Located between the Malaysian islands and Borneo, Brunei attracts tourists to its natural reserves and modern city life, where the golden dome of Omar Ali Saifuddien’s mosque shines as brightly as its affluent economy.
by Chris Mayya
My most memorable moment in Brunei was sitting by a small roadside stall, sipping fresh young coconut water and enjoying the beauty of the surrounding rainforests. These are the simple joys of life that Brunei, or “the abode of peace,” promises. But when I first landed in Brunei, what greeted me was not so much a land of peace as a top-class international city with tall buildings, malls, Western food outlets, and modern-day conveniences. This is Brunei at its best, balancing the convenience of the modern world with the solace that is found only in nature. Being a small and affluent nation has made it possible for Brunei to develop its infrastructure and roads and import foreign goods and services, while continuing to preserve its natural resources and heritage.
Long before I even ventured to Brunei, the only thing I knew about this oil-rich country was that the Sultan of Brunei was one of the richest men in the world. However, upon research I extrapolated that the average Bruneian is economically much better off than his or her neighbor in Malaysia.
Background and Culture
Brunei Darussalam is located in Southeast Asia, in between the Malaysian islands and Borneo. It has a population of about 400,000, of which the majority are Malay-Muslims. Brunei is an Islamic state ruled by Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy and values.
This includes laws such as banning the sale of alcohol. However, non-Muslim tourists are allowed to bring in a limited quantity of alcohol for consumption at hotels and certain restaurants. Meat has to be prepared under the halal code. Perhaps this outward garb of Islamic laws has deterred some from visiting Brunei. But in reality, these tight regulations and monarchy control do not have any significant impact visitors. What is more, Bruneians are fairly tolerant people and easy to make friends with.
However, the natural resources of the country may have made the government a little complacent about what the country has to offer tourists. In the past, efforts to promote the nation as a tourist destination have been minimal, and while Thailand and Malaysia were quick to position themselves as top tourist destinations in the region, Brunei lagged behind. Even today, there isn’t an exclusive travel book about Brunei available in most bookstores. But this is the very reason that makes Brunei “a tourism goldmine in Southeast Asia.” The tourism board previously used the tagline to refer to their nation as “the Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures.” And unexpected treasures there are aplenty in Brunei for those who care to look and explore deeper.
Bandar Seri Begawan (www.bruneitourism.com) is the capital of Brunei and, for the most part, the only city that most tourists ever visit. If you have only a few days, then this city makes an ideal stopover before your next destination. Bandar, as it is more commonly referred to, is a small city that can quite easily be navigated on foot. The car and bike rental trend has yet to gather momentum but is not a rarity. If you prefer not to use taxis, then getting acquainted with the bus routes may be worth the effort.
Places of Interest
The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is something that you can’t miss as its tall domes make it visible from most parts of the city. It is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, with its main dome being covered in gold. In fact, all mosques in Brunei showcase the nation’s unique architectural designs.
A water boat ride along Kampong Ayer (or Water Village) is the best way to get acquainted with Bruneians’ history and heritage. Although there is a recent trend to move toward dry land and buildings, a significant percentage of the Bandar population still lives in this village area.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club
(www.theempirehotel.com) is another architectural and aesthetic building to visit. It was originally built for the royal family, but the cost factors may have compelled them to offer it a commercial resource—building extravagant monuments and living quarters is historically a shared obsession, considering similar grandiosity by the press baron who built Hearst Castle in California, or the emperor who built the Taj Mahal in India. So even if you do not stay at the hotel, you can experience its palatial grounds by joining the afternoon tea, which is a popular stop on every tour program.
A visit to Ulu Tembron National Park (www.facebook.com/UluTemburongNationalPark) is a convenient one-day trip from Bandar, wherein you can experience the wildlife and the nature reserve of this largest park in the country. A boat ride by the riverbank or a walk in one of the dense paths of the park reveals its flora and fauna; particularly noticeable are the nipa palm trees, the proboscis monkeys hanging off the branches, and the unique colorful birds which will intrigue the interest of any birdwatcher.
For those who are willing to venture further and explore nature and wildlife, there is plenty of that, thanks largely to the government’s efforts to preserve 70 percent of land area as rainforest. Brunei may very well be the most convenient gateway for discovering Borneo, the largest island in this region.
Whether you visit Brunei just for a stopover on your Southeast Asian holiday package, for a weekend getaway, or merely to inquire into its recent tax haven incentives, it is bound to be a rewarding experience. Discover for yourself these “unexpected treasures.”
Getting to Brunei
Brunei is easily accessible through regular direct flights from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Jakarta, and from several other destinations such as Dubai, Australia, and China, periodically. From Sabah and Sarawak, the land transport options of trains and buses are available. Ferry services are also available from Malaysia.
Currency and Expenses
The Brunei dollar is on par with Singapore. In fact, in both Singapore and Brunei, their currencies are interchangeable. As Brunei is a rather affluent nation, costs are on the higher side, thus, it is not popular choice of stay for backpackers.
Food and Drink
The most common foods in Brunei are the Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, and Indian. Of course a trip there is incomplete without a visit to the night market Pasar Malam Gadong, or the Taman Selera Hawker Centre. Aminah Arif Restaurant is famous for ambuyat, Brunei’s signature dish. The famous teh tarik, a Malay version of Indian tea, and kopi are the local caffeine boosters.
When to Visit
Any time of the year is normally good to visit Brunei, however, this July isn’t because it is Ramadan, the fasting month for Malay Muslims. Shops do remain open during the day for tourists and for those from other ethnic backgrounds, but you are expected to avoid eating in front of those who are fasting.
The tourism board (www.bruneitourism.travel) website has ample information to plan your trip.
Tour agencies such as Freme Travel Services (www.freme.com) are a reliable source for better convenience.
For those seeking exploration and adventure into Borneo, one of the popular tour agencies, Tour Borneo (www.tourborneo.com), has many tour options to choose from.