I spent three nights in Brunei as I travelled across the north of Borneo island from one part of Malaysia to the other. This article can be used as an itinerary for what to do in Brunei as well as giving you information on the best place to stay and why. Personally I recommend that you stay on the edge of the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan unless you are heading for one of Brunei’s beaches. Three nights will give you enough time not to rush around but the main sites of interest can be seen in one day if you are very quick.
The article will also help answer the following:
- Is Brunei expensive?
- Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit the country overland?
- People say that Brunei is boring. Is this true?
- Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?
- Is Brunei worth a visit?
Brunei certainly won’t suit everybody but in my opinion Brunei IS worth a visit, especially if you are travelling around other S E Asian countries; if only so that you can experience a different culture and way of life.
Where is Brunei?
Brunei is on the north coast of the island of Borneo. It is sandwiched between and divided by the huge Malaysian state of Sarawak, with a second Malaysian state, Sabah to taking up the north east corner.
The larger part of the island is taken up by some Indonesian states – see map below.
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I liked Brunei although I only had time to explore the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan and with a population of just 150,000 people it is very laid back – more so even than Vientiane in Laos – and that place was extremely laid back.
The wealth of Brunei has come relatively recently in history from gas and oil reserves. The ruling Sultans have placed ever more emphasis on religion and they align themselves more with the Arab oil rich countries than the surrounding Asian countries but whilst the ‘new money’ has meant a spending spree on public buildings and infrastructure, Brunei somehow lacks the glitz of say Dubai or Bahrain.
It’s a little bit shabby and tired around the edges despite the huge cars on the roads and the mosques which creak under their heavy gold domes, but the people on the streets are friendly, the food is great and I think it’s definitely worth at least a couple of days of your time here.
The prosperity of the country has meant that many Bruneians don’t have to worry too much about hard work – although that’s not to say that there are no entrepreneurs, creative people and business men and women here. Far from it for whilst foreigners from the Indian sub continent and other Asian countries supply much of the manual labour there are lots of new businesses springing up. I was told many times by many people that the Bruneians major pastime is eating and this certainly seems true judging by the number of places to eat – although Brunei still has a long way to go in this regard if it is to beat Malaysia.
Is Brunei expensive?
Yes….and no. It depends!
The entrance to virtually all attractions is free and buses and water taxis are cheap. Conventional taxis are expensive and they are actually quite difficult to find on the streets but the city is compact enough to walk around if you can stand the heat and the humidity.
I was waiting on the local bus stop outside my hostel waiting to go to the main bus station when a man stopped and offered me a lift (I accepted) and on other occasions when I was walking around, people often stopped to ask if they could drop me anywhere. If you are going to accept lifts from total strangers or hitch-hike please smarten up your instincts beforehand and don’t take any risks but I think that on balance Brunei is one of the safer places to be.
The water taxis
There are seemingly hundreds of water taxis buzzing around the river-front. They criss-cross the river to take locals and tourists across to Kampung Ayer where 30,000 people live in the largest stilt village in the world. These boats will also take you upriver to the small piers and the outlying suburbs or you can negotiate with the cheerful guys for a private trip into the jungle where you have a good chance of spotting proboscis monkeys or crocodiles; but bargain hard.
Food prices vary from cheap and cheerful in the markets and in the small cafes to expensive meals in the high-end restaurants; especially those aimed at tourists and ex-pats, and hotels and accommodation are higher priced than many other S E Asian countries (they are on a par with Singapore) but there is a new, very affordable kid on the block if you are open-minded about staying in a hostel.
The Lonely Planet Guide book for Brunei also covers Malaysia and Singapore – order your copy here
Where to stay in Brunei
I cannot recommend the AE Backpackers Hostel highly enough on many levels.
This is a new hostel just a 30 minute walk from the main city attractions. The beds are in dormitories but no expense has been spared. The staff are keen to welcome you and make you feel at home and will give you loads of information about the area, plus the place is kept spotlessly clean. When I was there, Andy the owner actually gave me a lift into town on two occasions as he was driving that way and one evening he treated myself and some other guests to a satay meal.
You can find out more and book your stay at the AE Backpackers Hostel via this link.
A bonus is that the area around the AE Backpackers Hostel is full of places to eat and drink during the evening; unlike the city centre which closes down. The hostel is also just a short walk from one of the water taxi piers and the bus stop is just outside.
If a hostel is not your thing (but why not give it a go, you might be a convert), you can get the latest up to date prices and accommodation in Brunei via this link to Agoda
I have heard Brunei is boring. Is that true?
It depends what you are looking for. It actually seemed quite lonely to me because there are not that many people on the streets and at night the city centre is dead. People tend to drive everywhere (partly to avoid the searing heat but also because fuel costs are so low) and they tend to eat out at the clusters of food outlets in the suburbs. It all feels very tranquil and calm, even on a Sunday morning when all the food stalls and the market open up alongside the Independence Field and the families come out for picnics and to let the children play and ride their bicycles.
There are several things to do in the immediate city centre – all walkable – and if you have a car you can wander further afield and really delve into Brunei culture.
In one day I walked between and visited:
The Royal Regalia Museum – this museum is actually very interesting. It contains information and artefacts depicting life as a Royal as well as a large collection of the sort of gifts that one Head of State or a Government will give to another. You do have to wonder about some of these – imagine trying to buy a gift for an aunt or a brother who has everything, and then add political messages into the mix. You almost feel sorry for the recipient – maybe they should agree to stop swapping gifts and suggest visiting dignitaries sponsor a clouded leopard or donate to a hospice instead!
The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque – This is the enormous mosque in the city centre and despite its large golden domes I reckon it is beaten in the beauty stakes by the older mosque the ……which is just a 15 minute walk from the AE Backpackers Hostel. But it’s still worth a visit and the grounds on the river bank are pretty (if bland). Just avoid prayer time and dress respectfully – although you will be given a robe to wear when you enter.
The Old Custom House (now the Tourist Office) – This squat building is a reminder of colonial times and might, or might not, contain an art exhibition while you’re in town.
The riverfront promenade – There is a long walkway around much of the riverside which is good to stroll along and people watch. You can hail a water taxi from here and the guys will certainly do their best to attract your attention. I saw an annual boat race when I was in Brunei. The long racing rowing boats blasted through the choppy waters and the water taxis dodged around them. There were rumours that the Sultan might attend the race but if he were there I didn’t see him.
Tamu Klanggeh Market – This traditional fruit and vegetable market operates next to a little spur on the river. Fresh produce is piled high on the stone tables and there is the usual bevy of cheap and cheerful food stalls at this bustling hive of activity.
The Chinese Temple – this large temple is the oldest in the city with its red pillars adding a splash of colour to the mostly bland beige and white of the rest of the city. In fact, the colourless-ness of the city (I’m not sure if that is a real word but you understand what i mean) is possibly why Brunei might have a reputation if being boring. Everything attempts to be clean and white and sparkly – but instead it mostly manages to look tired and bland.
Kampung Ayer – On my second day in town I took a water taxi over to Kampung Ayer and spend a nice couple of hours wandering around the largest stilt village in the world. Now this is worth a visit. You could wander along the wooden board-walks for ages, getting lost down dead ends and snooping into homes, mosques, schools and fire stations. Just beware underfoot – of piles of cat poo on the boards and also rotten or even missing boards outside some of the less well-maintained homes.
I had to slow right down and tread very gingerly in some places; not sure if I would plummet into the murky river water below, but when you get tired of wandering around, simply find a jetty or an open space and a water taxi man will be sure to find you.
Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque – This mosque just 15 minutes walk from AE Backpackers was my favourite. There are fountains and flowering shrubs and trees in the gardens and the tiles on the minarets are also pretty. As usual, you will be asked to wear a robe if you are a non-Muslim but somebody will probably also show you around and answer any questions that you might have. There is even an escalator up into the mosque – so the Sultan doesn’t have to walk up the stairs like the commoners!
Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?
Yes, there is Sharia law but as you are not going to break any rules this will not affect you! Also there is no requirement for non-Muslims women to cover their hair. Alcohol is not on sale although you can import a small amount of alcohol for personal consumption – but as there is no shortage of different teas, coffees, juices or soft drinks available why bother?
Dress conservatively (cover your shoulders and knees and you will have no problems) and you will find that people are quick to smile and to ask where you are from. There is no rule that says that you can’t wear shorts or a strappy top but as this would be offensive to the majority of the people who live here why would you?
Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit Brunei overland?
Brunei has a very interesting geographical outline on the map. The country is split in two by the Sarawak state of Malaysia. If you want to travel overland between the two Malaysian states on Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) you will collect 10 passport stamps. (I could have downloaded a professional looking map off the internet but this is more the reality of my travel life)
I travelled from west to east.
- I crossed Borneo from the town of Mira in the state of Sarawak heading onwards to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah. I exited Sarawak and I entered Brunei – stamp #1 & #2.
At this point I stayed for 2 nights in Brunei – pick up my bus route on the map at the teaspoon.
- I exited by bus from Brunei and back into the bit of Sarawak that divides the country – stamps #3 & #4 (orange peg)
- I exited Sarawak and crossed back into the eastern side of Brunei – stamps #5 & #6 (yellow peg)
- I exited Brunei for the final time and crossed into the thin sliver of Sarawak that runs along the eastern border – stamps #7 & #8 (the black memory stick points here)
- Despite both states being Malaysian there is a degree of autonomy in Borneo and to cross between Sarawak and Sabah gets you another 2 stamps #9 & #10 (and finally the lighter marks the exit)
You can fly in and out and you can cut out some of the borders by taking a ferry around the sea route but I love bus travel and it was fun to be popping off and on the bus with the local people at every immigration check. We were all quite friendly after the 7 hour trip. Look out for the local guy Danny at the bus station in Brunei who will help you with tickets and travel information about the border crossings.
To sum up: What to do in Brunei? Is it worth a visit?
Yes, I think so if you are exploring Borneo although I’m not sure it justifies a flight in and out just for itself. There are other things to do outside the city centre, apparently the Brunei beaches are a great place to go and see the sunset, an (allegedly) tired theme park and access to the pristine rainforest but little else and it’s difficult to get around unless you have a car.
On a plus point, the wealth provided by the oil money so far has ensured that the loggers have not ravaged the rain forest to plant the palm oil cash crop as they have in neighbouring Malaysia. The rainforest is largely untouched apart from where the highway was blasted through it and is apparently some of the best in the world but the Bruneians don’t seem to have much of an interested in promoting it to tourists either.
Get your Lonely Planet guide to Brunei, Malaysia (and Singapore) here and drop on by. I adored both of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and would one hundred percent recommend either or both of those for an extended stay.
Read my other S E Asia guides, such as the perfect itinerary of Myanmar or the best things to see and do in Melaka and drop me an email or reply in the comments below if you have any questions on Brunei or anywhere else that I have travelled.
If you would like me to accompany you and tour Borneo and/or mainland Malaysia let me know. I know that I will return and I can take some of the hassle out of your journey and show you some of its gems.
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