Bandar Seri Begawan

Even on the road from the airport, you can see where the Sultan is investing his petrodollars. In a town district on the north bank of the Sungai Brunei, a government quarter, a shopping and business center, and hospitals have sprung up in recent years. The city center is dominated unmistakably by the Mesjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin, inaugurated in 1958. The architect was Italian, the work force came from the Philippines and other countries. In Brunei people like to compare this imposing edifice of Shanghai granite and Carrara marble with India's Taj Mahal. The mosque rises from an artificial lake on the banks of the river and is joined to a ship of stone, a replica of a royal boat from the 16th century. Visitors can tour the mosque outside the hours of prayer and take an elevator up the 144-foot (44 m) minaret for an impressive panoramic view from the top. From here, the eye falls on the Kampong Air, a giant village on the Brunei river where over 30,000 people live in pile dwellings. It is no slum - every house has electricity and running water. The cars parked on the nearby roads belong to the residents of this water village, and a television aerial pokes out from every rooftop. Private boats or taxi boats take the children to school. Only under the jetties does rubbish pile up at low tide: no modern technology has yet been designed to remove it. Many of the villagers craft objects out of brass, bronze and silver, which, together with mats and woven articles, they offer for sale on stalls around Kampong Air. Fruit, clothes, audio cassettes and magic charms are sold in the market between Jln. Sungai Kianggeh, Jln. McArthur and Jln. Sultan. It is debatable whether the antiques occasionally on sale there are genuine, in view of the great demand for these by Brunei's foreign community in the past. To the north are the grandiose government buildings: the Royal Ceremonial Hall, or Lapau, and Parliament, which the Bruneians call Dewan Majlis. Nearby is the Sultan Hassanal Bokliah Aquarium with a very respectable selection of tropical fresh-water and salt-water fish. Next door, the Churchill Memorial Gallery attests to the Anglophile attitude of Brunei's rulers. It is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in the slightly eccentric lifestyle of this famous politician. On the other side of broad Jln. Sultan is the History Museum, which deals with the recent history of the country; more extensive coverage in this area is provided by the Brunei Museum, which is around 3 miles (5 km) out of town in the direction of Kota Batu. This expensively fitted-out building, standing where Pigafetta was so impressed by the Sultan's palace with its elephants and cannons 470 years ago, exhibits archeological finds from the Sultanate. Foreign relations, the history of oil production and the life of the Than and Murut peoples who live in the western half of the country, Temburong, are other themes presented by the museum. Close at hand is the Malay Technology Museum, where traditional techniques of gold- and silversmithing are demonstrated and promoted. If you follow the riverbank a few hundred yards you will come to the Mausoleum of Sultan Bolkiah, who, as the fifth ruler of Brunei led the country to its heyday. The present Sultan has unquestionably constructed for himself a memorial in his own lifetime with the Istana Nurul Imam built in the mid-1980s by the river in the western part of the city. With almost 1,800 rooms and a dining hall wherein all 6,000 princes and princesses of Brunei can dine at once, this new palace is on a scale with Versailles. It numbers among the largest personal residences in the world and cost a trifling sum somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 million U.S. dollars. A battalion of Nepalese Gurkhas watches over the safety of the royal family. Visitors are only permitted a glimpse of a tiny part of life within the Istana, if even that much. Occasionally entrance is granted to nonemployees and normal mortals, but only on the Sultan's birthday, July 15th. Information may be obtained from the Government Tourist Office (GTO). The palace is particularly impressive early in the evening when it reflects in the Brunei river alongside the golden dome of the family mosque. On the occasion of his Silver Jubilee in October, 1992, the Sultan had another place of devotion built, the Masjid Wagaf. He intended this mosque to be used by himself, his two consorts, his nine children, and the rest of his numerous relatives. Away from Pomp and Splendor Paradise on earth will also include certain beautiful sandy beaches. The favorite is Muara Beaches, about 17 miles (27 km) northeast of the capital. To the southwest, near Tutong, is the beach resort of Pantai Seri Kenangan. After 31 miles (50 km) along the coast, a forest of oil well derricks and pumps announce Seria, which like its neighbor Kuala Belait is a center of the oil industry. The first drilling was started here back in 1880, and in 1929 the earth released its bounty of black gold upon which Brunei has founded its wealth ever since. Foreign geologists, divers, seamen and workers work flat out here for the Sultan, the oil multimillionaires and the crowded expressways in their homelands. Off-duty, they can relax in their luxurious bungalows, play golf or polo, and, in their own enclave, need not go without their long drink at sundown. How long the reserves will last is not clear. The latest discoveries will indubitably secure Brunei's prosperity into the next millennium. Enjoying the benefits of good advice, Sultan Muda Hassanal Bolkiah is thinking ahead. He wants to invest billions in the education sector and build a second university. Chemicals and high-tech factories are to be established as a stand-by for "drier" times.
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