Additionally, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) Mosque is surrounded by a large number of trees and floral gardens which in Islam symbolizes heaven.
You can spot a bridge reaching across the lagoon to Kampong Ayer in the middle of the river. Another marble bridge leads to a structure in the lagoon meant as a replica of a 16th Century Sultan Bolkiah mahligai barge. It was built to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of Nuzul Al-Quran (coming down of the Quran), completed in 1967 and used to stage Quran reading competitions. Malcolm got really excited when he found out that Brunei citizens who win in the International Quran reading competitions are rewarded by the Brunei government with a monthly allowance of B$2,000 for the rest of their lives. Sounds like easy money but I’m pretty sure it takes a lot of skill, research and understanding to even compete in such a revered competition.
The mosque’s most recognizable feature, the main dome, is covered in pure gold! Even the darkness of the night couldn’t conceal the royal aura that the mosque exudes. Standing at 52m high, the mosque and can be seen from virtually anywhere in Bandar Seri Begawan. The main minaret is the mosque’s tallest feature. In a unique way it mixes Renaissance and Italian architectural style and looks more modern than what I had expected. I would have loved to have had the luxury of time to visit this mosque again in the day so I can check out the courtyards, fountains, magnificent stained glass windows and taken the elevator to the top, where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the city.
Nearly all the material used for the building has been imported from abroad: the marble from Italy, the granite from Shanghai, the crystal chandeliers from England and the carpets from Saudi Arabia. I can almost imagine how the marble arches and columns will look on the inside and it’s just another reason for me to visit Brunei again. You can expect me to be wandering in the gardens and then camping outside in those magical twilight hours to capture the grandness of this mosque with its perfect reflection in the lagoon waters.
Even on a tight schedule, we had to squeeze in a visit to the largest mosque in Brunei – Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. A quick little ride and we were there.
This mosque is known locally as Kiarong mosque and was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary the sultan’s reign. In terms of architecture, this is another must-see in Brunei as the photos fail to convey the impressiveness of this mosque. Even before I recognized this iconic mosque as Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, I couldn’t help noticing it throughout the car journey from the Brunei International Airport to our hotel. Another reason why it is hard to miss, is because you can see the massive structure all the way from downton Gadong.
Once again, it’s a mosque that deserves a revisit so I can spend more time within the walls of this golden giant temple. Even the size of this mosque warrants a senond (third and fourth) look so I can imagine the interior to be be even more incredulous. It was said that at the grand opening, the sultan gave every attendee a gold-embroidered prayer rug. That must have been a sight to behold.
I love the large sprawling and welcoming lawns and the small detailing in the Arabian styled architecture of the mosque. One of a repeated motif I noticed while exploring the mosque on the outer rims was that the Rub el Hizb (Arabic: ربع الحزب ) represented as two overlapping squares and spotted also was the variation of the Rub el Hizb which is an 8pointed star. I love exploring the inspirations and details that go into designs of prominent architecture as it tells you a lot about the culture and history of the place as well as the purpose of the construction. The designs I saw sparked an intrest in me and after some online research, I found out that the 8 points in the star or the Rub el Hizb helps to facilitate recitation of the Qur’an and is also used as a marker for the end of a chapter in Arabic calligraphy.
I wished I had taken a direct photo of the 8 point stars but you can see that it’s even found on the lamps that are placed above the walls surrounding the compounds of the mosque.
As we drove away from the mosque, we stopped over at a gym upon special request by Tiffany.
Fitness Zone gym belongs to Wu Chun 吳尊, a Brunei-born Taiwanese actor and one of the mandopop idols in Fahrenheit. Tiffany is a huge fan and she just had to pay a visit to the gym that her idol established. For fans of Wu Chun, you can even stay at the hotel next to this gym so that you can use the gym everyday!
Our last stop was the Gadong Night Market ( Gadong Pasar Malam ).
Call me Miss Greedy but I love exploring pasar malams especially when there is the promise of street side snacks to buy and try.
Even though we arrived really late, I counted close to 30 stores still open for business. The night market in Gadong shares more similarities to the ones I’ve come across in Malaysia compared to the ones you see in Singapore. The food choices are huge and varied and I would definitely have bought and tried a lot more items if my stomach could accomodate it.
Food in Brunei is generally cheaper than what you get in Singapore so it doesn’t cost much to buy up a storm. To give you a rough idea, a packet of nasi lemak with meat or prawns only cost B$1 per packet and most of the kweh (cakes) and nibbles I came across were going for B$1 for 5 pieces.
The reason why I like trying street food so much is because I find that street food is the quickest direct access to the locals tastes, history and culture. What is normal to locals usually turns out to be quite refreshing and exotic to us. Coming from Singapore, a South East Asian county, many of the food stuff here are not too surprising or unexpected but upon tasting, I immediately notice that Bruneians generally have a sweet tooth. The cakes and desserts are sweeter compared to the ones we have in Singapore.
At the market, it’s a mash-up of the local Brunei food cultures as well as food stuff inspired by Malaysia and Indonesia. Within this area slightly bigger than a football field, its almost a sort of food festival that runs every night.
While fighting between the available stomach space, the fragrant smells coming from all directions and the colors that tempted my eyes, I noticed something else. While a number of stalls still used plastics for their packaging, there were also a large number of stalls that incorporated different types of leaves, newspaper and other environmentally friendly ways to package or cook their food.
I couldn’t resist having one these mini strawberry cupcakes but there were tons of other rainbow colored designs as well!
It was truly what you call a gastronomic overload and I’m really grateful to the friendly stall owners who tolerated this bunch of shutterbugs and so patiently explained the dishes when we couldn’t make out what some of the dishes were or how they would taste like.
For those who didn’t have time to go to the morning market for fresh vegetables, there was a lane just for that at the night market too! I’m no chili expert but it seems to me that their chilies look quite different from the ones I get in Singapore.
It was such a fruitful exploration of Brunei in the night. And just when I think that I couldn’t be more satisfied with my day in the city, the hotel had one more surprise waiting in store for me inside my room.
They left a huge yummy cookie and 2 chocolates to make sure that I had a sweet ending to my day. Surprises like these always brings a smile to my face.
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