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Brunei's top five attractions

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Brunei's top five attractions

1. BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN'S REGAL AND SPIRITUAL HERITAGE

Each year at the end of Eid (the Muslim holiday that celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan) the Sultan of Brunei throws open the gates to his palace Istana Nurul Iman for three days of heady celebrations.  

As a result, many Bruneians have seen inside the palace complex, which at 200,000 square metres, is officially the largest royal residence anywhere in the world. Most foreigners, however, have to content themselves with a view from the banks of the Brunei River. The palace, completed in 1984, is replete with golden domes and vaulted roofs - designed to echo Brunei's twin influences of Islam and Malay culture.  

By far the most impressive and ornate buildings bequeathed to the nation by the royal family are the two royal mosques, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque and the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque.  

The former is unquestionably Bandar Seri Begawan's most recognisable landmark, sitting as it does in the heart of the city. This mosque, named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, was completed in 1958 in a modernist Islamic style featuring a 52-metre high golden dome and marble minarets.   
Further out of the city centre is the Kiarong mosque, officially known as the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque after the present Sultan Hassanil Bolkiah. Both are open to non-Muslims every day except Thursdays.  

To get a real feel for the present ruler of Brunei, there is no better place than the Royal Regalia Building, located in the Bandar suburb of Jalan Sultan.

Afforded pride of place in this royal museum is the hand-carried gold carriage in which the king was transported to his coronation in 1967. Also worth a look is the traditional royal armoury and the country's crown jewels.  

2. NATURAL RESOURCES
Most people could tell you that Brunei's prosperity is largely based on its enviable glut of oil and natural gas. No less than 90% of the country's Gross Domestic Product is derived from these resources, in fact.

All of which makes Belait, the westernmost and largest of Brunei's districts, a must visit destination. It was here in 1929 that oil was first discovered, transforming the region from a sleepy tribal backwater into the heart of Brunei's thriving economy.  

The epicentre of this resources boom is the small coastal town of Seria. It's home to the Seria Crude Oil Terminal and Brunei Liquefied Natural Gas plant, the two industrial complexes that have enriched the country so greatly. And it all began when Royal Dutch Shell fortuitously bought a concession after a couple of savvy prospectors got a whiff of oil when surveying the local river.    

Sadly, few tourists make their way to Belait. But with Brunei's proliferation of first world roads it makes for a perfect self-drive trip from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan.

Once there, the Billionth Barrel Monument should be the first stop. This structure celebrates the moment in 1991 when Brunei's Seria-1 oil field yielded its 136 millionth tonne of crude oil. It's not exactly the Arc de Triomphe, but it does represent a huge symbolic milestone for the sultanate. Today Brunei produces 180,000 barrels of oil every 24 hours, making it the third-largest oil producer in South East Asia. It's also the fourth-largest producer of liquefied natural gas in the world, if you were still in any doubt about the surfeit of resources here.

To get a handle on the history of Belait, pay a visit to the area's second main attraction, the Brunei Oil and Gas Discovery Centre, a museum that brings petrochemical science to life. I bet you never thought that possible.

3. KAMPONG AYER WATER VILLAGE
One of scores of places to be bestowed with the over-used mantle The Venice of the East, Kampong Ayer is nonetheless an impressive water village. Home to about 40,000 residents, representing around 10% of Brunei's total population, and having been inhabited for roughly a millennium, it lays a strong claim as the largest village of its kind on the planet.  

By way of proof, there are houses, schools, emergency services, satellite television channels and even accessible wifi here. It's just like a regular city, but this one is situated over the water, with houses built on stilts and connected by a series of walkways.

Located in Brunei Bay, it's a short trip by water taxi from mainland Bandar Seri Begawan.  
As well as being a fascinating place to visit, this district is a culturally important part of Brunei that preserves the nation's river dwelling origins. Visitors can learn more at the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, a relatively new establishment that also has an observation deck above the gallery that provides 360 degree views of this massive settlement.  

4. INTO THE WILD
Brunei's easternmost province, the exclave of Temburong, is the place to come to witness the best of the nation's natural assets. Pristine rainforest, rivers and exotic fauna are all to be found here.
A good place to start is the Sumbiling Eco Village, which opened only a few a years ago. It's a modest settlement, located on the banks of the Temburong River, a 45 minute boat ride from Bandar Seri Begawan.

The waterway can be enjoyed via that most luxurious of aquatic devices - the river tube. Guides will escort you upstream via longboat and once in your rubber ring it's just a matter of lying back and letting the current pull you back downstream. After taking in the lush rainforest it's a safe bet you'll want another ride. And the guides are only too happy to oblige you.

But it is in Ulu Temburong National Park where you can really experience the green heart of Brunei. It can be reached easily by boat, travelling from Sumbiling Eco Village. Once there, the trip up to the treetops requires you to ascend a flight of wooden steps followed by a vertiginous climb up a sizeable steel tower. Sweeping views of the forest as far as the eye can see are a fitting reward for your exertions.

Back in the capital, a night safari is another activity worth trying. Departing Bandar in a small boat, you'll set off down the Brunei River in search of proboscis monkeys and the odd crocodile. Sighting the big-nosed primates, surely one of nature's more comical creatures, and revelling in their hijinx is always a thrill. By contrast, scanning the mangroves by torchlight reveals crocodiles of all sizes - the largest of which occasionally reach five metres in length. It's best to keep your hands out of the water for this one.

5. THE EMPIRE hotel and COUNTRY CLUB
If you want to enjoy the sweet fruit of Brunei's economic prosperity, this is the proverbial orchard to visit. The Empire Hotel is unquestionably the nation's most distinguished hotel and no expense has been spared to elevate it to the pinnacle of hostelry. A member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World, it provides an unforgettable experience from check in to departure.

By the time you've driven along the scenic winding driveway to the entrance and alighted into the extremely grand lobby area, you know you're on a very good wicket. This enormous 180 hectare complex began life as the private palace of the sultan's colourful brother prince Jeffri - little wonder it evolved into such an opulent domain.

The rooms are furnished to a superb standard, with Egyptian cotton, Italian fabrics, Thai silk and British cabinetry all imported. Happily, design here is tastefully Old World, rather than chintzy New World, a pit trap that some five-star hotels in the Islamic world have blundered into.

There are so many facilities here that it would take weeks to experience them all. The resort has a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18 hole golf course overlooking the ocean, a cinema, seven restaurants and a water sports centre. The Country Club has badminton courts, an eight lane bowling alley, a delightful little spa and... the list goes on. Suffice to say, service standards are first class and there's a distinct lack of fawning over guests.

For all this opulence and splendour you might expect a colossal bill for a night's stay. But with the stopover market clearly in its sights, the rates are very reasonable.  

So when booking that Brunei trip, put in a call to the Empire and live like royalty for just a little while.