48 Hours in the small Southeast Asian sultanate
Brunei Darussalam, „Abode of Peace” – for some reasons the small sultanate which shares a part of the island of Borneo with its neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia had made it onto my bucket list quite a while ago. “What the hell do you want there?”, my boss used to ask me. And, in fact, even my Lonely Planet “Southeast Asia on a shoestring”, the holy bible for backpackers and travelers in South East Asia, dedicates only 12 out of 850 pages to the tiny country in Borneo’s north. However, the attractions that were mentioned there sparked my interest: the best-preserved rainforest of Southeast Asia, the oldest and biggest water settlement in the world and at least two noteworthy mosques – isn’t that something?
These facts combined with my very own motivation to see as many countries of this beautiful world of ours as possible during my lifetime supported the decision: I would travel to the sultanate of Brunei Darussalam – ironically during Easter holidays – though I still did not know what to really expect from this trip, as even the National Bureau of Tourism promoted the country as “Kingdom of unexpected Treasures”.
This post is now meant to support all those with their decision who also contemplate visiting Brunei, but are not sure whether it is worth the trip.
Arrival and First Impression
My first impression of Brunei after the landing of my Royal Brunei Airlines flight in Bandar Seri Begawan (short: BSB) is very positive: a small but neat airport with a splendid mosque next to it. On our way to the hotel I see well maintained streets, orderly traffic, very green and clean surroundings and short distances: The ride from the airport to the hotel in central Bandar only takes twenty minutes. Brunei, with its total population of only 400,000, is tranquil and quiet. In a country that once was British protectorate it is also no problem at all to communicate in English.
During the ride our driver points at Anglican churches and Chinese temples to make us aware of Bruneian tolerance. However, the Koran in the bedside cabinet, the arrow on the hotel room’s ceiling pointing towards Mecca as well as the imam who starts to sing from the minaret of the nearby mosque at 7:30pm prompt show clearly that in Brunei Islam is the leading religion.
Hence why we can’t have alcohol inside our glasses when clinking them for dinner. Visiting a Muslim country during Easter holidays – that means a forced prolongation of Lenten period (in which I have never taken part in so far, anyway…).
There are comparatively few taxis in Brunei. Only in front of shopping malls, the central bus station and outside of the airport they can reliably be found, it is hard to catch one spontaneously. All taxis operate without meter. This means you have to negotiate prices with the driver every time. As this was too much of a hassle for us, we refrained from taking taxis most of the time. However, we’ve been told that there is the possibility to negotiate daily prices or to write down the phone number of the driver, so that you could call to book him again in case you were satisfied with his performance.
Good hotels often offer Shuttle Bus services to the most important sights as well as airport transfers. All other points of interest can be reached easily by bus, e. g. departing from the central bus station in Bandar, which is the hub for all lines servicing BSB. Most routes are served by mini buses with a capacity of round about 20 passengers, run frequently and normally charge you no more than 1B$ per person.
In order to cross the river to get to the water village of Kampong Ayer, simply hail one of the many water taxis. Or they will approach you, which is even more realistic. They usually also charge you 1B$ to ferry you over.
In case you want to be as independent as possible, there is also the possibility to rent a car in Brunei. We didn’t do that, but traffic in Brunei seemed manageable and prices for petrol are the lowest in all of South East Asia, so this option might be attractive, especially when you’re hotel is not located directly in the center of BSB.
Must-see sights of Brunei
Rainforest Tour in Temburong
We planned two full days for our stay in Brunei. For the first of those two days, we scheduled a trip to Temburong, the smaller one of two parts which comprise the area of Brunei. Both parts are divided by the Malaysian region of Limbang. Temburong can only be visited from BSB without an additional border and immigration control, if you travel by boat, which we did as we wanted to see the Ulu-Temburong National Park.
We pre-booked this day trip in order to make sure that we wouldn’t miss this rainforest experience due to availability limitations and we would also recommend others to do that. Or you might even be interesting in staying overnight in one of the lodges there which seemed to be very nice. We, however, decided to stay with only one hostel in BSB as base for all of our Brunei trip.
For the second day, we didn’t want to miss the water village Kampong Ayer nor the two large mosques of Brunei. Any other sights suggested by traveler guides or flyers we wanted to incorporate spontaneously into our schedule in case our time would allow for it. And it did. More than we wanted it to. But let’s take one thing at a time:
Chasing the proboscis monkey
In the very early morning hours of our second day in Brunei, we leave our hotel to join a sunrise cruise with a longboat into the mangrove forests surrounding BSB. We wanted to see the Brunei-only proboscis monkey as well as other endemic species living in and around the rainforest of Borneo. This tour doesn’t have to be pre-booked. On the contrary, we experienced all other tours which were advertised by travel agencies and offered in packages to be massively overpriced. If you’re willing (and blessed with a little bit of talent) to negotiate prices on your own initiative, you should easily be able to make a better deal.
For these longboat trips, just make your way to the water taxi pier next to the tourist information in Bandar. Here, we booked a two-hour tour to the mangroves as well as Kampong Ayer in a roofed boat for 20B$ per person with Mark Putera Delima. Perhaps we could have even got a cheaper deal with one of the many individual water taxis, however, Mark and his wife seemed to be very professional and we thought it was good to have a roofed boat as even in these early morning hours the sun was already blazing mercilessly down on us.
Shortly before departure, a third passenger appears: George, an American working in Singapore, who had this tour pre-booked for 60B$. However, he was staying in the Empire Hotel & Country Club, supposedly the best hotel in whole Brunei, so he should have been able to get over it…
As we depart, we ignore the water houses at first and rush with breakneck speed towards the Sultan’s palace instead. The Palace can be seen and photographed from the waterside, but it is only opened for the interested public on one day of the year, after the end of the Muslim fasting month Ramadan. On this occasion, all visitors (who are patient enough to wait for their turn) will be welcomed by the Sultan and the princes (men) or the princesses (women) in person and will be given something to eat (actually, no matter your nationality or religion!). A nice gesture, I must say.
Shortly afterwards, we stop abruptly for the first time and our guide Mark proves why people call him “Eagle-eye”: he spotted two nostrils surfacing on the side of the canal. And, indeed, there appeared the first crocodile of our tour! In the two hours to come we would still see some more crocodiles, herons, lizards and – yeeha! – also proboscis monkeys, however, most of them only from a distance.
On our way back, we cruise through Kampong Ayer and even exceed the two hours we booked. Our guide explains that 15,000 people live in this water settlement and shows us the village’s school, mosque, police and fire station, before we finally return to the pier. Especially due to the incredible spotting abilities of “eagle-eye” Mark a very recommendable tour – and with 10:30am it’s still early in the day…
Heavenly House of Prayer – Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, called „Kiarong“ by the Bruneians, can be reached from the central bus terminal in Bandar within twenty minutes by bus, e. g. with the Circle Line (Buses 01A or 01C). Its twenty-nine golden domes reflect the gleaming sun and can be seen from afar. On the way towards the mosque you pass a spacious garden area with fountains and a huge parking lot which is almost completely empty as we arrive. I wonder what this place would look like when all 5,000 believers that this mosque can host at a time crowd this area… For my part, I’m happy to visit Kiarong in the silent late morning hours of Easter Sunday almost on my own.
Inside, the mosque delivers what it promised. As pictures are forbidden, I can only try to describe what I marveled at in this two-storied complex in which a staircase made of white marble leads to the main prayer hall. Thick pillars decorated with lavish ornaments can be seen everywhere, while we make our final steps (barefoot, of course) over the cold granite floor and open the heavy door to look into the prayer hall. Speechless with amazement, we see a huge (I mean, HUGE!) hall covered with a light-grey carpet and elegant white ceilings from which numerous luxurious chandeliers are hanging down in the corners, while the middle part is spanned by a gigantic dome. Very noble, but in my opinion also very classy and not that kind of noble kitsch you might find elsewhere. Definitely worth seeing!
Back in Bandar – what now?
After this short excursion which also gave us insights into the boroughs of Kiulap and Gadong, we arrive back at the bus terminal in Bandar at 12 noon. We decide for crossing the river to Kampong Ayer once again, as we want to see the gallery there and wander over the numerous bridges linking the rows of stilt houses through this unique village. The gallery (free entry) teaches us additional facts about Kampong Ayer (e. g. that the tradition of water settlements in this region dates back for more than 1,000 years already) and even receive a free “I love Brunei”-button at the entrance. Yep, this visit paid off quickly. 😉
The stroll through the village is interesting. Most of the houses here seem to be part of a public housing project, erected in the water. In Brunei housing is a fundamental right for every citizen. A few apparently more recently built housing complexes stand in line with others that seem rather ramshackle. Here and there you’ll see cages with chicken (and once even a raptorial bird!) on the terraces and some inhabitants have planted lush green gardens around their houses. All told, a very interesting community, but after a half-an-hour stroll we take the next possible water taxi to get back to the mainland for lunch.
There’s not much left on the open-item list, basically only the Sultane Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque (SOAS) which we want to visit while walking the Bandar Seri Begawan Heritage Trail. On this trail, it is actually also our first stop (except for the triumphal arch celebrating the occasion of the current Sultane’s coronation on August 1st, 1968, that seemed rather dilapidated by now).
The 1958-built SOAS mosque is significantly older than the previously visited Kiarong mosque and not even close as beautiful. It is situated in the midst of an artificial lagoon which is connected to Brunei river and Kampong Ayer, but she is lacking the spacious gardens around her, so that it feels quite wedged. The main dome is extraordinary, for sure, but the green-and-pink carpet inside of the 3,000-hosting mosque is not my cup of tea. Neither are the bilious green illuminations at night, but might be that tastes differ. Anyway, having visited the two most important mosques of Brunei, I’m done with prayer halls for this trip and don’t intend to visit any of the 123 remaining ones in this country.
We keep on walking through the centre of Bandar, but can’t help the feeling that all the “sights” that were advertised in the description of the Heritage trail are long past their best. Everything here feels a little bit over the hill. I guess this place was in full bloom in the 50s to 70s, but by now all buildings seem old and rundown. Moreover, as this is the political, religious and commercial centre of BSB, almost nobody lives here, hence why it feels empty and lifeless on a weekend afternoon. We finish this disappointing stroll at 2:30pm already and wonder what to do with the rest of our time…
Desperate search for distraction
Admittedly, if you like museums, you could very well visit the Brunei Museum or have a look at the Sultane’s crown jewels in the Royal Regalia Building, however, we weren’t in the mood for exhibit-watching. We could as well have gone to visit George for a round of golfing in the Empire Hotel & Country Club. For that, on the other hand, we didn’t have the necessary wherewithal. So we checked once again with our traveler guide book and with tripadvisor, but came to no positive result. Done, check, everything crossed out.
Rather out of despair than conviction we finally decide to go for a shopping mall to purchase one of the rare Brunei-mugs from Starbucks’ “I was here”-edition. Ridiculous, I know, but hey: everyone’s got issues, right? Besides that, nothing inside the mall can enthuse us with delight, and the only option left is to kill time and boredom with eating and drinking.
Eating and drinking
Eating („makan”) is a central element of Bruneian lifestyle. We understand that, as wee, too, have often during our visit thought about eating just because there’s not much else to do. Boredom-eating seems to be common, given the waist circumference of many of the people we see here. And it is indeed cheap and good quality food. Recommendable local places to go are, for example, Taman Selera Hawker Center in Bandar or the Night Market in Gadong.
As Brunei is quite small, it relies on importing almost 90% of its food. That’s why you’ll find lots of Malayan and Indonesian, but also Chinese influence in its cuisine. A truly unique Bruneian specialty is Ambuyat, a sticky and rather tasteless sago paste which is being rolled into small balls with chopsticks and then tucked into accompanying side dishes to give them some flavor. However, I didn’t really get to like it and wouldn’t recommend it to others. In the end, we just focused on the side dishes and later on ordered Ayam Penyet (roasted chicken with rice) at another food stall.
Good value-for-money food is the typical “Bruneian fast food” Nasi Katok, which translates to “knocking chicken with rice”. This simple dish consisting of a chicken wing with some sauce and rice was once provided by poor old ladies who roamed the streets knocking at each door while trying to sell their food, hence the name.
You see, nobody has to starve in Brunei, you can definitely find edible food. But in case you’re very picky when it comes to unknown stuff, rest assured: You can also find the usual suspects here: McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or the Philippine-based Jollibee have a presence here.
Nightlife, however, does not exist. Serving alcohol in this Muslim country that initiated the sharia in 2014 is just as forbidden as to consume alcohol in public. Non-Muslims are still allowed to import alcohol for their own purposes, yet they are only allowed to consume it in their own houses or their hotel rooms.
What else do you need to know about Brunei?
The local currency, the Brunei dollar, is tied to the Singapore dollar, which is usually also accepted as alternative currency.
People in Brunei are extremely polite, helpful and attentive. Due to its oil deposits the people are mainly rather well off (Brunei has one about the highest per-capita income in the whole world). Nevertheless, neither Brunei nor its people give the impression of exuberant extravaganza like you would find it in Dubai, for instance. Bruneians seem appreciably humble, but on the other hand, also a little bit boring. In the “center” of Bandar, you simply wait for the symbolic ball of straw being blown through the deserted streets… Not only, but especially when on Fridays between 12 noon and 2pm the whole country takes a break to pray.
But wait, there is one exception: Since end-2016, in an attempt to enliven the city center, the government has initiated a new tradition on Sunday mornings. From 7 to 10am the streets will be closed for cars and all people are invited to participate in one of the many dance or sports activities (e. g. Zumba or CrossFit). Moreover, there are flea market stands or bike rental stations. This is really popular with the local population and you should go and see how lively Brunei can be before the city will fall into deep sleep again.
For one strange reason, by the way, you have to register at each and every place you visit in Brunei – in museums, mosques, occasionally even in restaurants. Perhaps it serves as a guest book or maybe the purpose of this is to track the number of visitors or this is a disguised collection of signatures for a petition to the sultan, I have no clue…
Summarizing, I have to conclude that there is no real reason why one would definitely HAVE TO come to Brunei. The country and its people are charming, but the superlatives which attracted me to Brunei were somehow put into perspective.
The rainforest is stunning and may for sure be the best-preserved one in Borneo, if not Southeast Asia. However, even in spite of deforestation you can still have interesting jungle experiences elsewhere. The largest water settlement of the world is interesting and worth seeing when in Brunei, but honestly speaking Kampong Ayer in itself is not enough of a reason to visit Brunei in the first place. You might, however, consider staying overnight in a homestay in Kampong Ayer instead of a hotel in Central Bandar, which might upgrade the unusual cultural experience a little bit.
Food in Brunei is okay-ish, but not too special and largely based on the cuisines of its neighboring countries. For backpackers seeking for a fun night out, Brunei is definitely not recommendable at all. No nightlife, a ban on alcohol and the enforcement of the shariah should scare all those away who can’t do without their evening beer or cocktail in good company.
For all those who look for tranquility, seclusion and beautiful nature – or those who want to visit all the countries of the world at least once during their lifetime – I’d still only recommend a maximum stay of 48 hours, even if you’re staying in a rainforest lodge in Temburong. Brunei is small enough and you will still be able to see everything, I promise. I honestly feel a little sorry for all those “poor” expats living here and hope that their salary compensates for the lack of entertainment. For my part, the probability is high that I won’t see Brunei again too quickly, but at least I can cross it off my bucket list…
Have you ever been to Brunei? What have you experienced there? Can you agree to my conclusion or do you beg to differ? Are you perhaps even of those expats living in Brunei, or do you know someone living there and can tell me what it’s really like to live in Brunei for a longer term? Please share your experience with me and other fellow readers and leave a comment, that’d be highly appreciated!
(Travel Period: April 2017)