Inside the Sultan's Palace
If shaking hands with royalty is your thing, and you happen to be in Brunei for the Hari Raya Aidil Fitri festivities at the end of Ramadan, be sure to call in on the sultan at Istana Nurul Iman, his 1788-room primary residence. In keeping with the local tradition of hosting an open house, during which guests are welcomed into the home and plied with a buffet of curries, dried fruit and cake, the royal family receives members of the public at his palace in morning and afternoon sessions for three days. There is no need for an invitation; simply turn up and join the queue (arriving early means a shorter wait). Bruneians will be dressed in their best clothes, some in outfits made especially for the occasion using brightly patterned materials, so wear something modest and reasonably smart.
After piling your plate high with a selection of curries and making multiple trips to the cake table at the free banquet, you'll have to join a gender-segregated queue for the initial waiting area, where seats are provided and Hari Raya pop songs are played on a loop on the big screen to keep the crowds entertained. You may have to wait for up to three hours before you pass through a magnificent banquet hall, where you will sit and wait again (for around an hour) before being ushered along a marble walkway beneath a sinuous wooden ceiling to one of the royal reception rooms, with crystal 'tears' dangling from the ceiling and Quran verses imprinted on the rich green upholstery. There you will shake hands with the sultan (if you are a man) or the queen (if you are a woman), who receive guests in separate rooms, along with other members of the royal family. Each visitor is given a goody box on the way out, containing a cake and a Hari Raya greeting card with a photo of the sultan.
If your moment with the sultan or queen feels all too fleeting, bear in mind that they will greet up to 50,000 people a day during the festivities.
Worth a Trip: Jerudong
For much of the 1990s the sultan's younger brother and Brunei's then finance minister, Prince Jefri, was renowned for the extravagance of both his personal and public spending. The legacy of the latter lives on in the neighbourhood of Jerudong, an area so enveloped with Las Vegas–style bling that there is even a roundabout adorned with a giant replica diamond ring.
Amid the rows of mansions lie the Jerudong Park Polo Club (the sultan himself is a keen polo player) and Jerudong Park Medical Centre.
Back in the golden days, a concert hall hosted free shows by the likes of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, the latter to celebrate the sultan's 50th birthday in 1996. But in 1997 the party came to a halt when Prince Jefri (dubbed the Playboy Prince) was accused by the Brunei government of embezzling billions of dollars of state funds. After a long dispute involving a series of court cases, Prince Jefri now seems to have been welcomed back into the fold.
Nowhere sums up the legacy of Prince Jefri more than Jerudong Park Playground, a rather tame amusement park. It's a great place to bring kids, but despite a facelift the park continues to feel underused and rather empty. In its 1990s heyday this B$1 billion attraction was the pride of Brunei, and the only major modern amusement park in Southeast Asia. Bruneians who were teenagers then have fond memories of the rides – all of them free – which included a roller coaster. Although the new attractions may be no match for the golden days, the place still evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
The Empire Hotel & Country Club, commissioned by Prince Jefri at a cost of US$1.1 billion, is worth a visit if only to gawp at the cavernous, glass atrium and US$500,000 lamp made of gold and Baccarat crystal in the lobby. For B$25 you can use the seafront swimming-pool complex, and the hotel also has eight restaurants, including the overpriced and disappointing Pantai. The resort even has its own three-screen cinema.
Jerudong, which lies 20km northwest of BSB, is difficult to explore without private transport, although the 57 bus from the city centre will take you as far as the Empire Hotel.