Sunday, May 11, 2014


5-9 May 2014

This was my second time to Brunei, 7 years later after the first time -a transit on a Royal Brunei flight. Nothing much changed, I felt like I was being transported back to the 80s when I arrived at the airport. To be fair though, the airport is under renovation for modernisation, but the arrival hall has not been upgraded yet. We arrived almost midnight so we were being transported swiftly to our hotel -Radisson by Afiq from our Brunei office. 

Royal Brunei
Shared in flight entertainment. Travel doa was recited before taking off

In flight Nasi minyak

Radisson room

Bandar Sri Begawan (BSB) is a laidback city. Nobody seemed to be in a rush. When we walked, we were given the right of way while the cars patiently waited. I didn't see any motorcycles either, perhaps because cars are cheap! A fresh graduate at our office, Najib (just 1 month working) was driving a VW Polo, which cost about BND30K (about RM78K). For Malaysians, imagine you're earning in RM and the VW Polo costs you only RM30K!

There's no tall building either. Our Brunei office seemed to be the highest building in BSB. Even our hotel is only 6 floors high. BSB city centre is small, we even walked from office back to the hotel on the last day, although we were offered to be sent back.

Radisson hotel
view from office

Our Brunei host was truly gracious and generous. They brought us to eat Japanese, Indian and seafood restaurants for dinner. We were always full and food were always available, alhamdulillah. On the first night we were brought to the Excapade Sushi Bandar, near our office after the boys played futsal. They dropped me and a colleague, Garry at Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah mall to find some souvenirs. Nothing much here (less interesting for me), so we left not long after purchasing some fridge magnets. Since we still had time, we walked to the Waterfront just across the road from Yayasan and took some pictures of Kampung Ayer there. We didn't hop on the boat ride though. After that, we still had time, so we decided to walk to the office and ask the guard there where the Sports complex was.

Yayasan Mall
Kg Ayer
jetty to Kg Ayer

We reached our office after about 10 minutes of walking (BSB really is a small city). Turned out the sports complex was another 5 minutes of walking from the office in the dark alley between the buildings. We wouldn't dare to do this in Malaysia! BSB and Brunei is a safe city; our fresh graduate colleague who was chaperoning us just parked his newly acquired VW Polo at that dark alley! The sports complex iss located in a building at the 8th floor. It has a futsal court, squash courts, separate gymnasium and swimming pool by gender. The swimming pool usage charge is BND5 per person with unlimited time. We then walked for sushi from there.

Futsal court


On the second night, we were joined by another team from KL for dinner at Haleem's Authentic Indian Cuisine at Citi Square. The food was nice, just unfortunate that the palak paneer there tasted a bit bitter. The more senior team from KL then left back to the hotel while the youths continued our adventure to Times City Square (same management as Berjaya Times Square in KL) just next door. There's a hotel here – Times Hotel and a Cinema – Times Cineplex. I asked Aziz, another Brunei freshie how it'd be like with Hudud being implemented in Brunei. He said he heard talks that the cinema will be separated by gender and also by family. Husband and wife would have to carry their marriage card around (this practice is the same in Malaysia). We then had a round of Jollibee (a fast food chain that is not available in Malaysia) sundae. 

Times Cineplex


We then bade farewell to Najib and Aziz as the shops were closing at 10pm (except for the cinema and bowling alley). I then asked Afiq who were supposed to bring us back to the hotel if he could bring us around to see the Istana. He willingly obliged. We were brought around to the Istana Nurul Iman (not opened for public except during Eid) and Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. The mosque was really beautiful with the lights and gold dome. The Istana was heavily guarded so we had to ask for permission to take some pictures at the gates. Permission was granted. 

Masjid Jame'

Istana Nurul Iman

On the way back to the hotel, Afiq told us there are illegal car races around the streets in BSB. We passed by a few groups of cars gathered around, perhaps waiting for the coast to be clear from police patrols.

Next morning was an early rise for me. I decided to check out Tamu Kianggeh, (market) nearby to the hotel and within walking distance. The tamu opens at 6am (it was already bright). Reached there after about 10 minutes of walking. Vegetables, fresh seafood such as prawns and clams (freshly transported in by sampan), dried fish, traditional kuihs (bahulu, bakar, cincin etc) and breakfast dishes (selurut, lupis i.e. ketupat pulat with kuah kacang or glutinuous rice packed in woven palm leaves with sweet nut gravy) are sold here. Ambuyat (according to wikipedia: a dish derived from the interior trunk of the sago palm) is also sold here, but I didn't buy it as I wasn't sure how to eat it.

Sg Kianggeh
Welcome to Tamu Kianggeh
some of the produce were brought in by sampan

kuih for breakfast
selurut (on the left)
ambuyat raw

After finishing work that day, as we walked back to the hotel, we passed by the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and took some pictures there. For dinner, we had seafood at Seaworld Neptune restaurant. Just after we left the restaurant, it rained heavily, the first after a few days of hot spell. I noticed that in Brunei there's a different speed limit for dry and rain conditions.

Sultan Omar Ali mosque
Neptune seafood

Our flight back to KL was at 9am, so we had to check out early at 7am. We reached the airport within 15 minutes. Still early, we thought and went straight into the queue. (We didn't check in online and needed to deposit our bags). Chaos soon ensued as we were told that the system was down (the airport was in the midst of renovation), so the check in process had to be done manually (written down). Luckily we arrived earlier before the queue became long, so we had time to go through the immigration check and wait a bit at the boarding hall. Our flight was just slightly delayed to about 15 minutes taking off, but arrived in KLIA as per schedule.

The visit to Brunei wouldn't be as enjoyable had it not been due to the hospitality extended by our Bruneian host. Thank you very much Brunei for the wonderful experience!


Thursday, May 01, 2014

Beijing: Mutianyu, Tiananmen Sq, Silk Market, Birds Nest


9-12 April 2014

Alhamdulillah for the opportunity to go to Beijing for the second time, although at a very last minute. Heck, my visa was done in a few hours, just a day before the trip. And above all, it was during the height of the unsolved mystery of the missing MH370 flight. It was a mixed feeling of suspense, knowing we'd be following the scheduled route of the missing flight; and being excited to see Beijing again 9 years on.

Our flight code was now changed to MH318 which departed at 1230am and arrived in Beijing 6.35am (a 6 hours flight). Alhamdulillah, we arrived safely, as per schedule. We then took a taxi to Beijing city which took us about 1.5 hours due to the very bad traffic! It was rush hour after all. Apparently, we have taken an unauthorized taxi, whose driver was prying on unsuspecting victims at the arrival hall. We were charged RMB 280, without using the meter.

The Intercontinental Hotel at Beijing Financial Street was fabulous! Snugly bed, spacious room, with kiblah direction to boot! and excellent indoor swimming pool which I had the opportunity to swim a few laps to burn the calories after eating really delicious Chinese food courtesy of our host. Our hosts were really gracious, and giving full interest to our proposition, despite some language barriers here and there. 

Nice room, snugly bed
Kiblah direction in the room!

On the last day after our meeting has finished, we made a detour to Tiananmen Square via the Metro. It was easy navigating our way as there was clear signages in English. It was very cheap also. A one way ticket costs only RMB2 from the point of entrance to the point of exit, regardless the distance of the journey.

The RMB2 single journey ticket
Beijing metro
It was still chilly in April, but despite the chillness, local and tourists alike still thronged the square in the evening. Tiananmen Square is named after Tiananmen gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) of the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is known as the site for important political events and protests. It is a highly secured area with cameras. We had to get our bags checked before entering. This is also done prior to entering the Metro. We didn't go into Forbidden Palace as it was already late at 5pm, just taking pictures outside.

Tiananmen Square

From Tiananmen Square, we headed to the nearby Silk Market via Metro. It was not really a market, but more like a shopping complex with numerous goods sold, such as clothes, shoes, souvenirs, goods made of silk, electronic gadgets, handbags, antiques, carpets and a whole lot more. I only bought some souvenirs here. Counterfeit branded goods are sold here, despite signages showing shoppers to refrain from bargaining and purchasing fake products. Obviously you have to bargain, as the prices quoted are very exorbitant. A colleague suggested to start at 30% of the prices quoted.

Silk Market is more like a departmental store
I'm afraid I couldn't agree to this as there's no marked price, starting prices quoted are exorbitant (so we had to bargain) and the products are most probably not originals

The next day was free for us as the flight back to KL was full so we had to fly out early Sunday morning. We took the opportunity to visit The Great Wall of China via the Mutianyu section of the wall. My first visit to the Great Wall was via the Badaling section. The traffic was really bad on Saturday morning. We only arrived 2.5 hours later despite the distance of only 61km. 

Nice route on the way to Mutianyu Great Wall

There were many tourists already when we arrived at 12noon. We only had until 2pm to spend at the Great Wall. Since it was a steep climb to the wall by hiking and we had only 2 hours, we decided to take the cable car. Cable car return trip cost RMB 80 and the entrance fee cost RMB45, totalling to RMB 125. If you have the time and energy, perhaps you could hike up and down, enjoy the beautiful scenery and be healthy! The Cable Car took us to Tower 14. From there, we walked to the west for about an hour, before turning back to Tower 14 and made our way down. Such a pity we couldn't spend too much time at the Great Wall.

Cable car
Mutianyu entrance

Here is a bit on the history of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall (excerpted from the information at the Mutianyu entrance and Wikipedia):

According to literatures, this section of the Great Wall was built under the supervision of General Xu Dha of Emperor Zhu Yuanzang during the Ming Dynasty. In 1404, a pass was built in the wall. It used to serve as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs It was built in a unique way. Watchtowers and passes were built on the steep mountain, 22 watchtowers on this 2,250-metre-long stretch. Built mainly with granite, the wall is 7–8.5 metres high and the top is 4–5 metres wide. This section of Great Wall is surrounded by woodland and streams. The forest-coverage rate is over 90 percent. 

Excellent view from the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

Before heading back to the city, I bought a bit more souvenirs from the stalls at the foot of the hill of the Wall. Prices were cheaper here than at the Silk Market. A seller was even selling t-shirts for 1USD a piece. Traffic was a bit better heading back to the city as we arrived around 4pm. 

Souvenir stalls at Mutianyu

After an instant noodle meal and solat, I continued the sightseeing to the Olympic centre via the Metro. It was a bit further than Tiananmen Square, about 1 hour from the hotel to reach there, with 3 changes of the Metro line. Although on a Saturday evening, there were throngs of people.

The Bird's Nest and Water Cube were such an architectural marvel. The Bird's Nest, as its name suggested, really looked like a bird's nest, although built with steel while the Water Cube was a simple cube illuminated in blue like bubbles. The water cube colour changed after 7pm, and it was even more beautiful at night with the illumination. 

Changing colours of the water cube

Steel plated bird's nest

I quickly returned back to the hotel after some picture takings and selfies (I was alone) and reached back the hotel at 8.30pm, just enough time for a bit of rest before the taxi would come and fetch us at 10.30pm. Our flight that night was scheduled at 1.30am. We arrived at the airport at around 11pm, took us about half an hour only compared to 1 hour plus during our arrival due to rush hour. Goodbye Beijing, thank you for the hospitality showered to us, a contrast to what the media were reporting about the hostilities between Malaysia and China. Heck, a Chinese woman even asked to take a picture with me at the Bird's Nest, seeing I was a bit 'different' from the rest.