Our group departed East Timor-Leste the next morning for Bali, where the plan was to spend another day before leaving the next morning for Manila.
But it would be in Bali where the group would begin our final round of goodbyes.
Instead of heading to Manila with the group I would split off for Brunei Darussalam, the last country in Southeast Asia I had yet to visit; it would be the final closing chapter to the original voyage for Southeast Asia I started 4 years ago with The Monsoon Diaries.
Jenn, having recently interviewed me for her blog The Points In Between and a fellow companion to The Monsoon Diaries in trying to change the way we travel, elected to join. After all, it would be fitting to explore how well we would be able to collaborate and lead a trip together this April (not telling you where yet!); this would be our test run.
So after one last goodbye to the group and Bali, I decided for a quick pitstop for a midnight snack in KL’s Chinatown during my 6 hour overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur. The cab ride from the airport to there and back took about an hour each way, which I had vastly underestimated, but the food was well worth it.
Brings back good old memories.
Afterwards it was back to the KLIA airport, and before I knew it, with the plane landing 2 hours later in Brunei Darassalum, I felt a wave of accomplishment wash over me — I had finally touched down in every single country in Southeast Asia. Where 4 years ago took me to my first day at school, today would be Graduation Day.
While both Brunei and East Timor are rarely visited, are both pint-sized relative to its neighboring southeast Asian countries, and are not exactly the first places you think of when you consider Southeast Asia, Brunei lies on the polar extreme end of East Timor for everything else: East Timor is regarded one of the poorest nations on the planet (4th to be exact), Brunei has enjoyed being one of the richest since the late 1970s.
Thanks to plentiful natural resources of gas and oil, Brunei had elected to remain separated from Malaysia once having gained independence from British rule. To this day, it remains a devoutly Muslim nation, part of the British commonwealth, and still way off the beaten path for most tourists. For example, when we ran into an American Chicagoan named Tom and his Swiss friend, it was definitely cause for celebration/conversation and the mandatory question “so what brings you here, anyway?”
After gathering our bearings and formulating a plan, we took a $25 Brunei Dollar taxi ($35 at night from the airport…taxis must be pre-arranged here as there’s not many of them, and prices are standardized since there’s no meter) to the sleepy capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and first grabbing a quick gander at the markets on the southeast portion of the city.
We then took a 10 minute $15 Brunei Dollar taxi ride to the majestic Jame’Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah mosque, built to commemorate the reigning Sultan.
The prayer halls are gigantic: its main prayer room for men could fit over 3,000 inside while its room for women could fit 1,000. Make sure you confirm their visitor hours before going; they aren’t exactly predictable.
Next we returned to the city center and checked out the Royal Regalia Museum (free admission), housing all the royal accessories utilized during the Sultan’s coronation and the gifts he received by dignitaries all around the world.
Afterwards we headed to the main sight of the capital city: the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. Like the Jame’Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah mosque, it also has unpredictable visiting hours you need to confirm ahead before visiting, but otherwise is equally beautiful outside and inside.
I recommend catching this mosque at sunset whilethe adhan resonates throughout the city.
After sunset we made a visit to Kampong Ayer, the floating water villages to the west of the city. It is regarded as the largest water village in the world where hundreds of houses seemingly float on the river. Moreover, the villagers are extremely friendly and will allow you to explore as you wish, even letting you inside. You can also hire a water taxi to boat you around for $10-$15 Brunei dollars.
For dinner you have many choices as its proximity to Malaysia makes Brunei a great destination for food. If you’re feeling like you want to break some rules, however, attempt for non-Halal food in a very Halal country: Lim Ai Shaw is a remote restaurant about a 20min walk away northeast from the city center and serves mainly pork dishes for its Chinese population working in Bandar Seri Begawan.
I don’t know how this place gets away with serving forbidden meat (eating pork is a big no-no in Islam) in Brunei, but it apparently has been allowed to do so as long as it’s hidden from plain sight. This made it difficult to find when we tried to locate it, having made a few wrong detours. But eventually with a good map and a sensitive nose, you’ll eventually come across the restaurant lying at the far end of Jalan Teraja:
The expedition was well worth it — this restaurant served some of the most delicious pork I ever had outside of China:
But never having enough and always hungry, we then stopped by the food stalls on the northwest part of the city for seafood:
All in all, it was a successful day of sightseeing as we pretty much hit almost everything in Bandar Seri Begawan.
But the important bit about this trip was not only that The Monsoon Diaries has conquered all of Southeast Asia today, but also that Jenn proved more than her worth as a travel buddy: She’s been a formidable partner in crime (and way too interested in ‘hypothetically‘ getting away with them, speaking of which), and I can leave Brunei confident in our ability to lead a trip together having strong promise. Ultimately, I’m glad to have gotten to known Jenn, especially on this trip, as out of the hundreds of people I’ve met around the world there’s not many with whom I share the same travel philosophy. This is a big deal to the both of us, so let’s see (ahem, get excited for) how April 2015 turns out.
The Monsoon Diaries’ future may be in very very good hands. Thanks Jenn, for making Monsoon Diaries’ one of your points in between.
After dinner and exchanging final goodbyes and see-you-later’s, I made my flight for a day trip in Hong Kong. There, I spent a lazy morning looking for my first Portuguese Egg Tarts, checking out Macau’s 15th anniversary parade by St. Paul’s Ruins, and reuniting with friends before catching my return flight back to NYC.
And who would’ve thought that the last people I’d expected to run into in Hong Kong were there to host me for the night:
Lise, whom I met up with 6 months ago on a weekend trip to Hong Kong,
Jenny, a good friend from NYC who also joined for the Palawan trip,
…and Tiger, a longtime follower of The Monsoon Diaries for over 3 years and who has been responsible for getting me into Pakistan nearly 1 year ago.
What a nearly a perfect way to end a whirlwind 2 wild weeks on the extreme edges of Southeast Asia.
– At time of posting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, it was 86 °F – Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy