Recently, we were lucky enough to get a few days off of school for Buddhist lent and it just so happened that we needed to do a border bounce for our visas. So where did we decide to travel? . . . Brunei! Neither of us had heard much about the small county and thought it would be a unique experience and another check-mark on our list to visit all of the ASEAN countries.
Where is Brunei?
Some of you may be wondering, where is Brunei? … maybe even what is Brunei?!?
Brunei is a small country located on the island of Borneo, surrounded by Sarawak, Malaysia. It is the 5th wealthiest country in the world and is home to some of the oldest rainforest in the world! It’s twice the age of the Amazon rainforest. For the geographers reading this, a lot of it is still primary growth, so yeah, it is definitely a forest lover’s dream! The country is ruled by a Sultan who recently introduced Sharia law as the law of the land. Therefore, alcohol is banned and non-existent (except non-Muslims are allowed to bring in a small amount with many restrictions).
How to get there:
Getting to Brunei can be easy! The airport is trying to market itself with the help of Singapore as a stopover destination for tourists from Australia, New Zealand, and more! We found ourselves a flight out of Krabi to Kuala Lumpur, and then from KL to Brunei. For those living in Southeast Asia it is typically cheaper to by a second flight out of KL then going straight through.
Before coming to Brunei, we really did not know what to expect. When we finally arrived in the airport we were greeted by the mother and daughter of the family we were staying with through Airbnb. They picked us up and another girl from Chiang Mai and drove us to their apartment. The drive was quite beautiful, everything was green and there were spurts of giant mansions. There was almost no traffic, which was quite surprising as everyone in the country pretty much has 1 or more cars because gas is CRAZY cheap ( 53 cents) and cars are also extremely cheap ( someone told us about 5,000 Bruneian Dollars for a very good used car [3700 USD]).
The apartment we stayed in was extremely nice and in a great location within walking distance of many attractions. Our host family had recently moved to Brunei from Indonesia. The mother was a stay at home mom originally from Indonesia and the husband is originally from Sarawak Malaysia, but of Chinese decent (just a few hours away). They have a two year old daughter who was learning English and Chinese and loved to play with us when we were around. The family was extremely nice, helped us out with directions, gave us rides and made an amazing breakfast! Please check them out on Airbnb if you are planning a trip to Brunei.
For our first night in town we were not really sure what to do. We decided to go downtown. Our first and important stop was to find food!! We were recommended a small stand down the street from where we were dropped off called Nasi Kotak Mama. This is where I learned that Brunei food might just be my all time favorite food. The stand serves different pieces of chicken and rice, covered in the traditional sambal sauce, and all for $1! It may sound simple, but this sauce was so tasty, I am really upset I can’t find any in Thailand. The lady who worked at the stand was extremely friendly and even gave us a complimentary water when she learned we had just arrived.
Afterwards, we continued walking around in hopes of seeing a mosque and getting some more food, after all we had been traveling all day and starving!!! Nearby, we stumbled upon some food stands that had been set up to celebrate the Sultan’s 70th birthday the day before. Everything, at the stands looked amazing, mainly consisting of different types of roti, chicken, colorful drinks and more. Not too long after we arrived Mike and I noticed the most amazing sign ever…. PIZZA ROLLS! Now this may not sound that exciting to most people, but we almost NEVER eat cheese and pizza so of course we had to check it out. For just $3.5 we ended up purchasing a massive pizza roll, and several pieces of Naan. The pizza roll was filled with some of the most amazing chicken and cheese and the Naan was just delicious. Everyone at the market was extremely friendly and curious to know where we came from. We ended up enjoying all of our food afterwards down by the waterfront where we watched many families cross over the Kampong Ayer water village in beautiful traditional dress.
After enjoying the water front for awhile we headed over to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, one of Brunei’s most iconic landmarks. There we unfortunately had just missed the time that tourists were able to enter and decided to just walk around the grounds. The mosque itself was just incredible. The lawns were well manicured, and it felt like we were somewhere from Aladdin, anywhere but South East Asia. Slowly, the sun began to set and it was a sunset like I have never seen before. The sky turned to beautiful shades or orange, and then to vibrant pink and purple, all just hitting the mosque so beautifully. It was truly magical to watch. We spent quite some time just watching the sunset and checking out the iconic mosque, and then decided to just walk around town some more before walking back to our Airbnb.
The next morning we woke up to a homemade breakfast consisting of chicken burgers, fresh bread, eggs, fresh vegetables, tea, coffee, Milo, peanut butter, jam, coconut jam, and more! After enjoying our food we headed into downtown for a few hours before our trip to the rainforest. After stumbling across a morning market we decided to take a water taxi across the river to explore Kampong Ayer which is the world’s largest water village. Once you arrive to the village there is a small cultural center explaining the history of the village. There is also a watch tower you can climb to get great views of the area, including a glimpse at the Sultan’s palace, which is restricted for visitation (the only time you can visit is the three days following the end of Ramadan). In the tower we met a very friendly local who we chatted with for quite some time. He explained to us the history and geography of Brunei and the surrounding nations. The man was very high in the social scene of Brunei as he has served in the military and now was in charge of selecting only 5 students from the entire country to study English abroad. Afterwards, we walked around the village on very rickety wooden planks. There we were greeted with friendly smiles from locals and we even met a man who showed us the strange fish and crabs that he had just caught. The village is very large and we were only able to check out a small part before heading back across the river (Kampong Ayer is actually comprised of 42 villages and is the largest floating village in the world. There are schools, a park and even a fire department).
Next, we headed to a ferry where we met an Australian man named Peter who joined the same tour as us and headed out for our rainforest experience. We took the small cramped ferry from BSB to Bangar, the main town in Temburong District.
The next late afternoon we arrived back from our rainforest adventure and headed back to our Airbnb to get cleaned up and rest for a bit. There the husband offered to take us drop us off at the Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which is the largest in Brunei. Once again we were not able to go in, as tourists can only enter for one hour each day. The mosque itself was beautiful, clean, and was like straight out of a movie. After walking around for some time we headed over to the nearby night market. There we were overwhelmed by the amount of great food choices. We decided to try a pita, some different meat filled pastries, Tea Tahrik, some local pandan coconut desserts, and a small slice of cake. The tea itself tasted like a better version of Thai tea, it’s a bit milky, and just downright amazing. I made sure to buy some to take home. The foods were okay, Mike was dissappointed. The pandan was good, unfortunately the cake was not . . . well we thought it was a chocolate cake of some sort but it was DURIAN!!!! After taking a bite Mike insisted that I try it and it was the most disappointing thing ever.
Following the market we decided to walk around a bit more to get a bit more food, and just see the area. We ended up stopping at a local fast-food type chicken place that serves amazing cheap chicken, cheese, and of course even more amazing sambal sauce. Eventually, our lack of sleep from the night before and tired legs began to set in so we decided to head back for relaxation and sleep.
On our final morning we woke up once again to a delicious homemade breakfast where we were able to chat with the family a bit more and really get to know them. Learning about Brunei and the nearby other cultures is definitely very interesting, especially for two geographers. After breakfast we headed to the nearby rainforest trails. Yes, that’s right, rainforest trails as Bandar Seri Begawan is located within the rainforest. Just off the side of one of the main roads, locals and tourists can enjoy an enormous park full of many trails and a waterfall. We originally wanted to find the waterfall, but unfortunately it was not very clear where it was located on the map so we just picked a direction and headed up. I’m not sure why, but we choose the steepest hill to climb where we eventually came across a view point tower. There we had a beautiful view of luscious rainforest and the city. Bandar Seri Begawan is very lucky that it has such beauty in it’s downtown. After spending some time at the view point we decided to try and find the waterfall. Feeling very tired and seeing how much steeper the trail was, we decided to change route and explore more of the park closer to the entrance before heading to the Royal Regalia Museum.
The Royal Regalia Museum was highly recommended to us as worth a visit. It is free to enter and you need to put on slippers to walk around and lock up your bag. The museum showcases the Sultan’s and royal family of Brunei, some history, and some of the many gifts given to the Sultan from around the world. Overall, the museum was very majestic and definitely worth stopping in for.The A/C and soft carpets weren’t so bad either.
Next, we walked around town a bit more and stopped in a restaurant for lunch and tea. We immediately were drawn to the buttermilk sambal chicken dish. It was full of flavor, had a small kick to it, and is officially my favorite dish. I want to head back to Brunei just to eat this dish again.
Lastly, we headed back to the house to pack up, shower, and unfortunately get ready to leave. There we hung out with the daughter for some time and talked with her mother a bit more before driving out to the airport .
More about Brunei:
Everything was super clean, it was just incredible to see
There were almost no motorbikes, the cars NEVER honked, and they always stopped to let you cross the street! I don’t know anywhere else where this occurs.
The people of Brunei are extremely friendly, no matter who you are, and all seem to live harmoniously even if they are of different religions.
The Sultans tries to look after his people to great extents and offers natives free health care. He will even fly them to another country if they need a special procedure or treatment.
There are only a handful of taxi’s, and buses run frequently until 6pm. Otherwise, the streets are very well lit and extremely safe.
The traditional dress is exceptionally beautiful and you can see many well dressed people dressed in traditional wear. Even though the country is quite modest, there were not many women completely covered up, I find there are more in our part of Thailand.
Everything is heavily air conditioned, you need to bring a jacket