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It’s not every day you get to meet and shake hands with a country’s royalty, but if you’re Bruneian you can do it at least once a year! Yes, you heard me right, every year at Hari Raya Aidilfitri. This is a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan and considered as one of the most important traditional festival of the year in Brunei, comparable to New Year celebrations in many other countries. But what makes it really special is that for three days, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah throws his doors open to the public at the Istana Nurul Iman (the world’s largest residential palace) for a ‘meet and greet’. It is an opportunity for the people and visitors to meet His Majesty — or that of his wife, if you’re a woman and greet them Selamat Hari Raya. No invitation required anyone can be part of the celebration, regardless of whether you’re a citizen of Brunei or some random traveler. Just simply turn up and join the queue.
I was fortunate enough to be given such opportunity two years ago. It was a fascinating experience because, in contrast to many places in the world where common citizens and royalty are kept at a distance, it seems there is not a big gap between the royals and citizens in this tiny monarchy. It felt absolutely surreal to be standing face to face with the Royal Family. Okay, I will try and describe it to you as well as I can, but words can’t make it justice at all, but I do hope you will get a good idea of my Royal experience!
We went to the palace on the second day of the Raya celebration as the first day was intended only for the VIP’s and government officials. Knowing that tons of people will likely to be there, we decided to leave early to avoid the crowd and the mid-day heat. We reached the Istana at 8:00 in the morning. Thinking that it was way too early, we walked idly towards the main gate where a steady stream of free shuttle buses lined up waiting to take the guests to the venue. My “early bird” kind of mood was cut short the moment I alighted from the bus. I was surprised to learn that there were already hundreds of individuals inside waiting in anticipation.
Walking past the crowd, my eyes began to wander. Up close, it was difficult to get a sense of the grandeur and scale of the palace that extends for 200,000 sq m behind the sweeping curved roof of the public entrance. The vast garden became a momentary shelter for tens and thousands of people who were patiently waiting for their turn to meet the Royal Family. Everyone was dressed up for the occasion, specially made in brightly colored, luxurious fabrics: men were wearing traditional baju Melayu outfits – a collarless shirt, trousers, a sarong and a songkok hat – while most women wear baju kurung – floor length dresses with matching headscarves. I even felt for a moment that I might not be wearing the proper attire 🙂
I was so caught up “people watching” that I didn’t even realize that we’ve already reached the registration area until we were politely directed by a security officer to register. Then we were guided to a security check. After which, the crowd was segregated, men were asked to stay on the left and women on the right. I instantly went to the right though I don’t have any idea where the lines would lead us. Until I saw the gold – trimmed chinaware with royal emblem. Aha…the queue was for the macam buffet! Yes, you’re right, not only do you get the chance to shake hands with the royal family, but you also get a free meal! How cool is that?
There were about 10 different food counters offering special festive dishes, from nasi goreng to ketupat (rice cakes), satay (beef and chicken kebabs), rendang (spicy marinated beef), sambal shrimp and many others. But the highlight of the feast was, without a doubt, the dessert stand, piled high with a variety of sticky fruit cakes, luridly colored biscuits and fruit salads. It felt slightly strange to be eating all these for breakfast but hungry or not I got a little of everything he he he. Let’s just say, I don’t want to miss the chance to sample Bruneian dishes for free?
After the meal, we moved on to a vast waiting hall. We sat there for well over an hour, quietly digesting our breakfast and waiting to be called forward. While on it, Hari Raya songs blare out from giant video screens to entertain the thousands of excited, waiting well-wishers.
As soon as our row was called forward, I leaped up in excitement… only to be lead to another queue, which leads to another waiting room! Luckily this one was air-conditioned sort of pharaonic antechamber. There’s a spherical chandelier that resembles bubbles trapped in the rafters. The golden portal door glitters in their light, the line shuffles down some stairs and passes along an open-sided marble walkway lined with marble pillars and surrounded by lush plants – from here it’s possible to glimpse some of the palace’s golden domes. This ornate hall is much more what you might expect the interior of the palace to look like.
Again we moved on to – you’ve guessed it – another queue! This could have been incredibly tedious, but I have to admit that I was really quite enjoying it. Or I am just too excited to meet the Royals?
I was rehearsing how to say “Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri” inaudibly when I heard I loud voice instructing female guests in front of me to put their handbags on their left arm (so as to free-up their right arm for handshaking) as they pass through a wooden door. This is it! I was hoping I won’t mumble…
At last! I arrived in the same room as the royal ladies… It was so beautiful! I have never seen so many, or such big flower arrangements that the scent packs a serious punch. With the decor and ornaments, it was indeed, a room made for a queen.
Finally, my turn came! I gave a small bow and then shook the hand of the queen (Sultan’s first wife). I greeted her “Selamat Hari Raya” which I learned from the net and memorized to come in handy for this amazing experience. She then thanked me and asked me if I were from Malaysia. I am not sure if it was because of my intonation or looks? Told her I came from the Philippines and she repeated Philippines and smile. With a cheerful smile on my face, I move forward to shake the hand of the second wife and lastly that of the princesses.
It was all over very quickly compared to the 4 hours we had spent waiting. However, the Sultan’s wife was charming. Clearly, there wasn’t time for much of a chat. But considering that she was standing there for hours on end shaking hands with literally thousands of people, she was utterly gracious and elegant, smiling at all comers. She seemed genuinely interested! The princesses likewise were delightful – very glamorous.
As we left the hall, we were ushered to a distribution kiosk where we received a gift – appropriately enough it was a cake! It was in an embossed yellow box which everyone carried proudly out of the palace. While children were given green envelope filled with money. Yay!
- Traditionally, the Aidilfitri celebration date is determined by the sighting of the moon. So it is hard to pinpoint the exact date. Therefore, if you are interested, better keep yourself abreast of the Holiday Schedule in Brunei
- Wear a modest, loose clothes with long sleeves, closed toe shoes and long trousers for men and below the knee length clothes for women are appropriate here; if you are dressed too informally you may be turned away.
- Be as early as you can and come with a friend or with a group as there are a lot of queueing.