I wasn’t expecting much from the country when I arrived. My intention was to cross the northern part of Malay Borneo following the course of the rivers, from the very East part of the island to Kuching. And Brunei was there, halfway. I took a look at what the country had to offer and saw that was a unique case and decided to take the opportunity to visit it.
Since ancient times it was an independent kingdom and in the 14th century, Brunei became an Islamic sultanate. It went through various historical vicissitudes such as an ephemeral Spanish occupation that took place from the Philippines in the 16th century. The so-called Castilla War or Spanish expedition to Brunei began on April 14, 1578, and two days later the Spanish troops took the capital and later some other regions of the territory. However, they soon saw that the illnesses contracted by the soldiers made the project unfeasible and in just over two months they left Brunei. The present form of the country, which was much more extensive, was in fact defined by the sultan’s concessions to the English, yielding Sabah and becoming a British protectorate. After a brief Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Brunei continued at the hands of the British until it achieved its full independence in 1984. So it is a very new country and certainly a rarity in its Asian context.
I flew in from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was a short flight and not expensive at all thanks to AirAsia, an Asian low-cost company that covers short distances on the continent at really striking prices. Of course, this was before COVID-19 and it remains to be seen if the company can take the stake in the future price restructuring that is to come all over the airlines business.
How to arrive
It’s a short distance from Brunei International Airport to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of this very small country in Borneo Island. From the airport, it is possible to take a taxi or a bus. Finding the bus stop for me was so intuitive that I ended up taking the bus at the next one, in the middle of a residential area where no one with a backpack was waiting for a bus to the centre.
If you think of visiting the Malay part of Borneo, it is possible to get to Brunei by boat from there and it is especially recommended from Kota Kinabalu, in the eastern part of the island, stopping at the small island of Labuan. The Ferry from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan costs RM39.90 (9 euros) and takes 3 hours and 30 minutes to arrive. Two ferries per day: 8 a.m. and at 11.30 a.m. From Labuan, the ferry to Brunei costs 35 RM (8 euros) and takes 2 hours. From there it is possible to take the Bus Port of Bandar Seri Begawan to City centre for 1.5 euros. Prices are updated to 2020.
I advise against getting to Brunei from the western part of Borneo by land as it is more expensive and slower. To understand Borneo you have to think that sometimes the easiest way is to move along the course of the rivers. Even though, from the western part of the island, you can get from Miri, in Malaysia. To that point, the best option is by land and the bus costs around 15 euros.
People in Brunei are rather reserved, but there are exceptions. An old guy, dressed in traditional outfit and showing his rigorous Islamic white beard, approached to me to ask for a selfie already inside the bus. As soon as I got off I set off on foot to my accommodation, backpack in tow along with a city that seemed very small since I landed from Kuala Lumpur.
Public transport in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is deficient because the country moves along by private car, encouraged by the low price of gasoline. That’s the clue of the wealth in Brunei. In Brunei there is ostentation and luxury concentrated in very few hands. It is an industrialized country with a level of development comparable to the richest areas of Malaysia and very far from being the wild country that Indonesia becomes in its most remote islands. Brunei is a petrodollar-based monarchy, whose king treasures one of the world’s largest fortunes, including an international luxury hotel chain and a collection of over 5,000 classic and high-end vehicles. The people there, however, are rather normal, simple and pleasant, a product of the little sharing such excesses, although most of them have the know-how of living far from precarious social situations.
There are not many cheap accommodations in Brunei. It is a country that has lived and lives far from massive tourism. I had a hard time finding anything up to what a backpacker is expected to pay. Knowing the price of accommodation in Brunei upfront, I decided to try Couchsurfing. I was not very lucky though. A girl replied to my request but after accepting my proposal she never gave details of location or dates. Then, a man did so, but was me the one who ended up rejecting his proposals due to the ascending tone of his affectionate comments towards me.
Where to stay
Badi’ah Hotel: Nice and cheap. It’s in the centre and very well-located to reach Kampung Ayer. It has an open-air swimming pool and the rooms are basic but clean. Free Wi-FI. From 30 to 40 euros a double room per night (prices 2020).
LeGallery Suites Hotel: It’s not a luxurious place but makes its function. The rooms are basic and some of them quite old. The location is good and if you are not spending a long time in a hotel and you just want a place to sleep it’s very interesting according to its price. Free Wi-FI. From 20 to 30 euros a double room per night (prices 2020).
Higher Hotel: Excellent value for money. Clean, comfortable beds and friendly staff. A new building in a very nice location close to all main spots. From 30 to 40 euros a double room per night (prices 2020).
I went out for a walk before dinner and I could see the river and the monumental area of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, surrounded by an artificial lake in which it is reflected. It is a beautiful temple, even for me who does not like sumptuousness. I tried to enter the temple despite the huge sign on the gate that makes it quite clear that the entrance is exclusively for Islam believers. I approached determined and greeted the guard at the door with a brief “Salam”. The uniformed guy raised his eyebrows but gave me the benefit of the doubt for a few minutes when I could see the inner part: Italian marbles around, some British chandeliers, and rich handmade carpets from Saudi Arabia. But my knowledge of the Islamic ritual is limited to pretend for long so was quickly clear that I was not there to pray therefore I was kindly invited to leave the temple by two guards and their combat rifles.
What to see
Kampong Ayer: A floating village next to Bandar Seri Begawan. It’s the biggest floating village in the world and a piece of Bruneian history.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque: Probably the main spot in Brunei. A luxury Mosque in the capital’s city centre. The entrance is only allowed for Muslims but just to admire it from distance is a real pleasure.
Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque: A bit far away from the centre is possible to reach there by taxi. Taxis are cheap in Brunei due to low-cost petrol prices.
Royal Regalia Museum: A collection of presents given to the King. Excellent to think about the over luxurious lifestyle. Free entrance.
Ulu Temburong National Park: Unbelievable nature. A bit far away of the centre but reachable by taxi or bus.
The Mosque minaret is the highest point in the city centre and no other building is allowed to rising above it. Adjacent streets are white in pristine buildings. Around them, the nightlife of Bandar develops, which consists of shopping and going out for a soft drink or dinner in a calm and orderly manner. Approaching to alcohol is a serious crime offence in Brunei.
Eat and drink
The Horizons Seafood Restaurant: A bit pricy but portions are huge and the atmosphere is elegant and friendly. The views to Brunei River are really nice. Make sure not to over order.
Al Hilal Restaurant: Asian Halal food, very local according to Brunei is a Muslim country. Very big portions and quite cheap. It’s a bit far from the river but very well-located to end up there after a stroll in the centre.
I preferred to get away for a bit and ended up at an open-air snack bar in a park that served fast food at a low cost. It was already dark and a family sat next to me. The man in his early thirties wanted to chat for a while. He was very interested to know why I had come to Brunei since I was not on business. I understood then that tourists are little expected in the country and consequently the prices of hotels correspond to what businessmen attending meetings in the country are able to pay.
We talked a bit more and he started asking me about Europe’s nightlife, including that funny red district in Amsterdam’s about what honestly I’m not an expert on. In exchange, he told me interesting things about his country that mixed with my previous readings. They continue to enjoy the pull of oil despite knowing that the bargain is running out and that the country is necessarily going to change and liberalize, despite the efforts of the monarch, who far to be pleasant with Western values implemented last 2019 new regulations based on Sharia that punish homosexuality with the death penalty or adultery with stoning, all that in a country where beating with a stick was already present in the penal code and there is a penalty of mutilation for theft.
The next day I woke up in the modest accommodation ready to learn a little more about Brunei’s historical identity. It took me a while to find a place to have coffee and to plan what to do. The best of my options counting that I was on foot was to approach to a great little wonder of the country.
Besides the obvious favourite
The water town of Kampong Ayer that with its 30,000 inhabitants is the largest in the world among its kind. A small fragment of the past that is a good example of Brunei’s attachment to tradition. The village can be reached on foot although there is the coolest option to take a water taxi. The town is a piece of Borneo’s living history. It is over 1000 years old and travellers from ancient times called it the Eastern Venice. There, life is modest but relaxed, the houses are built on pylons over the water and it is possible to pass through footbridges. They say that a century ago more than half of the Bruneian population lived in this area and there are still some who prefer this way of life. Strolling through its streets is a delight and the people are almost friendly. It is a place for simple people and despite having essential services, the bulk of the marginal population and groups of immigrants without papers also live there.
I took a few photos, I let myself take a couple of selfies with strangers, I greeted some funny stories and I learned many things as the most common of the travellers. When the sunset came I started to go back to take a bus that would take me to the western part of Malay Borneo. I was about to cross it to its western end by following the course of the rivers through the Dayak territory. I was expecting a bit of a good adventure but that is already part of another story.