In my recent holiday to the Philippines, I flew via Royal Brunei Airways (RBA) because of 2 reasons: one, it’s the cheapest among all airlines and two, I want to squeeze in a short city tour to another unfamiliar country. Since my schedule was tight then, I decided to just rely on the city tours offered in the airport. And if all else fails, I can just sleep the day away in Traders Inn Hotel, the complimentary hotel provided by the airlines as the layover will take 10 long hours.
It was my first time to fly RBA and I’d say it was far different from what I was expecting–bigger leg space, comfortable seats, very accommodating flight attendants and a wide range of entertainment facilities. Not to mention that the number of passengers in our flight was just 25-35% of the total passenger capacity of the entire plane, which means we can seat wherever we want plus take the entire three seats, lie down and stretch your legs.
While the flight was entirely pleasing, at 10:45, we landed in Brunei International Airport–a very small airport (but compared to Nepal’s, it’s not that small) that looks quite uncomfortable to spend a ten-hour layover. Following the signs for transfer flights, we were brought to a counter that distributes our boarding passes to Manila. There was a loud woman on the other counter offering tours for passengers. We just need to sign up and pay 60 USD for a 4-to-5-hour city tour. Since the tour will start 3 hours later, we decided to go to Traders Inn to freshen up. It’s quite far from the airport but the roads leading to its location were amazing. It’s like Istanbul (from Sabiha airport) + Tagaytay, seriously.
Then, we had lunch at a nearby local restaurant. Their cuisine is a fusion of Chinese and Malaysian and it’s so oily that after finishing a dumpling, I couldn’t eat another one. The noodles was salty, I couldn’t finish it.
Anyway, our tour started at 1:30 in the afternoon. Our guide, Jen, is a Filipina who speaks Brunei’s local language. The first stop was a river that has a view of Istana Nurul Iman‘s golden dome. We stopped for a view of a dome? Well it’s the royal palace’s so okay, give it a shot. Tourists cannot enter the royal palace and I suppose, are not allowed in the palace’s gate. Before, you can have a beautiful view of the palace from this river, but as the trees have grown big, you can only see the dome today. Maybe in a few years’ time, the entire building will be fully buffered by these trees and your tour guide will tell you that “behind these trees was the residence of the Sultan of Brunei”. Hah! Two cool trivias: (1) it’s interesting to note that, Leandro Locsion, Philippines’ National Artist in Architecture, was the architect of the royal palace; (2) on the fourth floor of the palace is a zoo. What?! Indoor? And on the fourth floor?
Next, we checked out Royal Regalia Exhibition Hall, home to Brunei’s magnificent royal stuff. Cameras are not allowed inside, except for the lobby, so it’s quite frustrating that I didn’t have a photograph of the royal carriage, complete with life size dummies in uniform. It’s like re-enacting an entire scene! Other stuff inside were gifts to the sultan from across the globe, royal family photos and dresses embellished with gold and diamonds. Note that you have to keep your shoes in the compartments outside the museum.
Then, off we went to Brunei Museum. At the lobby were kids playing local games that pretty resembles our own “sungka”. The museum has two floors, divided to different halls, such as Oil & Gas, Flora & Fauna, etc. At the second floor is a diorama of Brunei traditions, which includes the typical first night of a newlywed couple and the “participation” of a member of the family who will “check” if what’s supposed to happen, will happen. Hmmm… Quite disturbing.
We were then brought to the port where we rode a boat to Kampong Ayer or Water Village. The houses on stilts, connected by bridges, bordered quite a long stretch of the Brunei River (that takes you to Malaysia in 20-45 minutes). We went to one local home where we were served with sweets (one of which resembles barquillos, yum!). Surprisingly, almost every corner of the house is open to public! Houses on the Water Village resembles the typical Filipino home. Of course, except for this specific room dedicated for wedding ceremonies.
This sculpture is a gift of the locals to the Sultan’s 60th birthday. It reads ’60’ in Arabic.
We passed by the beautiful Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the ceremonial ship “parked” beside it.
And for our last stop, we toured Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, the largest mosque in the country. Though it wasn’t as elaborate as the ones here in the Gulf, it’s still worth giving a look. Its golden domes contrast the blue-green-and-black motif of the minarets. Patterns are very bold because of the bluish and black outlines placed against the white and beige tilework. The landscaped gardens are worth noting, too. Like in Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque, I had to wear an abaya and cover my hair.
At 5-ish, the tour ended and we were brought back to our hotel. It started raining hard. They say that it’s always like that in Brunei–in the morning til early afternoon, it’s scorching hot. Come late afternoon, the sky will be gloomy and when the sun sets, rain will pour hard. We experienced the same on our layover from Manila to Dubai. Anyway, we were transferred to the airport at around 7:30 for our flight to Manila.
Before entering the immigration, we passed by a familiar place, Jollibee! Unlike the one here in Dubai, Jollibee in Brunei tastes close to the original. Spaghetti is a bit spicy but the Chicken Joy is just perfect.
Heading home I had a beautiful story to tell my family. I’ve discovered another small yet lovely country. What I thought to be boring was actually, the exact opposite. My 10-hour layover was worth it.