Travel Travel Tips

Passing Through Asia this Summer? Here’s Your Chance to Meet the Sultan of Brunei

Years ago, I was watching an episode of some travel show (maybe Globe Trekker) where the host traveled to Brunei to attend the annual Eid Al-Fitr celebration at Istana Nurul Iman (known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Brunei). It immediately caught my interest and I put it on my bucket list but forgot all about it – until now. For those unfamiliar with Brunei, it’s a tiny oil-rich nation on the island of Borneo with just 415,000 residents. The ruler of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, resides in Istana Nurul Iman. Istana Nurul Iman happens to be the world’s largest palace at a staggering 2 million sqft. Every year on the first three days of Eid Al-Fitr, Istana Palace holds an open house and all who come through are treated to a feast.

Source: Wikipedia
Photo Source: Wikipedia

Regardless of whether you’re a citizen of Brunei or some random traveler, all are welcome to partake in the festivities. Small gifts are handed out to guests, children receive packets of money (an Eid tradition), and everyone gets to meet the Sultan and his family. The men are lined up in one room, the women in another. All guests are welcome to shake hands and exchange greetings with members of the royal family. Then everyone roams the banquet hall and the Sultan makes chit chat with his guests.

Now whether you want to make chit chat with a guy who was once accused of patronizing mail-order prostitutes is a whole other story (the story was either made up or diplomatic immunity goes a long way). In my case, I’ve never spent Eid in an Islamic country before. Since Brunei makes such a grand game of it and it’s just a 2-hour flight from Singapore, I might work it into my trip. 

The Open House event takes place over three days and over 100,000 people attend the festivities. This year, Eid Al-Fitr will likely take place on July 17. Every year there’s a debate about that since the exact end of Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar. If you’re passing through Asia around this time, the annual Eid celebration in Brunei might be worth working into your trip. Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines offer several flights out of Kuala Lumpur, while Singapore Airlines has five flights per week out of Changi Airport. Royal Brunei Airlines operates flights out of multiple cities, including Singapore, Bangkok, London Heathrow, and Dubai, to name a few. As far as accommodations go, there’s a Radisson hotel, which goes for 44,000 points or $83 per night. There are also several decent local hotels for under $200 per night.

Outside of a few travel articles, I couldn’t find details about what time the event normally starts. I tried looking up a Twitter account for the tourism board and (surprise) there isn’t one. Someone told me Brunei isn’t actively seeking tourists due to a booming oil industry. This explains a tourism website that hasn’t been updated in two years and the invalid email address listed on the Istana Nurlul Iman website. I’ve reached out to the Brunei Embassy for detailed information and will update you guys if they get back to me.

I’m landing in Singapore around Eid and will see if I can change my plans. Our next stop is Bali and instead of flying to Kuala Lumpur afterwards, we could just fly to Singapore instead. We’ll likely need to depart from there anyway. This is the first Eid my family and I aren’t going to be home to celebrate with our extended family, so I do want to make sure we do something special – and what’s more special than spending Eid at the world’s largest palace?

Logistics are a problem. However, since our Cathay Pacific flight out of San Francisco stops in Hong Kong before continuing on to Singapore, we could drop the last segment and catch a Dragon Air or Malaysian Airlines flight to Kota Kinabalu (BKI) for 7,500 miles per person. Then we’d take a $64 Royal Brunei flight to Brunei International (BWN). We’d spend four nights in Brunei, continue to Bali, then catch a flight back to Singapore, where we’d wrap up our stay before flying home. The only question is, what is there to do in Brunei for four days?! Still, I hope it works out.

Have you ever attended the Eid Al-Fitr festivities in Brunei? I’d love to get your feedback in the comment section.

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  1. heavenlyjane

    Ariana, your style of travel is awesome, seeking out authentic outside-the-norm experiences based on a fleeting idea years ago. Hope this works out for you!

  2. saltntumeric

    Hello Ariana

    I’m not sure if you know that if you are in Malaysia during Eid, you can attend any of the state’s eid open house? Usually state gov and some state Sultan would do open houses of their own and these are all open to the public as well. And since in Malaysia we celebrate Eid for the whole month, these openhouses can and will stretch from Day 1 to Day 30. The nearest Malaysian state to Singapore is Johor and usually every year on first day of Eid, both the Chief Minister and the royal family would host their open houses. Maybe you’d consider attending those first on your way to Brunei since they are having it for 3 day straight.

    And if you happen to be in Malaysia during any other celebration, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas, there will be openhouses too. So yes, we have open houses all year round for all religious celebration.

    Farina, a Malaysian now living in SoCal.

    p.s. ‘Openhouse’ in Malaysia in unlike here in the US. When you read about or receive an invitation for an openhouse, it means there will be lotsa delicious food waiting for you. Ministries and royals openhouses are open to all so do indulge.

    • That sounds amazing! Thank you for sharing this, Farina. I didn’t realize Malaysia had an open house too. It turns out I can’t make Brunei work after all, so I will be in Singapore on Eid. Since Johor is closeby, I will see if I can make that work.

      • saltntumeric

        Oh yes we do. We are afterall the pioneer of openhouse concept. 😉 Do check out the local newspaper for the dates and times of those openhouses. Major local newspaper would usually have the announcement. and are the 2 major English newspaper in Malaysia. If I found out about the openhouses, I’d let you know.

        When are you going to be in Singapore? I hope you’ll have loads of fun and sample all the yummylicious Raya (that’s how we Malay call Eid) food.

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