Brunei’s $23,000-a-night hotel room blows minds as much as budgets

The pool inside the Empire's $23,000-a--night suite.
The pool inside the Empire’s $23,000-a–night suite.
Pool-side view of Brunei's Empire Hotel.
Pool-side view of Brunei’s Empire Hotel.
By John Henderson
Special to the Dallas Morning News

JERUDONG, Brunei – See Borneo on $23,000 a day.

I found that thought somewhat amusing, if not frightening, when I walked into the hotel suite. Only six days earlier I had pulled myself out of a leech-infested Borneo jungle following a three-day trek through ankle deep mud. Cost: $25 a day.

Then again, I didn’t have a lap pool in my room. My bathroom among the ferns did not have lapis sink fixtures and a Baccarat crystal chandelier didn’t hang over me while I dined on canned tuna. I left my jungle room by climbing down a crude wooden ladder in the rain. A private elevator was not available.

But I met some authentic Panan nomads. Does that count? Not at The Empire, it doesn’t. You won’t meet many jungle natives at Brunei’s own self-described seven-star hotel and country club. But you’ll see plenty of kings, oil sheiks and maybe Bill Clinton.

When they come to the tiny Islamic sultanate of Brunei on the northwest corner of Borneo, they all stay in The Empire’s signature suite. It’s a palace that will poleax you with its price but also with its amenities. The Emperor’s Suite does indeed cost $23,000 U.S. a day, but you get more than just real good pillow mints.

“In many countries they have state guest houses,” said The Empire’s German-born general manager, Manfred Keiler. “Here at The Empire, this also serves as a guest house. It’s why it’s posh like this.”

Posh suite isn’t quite the right adjective. Dreamy suite? Off-the-charts romantic suite? How about so-over-the-top-you-half-expect-angels-to-serve-orange-juice-they-squeezed-themselves-to-you-in-your-giant-four-poster-bed suite? That might do it.

World Travel Awards named The Emperor the World’s Leading Presidential Suite from 2003-05. After getting a tour from a public relations staffer, I wondered what could possibly have won in ’06 and ‘07. I walked in and the 7,200-square-foot suite opened up to me like clouds revealing heaven. One end to the other looked like a $7 cab ride.

The long hallway was made of Italian marble and lined with 24-carat gold. Eight antique chairs encircled a dining table under a Baccarat crystal chandelier with a price tag including too many zeros to list here. The living room featured three cozy love seats and a big-screen TV. Then again, every room has a TV.

Off to the right, the walk-in closet was lined with mirrors and would be a decent sized studio in Manhattan. Off the left side, walk through the huge glass doors onto a round balcony overlooking the hotel’s man-made lagoon and the South China Sea. The bedroom doesn’t have a king-sized bed. It’s a Sultan of Brunei-sized bed.

The second-richest man in the world often stays here and the four-poster bed with red and white motif could sleep much of his nuclear family. They could all lie around and watch a movie on the big-screen TV hanging overhead. Then the Sultan could take the private elevator to his limo without stopping in the lobby for autographs.

The bathroom does have lapis stone fixtures but also offers free Bvlgari beauty products. You can take a Jacuzzi while looking down at the beach.

But the signature room of the world’s signature suite is the pool room. The pool is 680 square feet, not enough to hold an Olympic qualifying race but enough to get in a few laps before pulling yourself out and falling into the adjacent Jacuzzi. Thirsty? Get up and walk a few steps to the wet bar lined by a bright, beautiful wall mural of ancient Brunei.

If you want modern Brunei, take your drink to the big picture window and look out at the Empire’s lagoon while sitting on a special mattress that soaks up moisture. Yes, the suite has towels. They’re just not really necessary.

The Emperor’s Suite not only screams opulence, it screams something else: PARTY! Don’t. Alcohol is not sold in Brunei and you can only bring in a 12-pack of beer and two liters of alcohol every 48 hours.

“The suites are a very discreet place for royalty,” said Keiler whose guests the week we spoke included Prince Charles. “That’s why they’re not given to everybody.”

There are 60 other more affordable suites and villas at The Empire, plus 359 guestrooms that start at $145. Unless you’re in the Emperor’s Suite, you’ll want to get out of your room. Designed by 220 architects, The Empire covers 445 acres and features a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, nine swimming pools and bars overlooking some of the best sunsets in Southeast Asia. I didn’t even mind that my Coconut Mango Bomb, priced at $6.50 Brunei ($4.30 U.S.), had no alcohol.

I walked into the sprawling lobby where white marble columns were lined with gold, and a massive crystal chandelier hung over a marble floor. Staff members scurried about in native uniforms of gold tunic, black pants and black felt hat.

The lobby serves as the top floor of the seven-floor hotel in which a 175-foot atrium connects guests to the lagoon and pools scattered below. A ballroom to hold 2,000 is due for completion soon.

The whole place seems incongruous in these economic times, even for Brunei. With the discovery of oil in 1929, Shell and the beloved sultan have put petro in every pot. Brunei has gone from a backwater British protectorate to a thriving Islamic republic of 375,000 people with the glittering capital of Bandar Sari Begawan and a prosperous economy. But has the world economy’s downturn discouraged travelers, even sheikhs, from spending $23,000 on a room?

“Not yet,” Keiler said, “but we’re expecting it like everybody else.”

So just wait, folks. Maybe you won’t have to spend money like a king to live like one. But it helps.