Ramadan is over, and the three first days after the holy month are called the Hari Raya. These days are like Christmas to the Bruneians, and there are big celebrations going on now all over the country with everybody throwing open houses, as I have described in previous posts.
This is the most important time for a Bruneian, plus it's only at Hari Raya that the Royal Palace is open to public. Everybody have the opportunity to meet the Royal Family. That is, if you queue up, for hours and hours on end...
The first day of Hari Raya was mainly for the VVIP, which is state dignitaries, cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats, senior government officials and prominent figures and their spouses. They gathered at the Istana Nurul Iman to exchange Hari Raya greetings with His Majesty the Sultan and other members of the royal family.
After that, the Istana Nurul Iman opens its doors to the public for three days.
Friday, I had one of the most fantastic and special experiences since I got here! I had the privilege of getting invited along to a VIP visit to the Istana, by my friends Fredrik and Claudia - who works for the Sultan's Flight. It was absolutely surreal, amazing, exciting, wonderful, impressive and definitely something I will never experience again.
I will try and describe it to you as well as I can, but words can't make it justice at all - I have also uploaded a slide show of some of the photos taken on the day, by Fredrik and myself, and another collegue of his of the Sultan's Flight. I hope you will get a good idea of our Royal experience!
We all met up in the Sultan's Flight compound in the morning. The men were dressed in their uniforms and the women were all different (some in traditional baju, some just in normal clothes), but all with long sleeves and long trousers/skirts. This had been a last minute invite, so I wasn't very prepared, I wore the only long-sleeved shirt I have down here, not very fancy at all so I felt a bit like the odd one out.(Note to self: need to have an outfit made for these type of occasions.) I was buttoned up all the way to my chin - very uncomfortable!
We drove in a convoy all of us together up to the Istana, straight in and up to the palace and parked in the subterranean garage. Then we made our way upstairs, while taking lots of photos on the way of course, and into the lounge where the food was served.
What a buffet! There was absolutely everything you could imagine! So much lovely food; sandwiches, cakes and other delicacies, seafood buffet, local specialities - you name it! We went around and browsed everything, then had a bit to eat and drink while we sat there and enjoyed watching all these people, so beautifully dressed up for this very special occasion. The colour array was amazing!
The greetings were going to start at 10.00, so at about 09.30 we left the "food lounge" to go and queue up. Men to one side to meet the male side of the Royal family, and us women to the other to meet the Royal ladies.
But, it's kind of wrong to say that we queued, because we bypassed everybody who had already lined up (they were also still VIPs, just lower "ranked", it was all the military people) and went straight up to a very short line at the front, just in front of the big, big doors.
It was all very civilized, with red carpets everywhere, people ushering us along, big fans to keep us cool etc. We were sort of outside, in one of the patios, but in shadow so it wasn't too hot.
There we were, waiting for the Royals to arrive, at promptly at 10.00 up drove some big, black cars and there they came! They passed us and went in to the little (well, all is relative!) room where the greetings were going to take place; and as soon as they had entered the room the big doors opened.
We then slowly advanced up to enter the room, handbags in the left hand, no cameras at this point and in we went. It was so beautiful! I have never seen so many, or such big flower arrangements - or so much golden adorned furniture in one place (and I have been to my fair share of châteuxs in my day as a rep!), oaw!
One by one, we then just followed in line and got to shake the hands of firstly the Sultan's wives and lastly six or seven of the other Royal ladies (I'm sorry, but I don't know who they were, the Royal family here is very extended and intriguingly connected). Of course, there wasn't really any time to chit-chat, you just said "Selamat Hari Raya", bowed a bit and off to the next one. They all looked pretty blasé, but of course, they were going to be standing there doing this now for hours and hours - first the VIPs then the "normal people". I guess you kind of shut down and just get on with it.
BUT - the Queen! The Queen was lovely! She was smiley and she talked to us, asked us questions (we kind of had to answer one question each in the same conversation as we had to keep moving along) and complimented on Vivian's (Claudia's daughter) dress! "Where are you from?" "Are you here on holiday?" "What do you do here?" etc. She was really sweet and seemed genuinely interested!
It all took about 20 seconds, and then we were already out again. Ushered on to the next "station" where we picked up our "goodie bags", took some more photos, and then we all made our way back to the cars and left. (The goodie bags were yellow velvet boxes, full of sweets, and a photo of the Sultan!) All together, we were in and out in 1 1/2h!
My friend Anna had done it last year, but with the normal people, and she said it couldn't compare at all. They get food as well, but not as nice, and yes, they get to shake hands with the Royals, but in a different location in the Istana so they actually don't see much of it at all - and of course, the queuing is slightly (...) longer and more "wild". She said it was like the worst rock concert ever, quite a scary experience. So, she was happy she had upgraded a bit for this year! :)
Anyway, it wasn't finished with that! After the Istana visit, we went for an open house at the Flight Director of the Sultan's Flight. That was totally impressive too, very overwhelming.
It's amazing how friendly the Bruneians are! They are always full of smiles and are very inquisitive and curious, happy to take time and talk to you and make you feel welcome.
Of course, there was an abundance of food here as well, and the whole room was full of people. Pictures were taken and the host family kept mingling making sure everybody had had something to eat and drink, and were happy.
This house, was only their "party-house" for big parties and for Hari Raya (it was huge!), they lived in another house, further up the hill. After the food, we were invited to take a stroll up there, to see their aviary (full of peacocks, parrots and other exotic birds) and also the horse...powers! Not that I'm much of a car-person as such, but you couldn't help but be impressed about the selection of very nice cars... Some of them were hardly even used!
We probably spend more time up in the carport than at the open house itself! Haha!
Well, what a morning! That will be hard to beat! Hopefully come next year, I will still have friends in the Sultan's Flight so I can come along again! :D
Otherwise I will be able to live on this for quite a while!
(The slide show follows in the next post!)