Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Empire Hotel

It might seem strange to go 'on holiday' a mere 20 minutes' drive from home... but that's exactly what we did last weekend! 

Just take a short drive west along the highway from where we live, and you reach the Empire Hotel.  Built 10 years ago as a pet project of the Sultan's brother Prince Jefri (now discredited and ostracised after some financial scandals in the 1990s), this hotel is marketed as having 7 stars - 5 stars is so 'last year'.  Look in the dictionary under opulence, and this should be what you see...

The Atrium by night - 25 metre high marble columns...

decorated with gold leaf.

Beautiful orchids in the Lobby.

Everywhere you look there is marble, gold, semi-precious stones, inlaid mother-of-pearl...  no wonder it took US$1.1 billion dollars to build!


And yet the place is nearly empty.  I suppose this shouldn't be too much of a surprise - Brunei has never really made it onto the world-stage as far as tourism goes, and - sad, but true - I don't think that it ever will while it maintains its status as a dry country.  Many people just wouldn't consider a holiday where they couldn't relax by the pool with a cocktail, or have a glass of wine with supper.

However, the fact that there seems to be more staff than guests only adds to the extravagant feel of the place!

It is possible to become a member of the Empire Country Club and therefore use all their facilities.  The most appealing thing about it (for me anyway) is the swimming pool and lagoon where you can sunbathe and swim to your heart's content, whilst looking out over the South China Sea.

But we're not members.  It's astonishingly expensive, and as we both work full time there is no way we'd make enough use of the place for it to be worthwhile.  I can see why people join - if you're used to paying a monthly gym membership in the UK this probably doesn't work out as that much more money, and likewise if you are a member of a golf club in Britain then again the price is probably comparable (the golf membership package is a lot more than the basic membership), plus you get great facilities here, including the use of the pool which is members and hotel guests only.  But it's not right for us. 

Another reason we've found for not joining is that, on the occasions that we do visit it seems really special - I don't think I'd like to get too used to this kind of luxury; I mean, nothing else is ever going to measure up is it?! 

Many of our friends are members and as part of the membership deal you get vouchers for a couple of free nights stay in the hotel.  We were offered one of these vouchers at a very reasonable price so snapped it up, which is how we ended up staying there last weekend.

Our room was lovely - well, this was the second room we were offered after we complained about the lack of view from the first one!  I think it's worth being fussy in a place as posh as this.  The bed was HUGE with beautiful Egyptian cotton linens; so comfortable.  It's a bit hard to tell from the photo, but the bathroom was wall-to-wall marble.  It was fabulous to relax in the bath looking out of the window at the sea view too.

We ate out at a local Thai restaurant on Jalan Jerudong on Saturday night - I fear that the hotel's restaurants are a little over-priced, and we were keen to try some of the Thai places nearby.  We had an excellent meal, but then came back to the hotel and enjoyed a walk around the grounds by night.

The next day we did eat in the hotel, starting with a superb buffet breakfast.  We were glad we had gone out to Bukit Shahbandar for a pre-breakfast walk in order to work up a good appetite!

I think we managed about 4 buffet-visits each!  The hot selection was particularly good - here's my plate of fried rice topped with a fried egg, corned beef hash (bizarre) and 'crumbed cauliflower'! Plus some other things I can't remember - I tried a sample of most dishes.

 The sweet selection contained a few comedy items... the ubiquitous brightly-coloured cubes of desserts (the green and white one was like cold rice-pudding topped with a coconut milk-jelly), and the round bun was bread topped with grated cheese and sugar!

The coffee was excellent and importantly (and unusually for Brunei) served without sugar.  We ate plenty so didn't feel the need to have lunch.

Feeling very full we headed down to the pool to relax and read.  I really like the little 'pods' they have by the pool - and the covers are very useful when it rains, which it did briefly on both the Saturday and Sunday.

We sat there sheltering in the pod laughing about how it was just like being in England... except even when it's windy and raining it's still hot enough to be sitting around in a swimming costume!

After getting through an entire novel and swimming several laps of the pool (an exhausting day!) we decided to head back to the hotel for Afternoon Tea.  This is about the best way for non-members to experience the Empire, particularly when they have the buffet tea at the weekends and when it's 2 for the price of 1!  It's still $30 for two people which is a lot more than you'd pay for your average meal here in Brunei, but you do get to eat in enviable surroundings.  And eat until you feel sick!  (Must learn when to stop...)

Visit 1 to the buffet...

Having filled up on sandwiches and wontons, it's on to dessert...

By Sunday evening it really felt as though we had been away for much longer than the 36 hours that we had spent at the Empire.  As we come to the end of a very long term, it was a much-needed break!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Temburong Trip

Brunei, as you can see from this map, is a country of two parts.  Two small sections nibbled out of the north coast of Borneo, and surrounded by Sarawak which is part of Malaysia.

We live on the coast, almost due north of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB).  Last month we decided to visit the other, smaller part of Brunei, more specifically Ulu Temburong National Park, to the south of Bangar.  This is a popular day-trip from BSB so 4 of us - Rob, me, Kerry and Simon - booked a trip with Haddy the tour guide who was recommended by some of my friends from school.

We set off early to catch the boat to Bangar from BSB.  This was a 45-minute ride at hair-raising speed on one of the boats known as a 'Flying Coffin'!  Once we got used to it it was amazing to be racing through the mangroves up the river then across the Bay of Brunei.  This photo isn't wonky, it's just the boat tilting dramatically as it sped round the bends in the river!

On arrival in Bangar we were met by Haddy and - first things first - went for breakfast!  It was our favourite - Roti.  However, we had never had roti served with this selection of dips - from left to right: sweet chili sauce, chicken and potato curry and... condensed milk!  All delicious.

I'm not entirely sure what the bowl of eggs was doing on the table though...?

We then drove south until we were into the jungle.  Here we exchanged the car for a longboat - the only way to enter Ulu Temburong National Park. 

This boat trip was equally exciting as we negotiated several sections of rapids on our way to the park boundary, again at quite some speed.  We stopped to sign in to the park and then headed further up-river in the boat where we stopped to climb a rather large hill...

Thankfully much of it was ascended using these wooden steps, but there were many very muddy areas where we found ourselves clambering over tree roots and picking our way through sticky mud!  Luckily there was plenty to look at on the way, and Haddy let us stop lots of times in order to tell us about the flora and fauna (while we got our breath back!).

These vast trees with their buttress-like roots were stunning.

As we reached the top of the hill we were faced with... more steps!

This is the 60 metre high canopy walkway for which Ulu Temburong is famous.  This vertigo-inducing walk is an amazing way of reaching the very top level of the rainforest otherwise only inhabited by birds, insects and monkeys!

Despite my terror of the height, the views were of course incredible.  It's at times like this when you realise just how little space in Brunei mankind actually inhabits - the rainforest covers vast areas here.

I was pleased to be heading down though, once we had climbed all of the towers!

As we descended, so did the rain...  My camera got put away fast at this point (into its case and then a well-sealed dry-bag) but luckily Simon and Kerry have a waterproof casing for their camera so were able to get some shots of the rest of the day.

Instead of getting back into the longboat we were each given an inner-tube and, ignoring the crocodile-rumours, we leapt into the not-particularly-enticing brown water!  Amazingly it was really quite cold - the first time we had felt chilled since our arrival in Brunei 6 weeks earlier.  Still, we soon warmed up as we kicked and paddled our way down the river - easy (and hilarious - cue much shrieking) when being swept down the rapids, but pretty difficult to fight against the current when trying to get to shore!

We stopped at one point and walked up a stream to a beautiful waterfall.  Soaked to the skin already we all walked straight in...  only to run straight out again as the pool was full of those weird fish that nibble the skin off your feet!  (No, not piranhas... the kind of fish you see in spas).  It's meant to be good for you, but I can tell you now, it's the strangest feeling, and not strange in a good way either!  I think the spa-fish are smaller though looking at the picture in that link, these were waaaaay bigger and perhaps therefore nibbled a little harder?!

We leapt back in the tubes and carried on down the river until we stopped for a very welcome hot lunch of rice, chicken, vegetables and eggs, cooked by Haddy's wife.

We also took the opportunity to change into some dry clothes as by now we were a little cold and uncomfortable.

By now it was only a short trip back in the longboat (having tubed down much of the river) and then a drive back to Bangar to catch the Flying Coffin back to BSB.  It says a lot that 2 of our party actually dozed off during the boat-trip back to BSB - just shows what an exhausting but exciting day it was!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Tim Tams and other Australian Treats

It seems odd to think that we now live closer to Australia than the UK.  One of our local supermarkets, Supasave (more commonly known as Supaspend due to its extortionate pricing - we don't often shop there), stocks a lot of Australian foods, and even the local Asian supermarkets have several Aussie items in stock.

We eat Australian butter (and not just because I love the packaging!):

And we drink Australian UHT milk (which tastes fine as long as you get the skimmed). 

We eat much less dairy produce here than we used to, but when the cheese-sandwich craving hits we use the outrageously-named Australian cheddar:

Australia's tastiest most racist cheese...

We also occasionally pick up an Australian treat - last week Supasave had had a consignment of Aussie ginger beer which I wanted to try, mainly because I liked the dumpy brown glass bottle.

This week we also picked up a packet of the legendary Arnott's Tim Tams. I first heard about these from reading my beloved biscuit encyclopaedia A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down.  Anyone who loves biscuits but is not familiar with this book I urge you to seek it out.  Written by Nicey and Wifey it's the result of one man's lifetime love of tea and biscuits (accompanied by a nice sit down of course), hilariously written but also full of fascinating facts and trivia.

Nicey approves of the Tim Tam and I was keen to try it too.  They are similar to the Penguin in design, but much as it pains me to admit it, this Antipodean version is far superior.  The biscuit is much crisper and has an almost honeycomb taste.  The chocolate is OK - not a patch on 'real' Dairy Milk of course, but not as vile as Asian chocolate (see previous post).

My only complaint is that they are not individually wrapped which means a) it's hard to pop one in your lunchbox (would get very messy with the rice) and b) we are likely to eat them all far too quickly. 

We were also intrigued by the idea of performing the Tim Tam Slam, which involves biting off diagonally opposite corners of the Tim Tam and using the biscuit as a straw through which to suck up your tea.  We had just got home from the supermarket when we opened this packet so the chocolate was a bit melty.  We therefore felt that the Slam was a pretty risky proposition so didn't try it.  However, now the Tim Tams have been in the fridge for several hours I feel we might have to have a go...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Cheesecake Brunei Style

It's funny, in some ways the Bruneians very protective of their cultural identity... but in others they yearn to be Western.  Young Bruneians are obsessed with having the latest mobile phones, downloading American TV series and films, listening to Western music, etc.  There are lots of cafes and restaurants here that serve approximations of Western food.
But sometimes this desire to be Western all goes horribly wrong.

May I present Exhibit A:


Cheesecake.  A cake... with grated cheese on top.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Off to Malaysia for Lunch

Brunei is a tiny country and the nearest border with Malaysia is less than an hour's drive away from where we live.  Of course as Brunei is a dry country, most expats make fairly regular trips to the border in order to bring back their duty-free allowance of alcohol!  We are lucky not to have to do this as we are able to use the Naafi to buy liquor -  but last weekend we decided that we'd like to go 'abroad' for lunch, and headed for Kuala Lurah border post.

We left our car in Brunei and walked across the border - Here's Rob next to the 'Welcome to Limbang' sign.

There's really not much in Kuala Lurah, just a small and rather scruffy selection of market stalls and roadside restaurants that have sprung up on the border... but of course there's a duty free shop.

The restaurants are mainly tin huts often with a motorbike or two parked inside, or a barbecue set up outside a house.  We were highly amused to see a car pull up at one, and the driver pull a dead baby crocodile (about 50cm long) out of the boot!  She walked into one of the restaurant kitchens...  we decided not to eat there!  (Wish I'd been a bit quicker with the camera to get a photo too).

I loved this artistic menu!

The duty free shop had some interesting drinks not found in the Naafi.  We bought a bottle of the Chinese rice wine on the right of this picture to use for cooking.

We ate in a little cafe.  As soon as we sat down the Chinese owner came up to us and said 'Beer?'  It seemed a real treat to have a lager with lunch when eating out so of course we said yes... and yes again when he asked us a second time!

A nasi goreng (fried rice) for me, mee goreng (fried noodles) for Rob and 2 beers each came to the grand total of 9 Bruneian dollars - about 4.50 GBP.  Cheap and delicious!

We were also very excited to get FOUR stamps in our passports as we went through the Bruneian and Malaysian border-posts, going into then back out of Malaysia.  I think our passports are going to fill up pretty fast while we're living here.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Wildlife River Trip

Yesterday we had an amazing day.  We've been here in Brunei for 2 months now and to be honest, we keep having amazing days!  Many people complain that Brunei is 'boring' and perhaps it is in some ways - it's a very small country, it can be quite restrictive for women, it's not great for some kinds of shopping.  But for us, so far, it's great.  We're both working full-time, I don't have a problem with not wearing shorts/vest-tops here, and my idea of a great day out doesn't involve trawling round shopping malls so we're finding plenty to keep us occupied.  Not that we're not living an entirely pleasant laid-back lifestyle here - we are - but we're just busy enough!

We did a day-long trip out to a part of Brunei called Temburong a few weeks ago (about which I will blog sometime, as that was another excellent day) but there is also a much more leisurely wildlife boat-trip, a couple of hours' long, that leaves from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), and this is what we did yesterday with our friends Paula and John.

Brunei is part of the island of Borneo, home to a multitude of amazing wildlife, but one of the animals that only lives here on Borneo is the Proboscis Monkey.  Apparently these monkeys cannot even be kept in zoos, so living here in Brunei really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them... and this trip didn't disappoint.

We set off from the jetty in BSB and headed first for Kampong Ayer, the largest water-village in the world.  Approximately 25,000 people live here - around a quarter of the population of the capital.  It's a vibrant community with houses connected by wooden walkways and boats serving as cars and taxis.

We stopped at one house to pick up our guide.  Many of the houses may look somewhat tumbledown from the outside...

But inside they have all the mod-cons you'd expect.  The extended family all live in this house which was clearly kept with great pride.

With our guide on board we headed off round the water village past schools, a fire-station, a police-station and several mosques.

Everywhere people smiled and waved at us.  As we motored past one of the primary schools I suddenly realised that there was of course no playground for the children...  but then I saw this boy on his makeshift swing on the balcony of his house - I guess children will make their own entertainment with whatever they have to hand!

Within 15 minutes or so we were clear of the city and into the jungle. 

It's always sad to see the sheer amount of rubbish that litters this beautiful country and indeed much of South-East Asia.  The beaches are covered in it, the water around BSB is full of bobbing garbage, and this river was also dotted with various plastic debris.  I know much is washed ashore from shipping, but it's also indicative of a lack of concern for the environment which is tragic anywhere in the world, but certainly in a country so rich and diverse in its wildlife as this. 

Still, that aside, we were soon on the lookout for any movement in the trees...  we were lucky to have an excellent eagle-eyed guide, but John and Paula (having done this trip several times before) were also pretty good at spotting well-hidden animals!

There were plenty of egrets around - although they're hard to photograph as they tend to over-expose a little, being so bright white.

This large Monitor Lizard was clearly in the pay of the guide - he posed for us for ages, sauntering along the bank as John and I snapped away with our SLRs!  

And not once, but twice, we happened upon a group of Proboscis Monkeys!   The first time they were quite close to the bank, but leapt off into the undergrowth before we could take many pictures.  However, the second group were happily eating in the trees giving us plenty of opportunity to use the zoom lenses.

The group was made up of females and youngsters, so sadly we didn't get to see any adult males who have the really pendulous noses, but I liked the profile of the females with their upturned noses searching for food.

They're really quite odd to watch as they move in a much more human way than the macaques that we see so often around our house.  These monkeys are larger and 'lope' rather than 'bounce', if that makes sense.  It's hard to explain.

Excitement over, we continued to scour the mangroves...  We thought that was it as we headed back towards town.

But then our guided suddenly spotted this young crocodile!  He was lurking in the shallows near the bank, clearly hoping for an unwary bird to pass by.  I'm sure he was pretty upset with us for spoiling his potential lunch, but we were very excited to see him.

The trip was only a couple of hours long, but felt like a real getaway as we headed off up the river into the jungle. We'll definitely be back in the hope of spotting more incredible wildlife.

A final treat was a quick ride past the city's Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque.  Commissioned by and named after the current Sultan's father it was completed in 1958 and its 52-metre high dome dominates the city skyline... and provides quite a dramatic contrast with the water village alongside.