The Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, built of Italian marble, gold mosaic, and English stained glass, and named for the former sultan of Brunei, whose sons do their best to out-spend each other.
International Living Postcards– your daily escape
Monday, March 6, 2006
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Dear International Living Reader,
The foyer of my suite at Brunei’s Empire Hotel and Country Club opens into a palatial apartment with lofty, corniced ceilings, oriental carpets, and a sitting room with spectacular views over the South China Sea. In the enormous marble-clad bathroom, separate etched glass enclosures contain shower, toilet, and bidet; the ledges of a corner Jacuzzi are packed with gels, unguents, and a mountain of fluffy towels. The complimentary cologne smells like a million dollars. I’ve been in worse places.
Tiny oil-rich Brunei occupies a mere 2,200 square miles in the northwest of Borneo. The same family has ruled the Islamist country for 600 years. The present sultan inherited $40 billion from his father and every year banks nearly half the profits from the country’s oil and gas. But he and his younger brother, Prince Jefri, have a spending habit which puts a dent even in their massive fortune.
The sultan–a pushover for vendors of exclusive hotels, jets, yachts, and expensive jewelry–is also one of Rolls Royce’s biggest customers and has 5,000 classic and exotic cars. If he wants to take a spin in his Ferrari Mythos, a flunkey has to phone an hour beforehand so the vehicle can be valeted from its spot in one of the warehouse-size garages on the property. The palace he commissioned to mark his succession has 1,788 suites, 200 bathrooms, and a banqueting hall that seats 4,000.
Not to be outdone, Prince Jefri built the luxury resort where I’m staying–a 440-acre playground with all the usual toys, plus a Jack Niklaus-designed, 18-hole championship, floodlit golf course.
Knowledgeable locals say the construction, overseen by 200 architects, engineers, and interior designers, cost more than a billion dollars. As Finance Minister and head of Amedeo, the family development corporation, the prince spent so much money that the sultan finally ousted him from office, sued him for $4.7 billion, and exiled him to London.
There’s plenty to do in Brunei for three days, although anything much longer might be a stretch. In the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (known as BSB), the shopping is out of this world. Brunei’s citizens, with free education, free health care, free pensions, subsidized housing, and low taxes have one of the highest per capita disposable incomes in Asia, and two glittery malls and a host of upscale boutiques provide plenty of things to splurge on.
Also in BSB are the Royal Regalia Building and a couple of other, guide-book listed attractions. Offshore from the city, the water-village of Kampong Ayer with 30,000 residents and its own handicraft shops is good for a couple of hours’ sightseeing. You get there by water-taxi. In the evening, a trip up the Brunei River with a tour operator will introduce you to the wildlife, including the bizarre-looking proboscis monkey, unique to Borneo. Half the country is still pristine rainforest and outside BSB, the Ulu Tamburong National Park has the proboscis, other primates, and more wildlife including huge monitor lizards. Two lodges there offer comfortable accommodation if you want to stay overnight.
Brunei banned the sale of alcohol years ago–so bring your own. Personal import allowances are the most generous I’ve ever seen–two liters of spirits and 12 cans of beer. If you’re a big party-giver and run out of juice, take a 20-minute taxi ride to the border village of Limbang, in Malaysia, where you’ll find an adequate selection at duty-free prices. You can import the same two liters plus 12 cans twice every day for as long as you stay.
Brunei is off the tourist circuit, so accommodation at the Empire is usually discounted and reasonably priced. Ask for a room in the architecturally-striking Atrium building, where the restaurants are located (the food here is excellent) and expect to pay about $150 a night. If you don’t want to go into BSB, 25-minutes away, there’s enough entertainment at the resort to keep you happy for a few days. The hotel will send a complimentary limo to pick you up from the airport or, if you come by boat, at the ferry jetty.
For International Living