At first glance on a map, Brunei is no more than a dot, a tear-shaped drop of land falling between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. For most visitors, the capital Bandar Seri Begawan serves as no more than a pitstop, a place to refuel, or a staging point from which to explore the thickly-clad interior jungles of Borneo, or the pristine coral reefs that form a cocoon around the northern beaches.
But to pass through in such a fleeting, transitory moment is to do the city – and the 600-year-old sultanate – a serious injustice. Like the bright crimson rambutan fruit that’s piled high at every market stall in summer, the city has a skin that needs to be pulled back to be best savoured.
A whistle-stop tour would see you miss the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, a stunning tribute to the nation’s deep-rooted Islamic faith – built on an artificial lake, the gold-domed landmark dominates daily life. Rush through and you’d also miss its ceremonial halls, royal palace and the “floating” water village, or Kampong Ayer, a cluster of more than 40 connected hamlets built on an 8km-long stretch of the Brunei river. Home to more than 39,000 locals, and with houses, schools, shops, mosques, a hospital – even a police station on stilts – it has to be seen to be believed. It definitely pays to stay longer here than you think.