Discovering and Exploring Brunei Darussalam

Brunei Darussalam – The abode of peace

Experience

Brunei might be one of the smallest countries in the world but this tiny South East Asian nation is one of the most interesting and intriguing nations that I have ever visited.

Wedged between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the north of the island of Borneo, Brunei’s official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam which translates into English as Brunei, the abode of peace.

This small country was certainly peaceful as I walked through the scorching hot city centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital. I was the only person foolish enough to be out walking in the midday heat.

Bandar as the locals call it is really the only city in Brunei. The rest of the country is comprised of rainforest and traditional villages. The population here speak Malay and are in many ways very similar to neighbouring Malaysians – culturally and traditionally – but Brunei has long taken its own path, preserving its traditions, unique Malay dialect and culinary tastes. The country is majority Muslim and religiously conservative, and the first thing I noticed in the city was the huge shape of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, a golden-domed mosque that dominates the otherwise low frame of the Brunei skyline with its tall minarets and polished architecture.

Aside from this architectural achievement though, the city had few sights for me to visit. Brunei is a small country of only 400,000 or so people and the capital is equally compact too. The city centre is on the banks of the wide Brunei River, and I walked down to the waterfront to escape the heat.

Ahead of me on the water was an unexpected sight, a huge metropolis of houses and buildings floating on the river. This was Kampong Ayer, the traditional water village where the locals of Brunei have lived for hundreds of years. This was the most traditional part of the country, where 30,000 people live on stilts. The houses were new, there were shops, restaurants, schools and mosques but the style of living itself was very much unchanged from centuries of living on the river.

I hailed down a water taxi and was given a ride through the wide waterways and past the long lines of houses. This floating village was really more of a city in itself, stretching for miles and miles along the river and into the rainforest.

That rainforest was where I was travelling to next. While much of the rest of Borneo’s rainforest is declining, Brunei is preserving the huge areas of pristine forest that remain. I was taken further along the river, and as the city ends the rainforest becomes denser and denser.

This was the Borneo I had imagined. Proboscis monkeys were in the trees, the odd crocodile was sunning on the banks of the river and the forest canopy was high around me.

Brunei I began to realise, had much more to its character than I had thought when I first arrived. I was in the midst of some of the densest, natural rainforest that’s left in Borneo while just along the river was the sprawling, authentic and traditional Kampong Ayer and beyond that, the architecturally beautiful and gleaming city of Bandar Seri Begawan. Brunei might be one of the smallest nations in the world, but it is really one of the most unique too.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Brunei Darussalam - Kampong Ayer Water Village

Kampong Ayer Water Village

WSE Travel - Brunei Darussalam - Sultan Omar Mosque

Sultan Omar Mosque

WSE Travel - Brunei Darussalam -Kampung Ayer Brunei

Kampung Ayer Brunei

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GO – Getting There

Brunei Airlines are the national carrier of the nation and they have regular daily flights from multiple international destinations, including London, Dubai and most Asian cities. Air Asia also offer budget-friendly flights from Kuala Lumpur and Cebu Pacific from Manila in the Philippines.

Overland travel is possible from both Sarawak and Sabah. Miri in Sarawak is only a 2-hour bus ride away and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah is a longer bus ride away. The island of Labuan also has regular daily ferries travelling to Brunei too.

WSE Travel - Brunei Darussalam - map

Brunei Darussalam – map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

For such a small country Brunei has a surprising number of activities and sights to keep a traveller occupied. The first point of call is the city centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, where golden-roofed mosques shimmer in the sunlight. Take a walking tour of the compact city, visiting the unmissable Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, before moving on to the free to enter Royal Regalia Museum to learn a little bit more about the history of Brunei. Then, if it’s not too hot, take a stroll to the nearby park, where just a kilometre outside the city, waterfalls and forested hiking trails can be found to explore.

Across from the city centre on the Brunei River it’s not hard to miss the huge, sprawling water village. This is Kampong Ayer, a collection of villages that sit on the water and that 30,000 people call home. This is traditional Brunei and on the water raised high on stilts are houses, shops, restaurants and even hospitals. The only way to explore is by boat and local water taxis will drive people around the narrow lanes between the raised buildings and even further along the river in search of wildlife such as crocodiles and proboscis monkeys which are found nearby.

Brunei is home to huge areas of pristine rainforest too, and away from the city, the best thing to do is to explore Temburong National Park, a protected area of lush tropical forest. The only way to reach this area is by boat along the wide Brunei River, but there are opportunities for hiking, boating and wildlife spotting in the wilds of Borneo.

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Stay – Accommodation

Brunei isn’t set up yet for traditional tourism. There are plenty of hotels in Bandar Seri Begawan, however, they are used to catering for business travellers and can be on the pricier side.
Budget-friendly options can be found in the city of Bandar Seri Begawan, but the best value is generally found on Air BnB where enterprising locals are beginning to fill the gap for mid-range, private accommodation that offers value and quality.

A more unusual option is to book a homestay on the water at Kampong Ayer. Several locals have begun to offer their houses on the Brunei River to travellers, providing a unique insight into traditional Bruneian life.

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Eat – Restaurants

Traditional food in Brunei can be found in the local eateries across the country. In the city centre, there are plenty of small buffet style restaurants serving curries, rice and Malay style food such as Nasi Lemak. There are lots of International Restaurants setting up in the capital city too, with an excellent Japanese restaurant overlooking the river, Italian restaurants serving pizza and plenty of coffee shops.

The best and cheapest place to really sample local food and local life is at the Pasar Malam. This is the night market, found near to the Gadong Shopping Mall and open from late afternoon into the early hours of the morning every night. Food is cheap, ranging from $1 to no more than $3 and there are huge bowls of noodles, platefuls of BBQ meat and huge iced drinks available at the many stalls packed into the market.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Brunei has a tropical climate and experiences regular rainfall throughout the year. The summers can be hot and humid between May and August while the winter months are cooler outside of this. Travellers should be aware of Ramadan, the exact dates for which change each year, as the country is religiously conservative.

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Safety – Possible risks

Brunei is an incredibly safe country for travellers to visit as long as they abide the by the laws, including the religious laws which are becoming more prominent in the country. Outside of the city centre, walking can be difficult as there are few pavements and it is not pedestrian friendly. In the rainforest and on the Brunei River there are potentially dangerous animals such as the saltwater crocodile but even seeing these, let alone being attacked by them is extremely rare.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

The local currency is the Brunei Dollar and ATM’s and money exchanges are available at the airport and throughout the city of Bandar Seri Begawan. The Brunei Dollar is in fact pegged at 1-1 with the Singapore Dollar and Singapore Dollars can be used interchangeably with Brunei Dollars.

Brunei can be expensive in comparison to neighbouring Malaysia and to other South East Asian nations. Accommodation will cost a minimum of 20 USD per night for a basic single room or dormitory (where available) and aside from the great value, cheap Night Market where meals will cost 1-3 USD, other restaurants in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan will cost between 5-15 USD per meal.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Brunei’s main challenge in the future will be preserving its rainforest and Kampong Ayer, its traditional water village. Many tour companies taking visitors into the Temburong National Park are already aware of this and are actively making their trips as sustainable as possible, encouraging local business while at the same time keeping their tours responsible. Staying with locals on Air BnB or at the water village while in Brunei will help keep the tourist money in the country.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Brunei is a very conservative, Muslim majority nation and the local laws and customs should be respected. Alcohol is not for sale except for a select few, expensive international hotels and a license is needed to bring any alcohol into the country.

Public transport is not always readily available, and what buses that do run end at 7pm at the latest. Taxis are not numerous and can be even more difficult to find than a local bus, so it’s best to arrange at least airport transfers in advance of arriving.

Brunei is not necessarily set up for tourism, and locals may not be that used to seeing tourists, however, they are well educated, open and friendly to foreigners exploring their country.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!

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