Surely, this was some crowded but enjoyable trip. Six friends flew to Bandar Seri Bengawan, city of Brunei Darussalam, on Thursday night of September 11. My company comprised of Dupong, Jackie and Ruth, my college batchmates; Jun, Ruth’s husband; and, Auntie Myrna, Jun’s aunt. All but Auntie Myrna are my travel buddies. Dupong and I shared a lot of trips in Hongkong, Macau, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Indonesia, to name a few. Jackie joined my trips to Singapore and Malaysia. Ruth and Jun tugged me along when they visited Hongkong, Macau, Singapore, and Johor Baruh in Malaysia.
Our flight bookings were booked since February 2014, taking advantage of Cebu Pacific Air’s promo fare. However, it was only when July (or was it really August?) felt so fast approaching that Dupong and I started looking for a decent place to stay in the Bengawan city. We found two interesting ones, Dupong eyed Radisson Hotel and Jackie suggested the Empire Hotel,as referred to her by a friend, who lived and worked in the city. Given the distant location of the Empire Hotel, we settled at Radisson Hotel. Also, we found Radisson close to the city and nearby tourist attractions. And Radisson felt very responsive to our group’s needs. Then again, time flew so fast that only when it was about a week before our departure, we realized we have not arranged any airport transfers to and from the hotel. Given the limited public transport in Brunei, plus the fact that we shall be arriving in the country at early dawn, prebooking a pick-up shuttle is highly necessary. Dupong and I made a last minute transport arrangement with the Radisson Hotel.
Group tour is expected to be crowded yet fun-filled, more than my usual solo flight. The downside however, as a personal note, is that I cannot sit in a corner by myself and write anything under the sun, like travel blogging.
Agreed to meet early that night at NAIA Terminal 3 to rid of cramming and long queue, Dupong came from Mindanao, Surigao in particular, Auntie Myrna, who resided in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao also, came along with the couple Jun and Ruth, and Jackie and I came straight from our respective offices. After having paid for the travel taxes and while waiting for the check in counter to open at 8:30pm, we were treated by the June and Ruth to a dinner at the Pancake House within the terminal’s mall.
Brunei is too near that the 2-hour flight from Manila flew past us like the tailwind of the plane. Departing on time, we landed at Brunei’s International Airport at 1:30am of September 12. We found their airport comparable to some of our improved national airports; it was in fact undergoing expansion. We passed the immigration smoothly, finding 14 days stamped on our passports – maximum allowed number of days to stay in the country. Not much around the arrival area can be considered picturesque enough to spend a little more time. Dupong immediately spotted our names (Dupong’s and mine) raised a piece of paper. With a little introduction, we found our shuttle driver to be a fellow Filipino.
Arriving at Radisson Hotel’s doors so sleepy, we hastily signed the check-in papers, thanked Yassin at the frontdesk, bade goodnights, and climbed our rooms 214 and 215. We retired guilty to fail tipping the room boys who helped us settled because we have not changed our US dollars into local Brunei dollars. It was as if choreographed the rooming assignments, Dupong, Jackie and myself took the triple bed room 214, and Jun and Ruth occupied the double occupancy bed, with Auntie Myrna settled at the extra bed in room 215. Before passing out that instance, I called the frontdesk to book 6 seats for the hotel’s free shuttle to Yassan Shopping Center.
Despite the lack of sleep, we readied at 8am for the day’s tour plan. We must start early in order to enjoy fully the buffet breakfast for the first day in Brunei. Before the 10am departure of the free shuttle to the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) Complex, we familiarized ourselves with the hotel facilities, the swimming pool, fitness center, and Avis Car Rental office. The day’s itinerary was hoped to be short and simple. First on the list was Money Changer; we cannot move without any local money.
Reaching the Yassan Mall at opening hours where the only money changer inside was found to be closed yet, we looked for other shops outside and found several ones lining the ground level stalls of an adjacent commercial center. We crowded at the one nearest to the mall that traded 1USD to 1.14BD. I changed my 200USD, 30MYR, and 2,500PHP to 309B$.
Kampung Ayer, the river village , or water settlement if you like, can be viewed facing the commercial center we were at that time. It looked intriguing to see this entire community standing on and connected by stilts over a body of water of Brunei River. I have seen some other floating villages, but this appeared unique; yes crowded yet organized, dense yet wide, with clean waters around. A piece of vacant land can be seen from its background but the people seemed to prefer water over it. More amazing though is its means of transport, a water taxi to get to this island of houses and other structures.
Due to too much humidity under the hot sunny day, Dupong, Ruth and Jun retreated back to Yassan Mall, while Auntie Myrna, Jackie and I dared the skin burning climate. Acting as the cameraman, I encouraged them to take poses at the riverbank, its boulevard, and wooden dock. Approaching the dock, a couple of water taxi drivers offered us a ride. We declined. Then suddenly, I found Auntie Myrna and Jackie running down the dock and taking turns in posing at one moored water taxi. It was later that I noticed its all smiling, seemingly friendly, young and quite good-looking driver. He did not offer the ride but I felt he was patiently waiting for us to climb and board his boat. Maybe a feeling of, you know, paying that debt of gratitude having him and his water taxi as our photo ops’ props, we took the ride with Fernan (at least it sounded like Fernan when he introduced himself in Malayo). We enquired the taxi fare to be 20B$ and agreed to pay 10B$ each. The first driver who approached and offered us the ride shouted something at us as the boat started moving away from the riverbank. He seemed to be swearing or cursing, thankfully the engine revs screamed so loud and silenced him.
The speedboat ride was indeed enjoyable. We took turns to hold the camera and clicked for selfie and groupie photos, so unmindful of neither the scorching heat of the day, Fernan’s speedy maneuvers, nor the bumpy ride as boat’s hull slapped the water surface wildly. To taxi around the Kampung Ayer was actually long. We got passed the floating structures, from residential houses, mosques, schools, to police and fire stations, and hotel-resorts. Everything around here floated, wooden or concrete bridges, transmission lines for water and electricity, even the towering Toyota billboard. From vantage point of the river village, even the BSB Complex looked floating.
We excitedly relayed to Dupong, Ruth and Jun our memorable experience and fantastic, adrenaline-rushing adventure, with the water taxi ride. They decided to do the Kampung Ayer water taxi ride as well. On one condition though, they have to take Fernan’s taxi too. So we settled at a closed restaurant by the riverbank to sight for Fernan. It did not take us that much time to spot him; we identified him wearing yellow-blue sweatshirt and a white cap. Much to our astonishment, Jackie was seen walking down the boulevard, on her way to the dock to catch Fernan and personally call on him and book him for the intended ride. We teased her to have been smitten by cute driver.
As the cameraman of the group, I joined the second batch boarding the boat. It was my second round so I asked Fernan to enter and pass by some more routes and touristy points inside and around Kampung Ayer. As a result of being exposed to the heat of the day twice, I got a sunburnt face.
Tourist Trapping Friday
11 o’clock in the morning chimed, the mosque heralded for the noon prayer, and then all shops hasten to close. Only then that we realized that it was Friday, that Friday in Muslim countries such as Brunei is prayer day, that the midday prayer lasts for hours, and during those hours, all activities including primarily the establishments within the BSB Complex will be closed up to 2pm.
As soon as Ruth and Dupong emerged from the department store hoisting plastic bags of Lego toys for Ruth and Jun’s sons back home, we hurried to find lunch before all food outlets close. We tried knocking at Jollibee’s main doors but they’re really closing and no longer accepting customers. We ran after the adjacent KFC and successfully ordered our food choices before its closing time. We managed to eat fast and then settled in one of the concrete benches outside to wait for the mall to resume its operation at 2pm. We observed faithfuls in proper attires heading their way to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
As the clock struck twelve, the city came to a standstill, literally. Funny was the tranquility had reinforced and intensified the humidity of the surroundings. We had in fact failed to consider Friday to be a significant factor affecting our itinerary negatively. We should have stayed in the hotel rooms and recover enough sleep.
Nevertheless we waited until our group cannot stand waiting just sitting there at the mall’s side benches. We agreed to made use of the idle time and dared the excruciating midday sun taking selfies and groupies of the mosque, the mall, the mall and the beautiful mosque, the mosque and the mall, even the gargantuan flower pots lining the Yassan’s outdoor aisles, and the Kampung Ayer riverbank. The photoshoots however took only a little while because we cannot bear the exposure to the heat of the sun. So we decided to take a shed at a closed restaurant with vacant seats along the riverbank.
Then, Dupong, Ruth and Jun decided to do the Kapung Ayer tour via the water taxi.
Reuniting with Auntie Myrna and Jackie at the river dock, we touched ground just in time for the commercial centers to reopen. Since we overestimated our mall tour, we mistakenly booked the shuttle pick up at 4pm. It was not entirely a mistake, it’s the only available schedule in the afternoon as 12nn pick up time is not applicable on Fridays. So there we were again, trying to scour the whole mall to endure the 2-hour waiting period. Being inside the mall was in itself relieving; airconditioned environment is a great relief from the humidity outside.
Dupong suggested to wear a signature shirt for our uniform doing the second day tour. The Giordano shirt with “I Brunei” prints comes in two different colors, so it was decided that the 3 ladies will wear whites and the 3 gentlemen, black. We then bought more Giordano shirts, which were on sale that day, for gifts to our loved ones back home.
Having waited long enough, we decided to rather prepare for the pool party tonight to celebrate in advance Auntie Myrna’s birthday. And then settle at the pick up waiting area. We grabbed a box of cake from a bakeshop, buckets of fried chicken and rice from Jollibee, and bottles of Coke from a kiosk.
Back to the hotel, we cooled ourselves off; rested for a while. The swimming pool party tonight also celebrated our first night in Brunei. This double celebration (birthday and welcome parties) won’t be more meaningful than to toast some wine or liquor. In this country, however, liquor drinking and cigarette smoking are tabooed. Fortunately, none among us smoke cigarettes so the ban works in our favor, except for the liquors. Jun as inquisitive as he is ordered few bottles of Equator Beer with 0.00% alcohol content. Obviously, after few gulps with no he gave up drinking the beer unpleased.
Before calling the nights off, we called up the frontdesk to book 6 seats for a free shuttle to Gadong the next day. Initially we thought of hiring Avis Car Rental service but found 60B$ per hour with a driver or 160B$ per day without to be expensive.