Bandar Seri Begawan

Royal Brunei Airlines has positioned Brunei’s sole international airport as a Kangaroo Route node for years. It operates this long haul via Dubai, however. That additional stop doesn’t exactly work in its favour; as a result, the airline doesn’t quite measure up next to those airlines linking the UK and Australia on a single connecting flight.

For those who find themselves in Brunei due to an opportune fare – or simply out of curiosity – or via the Navigator round the world - know that Bandar Seri Begawan is a spotless, sober, and ordered place. Brunei is a Sultanate, not in the slightest bit democratic, with a very generous social welfare system. Thanks to oil and gas, it is one of the world’s richest countries. It is also one of its most devout. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, though that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The country is currently in the process of integrating Sharia law into its penal code. 

Leisure tourists are, perhaps unsurprisingly, few and far between. There is a small but steady stream of adventure-seeking tourists – hailing mainly, my hotel receptionist tells me, from Australia – who travel to Ulu Temburong National Park to experience untouched rainforest. But very few tourists comb through central Bandar Seri Begawan to visit its mosques, museums, and shopping centres.

In terms of actual tourists sights, there’s not a lot in the city that dramatically jumps out. The Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, free to visit, is likely the most impressive spot in the city. 29 golden domes crown it. Its marble floors are striking and its ceilings appear to glow. It is absolutely worth a stop. A guard accompanies visitors on a short, very limited tour.

For the capital of such a rich country, Bandar Seri Begawan’s malls are almost entirely devoid of luxury chain shops. This distance from contemporary luxury culture is one thing that makes Bandar Seri Begawan so interesting. (There is a stultifying sameness, is there not, to luxury mall culture?) Bandar Seri Begawan could probably haul in vastly more visitors were it to morph into a Dubai-like open-air amusement park of a place. But is that something desirable, all things considered? 

The malls are in fact quite interesting for this reason alone. They are full of unusual shops. One sold honey from Yemen; another fine goods from Iran. Stylish, very modest women’s clothing is sold throughout.

And then there are local things to buy, too. There are handicrafts, to start. On the ground floor of the Yayasan shopping complex, a cart sells delicate baskets and boxes made by Ridah Handicrafts. Nearby, in the supermarket in the basement of the Hua Ho Department Store, there are local biscuits to be had: butter cookies heavy with powdered sugar and cigar-shaped coconut wafers. (For more serious handicraft hunters, there is an Arts & Handicrafts Training Centre in town, where swords and hand-woven cloths can be purchased for huge sums.)

The city’s spotlessness had me hankering for something unruly. I found just that on a cul-de-sac at the end of a long, poorly lighted road just beyond Bandar Seri Begawan’s Radisson. This unlikely place is home to Lim Ah Siaw, the Sultanate’s only – or at least its best known – pork-serving restaurant. It huddles in the dark, devoid of signage that might make its presence known at night, sitting across the street from a shabby apartment building. Only the presence of cars parked outside suggests that it is anything but empty.

Inside, bright fluorescent light is overpowering. A television blares. The chairs are plastic and the floors are tiled. The net effect is coolly ad hoc, like a pop-up that could be disassembled in a second. The setting is unobtrusive in tacit recognition that its very presence is breaking the rules. Chinese patrons are seated by a Filipina waitress, who guides newcomers towards spare ribs, pork in a gentle buttermilk sauce, and vegetables stir-fried in garlic. Everything is delicious. Mugs of a beer-hued liquid find their way to other tables. I didn’t ask and I didn’t order, but it certainly looked like ale. (Beyond that, the only alcohol I saw in Brunei was in a duty free plastic bag carried by the British wife of a Royal Brunei Airlines pilot.)

At the register at Lim Ah Siaw there are cheap sunglasses for sale, presumably for those wanting to exit the restaurant with an added measure of anonymity.


 

By Alex Robertson Textor

 

You can get Brunei included on the Navigator round the world

Photo credit 1 2

 

How easy is it to get to China from Hong Kong?

 


It's not that long ago that the notion of just popping across the border into China was unimaginable. And, in fact, many folk tend to leave China off their RTW itinerary – not least because of the difficulty with visas.

Yet liberalisation means that it's surprisingly easy to pop into China nowadays. British nationals flying through Beijing or Shanghai en route to somewhere else can take a 72-hour stopover within the city limits without arranging a visa in advance. Since Beijing's city limits are big enough for a visitor to knock off the Great Wall AND the Forbidden City while in transit, that's certainly not to be sniffed at: do note that the “Transit Without Visa” is for 72 hours, not 73 hours, and certainly not three days.

For folk just looking to dip a toe into mainland China, or tick China off a bucket list of countries, the Chinese government issues five-day visas to the city of Shenzhen, right next door to Hong Kong, at the border. Catch the MTR to Lo Wu; queue up, fill in forms and hand over around 400 Hong Kong dollars (£35 or so); then walk across the border to Shenzhen, and hop onto Shenzhen's metro system at Luohu. And, yes, Luohu and Lo Wu are the same place, and written the same way: Mandarin-speaking mainlanders pronounce it Luohu, while Cantonese-speaking Hong-Kongites call it Lo Wu.

Note that, as with the Beijing and Shanghai transit passes, the 5-day Shenzhen visa restricts you to the Shenzhen city limits, and cannot be extended. If you want to leave Shenzhen, or stay more than five days, you'll need a bona fide tourist visa, which can also be arranged in Hong Kong: overstays can result in anything from a slapped wrist to a £500 fine to a prison sentence with heavy fine depending on how the authorities feel at the time.

Now, there is plenty to do in Shenzhen, from shopping at the thriving fake markets and factory outlets – the city was China's first Special Economic Zone – to art galleries, spas, beer gardens, theme parks, restaurants and museums, including one on an aircraft carrier. And this bustling, warm, relatively Westernised city makes a great, easy introduction to mainland China.

But what if you want to see more than just Shenzhen? A myriad agencies in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) backpacker district can help arrange tourist visas to China for periods from 30 days to 90 days. Many even offer a same-day service, although it's wise to allow three working days in case of problems: most Hong Kong guesthouses have their own favoured visa agent.

Now, it's not always necessary or cost-effective to use an agent to arrange a visa. But spending a little extra cash on a good visa agent in Hong Kong will vastly cut down on the amount of paperwork required to score a Chinese visa. Chinese embassies and consulates overseas have been known to request proof of both confirmed flights and solid hotel reservations for every single night of your itinerary BEFORE they approve your visa: good agencies will typically take just a passport and a form (and, sometimes, copy birth certificates for children).

Whichever visa you go for, opt for the maximum length of time you could possibly need. Arranging a China visa within Hong Kong is easy but extending one in mainland China is hell on earth.

 

 


Published by Stuart Lodge