BEYOND  BRUNEI

MANILA,
August 23, 2005 
(STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - There is magic in the rejuvenating power of travel, for a journey away from home can actually take us deep inside ourselves. Discovering a new culture is as dramatic as stepping inside a movie screen of an era or milieu of your choice. At its best, travel is not only a change from our everyday lives but an intensification of life, enhancing our appreciation of the world around us, opening our minds to new perspectives.

My friends and I recently took this most luxurious path en route towards this special kind of freedom as we hied off to Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of the spectacular sultanate of Brunei Darussalam via Royal Brunei Airlines. Our tour leader, El Camino Travel’s Vernon Prieto, the only one among us who had visited this peaceful haven many times, assured us of an exhilarating sojourn in this magical land of unexpected treasures.

Located in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo, along the shores of the South China Sea, lies the Islamic Sultanate of Brunei. Negara Brunei Darussalam, which translates as "Brunei-the Abode of Peace," is one of the world’s richest countries due to its reserves of oil, even if it is the smallest oil-producing country in the world with a land area of 5,765 square kilometers. It has a population of 320,000 and English is widely spoken.

His Majesty Sultan Hajji Hassanal Bolkiah, who belongs to a 600-year-old monarchy, presides over his fairy-tale kingdom from opulent offices in the world’s largest residence, the Istana Nurul Iman, a palace with 1,788 rooms, almost half the size of a small country, some 200,000 square meters compared with the Vatican City’s 440,000 square meters. Original Renoirs adorn the walls of the resplendent palace, while Louis XIV furniture abounds in the reception chambers. The giant underground parking lot could service a shopping mall.

From the modern airport, we proceeded to the six-star Empire Hotel and Country Club just 15 minutes’ drive away. A resplendent empire of regal luxury, striking architecture and tranquility, Brunei’s premier and only beachside resort is ideal for the discriminating traveler looking for a sensational escape from the everyday. One of the world’s most fabulous resorts, this monument to luxury is truly a gem of a kingdom, spread over 150 hectares of lush tropical gardens overlooking the South China Sea.

This palatial beachside resort swathed in the finest marble and shimmering gold leaf, Murano, Baccarat and Swarovski crystals features more than 360 opulently appointed rooms, 63 suites and 16 secluded villas. The hotel’s very own Empire Emporium, elegant Jim Thompson Boutique, Waterford & Wedgwood Boutique and Crimson Square owned by Shalana Haji Aliaman in the Empire Arcade were our favorite shopping places. The gold-plated balusters of the sweeping staircase in the lobby are laden with 370 precious tiger-eyes. The handrails are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and semi-precious stones from the Philippines. The bedrooms reek of majestic splendor with their goosedown duvet covers and pure Egyptian cotton bed linens guaranteeing sweet slumber, while the huge marble baths with glass-enclosed showers are simply lavish.

As the gracious Empire’s PR and marketing communications director Jennifer Kang and special projects manager Mike Mina, a Filipino interior designer working here since the hotel’s inception, toured us around the Country Club, we were awed by the fully-functional revue theater capable of handling musical and theatrical productions, three state-of-the-art cinemas with three movie halls screening the latest releases, and fully air-conditioned taraflex badminton courts. Other amenities include the heated Roman spa-type indoor pools, modern bowling lanes, water sports, parasailing and scuba diving, and a delightful spa.

Even the employees/staff house is luxurious, replete with all the top-of-the-line appliances, plus an amazing sports complex with badminton, basketball and tennis courts, swimming pool and more. No wonder genuine smiles are infectious around here. Mike quipped, "When the heart is happy, everything follows."

To top this, Butch Bonsol and I had a heavenly time as we played golf at the sensational floodlit 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed championship course voted Asia’s leading golf resort by the World Travel Awards 2004. Culinary excellence at their restaurants is tops, like the dim sum brunch at Li Gong, seafood barbecue buffet at Pantai Restaurant, buffet breakfast and afternoon high tea of freshly baked scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam at the E-Club Lounge. Even kids are pampered at the E-Kids Club with a daily set of activities to keep them entertained. After realizing what a perfect place this is for a wholesome family vacation, I immediately made bookings with Vernon to take my family of 20 on a Brunei-Bali trip for our annual Christmas vacation.

World-renowned figures and celebrities, like President Bill Clinton, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, King Abdullah bin Hussein of Jordan, King Karl Gustav of Sweden, Prince Andrew of the United Kingdom, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Ronan Keating, Asian diva Anita Sarawak, Guide Michelin star chef Michel Roux, James Ingram, Gareth Gates, Jensen Button, and our very own President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, among others, count as hosted guests of the award-winning Empire Hotel and Country Club.

From downtown, we skimmed along in a water taxi on the Brunei River for three minutes to reach Kampong Ayer, the capital’s famed "water village" on stilts where 30,000 people live in large comfortable dwellings with the latest model plasma screens and other electronics. Our Filipino tour guide Eric of Golden Touch Holidays echoed the common view that "People here are content as oil pays for everything: Free healthcare, education and other services, no income tax, interest-free housing loans, cheap cars and cut-price fuel. Consider this: a liter of mineral water costs a dollar whereas a liter of gas costs only 53 cents, a liter of diesel oil costs 33 cents." About 60 percent of Bruneians fill well-paid government jobs. A GDP of around $4.2 billion ensures high living standards. The literacy rate is impressive, infant mortality is low and life expectancy long. Infrastructure and telecommunications are highly developed. For the locals, drinking alcohol in public is prohibited, but guests can bring along their alcohol bottles and consume them in some restaurants. Criminals and beggars are practically non-existent, making Bandar Seri Begawan one of Asia’s most relaxed and safe capitals to walk around in.

Brunei is truly an intoxicating blend of wonders: From the pristine beauty of the million-year-old rainforests to the state-of-the-art theme park Jerudong Park Playground, the towering minarets of the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and Royal Regalia museum, quaint Kampong Ayer and traditional culture. Home to many varieties of fauna and flora, the unspoiled rainforest of Temburong District is unparalleled in its natural beauty. Like teeners in a summer camp, we trekked with unfathomable energy the over-1,200 steps, then climbed an aluminum steel ladder 150 feet to experience a breathtaking overview of the 50,000 hectares of the National State Park, where the amusing proboscis monkey thrives among other endemic animals.

It was heartwarming to realize that this enchanting sultanate of Brunei, once tainted by the Senate hearings on so-called Brunei beauties, is actually a peaceful haven where the mighty Sultan takes care of the needs of his people who in turn care for each other. In fact, Brunei is our modern-day utopia, a microcosm of the way the world ought to be. Each Friday, the Bruneians wholeheartedly troop to their gold and crystal-laden mosques to thank Allah for all their blessings. They have every reason to. After all, fairy tales do come true. In Brunei, they still do.

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For details, visit www.theempirehotel.com. or e-mail Brunei Tourism at info@tourismbrunei.com. For package tours, call El Camino Travel and Events at 521-1588. Royal Brunei flies to Bandar Seri Begawan five times a week, except Thursday and Sunday. For reservations, call 897-3309.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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