Meeting the Sultan and Queen of Brunei – two days in BSB

On the 15th June 2018 we were up at 6am to get to the airport for a 8:40am flight to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) in Brunei. This flight ended up being delayed by an hour which would have meant an extra hours asleep for us but it wasn’t the end of the world! The flight to Brunei was super quick and it felt like we had just got up in the air before we were getting ready to land. We arrived into Brunei for Eid al-Fitr which is a three day long religious holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan where Muslims fast for 30 days. Brunei is a predominately Muslim country and, for the last two days of Eid al-Fitr, the Sultan opens up his palace for a free meal and a chance to meet him (if you’re male) or his wife, the Queen Saleha (if you’re female). This is very popular with Bruneian’s but also brings tourists from around the world to shakes hands with royalty.

By 11:30am we had arrived at our hostel, AE Backpackers, which was a nice, new hostel with quite a lot of other people staying there as well. Eid al-Fitr is a public holiday in Brunei and we had been told by the information desk at the airport that they didn’t know when or if the buses would be running so we had gotten a taxi from the airport which cost us 15 Brunei Dollars (BND) (£10.35). The taxi driver spoke impeccable English and was very friendly, a common theme we found throughout our time in the country. Even on the drive to the hostel we could see the wealth of the country compared to other cities in Borneo such as Kota Kinabalu. Brunei is an incredibly rich country due to its massive reserves of petroleum and natural gas fields.

After getting settled at the hostel, we headed into the city centre to have a look around. When we were waiting for the bus a lady stopped by us in her car and offered us a lift into the city centre for the same price as the bus would be (1BND/50p each) so we took it as it saved us waiting in the hot sun. Due to Eid al-Fitr being a public holiday, loads of shops were closed plus it was a Friday so between 12 and 2pm, all restaurants and shops were closed. Brunei is ruled under Islamic law (Sharia Law) and shops being closed at this time was a law brought into force in 2012 to discourage Muslims hanging around shopping centres during the obligatory prayer session at this time. We just so happened to enter town then and hadn’t eaten since breakfast at around 6:30am so we were starving by the time everything opened again!

Brunei was a very modern, clean city with hardly any people around. We speculated that this was also linked to Eid and the afternoon prayers but Brunei does only have a population of just over 400,000 people so maybe it’s always very quiet! We had a walk around the streets but the city centre was very small so there wasn’t an awful lot to do.

The main sight in the city centre was the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque. This is an enormous mosque that sits on an artificial lagoon. The mosque can hold 3000 worshippers at any one time and had a giant, golden domed roof. Only men were allowed to worship that day due to the religious customs of the festival and tourists weren’t allowed into the mosque for around a week due to Eid al-Fitr so we had a walk around the outside of the complex where we were still able to get some good views of the place. It was magnificent and dominated the city centre from wherever you were and I imagine it is a pretty incredible place to go and worship at.

The mosque sits next to Jubilee Park which was a nice park with open spaces, sculpted gardens and views out onto the Brunei River. It was very hot in Brunei, particularly as it was the middle of the day, so we didn’t spend a very long time at the park after having a look around although I particularly liked the views the park gave you of the Mosque.

When we were finally able to get some lunch we were just in time to avoid an enormous storm that passed through the city. The rain was torrential and lasted for around 40 minutes before subsiding enough for us to go outside. It was one of the first bits of rain we had had in Borneo and we had been lucky to be indoors when it hit! Once the rain has lessened enough we got the bus back to our hostel which only cost 1BND (50p) which turned out to be perfectly timed as a second, even heavier storm started with some of the loudest thunder we have ever heard right above us!

Thankfully, the rain stopped later in the evening after it got dark which allowed us to go out and see the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which was very close to our hostel. This is the second national mosque in Brunei and looked spectacular in the dark as it was all lit up. The structure was beautiful with twisting towers, glittering chandeliers and enormous domed roofs. I’m so glad we went to see it at night as we came back the next morning and, although it still looked great, it wasn’t nearly as grand.

On our second day here we headed to the Royal Palace to meet the Sultan and the Queen. We hadn’t purposely planned to come during this public holiday but it had ended up very fortunately that we were there for the only two days of the year that the Palace was open to the public. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah (who I will now just call ‘the Sultan’) is the 29th and current Sultan of Brunei and is one of only two Sultan’s in the world (the other being the Sultan of Oman). The Sultan is ranked as one of the wealthiest individuals in the world as well as being one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world – I think only the King of Thailand is wealthier than him. In October 2017, the Sultan celebrated his golden jubilee and is widely admired by the people of Brunei due to his love and interaction with his people. We were told stories of him telling off his guards for stopping people coming to get a photo with him and of him attending graduation ceremonies. His palace, called Istana Nurul Iman, is considered to be the world’s largest residential palace. Even when we were inside we only saw a very small fraction of the palace and it was still enormous!

Myself, Niall and a group from our hostel all left the hostel at 7am to start our journey to the palace. There were 12 of us in total, four ladies and eight men from all over Europe. We were all dressed as smart as we could (considering we were all travelling) and had been instructed to wear closed toed shoes and cover our legs and shoulders. The owner of the hostel had told us to go to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque to get a free shuttle bus to the palace. We arrived and there were a lot of buses there but we quickly found out that this wasn’t for the general public but for all army personnel to be transported to the palace. Niall and I hadn’t read about a free shuttle so this actually didn’t come as too much of a surprise to us as we’d read into what the day would involve extensively (we just assumed he would know better) but it did leave us with the predicament of how to get to the palace particularly as we had purposefully left so early as the wait times could be incredibly long. Luckily for us, a member of our group called Drago had the gift of the gab and was able to get a minibus driver who was waiting to take soldiers to the palace to shuttle us there for free while he waited! We couldn’t believe it and all piled in, back on schedule!

We were dropped off at the palace gates which were grand and emblazoned with the royal emblem and long drives behind going up to buildings we couldn’t see. We then had to get onto a shuttle buses that was inside the palace grounds and took you to the entrance of the palace. The bus ride was only a minute or so to the top but showed the organisation of the day to keep track of all visitors to the palace and have the day run smoothly and efficiently. Everyone was very excited and there was a great energy about the place with lots of people dressed in their finest clothes – there was a large variety so some people were casually dressed – all ready and eager to meet the Sultan or the Queen.

We reached the palace at around 8am and were told to register and then join the queue to get our free meal. We were given plates that had the royal crest on and then went down a line of different food stands to collect whatever we fancied. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t able to get much and ended up just having rice, some sort of coated fruit and some prawn crackers but Niall was able to get lamb, chicken and sausages. This didn’t matter though as it was free but also because there were large dessert stands which served cakes, cookies and some form of jellied desert that were amongst the dining tables and you could go back to these stations as many times as you liked. There was also Milo chocolate milk on continuous supply so, having all of that, meant I didn’t miss having the main meal too much!

After we ate as much as we could and were all sufficiently full we separated into male and female groups and joined our respective queues. Women and men now spent the rest of the day at the palace apart so that they could be filtered from room to room to meet the Sultan or Queen. We queued for three hours from 9am until noon sitting in one row of seats in the main dining hall, to another set of seats in the banquet hall to standing in lines down long, grand hallways to beautifully decorated rooms where the royalty were waiting for us. It worked out very well that we met people from the hostel as it would have been a very boring wait on our own but instead we both had people to talk to which made the time go a lot faster!

Us girls moved into the second waiting room faster than the boys did because all of the military men that were ahead of them but they ended up getting to see the Sultan before we saw the Queen! The Sultan and Queen will shake over 50,000 people’s hands each day and greet people between 10am and 12pm and then 2pm until 4pm. We hoped we would be greeted before 12pm so as to not have to wait in a line for two hours whilst they had their lunch. The boys met the sultan who shook their hand before moving them along to shake hands with the princes and other royalty. Niall said the formal greeting for royalty that he was told by a local also waiting in the queue and our friend Drago had memorised something to say to the Sultan so managed to say this quickly before being moved along.

The Queen was more inclined to chat. As I was first in the queue the Queen said “hello” to me and I said “Selamat Hari Raya” to her which is the greeting you say during Eid al-Fitr, she replied with a “thank you”. As us four girls shook her hand we got asked where we were from, why we were in Brunei and wished a pleasant stay. We then moved on to shake the princesses hand and other members of the royal family. The queue for visiting the Queen was considerably longer than the men’s queue as the majority of the children were taken with the women to meet the Queen over going with the men to meet the Sultan. Whole families would try and push past us to get in front of us in the queue and in the end we had to get quite firm in stopping them otherwise we’d have definitely missed seeing the Queen before noon!

Once you have met the Sultan or the Queen, you’re given a card and a yellow box which contained a cake – chocolate brownie – and children are given envelopes with money in! Whilst Niall and the other lads waited for us to come out of the palace after meeting the Queen, one of them was interviewed on the TV and they were all recorded saying “Selamat Hari Raya!”, we later saw this on national television which means we had both now made it onto a national news channel during our trip (my time being in South Korea). Thankfully, we had all gotten on with the people we had met at the hostel and so had a good day with them whilst also experiencing what’s likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet royalty! It had been a really good day.

After relaxing back at the hostel we decided to go into the city again and visit Kampong Ayer, the water village that is a cluster of houses and shops on stilts on the Brunei River. This was the capital of Brunei for centuries and is still lived in by a lot of people today who then commute by boat (it costs 1BND to get to and from the mainland). The village had an old section and a new section with the old section having more rickety walkways and older buildings compared to the modern houses in the newer section. It was cool to walk around but, probably due to the time of day and the public holiday, we only saw around four people the whole time we were there which was very odd and matched the entire view we had of Brunei of there being no one around. Saying that, the palace was full so maybe that’s where everyone was and it being Eid obviously did have a huge difference on how busy it seemed everywhere as shops were closed!

We had a great time in Brunei and met some lovely people whilst we were there. We hadn’t expected this to be where we’d meet so many people in Borneo but we’re very glad we did as it made visiting the palace a lot more enjoyable! Brunei has some pretty mosques and it was great to meet the Sultan and Queen but, had we not done this, we would have only needed a day here unless we had wanted to go into the national park they have there (it was outside of our budget though). Brunei had also been a lot cheaper than we had expected as the buses were so cheap! We had been lucky enough to be able to change our excess Brunei dollars with Drago for US dollars and we also got some of it changed into Singapore dollars which is 1:1 with Brunei dollars so didn’t end up leaving with any Brunei currency which was great as it’s a hard currency to exchange outside of the country and, because of Eid, the exchange shops were closed! We’re both really glad we came to Brunei at this time and the Bruneian people are very lovely and helpful too which made our stay there even nicer!

Next stop: Kuching, the capital of Sarawak

Sending love x

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