The capital of Brunei, BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (BSB) is the sultanate's only settlement of any real size. Until 1970, BSB was known simply as Brunei Town; the present name means "Town of the Seri Begawan", Seri Begawan being the title Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien took after abdicating in favour of his son Hassanal Bolkiah in October 1967. Straddling the northern bank of a twist in the Sungai Brunei, the city is characterized by its unlikely juxtaposition of striking modern buildings – such as its two grand mosques and the twin malls of the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (YSB) shopping complex – with its traditional stilt houses, which hug and expand outwards from the attractive waterfront.
This water village, Kampung Ayer, was Brunei's original seat of power and is still home to around a quarter of BSB's population. After the arrival of the British Residency in 1906, the streets which form downtown BSB were laid out on reclaimed land, but the kampung dwellers stayed put, preferring to retain their traditional way of life despite an attempt to coax them onto dry land. As recently as the middle of the twentieth century, Brunei's capital was still a sleepy water village; the novelist Anthony Burgess, posted here as a teacher in the late 1950s, observed that onshore BSB comprised "a single street of shops, run by Chinese, which sold long-playing records and old copies of the Daily Mirror Weekly".
That contemporary BSB has become the attractive, clean and modern waterfront city it is today is due, inevitably, to oil. With the new-found wealth of the 1970s came large-scale urbanization north of the Sungai Brunei, resulting in housing schemes, shopping centres and, more obviously, the magnificent Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which dominates the skyline of BSB. First-time visitors to BSB are pleasantly surprised by a sense of space and tranquility that is quite rare among Southeast Asia's leading cities. Unfortunately, though, BSB isn't cheap to visit; the fact that most visitors to Brunei are business people means most room prices are quite high. Nevertheless, the sights of BSB are interesting enough to warrant a day or two's stopover.