This is part of my Spring 2018 Asia trip, which you can follow per the below list of prior and upcoming posts!
24 Hours in Brunei
Review: Royal Brunei Airlines A320 Business Class Bandar Seri – Kuala Lumpur
Luang Prabang, Laos
Review: Avani+ Luang Prabang
Review: Rosewood Luang Prabang
Review: Oman Air 787-9 Business Class Bangkok-Muscat
Review: Qatar Airways 787-8 regional “First Class” Muscat-Doha
Review: Qatar Airways 777-300ER Q Suites Doha-New York JFK
Brunei is one of the forgotten countries of South East Asia. I say that mainly because few people, even in Asia, hear about it, know about it or can even point you to it on a map. Having just left after a short but fruitful 24 hours there, I can understand why it is slightly off the radar despite having one of the world’s highest Human Development Indices, 5th Highest GDP with 0% public debt mainly due to its Petroleum and Natural Gas industry, and a very wealthy Sultan who rules the tiny nation. Brunei is a small coastal nation located on the Island of Borneo which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia, making it the only nation that is fully located on the island. It is considered, by all metrics, a “developed” nation, but one would think otherwise once you visit (more on that later). The majority of the land is actually protected rainforest as is most of Borneo Island, if I had one more day I would have visited the rainforest and done the canopy walk through the trees to try and spot a few monkeys as well.
Many asked me why Brunei, or what on earth is there to see and do there. Frankly, I had no idea what there was to see and do there other than a few glitzy mosques commemorating various Sultans from eras past and present as well as a very expensive beachfront resort with a famous Presidential Suite that comes equipped with your own indoor pool. As to why visit? I had two Southeast Asian Countries that I had yet to visit prior to this trip, this trip is in part for me to explore the last spots in Southeast Asia, but also why not explore another nation? But also, it is a perfect example of a Muslim state with Sharia law that is safe, peaceful and full of friendly and warm people, don’t hear much about such countries in the media now do we?
Things to know before going
Brunei is exceptionally safe and is populated by some of the friendliest people I have come across. It is a 100% dry country, meaning literally not a drop of alcohol can be found in the country. It is a Muslim state ruled by a Sultanate and is a British Commonswealth nation. In 2014 the Sultan implemented Sharia Law, but don’t worry, you really cannot tell or notice, but this does mean you should dress a tad more modestly, both men and women should cover shoulders and thighs at the very least since shorts are worn by non-Muslims and it is acceptable. Despite its nation’s astonishing wealth, this wealth is not quite dispersed to the population, however, the people live comfortably and despite some houses looking like they may fall apart at any moment, you’ll find the interiors are fitted with the latest gadgets and luxury amenities. Over all it’s a friendly, modest and safe country to visit.
Getting In and Around
Brunei, being as unknown as it is, is also not easy to get to, even for those residing in most of Asia. There are only a handful of airlines that fly there besides flag carrier Royal Brunei Airlines, and even they don’t fly to all that many places. From Asia you can fly to Brunei from key gateways like Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. Royal Brunei flies to Dubai, Jeddah, London and Melbourne to name a few of their longer haul flights. So for the most part, getting here requires some transfers.
I flew Air Asia X from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur, Air Asia from KL to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, then Royal Brunei Airlines back to KL before Air Asia X back to Taipei. No visa is required for U.S. Citizens, just fill out a form on arrival and you’ll breeze through customs and immigration.
From the airport you have basically two main options, a taxi (around $15-$20) to the city center, or a $1.35 ($1 Brunei dollar) bus. Without traffic your journey should take just over 15 minutes. The city is tiny as is the country. Getting around the city itself, I’d stick to walking around and the bus ($1 Brunei dollar per trip) BUT note the buses stop running at 6PM. If you are staying in the water village, which I recommend you do via AirBnB, the water taxis run 24 hours, 7 days a week and don’t adhere to the law whereby everything shuts down for prayer between 12pm-2pm on Fridays. I walked a lot, but wouldn’t consider the city especially walkable as there are not fully planned out pedestrian sidewalks all throughout. However, cars are courteous and respectful, and despite sections of sidewalks that look like it is out of a horror film, it was perfectly safe and I saw plenty of men and women walking about alone.
- Arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 4:30AM after a redeye from Taipei on Air Asia X. The flight was better than I expected, the long haul branch of low cost carrier Air Asia offers normal legroom but sacrifices seat width to pack as many passengers as they can. I thought I would be cramped but I actually slept perfectly fine, they offer a pre-order or buy-onboard meal and beverage service, followed by duty-free sales. KLIA 2, Air Asia’s impressively massive hub in Kuala Lumpur is huge and at times a bit confusing, nonetheless just follow signs and you’ll manage to connect properly. I then boarded my 6:50AM Air Asia flight to Brunei, Air Asia on the other hand sacrifices legroom, the inflight service followed the same process as Air Asia X except for flight attendants announcing and showcasing deal highlights from the duty-free sales which I found an interesting process.
- Arrived in Brunei at around 9AM Friday morning.
- Hopped in a cab to Jame Asr Hassanil Mosque, built by the current Sultan to commemorate his own rule (in way to try to outshine the one his father built in the city-center). It was Friday so I couldn’t go inside any mosque but walking around the exterior was good enough as it was quite a beautifully built mosque. The taxi driver was nice enough to wait for me at the mosque and decided to turn off the meter and simply charge me Brunei $25 for taking me to the mosque, waiting then taking me to downtown.
- Afterwards, the taxi took me to Tamu Kianggeh (Kianggeh Fresh Market) in downtown. Here I walked around and ate some “brunch” as locals came by to do their weekend food shopping, remember Friday is a Saturday for Muslims. Here I also met a friendly Taiwanese-Bruenian selling noodles, Mr. Lee who explained that he is grateful for His Majesty the Sultan as the state provides the water, electricity and cleaning of the market stalls allowing for affordable rent there. He seemed to really love and revere the Sultan, now one never knows if this is partly due to indoctrination or genuine love, but he was nonetheless friendly and very welcoming. Mr. Lee even gave me an entire box of free noodles with a bit of every type he was selling! I also ate some Nasi Katok (Fried Chicken with rice and chili sauce) and Soto (Beef/Chicken noodle soup) and no trip to the Malay region is complete without The Tarik (Pull milk tea).
- From there a short 5 minute walk and I arrived at the Royal Regalia Museum, however it was about to close for noon prayer, so I returned later that day. From there I walked another 5 minutes to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the beautiful center piece of Bandar Seri Begawan, commemorating the rule of the current Sultan’s father. Again, I could not go inside but the exterior is stunning. Unfortunately the big park in front of it was built on a former water village on reclaimed land.
- Since it was approaching noon and the entire country was shutting down for 2 hours, I decided it was time to check-in to my AirBnB in the Kampong Ayer water village. A Brunei $1 28 second water taxi across the river and I was there, oh and don’t worry if you don’t see a taxi immediately, stand by the water or at any jetty and they will come for you instantly out of nowhere. The AirBnB host is Kem and her property name is Kunyit 7 Lodge. I Highly recommend staying here. Her place is clean, convenient, affordable and offers one of the truest and most authentic Brunei experiences, living in the water village. There are both shared and individual rooms and all bathrooms are shared, just like how a large Bruneian family would live. Doing a tour of any of the water villages whether on foot or by boat is a must. NOTE: the below bullet is a bit of a longer personal thought piece on the water villages and Brunei, feel free to skip to the next main bullet if you’d like.
- I then joined my bunk mate from my shared room on a tour of other water villages nearby. Hire a boat, or guide or have Kem arrange for you a tour as seeing these water villages from the eyes of a local is a necessary and true Bruneian experience. These water villages are and were a staple of Bruneian society and culture. The government has tried to move people out to state housing on land or to build newer, longer-lasting concrete houses on stilts. But many refuse to change since it is a cultural, historic and traditional way of life spanning generations. Nonetheless many of these houses are facing tough times in regards to younger generations staying as well as knowing and able to spend the large amounts of money needed to replace the stilts and rebuild the houses. If your house collapses (which happens as the stilts don’t last forever), you are not allowed to rebuild it. Before the state took over the governance of the villages, the chiefs used to let everyone and anyone move and build as they please which caused major issues such as lack of sideways due to overbuilding meaning total strangers would be walking right through your house to get from point A to point B. Fires are common as most of the houses are wood and often have ancient electric wiring. Walking around the water village you forget your are in the world’s 5th wealthiest nation whose Sultan invited Michael Jackson to one of the world’s largest palaces for a private concert. Again, you walk into one of these houses, and a friendly hello and may I go a long way and most are welcoming of tourists inside since they don’t see many to begin with especially in the villages as the state doesn’t really want tourists to see these places I think, and you’ll see that Bruneians who choose to remain in the water village are not lacking in any basic or even luxury needs. Nonetheless one can’t help but think state money could go towards better use than the Sultan flying to London each month for a haircut. Being an oil rich nation, Brunei could have been East Asia’s Dubai, making itself a major trade and economic hub much like Dubai has done for itself. But it also beckons one to ask, how do you balance modernization, preservation of heritage/culture/history/tradition, religious values without over-gentrifying or destroying one’s roots? I have no answer to any of those questions, as I’ve seen examples where it is done great and done horribly. But hopefully more people can see the value in what Kem has done, spend the money to remodel and rebuild, turn it into a guesthouse and attract visitors to come see and experience a genuine Brunei experience.
- After the water village tours and having a chat with Kem about them, it was past 2PM which meant the country was back up and running so I took a water taxi back to the mainland to visit the Royal Regalia Museum. This museum is essentially the Sultan’s public treasure house. Gifts from foreign dignitaries, Royal Regalia pieces used during Silver and Golden Jubilee celebrations, history of His Majesty’s life and rule as well as the most worth-while exhibit, the Golden Jubilee Exhibit, celebrating His Majesty’s rule and showing how he has helped the nation from the 1960s to present (Golden Jubilee was in 2017). All museums in Brunei are free.
- A short 10 minute walk from the museum is the main Badar Seri Begawan bus terminal. From here I took bus 01 to Gadong Night Market. This is a big roofed open-air night market selling all sorts of local and regional foods and is definitely where locals come to eat! I had some Chicken-Satay, Milo-Dino, Mee-Goreng, and assorted Fried Veggies and mocha ball.
- From the market I went on a 15 minute walk across a roundabout and many highway ramps to arrive at Aminah Arif, a local chain restaurant serving the National Brunei dish of Ambuyat is a sticky starch made from the heart of the trunk of a Sago Palm Tree. You roll the sticky starch on a bamboo utensil dip it in a variety of sauces and usually pair it with a beef stew, fried or grilled fish, stir-fry morning glory and chili sauce. The starch itself is flavorless but the accompaniments were great, however, I do recommend trying this with someone else as it is extremely filling, either that or don’t eat at the night market before.
- It was already past six so the buses had stopped running and Taxis in Brunei are hard to come by, so I just walked, it took around 20-25 minutes from the restaurant to the riverfront where I hailed a water taxi to head back to the AirBnB.
- It had been a very long day and so I soon passed out at 8:30PM not to wake much until 5:20 before my morning flight out of Brunei.
- Woke up early, got ready and saw that our wonderful host Kem had prepared and laid out a traditional Bruneian breakfast spread on the dining table. Assorted Bruneian sweets, noodles and fried eggs with orange juice.
- Caught a quick glimpse of the sunrise before I headed on a water taxi to the bus terminal
- Many buses stop at the airport but in the early hours I only spotted bus #23, so boarded that one and in 20 minutes including stops I arrived at the airport, the buses drop off right on the departures level!
- Checked-in and boarded my Royal Brunei Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Over all I enjoyed my time in Brunei. The people are really some of the friendliest and most welcoming I have ever met and it’s a genuine and modest form of kindness and hospitality. It may seem to have some underlying issues vice a vie the state and how it handles wealth and power but its nonetheless worth visiting. NOW, it certainly is not a country for everyone, and as you can see, a short 24 hour trip and I basically touched on majority of what the capital city has to offer. But as I said in the beginning, I think this is a place more people should visit. What does a Muslim state under Sharia Law that is peaceful, rich (at least at the state level), and full of friendly and seemingly happy people look like? Why cant the media talk more about a country like this and help the world better understand Islam rather than continue to demonize it? That is probably a whole academic essay for another time or my college days really. Regardless if ever you are in Asia and have an extra day, hop aboard an Air Asia flight with their cheap fares and visit Brunei.