Magic Carpet Ride
Brunei felt like a non-stop ride at Disneyland. Not like the Space Mountain or the Matterhorn kind, but one of those rides in Fantasyland. Maybe part It’s a Small World, part Indiana Jones? A ride full of genies, temples, treasures, and mystery—one of those laid back rides with a relaxing pace, yet surprises around every corner.
Some quick facts: Brunei is tiny; it’s the size of Delaware with only about 450,000 inhabitants. It lies on the island of Borneo, sharing it with Malaysia and Indonesia. The country is oil-rich. Stinkin’ oil-rich. Citizens pay no taxes and get free schooling and healthcare. That’s pretty awesome. Brunei is one of the top five wealthiest countries in the world.
I landed past midnight in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Even the plane ride was special: business class on Royal Brunei Airlines, where the flight attendants wore fancy hijabs and the inflight magazine featured The Sultan of Brunei on its cover. Oh yeah, The Sultan…before we go any further, you should probably Google “The Sultan of Brunei.” Watch a quick YouTube video about him. I’m not here to comment on politics, especially as I am a guest in his country; but the man is fascinating. He’s the second richest dude in the world, and he’s not afraid to flaunt it. I’ll let that pique your curiosity.
You Can Check In Anytime You Like…
So I land at the airport at around 1AM to be picked up by Andrew, the owner of the lodge where I’m staying. Andrew is one half of the husband-and-wife owner of the property. A cheerful man in his 50s, he was very happy to see me and we chatted it up on the way to the lodge. Ahh yes, the lodge! This was the highlight of the trip! Instead of choosing a normal hotel in Brunei (there are plenty of them, including a Radisson and The Empire Hotel, which features a $23,000 a night “Emperor’s Suite!”), I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the Kunyit 7 Lodge.
Perched upon stilts over the Brunei River, the lodge is part of Brunei’s water village, an area formally known as Kampong Ayer. But before you envision the kind of luxury huts you see on postcards from Tahiti, try again. Closer to a real and modest “neighborhood,” the water village is filled with rickety wooden structures fastened together with a hodgepodge of materials. More on the water village later.
After about a ten-minute ride into the center of town, Andrew drops me off at the riverbank and sends me down some concrete steps where a little boat was waiting for me in the water. 90 seconds later we were across the river and at the lodge. So cool!
The Kunyit 7 Lodge was absolutely one of the neatest places I’d ever stayed at. It reminded me of Punky Brewster’s dope-ass tree house, but sitting on the water. It was anything but fancy, but what it lacked in luxury, it made up in charm.
Several doors in the living room opened up to an outside sitting area with views of the town across the water. There were chairs and futons all around, books on almost every wall, local crafts and fabrics on display, and a hallway wall signed by previous guests. The floors creaked and cracked with every step and ceiling fans helped quell the heat. There wasn’t a TV in the entire place, and the mattresses lay flat on the ground.
The bathroom was shared, but I had the luxury of being the only guest at the lodge during my two-night stay. I noticed that every time I turned on the sink, or flushed the toilet, I could hear water splashing down into the river below us. Could it be that the sewage dumped directly into the river??? Nooooooo! But yes, as Andrew later confirmed. Glad I didn’t swim!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Unless you can’t live without a Heavenly Bed, room service and TV, I absolutely implore you to stay at the lodge. It gave me such an authentic taste of Brunei—living right there with the locals. Kem (Andrew’s wife) explained to me that they hadn’t been in the “hospitality” business for long, and in fact, the Kunyit 7 Lodge was the first of its kind—there had been no other “guest” houses in the village before this one; so this was truly “living like a local.”
I didn’t sleep great that first night, waking up way too early. I think it was the excitement. Kem prepared an amazing breakfast for me, complete with eggs, papaya, and mini-baked loaves of bread wrapped in leaves. There were a few other interesting delicacies that I did not recognize. It was some much needed nourishment for the busy day ahead. After I ate, I stepped out onto the dock to hail a water taxi and off I went.
The first point of interest I was drawn to, like most, was the giant, gold-capped mosque that towers over the town like a magic castle. I admired the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque from every angle, before venturing in for a visit. The mosque was open to all faiths, as long as it was outside “prayer time;” and you had to remove your shoes, of course. As expected, the inside was beautiful, and except for one other family of tourists, I had the place to myself.
Next on my walk I stumbled upon the mall, which, from the outside, was designed like a temple. The weather was super hot and the building provided some much needed AC. Plus, I just enjoy roaming the local malls, markets and grocery stores in foreign countries. I love comparing the restaurants at the food courts, the different stores, and of course, there’s always honies at the mall! I probably spent a good hour to two there, my time very productive. I had a great Dim Sum lunch and found a killer hat. And I owned that hat, let me tell you!
I was still pretty wiped out from all the traveling over the past four days and lack of quality sleep. I was determined to get a massage in Brunei. However, from experience, I know that getting a good massage (from the opposite sex) in a Muslim country can be challenging (see my Morocco Turkish Bath debacle). But I was on a mission. I needed a good rub.
Google told me there were three or four “spas” in the neighboring sector of Gadong, so I took some some screen shots while I had Wi-Fi and hopped on a boat to head in that general direction. Five minutes later the captain of the little speedboat dropped me off at some stairs where I ascended up to the street.
Gadong was cool, although much less spectacular than the waterfront. This neighborhood was more functional, with tons of stores and restaurants. I stopped in to a couple cool souvenir shops where I picked up some gifts for my friends back home, but didn’t have much luck finding my massage parlor. The clerk in the second souvenir shop told me there was a spa in the mall across the street, so I wandered in to see if I’d have any luck.
I enjoyed exploring “The Mall Gadong.” It was nice and cool and I explored some neat shops as I searched for my massage parlor. One store in particular was a gift shop featuring all things from Yemen, a destination I’m super intrigued with and looking forward to visiting (a tough place to go, currently). I chatted up the man working there and left with some black soap from Yemen. I wanted to buy the Yemeni honey but wouldn’t have been able to get it on the plane.
I finally discovered a couple spas, semi-hidden, towards the back of a corridor on the third floor. I was in a Muslim country that was under Sharia law and was trying to figure out if massages for men by women even existed! I finally found myself being hurried into the back of a salon, past signs that said “No Boys Allowed,” and seated in a big chair for a foot massage. My visions of being rubbed down by a beautiful Bruneian babe were quickly crushed, as my Filipino male masseuse entered and went to work on my feet. Womp womp womp. Not gonna lie though, it was a really good foot massage. And cheap. Recommended!
This Little Piggy Went to Market
Located just steps away from the mall sat the The Gadong Night Market, so I hopped over to explore since I was so close. It was nothing too memorable, but I had fun walking up and down the aisles looking at the interesting food and drinks for sale. I wish I’d been bolder and tried some of what I saw–the fried food looked delicious and I was intrigued by the purple punch I saw. Had I been with a local who could’ve advised me, I would’ve gone to town. The setup and market itself was much cleaner, quieter and less-hectic than most Asian markets that I’ve visited. I strolled up and down the two main aisles twice, then headed back to the mall to catch a cab back to my room.
Finding a taxi in Brunei was like pulling teeth; there just aren’t many, not sure why. I finally had to ask a hotel to call a cab for me after searching the street for 20 minutes with no luck. Not a taxi in sight! The sun had set by the time I arrived back at the waterfront and the mosque looked spectacular! I passed by for some photos as the call to prayer echoed throughout the streets. A strange calm fell upon the town.
I took a water taxi back over to the lodge where I rested up a bit before heading back across the water for dinner at Kaizen Sushi. The food was good, but the ambiance was awesome! Kaizen was right on the water, offering spectacular views (although it was night, so not too much to see in the dark), and the building itself was just so very zen. Another Ramblin’ Randy recommendation.
I was beat. After sushi, it was lights out.
It was up and at ’em the next morning with another tasty breakfast compliments of Kem at the lodge. First stop was over the water and into town to check out the Royal Regalia Museum. Imagine a giant building whose sole purpose was to house and display all of the Sultan’s “gifts!” This building was huge and contained hundreds (maybe thousands) of special presents given to The Sultan from other leaders and important people around the world. Paintings, plaques, artifacts, antiques, so much random “stuff,” all on display behind stanchions or under glass. Shoes weren’t allowed inside–slippers were provided to wear while you toured the museum. Even phones were prohibited. At check-in I was given a key to my own locker where I kept my phone for the duration of the visit. Absolutely no photos were allowed. Bummer. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
The Village People
I couldn’t wait to tour the water village, and now it was time. I saved it for the end of my stay. The village, Kampong Ayer (where the lodge was located, too), is known as the “Venice of the East.” Situated over Brunei Bay, 39,000 people live in this water village, or about ten percent of the nation’s total population. All of the buildings are constructed on stilts above the Brunei River. I had a blast walking through the maze of wooden walkways that went in every direction. Most of the structures were homes, but some shacks were restaurants and stores. I saw a school, a police station, and even a gym! I walked carefully, minding each step. The last thing I wanted to do was fall through a loose board and down into the dirty water. I saw a couple kids swimming down below and couldn’t comprehend why they’d be in that water–the same water where every house’s sewage is dumped in…yuck! I also didn’t understand why it was quiet; there wasn’t much action going on at all, just a few people milling about. Maybe everyone was at work? I was so intrigued and fascinated by the fact that was daily life for so many; and for a someone who grew up in this village, it was all they knew.
After the village tour, it was back to the mall for a Dim Sum repeat and then more walking around town. I attempted to visit the local radio station, but was denied by heavy security–the media center was state-run and really locked down.
The post office looked cool. Being the geography nerd that I am, I enjoyed the giant sign outside that listed every country and their respective postage rates.
I’m on a Boat
Time was running out. I had just enough time for a quick sunset boat cruise over to the mangroves. The Isabella #69 (boat) picked me up at the lodge and we zoomed off into the wild, as the water village disappeared behind us. I was able to see just the top of a tower at The Sultan’s residence (the biggest private residence in the world) poking through the trees. A saw a monkey, some birds, a croc. I would’ve liked to spend more time cruising the rivers of Brunei, but I had a plane to catch.
Bye Bye Brunei
Recap: I really liked Brunei. It was really bizarre…but not in a bad way. Amidst the chaos of all the other Asian countries I’ve been too–many times loud, dirty, crowded, dangerous…Brunei seemed so organized, calm, clean, even sleepy. Maybe that’s what money and and stiff laws combined will do. I certainly wasn’t there long enough nor did I study the country enough to have any deep philosophical takeaways…I’m just taking notes of what I saw as a tourist in a new land. Besides a little trash in the water, the country was immaculate and the capital was so very well laid out; the people were friendly, yet reserved. The river village was one of a kind. Brunei will go down as one of the most different and interesting places I have ever traveled to, and I’m so glad I visited!
Reserve your room at the lodge:
Here’s the LINK to reserve your spot at The Kunyit 7; it certainly made my trip to Brunei memorable!
Now that you’ve read my notes, here are a collection of 15 second clips from my Instagram you might enjoy…
P.S: The Sultan of Brunei
If anyone knows His Majesty personally, I would be honored to visit the Sultan’s Palace if I ever had the opportunity! I will come and clean windows if I need to!
Seriously, one of my goals in life is to spread love and peace throughout the world and it would be a dream to have tea with His Majesty!
This entry was posted in Asia