Bandar Seri Begawan – a brief visit

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Maureen and I visited Bandar Seri Begawan – BSB to its friends – back in 1974 when we were working on the very first edition of Lonely Planet’s South-East Asia on a Shoestring. From Singapore we travelled across to North Borneo – the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and the British protectorate (until 1984) of Brunei – on a cargo-passenger ship of the Straits Steamship Company. We travelled deck class, shared with a new de Tomaso Pantera on its way to Brunei for the son of the sultan. By bus, taxi, boat and the occasional flight we explored the north coast, stopping in at Kuching (the capital of Sarawak), Kota Kinabalu (capital of Sabah) and BSB (capital of Brunei). At the end of our travels another Straits Steamship vessel ferried us back to Singapore, this time we splashed out for a cabin and since there were only three of them every meal was captain’s table. Soon after the company stopped taking passengers, the airlines took over.

Until last weekend I’d never been back, but flying Royal Brunei Airlines from Melbourne to London involved a three hour stopover in BSB. I’ve blogged recently about visiting countries between flights, was three hours long enough for a quick look around town? Yes, it turned out, half an hour after the 787 was parked at the gate I’d changed some money, joined the immigration queue and got my B$5 (a bit under US$4) transit visa and asked a taxi driver to ‘show me BSB in one hour.’ He does exactly that, en route telling me about his daughter studying petroleum engineering in Sydney and impressed that I was in BSB back in 1974.

IMG_5612 - Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque - Bandar Seri Begawan -540.JPG▲ It’s only 10km from the airport to the centre of town and late on a Saturday afternoon the traffic was on the featherweight side of light. We start with the Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque (BSB’s biggest mosque, built in 1992 when the sultan had been in power for 25 years) …

IMG_5627 - Tony in BSB - 540▲ and continued to the Istana Nurul Iman (Palace of the Light of Faith) the sultan’s enormous palace (four times as big as Versaille). It’s only a glimpse through the gate and a photo opportunity, but we pull away behind a flash new Ferrari, confirming that this is a rich, if sleepy, little petro-state.

IMG_5636 - Residency Jetty, boats to Kampong Ayer,  BSB - 540.JPG▲ Then there’s a look at the waterfront (Residency Jetty) with its monument for the sultan’s 60th birthday. Boats shuttle across the river to the Kampong Ayer (water village) from here.

IMG_5643 - Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, BSB - 540.JPG▲ The 1958 Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is next up, on my earlier visit the Kampong Ayer surrounded the mosque as well as spreading across the river. Today the modern city crowds in against the mosque on reclaimed land. There are two more stops, the big Parliament building and the equally big Prime Minister’s Office before we shuttle back to the airport with time to spare. Total bill for my airport-to-city-to-airport circuit and city tour? B$50, about US$40. Despite all the development in the last 40 years BSB is still very quiet, a Borneo backwater. The airport is equally quiet and very dull. I think Royal Brunei via BSB will be a case of been there, done that when I’m flying London-Melbourne.

Practical Tips
You don’t want to waste time getting there so although – from my experience – immigration is pretty snappy and pleasantly uncrowded don’t get sidetracked by the ‘foreign passport’ line. You want the ‘visa on arrival’ line which is cunningly placed out of eyeshot at the other extreme end of the desk lineup. And first of all you want the foreign exchange desk to get some Brunei currency.