The Sultanate of Brunei is located on the island of Borneo. Around 16 million people live on the island which is also shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. Apart from its coastline with the South China Sea, it is surrounded by the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. The powerful sultanate gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1984 and two things spring to mind at the mention of its name money and oil.
The head of state is His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam. He is the 29th ruler of his line, which began with Sultan Muhammad in 1405.
The royal family is very well liked. People live tax free, enjoy free education, health care and home loans.
Bruneians are predominantly Malay, though significant Chinese, Indian and indigenous Bornean populations add to the cultural makeup of Brunei. Its blend of cultures, customs, beliefs and customs is very similar to that of Malaysia. The nation's official language is Malay, but English is widely spoken by most and signs are written in Roman script.
Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of Brunei and is where most visitors spend their time. Known as BSB, most of its sights can be seen in a day. Most of the city is clean and modern and spread along the northern bank of the Brunei River.
Across the river, though, it's a different picture. Kampong Ayer is the world's largest water village, home to around 30,000 people. As recently as 100 years ago, all people in Brunei lived in water villages. Those at Kampong Ayer choose to remain in their watery homes, not because of the need for money, but to uphold tradition.
The village is built of stilt houses and wooden walkways and is a cluster of forty-two floating suburbs. There are mini markets, restaurants, schools, fire station, police station and even a barber shop. It's easy to have a look around just take a water taxi and guide. Some open to tourists for a small donation, and maybe they will offer a cup of morning tea. People are open and friendly.
Something exciting to do is join a proboscis monkey river safari. You cruise along the Brunei River, past the water village and the capital a great way to experience two different worlds.
You will pass the 1788 room Istana Nurul Iman, the world's largest residential palace and official residence of The Sultan. His home is said to be four times the size of Buckingham Palace. The safari cruises slowly under mangrove trees where you will see myriad marine and bird life.
Everyone is always on the lookout for the proboscis monkey, a rare and endangered primate. The odd-looking monkeys go to drink early in the morning and at dusk. Males have large, bright orange pendulous noses, and Borneo and Sumatra are the only places in the world you will see them in their natural state. There can be up to 10 families of around 20 in each group. Something to behold. You can trek to find them, but a cruise just half an hour from the city is a much easier option.
Back in Bandar, you will find a vibrant and peaceful place, both modern and timeless. The centre of Brunei's commerce, finance and government, it is also the heart of the country's cultural landscape.
The Brunei Museum has elaborate displays of antique cannon and intricate daggers, a large private collection of gilded Korans, Borneo ethnographic displays and treasures from shipwrecks off Brunei's coast.
The Royal Regalia Museum is one of many highlighting the nation's 600-year-old monarchy and century-spanning history. Visitors can see the Sultan's full royal regalia, including the crown and royal chariot, as well as a vast collection of opulent treasures.
Although Brunei has embraced Islam and its art, there is still evidence of culture and architecture from its colonial days. The quaint House of Twelve Roofs is British in its architecture and has been transformed into a museum and venue for entertaining foreign dignitaries.
The Mausoleum of Sultan Bolkiah pays tribute to one of Brunei's greatest Sultans who reigned at the height of Brunei's sovereignty in the region. It is a peaceful area in a quiet alcove of greenery and shows the deep respect of the Bruneian people for their rich heritage.
If you want colour, beauty and excitement, Gadong Outdoor Market is the place to go on Friday and Sunday mornings. Over eighty stalls sell a plethora of plants and flowers and gardening paraphernalia. It is a small jungle with masses of orchids, bougainvillea and roses.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club has 63 lavish suites and two-storey villas and 360 five-star rooms, eight pools and an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It sprawls over 180 hectares on a shoulder of the South China Sea and began life as a play place for an errant member of the royal family.
The entire experience is unbelievable. Its 12 storey marble and gold lobby is cavernous and is usually busy with even the most blasé of people taking pictures. Built in a style befitting the image of the Sultan's palace, the banisters in the main lobby are finished in 21 carat gold, inlaid with tiger-eye stones, lapis lazuli and malachite. Seven inlaid Fazioli grand pianos are scattered throughout public areas and there is enough New Zealand wool carpet to cover sixteen basketball courts. It is interwoven with metallic yarn made of laminated aluminium foil and transparent gold film.
All furniture, furnishings, chandeliers and table lamps were imported from Italy and France, and there are several Swarovski chandeliers from Austria. Two of only four in the world crystal and gold Baccarat camels are on display. As would be expected, there is Italian marble in thick slabs just about everywhere.
It may have been the last extravagant burst of excess by Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the younger brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, before the infuriated ruler drove his sibling into exile and staged a fire sale of all the goods the latter had accumulated in 13 years as finance minister and head of the Brunei Investment Agency.