Istana Nurul Iman, Brunei – How to Visit the Sultan’s Palace

Istana Nurul Iman, Brunei

Brunei’s Istana Nurul Iman is one of the country’s main attractions. The 29th Sultan’s Palace is the largest royal residence in the world with 1,788 rooms, gold door handles and air-conditioned stables! However, if you want to visit (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), it is not as simple as booking a tour and showing up. 

Open to the public for only three days a year, the doors of Istana Nurul Iman are thrown open to celebrate the festival of Hari Raya Aidilfitri (also known as Eid al Fitr), which marks the end of Ramadan. This event is called ‘ruman terbuka’ which means ‘open house’. Everyone is welcome. 

If you’re considering visiting Brunei and want to time your trip with this incredible tradition, listen up. This article, written with the help of someone who has entered the Sultan’s Palace, will help you get the most out of your Hari Raya experience in Brunei. 

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Visting Istana Nurul Iman, Bandar Seri Begawan

History of Istana Nurul Iman

The 29th Sultan’s Palace, home to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his family, is perched along the banks of the Brunei River, just out of the centre of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. 

The palace was completed in 1984 and built in two years. The name comes from Malay and Arabic, combining to mean ‘Palace of the Light of Faith’. Designed by Leandro V. Locsin, the structure is known for its golden domes and vaulted roofs. It is estimated that the palace cost nearly $1.5 billion US dollars to construct. 

Sultan's Palace, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
The front entrance to Istana Nurul Iman.

While it is the official residence of the royal family, it is also the official seat of the Brunei government. As such, the Prime Minister’s office is located here and the palace regularly plays host to a range of diplomats and other influential figures. 

The Guinness World Records has recognised Istana Nurul Iman as the largest royal residence in the world and it has become known internationally for its grandeur and luxury. As well as over 1,700 rooms, the palace and grounds house 257 bathrooms, five swimming pools, a mosque (accommodates up to 1,500), a banquet hall (accommodates up to 5,000), a helipad and adequate space for the sultan’s 7,000 cars, estimated to be worth around $5 billion (USD) alone. 

When is Hari Raya in Brunei?

While the estimated date of Hari Raya is known far in advance, it is only given ultimate confirmation on the last night of Ramadan, when local religious officials attempt to observe the new moon, signalling a new month. If they don’t see the moon, then the holiday is postponed for one more day.

Queuing to enter the Palace, Brunei
The Muslim celebration of Hari Raya is also called Eid al Fitr.

This means that the date of Hari Raya can vary from country to country. For example, in 2017, neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia celebrated on June 25th, but Brunei didn’t begin festivities until June 26th. If you want to get involved in Brunei’s celebrations, make sure your schedule is flexible enough to accommodate an extra day if necessary.

Good to Know!

Remember, the open house at Istana Nurul Iman only begins on the second day of Hari Raya. The Sultan spends the first day with his family and receives ambassadors and other official guests. Muslims have access to the palace for an additional 10 days during Ramadan for religious reasons. If you visit outside of Hari Raya, it is not possible to enter Istana Nurul Iman, however, you can still take photos at the gate. The security guards are very friendly and used to seeing visitors!

Sultans Palace 1, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
One of the driveways into the sultan’s palace.

Meeting the Sultan of Brunei and the Royal Family

During the open palace festivities, everyone who visits has a chance to meet a member of the royal family. The sultan receives male visitors, while female guests are greeted by the queen. The royal family starts receiving guests at 10 am, but the long wait to see them means it’s best to arrive much earlier than this. 

Getting through security at the palace gate can take around 20 minutes to a half hour in the morning, and considerably longer in the afternoon. Once you’re inside, the wait to see the royals takes about an hour and a half, as visitors are led row-by-row from their seats in a series of increasingly opulent waiting rooms and corridors. 

Outside Istana Nurul Iman
Hundreds of thousands of people visit the palace during Hari Raya.

If you arrive around 10 am, you run the risk of getting to the end of the line just as the sultan and his wife take a break from meeting guests from noon to 2 pm (they’ll continue for another two hours, until 4 pm). Time it badly and you could end up waiting for over five hours! 

Meeting the sultan or his wife is a simple, well-choreographed affair. There won’t be time for conversation so don’t be surprised if they don’t say anything at all – you probably wouldn’t either if you had to shake hands with over 40,000 people in a day! A simple nod and a handshake will suffice. Many visitors show their respect by adding a bow from the waist, but this isn’t necessary.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All…

In Brunei, the offence of lèse-majesté, or insulting the monarchy, is taken pretty seriously. If you start mouthing off about the sultan or royal family, you could end up in prison for up to three years! Best to keep those opinions to yourself…

What Else Happens at the Open Palace?

As the world’s wealthiest monarch, with a sprawling palace the envy of kings the world over, the sultan knows how to throw a party! After you’ve met the royals and gone through the main door, you’ll be directed straight to the holiday buffet, with about a dozen local dishes ranging from barbecue lamb to vegetable curry.

Plate at Istana Nurul Iman, Brunei
Visitors will be treated to a banquet meal when they enter the palace during Hari Raya.

You won’t be able to go back for seconds (unless you want to exit the palace and go through the security line again) so try as many as you like! If you didn’t fill your plate enough and are still hungry, don’t worry. Scattered around the banquet hall are multiple staffed dessert stations that will be more than happy to pile up your plate with as many slices of chocolate cake or scoops of rice pudding as you can handle!

“Visiting Brunei during the Hari Raya celebrations guarantees a travel experience you won’t forget in a hurry. However, bear in mind that many of the businesses in much of Bandar Seri Begawan will be closed for the celebrations. As such, make sure to allow a couple of extra days after the festivities to enjoy what the city has to offer as well.”

Sheree, Editor at South East Asia Backpacker 

Everyone who visits the Sultan’s Palace during Hari Raya is given a parting gift. This is usually a slice of cake and a souvenir greeting card from the sultan. Children will even receive small green packets containing money. 

Outside of the palace, Brunei
Security help manage the queues and the safety of the royals.

How to Get to Istana Nurul Iman

Istana Nurul Iman is located around 4 km from the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan. Traffic on the road to the palace is a nightmare during Hari Raya and delays are inevitable. Grabbing a water taxi will bypass the congestion, give you a stunning view of the monuments and mosques, and be a lot more fun!

The boat driver will know where to drop you off and palace officials will be waiting on dry land to help you fill in the required registration form – this also saves you the long wait to do the same thing at the palace itself.

There’s a free shuttle bus from the pier to the palace, but if you can brave the heat and take on the ten-minute walk instead, you’ll get there a lot faster.

Boat trip Brunei
Water taxi is the best way to travel to the palace.

Visiting Istana Nural Iman FAQs

Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links. We always write our articles before checking if affiliate links are available.

What should I wear to enter Istana Nurul Iman?

You may expect there to be a super strict dress code to enter Istana Nural Iman during Hari Raya, particularly as Brunei is a devout Muslim country. However, the requirements for visiting the palace aren’t that different from visiting a temple or church in most places in the world. You should wear long pants or a skirt, cover your shoulders, and wear closed-toe shoes. Modesty is important but Muslim dress is not required. 

How much does it cost to enter Istana Nurul Iman?

It is free to enter the Palace of Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah during Hari Raya. 

Can I bring my camera? 

It is not a problem to take even the bulkiest DSLR through security.  Before you meet the royals, an attendant will come around to collect oversized cameras. You’ll receive a ticket which you’ll need to exchange to get it back when you leave the audience hall.

Can I do a tour of Istana Nurul Iman? 

It is not possible to take a tour of the Sultan’s Palace, either during Hari Raya or at any other time of year. 

How many people visit Istana Nurul Iman during Hari Raya? 

Visitor numbers vary each year but up to 200,000 people can visit the palace during Hari Raya. For shorter queues, some recommend visiting on the final day of the celebrations but it is really luck of the draw as to when the quietest day is. 

Where should I stay in Brunei during Hari Raya? 

As you would expect, accommodation gets booked very far in advance during the Hari Raya festival. It is important to reserve your lodgings way ahead of time. Just down the road from the palace is Bad’iah Hotel Brunei which comes highly recommend. The centre of Bandar Seri Begawan is also a good place to stay, owing to its proximity to the palace. There are plenty of options to suit all budgets but Higher Hotel is another good pick. 

Hari Raya is the biggest celebration of the year in Brunei and is arguably the best time to visit this tiny country.  No matter whether you celebrate Ramadan or not, it is easy to get swept up in the excitement of the holiday atmosphere.

Enjoy your time in this little-visited corner of the world and relish checking off an item from your bucket list. And finally, savour the delicious cake you’ll receive from palace staff as a parting gift!

About the writer: Based in China, Michael Evans is fascinated by the surprises hidden just around the corner from the well-worn tourist trail, but is just as willing to venture into the foothills of Tibet or bike down country roads in Vietnam, as long as he knows there’s a good story waiting at the end. Follow Michael on Instagram to check out his latest adventures.

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