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Unveiling Brunei’s Bejewelled Gardens

Safe behind her government’s cautious development, Brunei’s best kept secret is its truly untouched natural beauty, hidden from the world yet waiting to be explored.

Words: Ari Vanuaranu

My late father used to keep piles of gardening books with different themes which I often browsed through out of curiosity. I was fascinated by the grandeur of the gardens of Versailles and the tranquil replication of nature in Chinese gardens, but one particular type of garden stood out in my young mind. It was the riad, the hidden garden found in Islamic countries around the Middle East. Resplendent with beautiful hues of green and blue, it is designed to mimic paradise in Islamic tradition, which is a garden surrounded by high walls.

     I never understood the logic behind hiding such beauty until I visited Brunei recently, as an adult. Aside from the known fact that it is rich in oil, the tiny sultanate is in fact a hidden gem rich in natural attractions both on land and off-shore. But just as the Acting Director of Brunei’s Tourism Development Department told me, Brunei is very careful in developing their tourism sector. Madam Mariani explained that her government wants to preserve their nature the best they can so that it won’t end up being endangered by careless development. Indeed, the next few days that I spent enjoying Brunei’s natural beauty have shown the benefit of such policy.

Woods of Emerald Green

A leisurely ride up Temburong and Belalong rivers © Freme Travel Services Sdn Bhd Brunei

We started off our adventure with a long ride from Batang Duri to Ulu Temburong National Park. I inhaled deeply, smelling the scents of the green surroundings and freshwater all around me. Our long boat went upriver to reach Ulu-ulu Resort. Fond memories of my hometown on the Indonesian side of Borneo were playing inside my head–how familiar yet different my trip has been so far. In contrast of the off-the-beaten-path we have back home, everything here modernized with the utmost concern for safety and with the most comfortable amenities. The resort itself is a perfect example of what I had in mind, with all the facilities you can ask for in a 3-star resort. Located right smack in the middle of the lush woods, it makes a perfect setting for adventurers seeking the wildlife or even those who want to find solace in the jungle.

Safety comes first, so listen carefully to your guide!

     I spent the afternoon enjoying the many fun activities along with the many interesting groups of people I got to meet at the resort. First, we went kayaking upriver. The water around the resort proved to be a mild challenge so we were able to go quite far, meeting friendly locals who were busy with their daily chores on the river.

Even Bruneian royalties love spending their time in this resort…surrounded by nature.

     Next, it was tubing downriver. I experimented with various positions looking for the best one to navigate the river with but ended up letting the river set my course as I took in the sights and sounds of my verdant surroundings. For a short moment in time, I forgot about all the troubles in the world and it was only Mother Nature and me.

Keep your eyes open as wide as possible or you might miss these amazing night creatures.

     Alas, my ever-dormant muscles had to pay the consequences the evening after. Still I insisted on participating in a night walk organized by our friendly guides.  The idea of a walk in the great unknown jungle is simply exciting, and the prospect of seeing curious night creatures was just too tempting for me to deny. Both excited and wary, our small group braved through the pitch black jungle. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet the most sought-after leading stars like hornbills or tarsiers, but our knowledgeable guides kept us entertained by showing us various reptiles and insects in their marvellous habitat.

Breathtaking view awaits you on top of the canopy walk

     Waking up right before the sun rises is an amazing feat for me, but to be able to enjoy the beautiful sunrise at the top of a canopy walk was simply beyond amazing. There were (only) about 1226 steps to climb though it felt like a million steps as my legs protested and my lungs were gasping for air. Needless to say, I crawled my way to the top. The view on the way up was lovely, with mist shrouding the tree tops and chirping birds out and about to greet the first ray of the morning sun. Standing on one of the five towers, I was breathless (from the exercise and the view). These are the rainforests which produce the air we breathe, the very essence of our being. That moment of profoundness could have gone on and on but I was interrupted by swarming bees ever stubbornly congregating around my sweet self. See me run! 

     The island Borneo is called the “Lung of the World” for a good reason and I am proud of it. With more than 70 percent of Brunei covered by tropical rainforests, Brunei is truly a nature lover’s paradise.

Waters of Sapphire Blue

Diving in Brunei is for everyone. Just know your level and dive right into the blue! © Oceanic Quest Brunei

That first plunge into the water when you dive has always been a daunting experience for me. I don’t know whether it is the sensation of that cold air from the tank filling your lungs or maybe it’s the change your senses have to go through as you immerse your whole self into H2O – it certainly got my blood rushing. And of course, that long torturous boat ride that makes one feel like you’re coursing through the rough waters to impending doom. 

Coral reefs are rainforests of the sea © Oceanic Quest (Brunei)

     Fortunately for me, Brunei has various diving sites which can cater to different crowds with the shortest distance of 15 minutes boat ride. Brunei was not exactly a name that popped up in my mind when I think about diving sites in Southeast Asia. Diving sites in Thailand and Malaysia are of course very established and well-promoted. Philippines and Indonesia are naturally rich with diving sites as island countries. But Brunei? I felt embarrassed for being so ignorant, because as it turned out, the waters off the sultanate’s coast are blessed with rich biodiversity and beauty beyond words.

Various corals and fish make shipwrecks like this one their home, creating amazing wonderlands for divers © Oceanic Quest (Brunei)

     Not so far from the coast are vast coral reefs swarming with spectacular marine life like Brunei Patch, Princess Avenue, Clownfish Avenue and Burn’s Patch. More experienced divers will be delighted with the selection of more challenging reefs and the star of diving in Brunei – shipwreck diving. I lamented on my lack of diving skill, thinking of how nice it would be to weave over decks, cabins, control rooms and passing the bridges of sunken ships while hanging around the likes of Batfishes, Cardinal Fishes, Peacock Groupers or Yellow-tailed Barracudas. Hearing the more experienced members of our group talked about their dive in glee has prompted me to vow to return once I’ve gained some diving experiences.

The Riad I Found

Opulent buildings such as this Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque stand tall in the country’s capital as witnesses for Brunei’s wealth

Back in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, our guide took us around to see magnificent mosques and royal buildings. And there it was, I saw Brunei as a one huge riad. I saw rainforests, waters offshore, rivers, water villages and gold domes as garden’s plants; fountains; gilded ornaments and colourful mosaics of blue and green. Seeing Brunei’s natural beauty was very much a privilege, much like one you’ll get if you’re lucky enough to be in invited into an intricate riad behind the unassuming plain walls in Morocco.

     The country prospered mainly because of the wealth underground. However, the treasures above its ground have been kept largely free of harmful activities, saving them for Bruneians to reap benefits from. Brunei is doing a good job so far in keeping up the wall which protects the beautiful garden inside, but who knows what’s going to happen in the next few decades? The time to visit is now, and I am proud to say that I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to this amazing country.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Brunei from Kuala Lumpur and various other destinations via Fly-Thru. For flight information and the lowest airfares, go to www.airasia.com.

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