When we talk to other travellers, Brunei never seems to be on anyone’s radar, again I ask, why?
And why was Brunei a place we wanted to visit?
The first thing that struck me as we drove through the border of Malaysia into Brunei was how green it looked, the second was how cheap the petrol was! At 30c (20p) per litre for diesel and 53c (30p) for petrol, this oil rich country can afford to preserve its trees and nature, and, as a lover of jungles, it was the pristine tropical rainforests that attracted us to this country.
Brunei’s marketing boasts “A Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures”, but did it live up to this claim?
Brunei Darussalam is sandwiched between the Malaysian States of Sabah and Sarawak, but it couldn’t be more different to its neighbours. A curious mixture of Malay/English/Chinese/Singapore/Arabic, we were surprised at how multi-cultural it was. Locals dress in both traditional hijab (material that covers their head) as well as Western clothing such as jeans and t-shirts and all visitors are welcome in any of the splendid mosques providing they are appropriately dressed. Road signs are both in English and Arabic and the country is devoutly Muslim and proud. It’s also the happiest and friendliest place we have visited … ever!
Strangers are warm, polite and generous, they always say hello and when they speak to you, it is without any hidden agenda other than to be friendly; they aren’t asking if you want to buy anything or if you want a taxi, they just want to say hello, or to give you a lift somewhere because they can see you have missed the bus!
One (of many) example of their kindness is a story of a shopkeeper next to our hotel. He didn’t have change to give us for our $15 goods, so he said “it’s OK, pay me later”. He let us walk out the shop, knowing we were checking out the next day (and yes, of course we returned to pay before we left).
Brunei isn’t very busy and not many tourists visit. It’s really clean and a very safe place to visit with very little crime. Food is relatively cheap, a tad bit more expensive than Malaysia but very cheap compared to Western prices, it’s also diverse! Local Malay food is readily available but you can also find your typical high-street Burger King, KFC and Starbucks.
It’s also a country of contradiction and confused me. I won’t lie, as someone who cares about our planet and how, as humans, we are stripping away it’s natural resources, I am concerned about the long-term affect drilling for oil will/is having. In contradiction to that, Brunei has kept its forest because it has a much more lucrative income other than other Bornean countries which rely on logging and selling napalm from the napalm trees. A staggering 80% of Brunei is tropical rainforest.
Bruneians love their Sultan. As mentioned, the Governments gets 65% of its wealth from crude oil which has gushed since the 1920’s, and natural gas production which Japan as their biggest export. As a Bruneian citizen, they benefit from free healthcare and free education up to University level, plus they do not pay personal income tax. How wonderful it is to have a country that feels they have enough money from other resources that they don’t need to tax workers, maybe that is one of the reasons why Bruneians are so happy, I know I would be. Who actually wants to pay tax?
As a proud, devoutly Muslim Country, their culture doesn’t include alcohol and you won’t find any bars or nightclubs. Wine and beer are not sold in restaurants and public consumption of alcohol is forbidden. We didn’t see any alcohol for sale, either on a menu or in a shop during the four days we were in Brunei, but in truth, we weren’t looking for it.
We were in Brunei for the jungle, and that is what we got!
Over 80% of Brunei is covered in primary rainforest, which basically means it is untouched by man, and we were excited by our trip to the jungle. Everything about it was amazing – it certainly didn’t disappoint. Scientists believe that the Bornean jungle could be as old as 130 million years making it the oldest in the world. Our knowledgeable guide, Brian, was so friendly and funny, it felt more like hanging out with a friend than a guide.
If you want to see more of our fabulous trip, check out our post Brunei Jungle - Primary Rainforest Paradise.
How to book: We used and would highly recommend Borneo Guide. We booked a 2D/1N Complete Rainforest Experience.
Bandar Seri Begawan – the capital of Brunei
The newly developed Waterfront promenade is a great place to stroll around and watch locals going about their daily business using water taxis as their transportation. There are a few restaurants dotted along the bank along the bank, plus the Mercu Dirgahayu monument which represents 60 in Arabic, it was a 60th birthday present to the Sultan from his people.
Within walking distance from the Waterfront, there is a mosque with a catchy name that rolls of the tongue: The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
Often considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the Asia Pacific, it’s 171ft golden dome is clearly visible from all around the City. It was built by and named after the 28th Sultan in 1958 and is an impressive building from afar as well as close up.
Built on an artificial lagoon, it also has a replica of a 16th century Mahligai Barge and the mosque itself has marble minarets, a courtyard and is surrounded by trees. At night, its lights are very impressive and worth viewing either on foot or from the river.
Buses provide an easy way of seeing Brunei, are clean, safe, relatively comfortable and have basic air con. Their down-side, however, is once you are dropped at your destination, returning is a bit hit-or miss (more often than not a miss!). Two out of the three occasions when we caught the bus, we had to rely on the luck and generosity of the Bruneians to return us to the centre.
The Sultan’s official residence
We caught a bus to the Sultan’s official residence, Istrana Nurul Iman, which is the largest residential palace in the world boasting 1,788 rooms. We stood outside the entrance gates for a photo but this is as close as you can get. There are guards outside who were really friendly and happily posed for photos but were very vigilant when the gates opened to allow a car to enter.
The 29th and current Sultan is His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien (to quote his full name) and he is 71 years old (although looks about 50!). On 4 October 2017 he celebrated 50 years on the throne, and is highly regarded by Bruneians.
The Sultan has five sons and seven daughters from three wives. It is believed the Sultan lead a zealous youth and, as he has aged, has become more religious hence the introduction of Sharia Law in 2014.
The Royal Regalia Museum
You can easily walk to The Royal Regalia Museum and, like all museums in Brunei, there is free entry. This particular museum is purely dedicated to the life of the Sultan and displays artefacts and presents given to him by rich and powerful world leaders from various countries. There are many photos of the Sultan depicting his life, hobbies, plus a replica of his throne room from his palace.
The main room contains a re-creation of the Sultan’s coronation which includes the original golden chariot used in 1968. If you are allergic to gold, I would stay away from this Museum, it is literally dripping in it, there is gold as far as the eye can see!
Kampong Ayer Water Village – “Venice of the East”
Located in BSB, Kampong Ayer is the largest stilt settlement in the world and home to around 39,000 people. There are a mixture of old-style homes as well as modern houses that have air conditioning and satellite TV, but all are built on stilts over the Brunei River. Apparently, when the water level is high, it looks as though the houses are floating on the surface of the river.
Evidence shows it existed over a 1,000 years ago and locals would barter and use Chinese currency and, during the 17th Century, when the Sultan decided he wanted to settle in Brunei at one point, his residence was in the middle of Kampong Ayer.
At the Cultural Centre, there is a very small exhibit and videos are shown demonstrating how locals used to trade their wares and how they still use traditional methods to make tools etc. There is also a small viewing tower which provides panoramic views of the village and helps gives you a different perspective of its size and layout.
An excellent starting point to your time in BSB, is to take a 4pm water village boat ride which snakes along the Brunei River to the mangrove forest. We used, and would highly recommend, Mark Putera Delima Tours due to their excellent reviews on Trip Advisor.
Although tours are supposed to last two hours, Mark is so passionate about seeing and photographing the proboscis monkeys, the tours can often last much longer.
Our tour started by driving through the narrow waterways of Kampong Ayer stilt settlement where we gained an excellent perspective of its vast size. Whilst cruising down the river, we spotted a kingfisher, bird of prey, monitor lizard and flocks of egrets. Mark’s wife, Wann, happily educated us about Brunei, it’s Sultan and their way of life, she was so proud of Brunei and we learnt so much from her.
In the mangrove forest further down river, Mark found a couple of large colonies of proboscis monkeys looking for a place to settle for the night. We stayed with the colonies for around 20 minutes observing their behaviour.
Further down river, we found a tree without many leaves and yet another family were spotted, but this time we could clearly see their activity. We hung out with them for about 20 minutes watching the family which included a male, a mother and baby and a few adolescents play fighting with one another.
How to book: Mark Putera Delima tours, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: +673 816 8540 or +673 899 6182 they can also be found at the Tourist Information Centre. A two hour tour for 2 people cost $60, if there are three or more of you, the price will be $20pp.
The night market is where the locals hang out. As it’s a “dry” country with no bars or nightclubs, locals hang out around food. We visited the largely popular Gadong Market which is teeming with locals and is an assault on the senses, full of delicious colours and flavours.
All types of food are sold for as little as 1$ or 2$. You can buy a Big John (a burger wrapped in egg), a baby john (beef mince in mixed up egg served in a hot dog roll), chicken skewers, BBQ chicken wings, BBQ corn on the cob, satay chicken skewers, fresh chilli sauce, fresh fruit and veg, fruit punch, cheesy chips, doughnuts, Mie Gorang, Nasi Gorang … I could go on.
We grabbed a table just in time to watch the stunning red sky sunset whilst stuffing ourselves with tasty food.
For an authentic Bruneian experience, you should definitely seek out this night market.
On a hazy humid day, we thought we would take a trip to the north of the district and check out the beach. We bought a coffee for the hour long pleasant bus journey to Muara town and found it to be a relaxing way of passing time and seeing more of the area.
Changing buses at Muara Town, upon being dropped off at the beach, the bus driver asked what time we wanted picking up! Hmmm, this was like a private taxi service than a bus journey, but anyway, we told him to give us two hours.
We quickly realised that we had vastly over-estimated how much time we would need. To reach the beach, we walked through a spotless park which had slides, volleyball, BBQ areas and picnic spots, foot washing facilities, showers, lovely trees, plenty of bins and clean toilets … and hardly any people!
The beach had soft, yellow sand, the sea warm and clear, but sadly, the same love and care had not been extended to this area as the beach was littered with plastic bottles and debris. This was very sad to see, in a Country that is spotlessly clean everywhere, it was clearly evident that this area has been forgotten. I did take a photo, but I don’t wish to share it because seeing all this litter so close to the ocean is a sad sight, especially when I know how clean the rest of the City is.
How to get to the beach: From the bus depot in BSB, catch either 37, 38 or 39 to Muara Town, then jump on the number 33.
So, does Brunei live up to its claim of “A Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures”, abso-flaming-lutely! Is Brunei worth visiting? Yes, yes, YES
Other activities in Brunei
- Visit one of the many museums – all have FREE entry.
- Shop for gold – there are gold shops dotted all over the capital, but they only sell 22 or 24 carat gold, nothing lower.
- If golf is your thing, there are five courses in total to choose from, one of which is the Empire Golf and Country Club.
- At the Empire Hotel and Country Club Marine Centre, there are a variety of watersports.
- Go sailing at the Royal Brunei Yacht Club in Muara.
- Try horse riding at the Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club in Jerudong, part of the Brunei-Muara District.
- For scuba divers, there are two operations, Pani Divers in the centre and Oceanic Quest Company in Muara.
Check out the official website for Brunei Tourism which is packed with more information!
- 90 day free visa upon arrival
- A year round destination with no distinct rainy season, the average temperate ranges between 22 – 33 (71.6 – 91.4)
- The official currency is Brunei Dollar which is on par with Singapore Dollar and both are accepted. Exchange rate £1 = BND$1.74
- Bahasa Malya is the official language but English is widely spoken by everyone
- Brunei is made up of four districts; Brunei-Muara District (Bandar Seri Begawan), Tutong, Belait, and Temburong.
- British type plugs are used which is the same as in Malaysia.
- Friday is prayer day and all shops, restaurants, places of interest, tourist centres, banks and offices close between 12-2pm to observer Friday prayer time for Muslims.
- Smoking is prohibited in ALL public areas and you will be fined.
- Brunei’s is a firm supporter of ASEAN, the unified name of the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations made up of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Flying: Royal Brunei Airlines is the national carrier and fly worldwide. Air Asia and MASwings also fly from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and other main cities throughout Borneo.
By land: If you have visited Mulu Caves and are in Miri, it’s only 30 minutes drive from the Brunei border. We used and would recommend Paul on +673 878 2521 (mobile) or +6013 833 2231 (landline). He picked us up from our hotel in Miri and dropped us off at our hotel in Brunei for RM70.
Alternatively, you can get a bus from Pujut Bus Terminal at 8.15am or 3.45pm for RM50.
If you are travelling around Asia, we recommend you check bus, boat and train schedules ahead of time with 12Go Asia website. You can also book your tickets in advance online (as we did) to save time and hassle.
Where to stay
There are a few places to stay in Brunei to cover all budgets:
Luxury: Empire Hotel & Country Club or Radisson Hotel
Cheaper budgets: Brunei Hotel. We stayed at the Jubilee Hotel via Booking.com which was a 10 minute walk from the waterfront
Budget/Backpackers: KH Soon and the Youth Hostel, I also read that you can stay in a homestay at Kampong Water Village for an authentic experience.
You can book your Brunei hotel through our website as we have an affiliate partnership with Booking.com. Click here to visit our Hotel Booking Page then search as normal. There is no extra cost to you but you will be helping us!
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