BRUNEI:  ASIA'S  BEST-KEPT  SECRET

MANILA, January 10, 2006 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - There are some places that you have to come back to in order to discover them for the first time. The Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam is definitely one of them.

I once explored this place known as the Abode of Peace. Its golden-domed mosques draped and dripping with precious jewels, its monolithic billionth-barrel-of-oil monument, the Royal Regalia museum featuring expensive gifts from heads of state for the royal family, as well as the palatial Istana Nurul Iman and the luxurious Empire Hotel and Country Club. The homes of its people who imbibe the culture of love, kindness and peace are the most valuable treasures that lie beneath these gilded structures.

Just an hour-and-45-minute flight away from Manila, Brunei is a magical place where unexplored jungles, glorious waterfalls and remote coastlines are rigorously protected, where a peaceful existence prevails, air pollution is unknown, and traffic is virtually non-existent even if there are more cars than people. The crime rate is literally zero, having been constantly voted as one of the topmost, preferred places to live in Asia.

Little is known about this tiny but wealthy kingdom where Islam is the main religion. Brunei has maintained its stature as a peace-loving country, as it allows the practice of other faiths such as Christianity and Buddhism. In the company of 23 gregarious companions composed of my close friends and entire family with their children in tow, we discovered many valuable lessons about love, life and friendship in Brunei, where we welcomed the new year 2006.

At the modern airport in Bandar Seri Begawan, the nation’s capital, we were met by our gracious hosts Anyati Orcullo Abdullah, a Filipina married to Haji Besar bin Haji Mahmud, and their four-year-old daughter Amali. Together with their sons Haji Suhaimi bin Haji Besar and wife Hajah Azamah binti Dato Seri Laila, Capt. Haji Omar bin Haji Besar and wife Salvia binti Jafar, we were welcomed in their lovely home where we met senior education officer Merusin bin Saleh and his Filipina wife Judy, and their children Alyanna and Azhmir, Janet Lueckenhausen and Kevin Britten, as we feasted on home-cooked satays, noodles and exotic treats.

We then proceeded to the magnificent Empire Hotel and Country Club, where we met up with Mike Mina, a charming Filipino interior designer in charge of special projects, and PR and marketing directress Jennifer Kang.

A resplendent empire spread over 150 hectares of lush gardens overlooking the South China Sea, Brunei’s premier and only beachside resort is ideal for the discriminating traveler looking for a sensational escape. Swathed in the finest Italian marble, Murano glass, Baccarat and Swarovski crystals, it has over 360 opulently appointed rooms, 63 suites and 16 secluded villas. The rails of the sweeping staircase in the lobby are laden with 370 pieces of precious tiger’s eye. My precocious nieces Alexandra and Samantha Dayrit asked, "How many tigers did they have to kill?" My eldest sister Jaqui Boncan jovially quipped, "Tiger’s eye is a precious rock obtained from a specific mountain!" Our infectious laughter resonated in the soaring atrium with real gold encrusted on the ceiling and pillars. Former US President Bill Clinton was so impressed with the Empire Hotel when he attended the APEC 2000 CEO’s Summit Meeting in Brunei that he returned after his term to savor the impressive resort further.

A major highlight of the hotel is the majestic splendor of its Italian duvet comforters made of baby goose-down feathers that will surely guarantee sweet slumber. Even our family friends Tito Tony "Onyot" Garcia and lettuce king Lyndon Tan, who habitually awaken at the crack of dawn, slept till midday. Our jaws dropped at the sight of the most luxurious 18-hole flood-lit golf course and sports center where we had our Dayrit family sports challenge – indoor marble swimming pool, air-conditioned Taraflex badminton court, posh bowling lanes with lounging couches in royal blue velvet upholstery and three state-of-the-art cinemas currently showing The Chronicles of Narnia that Allure’s Bum Tenorio and our ace photographer Noah Manarang simply loved.

Brunei lies on Borneo’s northwestern shore and has a land area of 5,765 square km. Over the last six centuries, a powerful and very stable monarchy has taken good care of its people. His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanai Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah is well-loved. People are content here as oil pays for everything; free healthcare, education and other services, no income tax, interest-free housing loans, cheap cars and cut-price fuel. A liter of diesel costs P9, gas costs P15 a liter. Though Malay is the official language, English is widely spoken, having been a British protectorate till 1984.

Bruneians go to school for free from preschool to university for those enrolled in state-owned schools. There are several private schools and two International Schools where expatriates send their children. For the secondary and tertiary level, Bruneian students get a monthly allowance of B$300 dollars, equivalent to P10,000. They have allowances for uniforms, books, eyeglasses and gasoline for those who live eight kilometers away from school. Hostels are provided for those students who live in other districts and meals are served for free. The government offers scholarships to outstanding students who are sent to prominent schools in the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and the USA. There are around 7,000 Bruneian students on scholarship each year in the UK alone. In fact, Bruneians can stay without a visa for six months in the UK and for three months in the US. The drive for excellence and justification for higher education is inevitable as Bruneians attest that there is no reason not to succeed.

In Brunei, health is wealth. One can give birth either the normal or cesarean way for only B$1 dollar or P30. All newborn babies are well taken care of by nurses and midwives. In the event that a serious case cannot be handled in the country, a Bruneian patient can be sent to Singapore or the USA by the government for further treatment for free.

We boarded a water taxi and skimmed through the "Kampung Ayer" or Venice of the East, the capital’s sprawling water village of markets, mosques, schools, medical clinics and homes to 30,000 inhabitants. From their balconies, one can see the mosque’s glistening minarets rising above multi-hued, garden-draped homes. My niece, UST architecture senior Nikki Boncan (who just won in the CCP national design contest), was impressed with the splendid architecture of these golden orbs. Though high technology is evident here, beyond the cold blinking faces of computer screens and beneath the hum of modems, Kampung Ayer’s heart still dances to an ancient rhythm.

We toured the elegant Rizqun Hotel that, which formally open in April. Over a hearty buffet dinner at its café, Awang Haji Suhaimie Bin Haji Besar, who manages the family-owned property, shared that Bruneians value close family ties with Fridays and Sundays spent praying at the mosques or attending weddings. They also have a penchant for collecting cars from Volvo to Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Ferrari. (Even the fireman drives a Lexus.) The entire population of Brunei is approximately 348,000 but there are 450,000 cars in the country. An average Bruneian family can own three to four cars; others have 30 to 60 cars in their garage. Cars are affordable as import tax is subsidized. Bruneian students on scholarship abroad, especially in the UK, can purchase any car they want and ship them back to Brunei for free. Bruneians can buy and change cars as fast as they change mobile phones. During Formula One car-racing events in Kuala Lumpur, Brunei car enthusiasts chartered Royal Brunei Airlines to watch the race for a day.

A must-visit is the Royal Regalia Building, situated at the heart of Bandar, with its unique collection of royal artifacts, coronation crowns, chariots and an impressive array of gold and silver ceremonial armory.

This sun-washed jewel clenched between the South China Sea and northern Borneo rain forest may be one of the world’s smallest countries, yet it ranks among the richest. This bountiful place will stun you with its beauty as you emerge from the realm of fairy tale into reality. Simply stated, such royal flair – a world beyond compare.

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For inquiries, call The Empire Hotel & Country Club at (673)241-8888, fax (673)241-8989, e-mail sales@theempirehotel.com, or visit www.theempirehotel.com.

Royal Brunei Airline flies direct to Bandar Seri Begawan. Call Chili Pefianco of Mega Borneo Tour Planners at 0918-909-7358 or visit www.asiantraveller.com.

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E-mail the author at miladay_star@yahoo.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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