A Stately Pleasure Dome
The royal family parks the royal Hummer at the Empire Hotel The Empire Hotel and Country Club, sprawled over 180 hectares on a shoulder of the South China Sea in Brunei, boasts a 12-storey marble and gold-lined lobby so cavernous that astounded tourists can be found at almost any time of the day trying to figure out how to fit all that glitter and shine into their digital viewfinders.
The Empire began life as a plaything for an errant member of the royal family and bills itself as a seven-star hotel in a world that mostly stops at five. In fact, its rating should probably be calibrated in Islamic crescents: despite its over-the-top appointments, the hotel, one of about 15 for tourists in the Sultanate, carefully observes Muslim dietary rules—no bacon for breakfast, no pork on the menu, no liquor served officially on the premises (although the restaurants allow guests to bring it discreetly to the table and pour it out of sight into blue glasses to disguise the color.)
Forests and Mosques
You are at the Empire and you tire of wretched excess. You wake up refreshed and hangover free. Enjoy Brunei’s undeniably exciting ecotourism experience – there are white-water rivers, waterfalls, longhouses, deep jungle and uncounted species of flora and fauna. A full 75 percent of the Sultanate is covered by primary jungle.
And there is the tower. It takes considerable nerve to climb a 50-meter treetop observation platform but it is worth it for the chance to see hornbills and an astonishing variety of other bird life. The platform, which seems shakier at the top than it really is, is in the middle of the 50,000-hectare Ulu Temburong National Forest, reachable only by boat. The cruise from Bandar Sri Begawan, the country’s capital, to the upriver town of Temburong is an exhilarating hour-long ride in a boat driven by twin V6 Yamaha outboards through mangroves where saltwater crocodiles sun themselves at low tide. For those with brio, they can sit on top as the boat flies through the water. But hang on.
From there the trip into the Temburong forest is by longboats poled by native boatmen. While there are other forest areas that are equally spectacular, the national forest is the most easily accessible and you can get back to the hotel in time for lemonade hour.
For those not willing to trek, there remains some flatland tourism as well, including, for Muslim visitors, some of the most elaborate mosques in Southeast Asia, with the number of turrets on each growing with each successive sultan. Thus the mosque of Sultan Omar, Hassanal Bolkiah's father, bristles with 29 of them. Hassanal's has 30. That of the Crown Prince, already built, has 31. Each of the mosques contains vast amounts of gold, crystal and carpeting. For non-Muslim tourists they remain an attraction for their opulence.
Closer to the Empire’s grandiosity, the water village in Bandar Sri Bagawan at the mouth of the Brunei River boasts 30,000 houses on stilts. It is a picturesque community reached by scores of racing water taxis available at the wave of a hand from shore. The water village, or kampong ayer in Malay, remains much as it has been since the 16th century, although today virtually every house has at least one satellite dish and sometimes as many as three.
Getting there: Royal Brunei Air, the sultanate’s flag carrier, serves several destinations in Asia and Australia as well as London and Frankfurt in Europe and Sharjah, Dubai and Jeddah with a well-kept, modern air fleet. And for the Muslim passengers, the familiar tones, “Allahu Akhbar, Al muarhim…” echo from the cockpit on every flight. But for the non-Muslims, the plane is as dry as Brunei itself.
It is a property that illustrates both the potential and the problems of Brunei as it seeks to diversify itself from an economy overwhelmingly dependent on oil and gas before its fossil fuel reserves run out over the next 10 to 20 years.
On the tourism side, some officials privately express disappointment that strict religious laws, for example, impinge on the hotels, leaving non-devout guests to spend the cocktail hour wondering why they can’t have a drink. Occupancy at the Empire is said to run between 30 and 40 percent, although hotel officials won't comment. It remains the government's lead hotel for conventions and government delegations, however, to make up income.
Not that there isn’t plenty to marvel at while your liver also takes a holiday. The Empire’s in-house country club, for example, boasts an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus that is floodlit for night play and is a major draw across Southeast Asia. The hotel’s “Golf escape to the Empire” features three days and two nights plus two rounds of golf on lush, scenic fairways. It is just one of a flock of golf courses in a country that is never hit by typhoons and where the weather varies almost not at all from day to day.
The Empire itself is sumptuous beyond belief, with immaculate gardens, but sometimes attention to detail lags. Some chairs in the Atrium Restaurant need recovering and lemonade is disappointingly served from plastic bottles at the table rather than being made fresh. The hotel staff, while desperately eager to please, sometimes seem equally inexperienced at how to do so. Still, it must be the capstone of Brunei’s tourism effort, simply because it is so completely outside the experience of anything else in Brunei – and maybe the rest of Southeast Asia. Its 360 guestrooms and 63 lavish suites and two-storey villas 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.
The Empire took six years to build, employing more than 200 architects and designers from the Australian architectural firm of McKerrell Lynch, starting in 1994 and ending about the time the sultan bounced Jefri out of the country. Local residents say Jefri created the edifice as a palace for the visiting nobility, movie stars and assorted hangers-on that made up his entourage. The bone china, custom-designed by Asprey of London and embossed with the initials JP, actually stood for Jefri’s Palace, they say, although hotel officials insist that they stand for Jerudong Park Hotels, the government entity that now owns the property. At least one entire dinner service was manufactured from titanium.
Certainly nobody who had anything to do with the design had conventional business economics in mind. The banisters of the main lobby are finished in 21 karat gold, inlaid with 370 tiger-eye stones, lapis lazuli and malachite. What looks like gilt is actually gold throughout the place. The executive suite is 675 sq meters (7,265 sq. ft) in size and includes a private indoor swimming pool and full-size movie screen. Seven inlaid Fazioli grand pianos, which sell for as much as US$160,000 each, litter the public areas of the hotel. The one programmed by computer to play itself must be the world’s most expensive player piano.
In keeping with Islamic practice, the lavish disco is largely off limits to the hoi polloi. The Baze, as it’s called, is used for private events and functions only, including, on a recent Saturday night during a visit by The Asia Sentinel, one hosted by members of the royal family and attended by a flock of American rock musicians and minor celebrities. Locals insisted that Justin Timberlake, the American pop heartthrob who once shared a bed with Britney Spears and is now linked to actress Cameron Diaz, attended. The hotel closely guards the identities of its celebrity guests and denied he was there.
What his presence or non-presence illustrates is the apparent separation of the royal family’s lifestyle from that of its subjects. The royal family’s fabled riches have lured the likes of Bill Clinton and flocks of movie stars to Brunei, but the increasingly strict Islamic laws are a deterrent to a wider clientele. An extensive new Sharia court to adjudicate Islamic law is gradually taking over from the English common law left over from the sultanate’s decades as a British protectorate, although Sharia law doesn’t apply to non-Muslims. One recent Australian group sounding out the Empire for a convention for 1,000 people turned Brunei down because of its liquor laws. Tourists are allowed two liters of spirits or wine plus 12 cans of beer, but they must remember to buy it before they arrive—and if they don’t, it’s difficult to get into the local community quickly enough to avail themselves of the wide-open delivery of hooch from across the border in Malaysia. This maybe a draw, of course, to devout Asian Muslims who are sometimes appalled at the licentious behavior on display in traditional tourism destinations like Thailand and even Bali.
Certainly there is nothing even vaguely down-market here, except of course for the lemonade. The builders even eschewed common marble tile in the place. All the marble, imported from Italy, is at least 20mm thick and in slabs. There is enough hand-tufted New Zealand wool carpet, interwoven with metallic yarn made of laminated aluminum foil and transparent gold film, to cover 16 basketball courts. All furniture, furnishings, chandeliers and table lamps were brought in from Italy and France, including several Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Decorative collections include two stunning crystal and gold camels from Baccarat—of only four in the world.
But it is the lobby that for better or worse is the hotel’s signature. It is at least partly supported by massive columns standing on 30-foot pedestals topped by alternating green, white and gold filigreed marble rising up to what appear to be Doric capitals, then another span of marble above that, rising to yet other capitals, these Corinthian.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge never saw the Empire’s lobby, having died in 1834. But if he had, he certainly wouldn’t have needed his daily dose of opium to help him write his poem, “Kubla Khan”:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
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