Our next destination was Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. We flew through Kota Kinabalu to get there. The Royal Brunei flight was on time, a modern plane, and great service. It was pricy however: $200 one way from KK.
We were staying at the Jubilee Hotel and had arranged (by email) a pick-up from the airport (and drop-off the next day). While the hotel itself was fairly expensive ($80), the ride to and from the airport would have cost us $40 by taxi so it made it worth it. The hotel room was very clean (although we saw a confusing "NO COOKING IN THE ROOM" sign – do they really have a big problem with guests firing up the Coleman for an in-room BBQ?)
So, why Brunei? The amusement park, of course! Oh yeah, there’s also a huge mosque, interesting museums, a water village blah blah blah etc. but most importantly, there’s a huge amusement park! Jerudong Playground was built by the King as a gift to his subjects. Our visit to the park was definitely the strangest experience we had this trip, and we’ll never forget it.
To get there, the hotel offered to drive us, but the car wasn’t available for a while so we decided to take public transit. We caught the bus from the main bus terminal underneath the multistory parking lot. It was s-l-o-w. It took us an hour and a half to get there, and by car it should have been 30 minutes. The bus dropped us off at the edge of the park, but we weren’t exactly sure where the entrance was. Or even if it was open. We were walking down a road that seemed to cut the park in two, and finally we got to an entrance. Looking inside, we could begin to see a few rides. There was a guard at the entrance who sold us tickets ($15 for an all-night pass). We asked if it was open, and he said yes, but we couldn’t see ANYONE else so we thought it might have been a language problem. We asked him if there was any restaurants around (as we hadn’t eaten yet) and were pointed to the food court across the street.
There was dozens of restaurants, but only a handful were open. The workers at the restaurants were sitting down in the common eating area, waiting for any customers. Vegetarian was not easy. We settled on some pretty bad Chinese food that had "Tofu" in the title – but not in the meal. !!! By now we could see some of the lights of the rides, so we entered the park. We asked if there was a map of the place – no. There was a few signs, but they didn’t really help us. Wandering through the park, the grounds are beautiful. Huge walking concourses, lots of trees and places for kids to have fun, (drained) fountains. Everything was there, except for the.. people.We found our first ride, one of the twirly spinny things. The lights were on, but at this point we had yet to see another living soul (except the guard). Then I noticed a silhouette of a figure slumped over in the operator’s booth. He saw us coming, helped us on to the ride and started it up for us. Upon leaving the ride (and beginning to feel slightly creeped out in this weird post-apocalyptic amusement park) we were thrilled to see another family. They were waiting for the Disneyland-style train, except it doesn’t go all the way around the park, it just goes for about 5 minutes then stops. It runs on a schedule, so I guess they just keep running it empty from A to B to A to B all night long. And I thought my job was boring. Anyways, we were glad to have met the family, as next up we found the bumper cars. Bumper cars just ain’t very much fun with just two people, but with the 7 of us, we had a great time.
After the ride, we chatted with the family we met. They were Irish, and the father was posted in Bandar Seri Bagawan working in the oil industry. We got the run-down on this strange place: It used to be pretty hopping, when admission was free (!!). A couple of years ago the King started charging $15 to try to recoup some of the costs, and attendance plumetted. So, now, a lot of the rides are closed down (roughly half of them on any given evening).And this is how it went for the rest of the night. We would wander looking for a ride, and then ride it until we got bored of it. The upside-down-corkscrew-dangling-feet rollercoaster ride was especially fun. Easily on par with anything at an American amusement park, except we could ride it as much as we want, in whatever row we wanted. We didn’t even bother getting off – as the ride approached the station, we just motioned to the operator to keep going and we’d just keep on riding. After a while our backs began to hurt. Other rides that we checked out were the log flume ride (at one point you go backwards down a hill), go-kart ride (included in the price !!!), a more traditional rollercoaster, etc. There was even a "drop-zone" type ride, but we’re not that adventurous.
There’s also a huge magic-dancing-fountain with laser light show (a la Las Vegas, sans the people), and a theater for shows. But, there are NO souvenir stands, we found ONE stall selling drinks in the whole place, and no one selling food (except for the food court outside).
By the end of the evening, we’d definitely seen no more than 50 people in the whole park. And since everything is so spread out, we rarely saw anyone. A local girl explained to us that all the rides used to be open until the Prince managed to spend all the King’s money. Although the park was open till 1am (!!), after a couple of hours we were done and called the hotel to be picked up. (the local bus stopped running at 6pm – and there are NO taxis around, so arrange transportation in advance!)The following day we went on a boat tour of the water village Kampung Ayer. An hour cost us $15. (Haggle. Gently. They will try to get much more out of you! Maybe we misunderstood, but our conversation with the water taxi guy went something like this: Him: "$200 one hour". Us: "$15 one hour" (this is what the Irish family told us is the going rate). Him: "OK!") ) There’s hundreds of houses on stilts, schools, mosques, etc. Apparently the population living in the water village is 30,000 strong. After this we walked through a local food market, then we went shopping. On the way to the A/C shopping mall, we passed many stores selling Hollywood top 50 DVD’s for about $4 or $5 each (and by the way, they work fine at home, they are not region-encoded. I’m not sure how much royalties Disney is seeing from those DVD’s, but…)
The shopping mall was a bit of a let-down after the huge malls in Malaysia. We ate at the food court, and although the food was a little better then Jerudong Park’s, we were still disappointed. We checked out the King’s Mosque. Unfortunately we were not able to get in, as it was Friday (it’s very hard to time a short visit to BSB that hits both the Mosque opening schedule and the amusement park schedule!). From the outside, it was very pretty, but after seeing the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, nothing quite compares.
Back to our hotel and the airport for the onward trip to Singapore. We were somewhat nervous that we’d have problems with our tickets – we had purchased them on Royal Air Brunei’s website at the last minute before we left, and chose the option to pick them up at the airport in BSB. To our surprise, it worked like a charm – there was an envelope with our name waiting for us. It still amazes us that we click a bunch of things on a website in the comfort of our home, (on our wireless laptop from bed, I might add) and a ticket appears to be picked up on the other side of the world!