BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN ― Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who is also the country’s prime minister, has often topped lists of the richest men in the world. That’s because the small sultanate ― one of only two remaining in the world today ― has a rich history of oil and gas production.
Perhaps less known is the fact that more than three-quarters of the country is covered by untouched rainforest.
Simply translated as “the abode of peace,” Brunei Darussalam is one of the unexpected treasures of Southeast Asia.
One glance at its ancient architecture and abundant natural habitat, as well as its luxurious golf clubs, reveals a sense of calm and tranquility unmatched anywhere else.
If you need to “get away from it all” for a spell (and, of course, play a few rounds of golf, too), Brunei conjures up a tropical sultanate and golfing paradise for any weary worker.
Brunei is very different from other Southeast Asian countries. It is also a modern country that coexists with its ancient monarchy and religious devotion. It is not, however, a strict or extremist Islamic country.
“Just remember, we are surrounded by busy regional capitals of millions of people. When they go on vacation, they want to get away from all that. They want peace, calm and tranquility. That’s an advantage for Brunei. That’s why people vacation here,” said Jean Christophe Robles of Brunei Tourism.
Located on the northeast corner of the island of Borneo, Brunei has a land mass twice that of nearby Singapore, but with a population of one-quarter of that of the city-state. Most of its 400,000 citizens reside in the country’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
Brunei boasts some of the finest golf courses in East Asia and the country is at once soothing, relaxed and, some might even say, “laid back.”
“Every country has their strong points. New York has its hustle and bustle and we have our calm and quiet,” explained Prince Abdul Hakeem, the Sultan’s nephew, in an interview in December with The Korea Herald, while relaxing in the lobby of Brunei’s most luxurious hotel, The Empire Hotel & Country Club.
“We are basically laid back.” Think an Islamic Hawaii, the prince suggested.
Brunei has three of the most spectacular golf courses in East Asia and without the crowds, he added.
The Empire Hotel is also the country’s leading resort, and it hosted the Royal Trophy Golf Championship which pitted the finest players of Asia and Europe against each other in December.
Its golf course was designed by “The Golden Bear” himself, renowned golfer Jack Nicklaus.
With perfectly manicured vantage points over looking the South China Sea and surrounded by virgin rainforest at every turn, any golfer will discover that unforgettable experiences are everywhere around The Empire country club. This tract is one of Southeast Asia’s must-play courses.
“It was good to see a facility like this and a golf course like this being shown on ESPN. I felt pride,” said the Prince Abdul Hakeem about The Empire hosting the Royal Trophy golf tournament. And, he knows his golf. The prince turned pro this year and will join the Asia Tour starting in February.
While sinking a few balls at The Empire’s Jack Nicklaus-designed course and lounging at the country club’s “19th hole,” consider taking in a few of the other sights.Golden-domed mosque
Brunei’s golden-domed mosque is the centerpiece of Bandar Seri Begawan. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was named after Omar Ali Saifuddien III ― the 28th Sultan of Brunei and father of the current Sultan ― as a symbol of the country’s devotion to the Islamic faith, and it dominates the urban skyline. Completed in 1958, it is an example of Italian and modern Islamic architecture.
|The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the golden-domed centerpiece of Bandar Seri Begawan, stands as a elegant symbol of the country’s devotion to the Islamic faith on the banks of the Brunei River. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)|
The mosque was built on the banks of the Brunei River and an artificial lagoon, and at Kampong Ayer, or the “Water Village,” another must-see site during any visit here.
It has marble marinates and, of course, golden domes made from the purest gold, with courtyards, fountains and bridges all made from white marble imported from Italy.
Another marble bridge leads to a structure in the lagoon meant as a replica of a 16th-century Sultan Bolkiah mahligai barge.
The mosque is surrounded by verdant floral environs, including a variety of trees and gardens, which in Islam symbolizes heaven. A bridge reaches across the lagoon to the Water Village in the middle of the river. Wild Dutchmen of Borneo
Some of the original hosts of Brunei are the “wild Dutchmen of Borneo,” or the long-nosed monkeys otherwise known as the proboscis monkey.
This monkey was nicknamed the wild Dutchman by virtue of its reddened, remarkably long nose and protruding bellies, features the original inhabitants likened to Dutch colonizers in the 16th century.
The best time to visit these long-nosed hosts is either at sunrise or in the late afternoon when they become active.
Listen for the variety of loud plaintive calls and grunts of the male as it tries to solicit its simian partners, as if to say: “Come hither and behold, my bold reddened nose.”
Troops of monkeys can be discovered fairly easily, especially at the mouth of the Brunei River.
Brunei’s Water Village is the largest of its kind in the world, and preserved as a national heritage site. It’s a Southeast Asian experience like no other.
The village is home to about 30,000 residents and has eked out an existence on this corner of tropical Borneo for over a thousand years.
Stretching over 8 kilometers of water with its schools and shops and homes, the self-contained community includes all the amenities of modern life including a police station, a fire house, and even tailors and cafes.
It is all held aloft above the ebb and flow of the river’s undulating currents on constructed stilts and wooden pylons.
The village is actually a cluster of smaller hamlets, each with its own leader, or chief, known as a Ketua Kampung, and all networked together in a web of joisted zigzagged walkways and footbridges.
Visitors can partake in this unique traditional cultural heritage of Brunei by hitching a ride on one of the many water taxis that cut lines through the river every day between the Water Village and the water taxi jetty in front of the Yayasan Shopping Center in the center of town.
Its mix of unspoiled surroundings, ancient culture with modern conveniences and a sense of calm mean Brunei deserves more than a whistle-stop tour.
Add to that some of the most picturesque and challenging golf courses in East Asia, and you have a must-see golfing destination.
By Philip Iglauer, Korea Herald correspondent