I have always been fascinated by this little kingdom or Sultanate, ruled by a Sultan who at one time was famous for being the richest man in the world. When I was planning a trip to Indonesia and Borneo I saw that Brunei was located on the island of Borneo, so of course I wanted to go. I spent three days in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, and was pleasantly surprised. I will tell you everything I learned about how to visit Brunei!
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Location: Northern coast of island of Borneo. If you are confused (like I was before this trip), Borneo is a large island in Southeast Asia that does not belong to any one country. Three countries make up Borneo: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Indonesian part is the largest. Oh geography, you’re so fun.
Currency: Brunei Dollar (0.74 US Dollar). ATMs are fairly easy to find. You will need cash when paying at restaurants, cabs, water taxis and street food vendors.
Truth be told, this wasn’t the easiest place to visit. I had assumed (wrongly) that I could get there by land when I was visiting Indonesian Borneo to see Orangutans. It turns out, this plan would involve 3 days of rough driving through the jungle. I looked into flying. There were no direct flights across this little island. I had to first fly back to Jakarta, spend the night and then fly to Brunei the next morning. There are direct flights from a few cities in Indonesia including Bali. If you are visiting Malaysian Borneo, it is much easier. It is closer by land and there are flights to Brunei from Kuala Lumpur as well as Malaysian Borneo.
Read More: How To See Wild Orangutans
Brunei has been ruled by the same bloodline of Muslim sultans for over six hundred years. They were an important regional power back in the 1500’s then had a decline. The British discovered oil there in 1926. A ton of oil.
The current Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanul Bolkiah, is the 26th sultan. Brunei won independence from Britain in 1984 and he assumed supreme rule. Thanks to a global demand for oil, he was the richest man in the world by 1997, with a net worth of $40 billion. His son is poised to be the world’s first trillionaire.
In 2015, the Sultan instituted Sharia law and this was seen as a huge step back for a nation that has no plan for revenue beyond oil which won’t last forever. Many human rights groups and celebrities responded to this move by calling for boycott of his Beverly Hills Hotel. The new laws included harsh punishments for adultery, abortion, being homosexual and propagating religions other than Islam. Many find this hypocritical given the Sultan’s well documented decadent and debaucherous lifestyle. I speak more on this at the end.
The Sultan’s lavish tastes and religious views result in sparkling stunning mosques. This one is in Bandar Seri Begawan’s downtown area and is called Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien.
This next one is Masjid Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah built in 1990s by order of the current Sultan. It’s estimated cost was 1 billion USD! It was designed by an architect from Brunei so they are very proud of it. It has 29 golden domes representing each of Brunei’s former rulers. This maybe the most beautiful mosque I’ve ever seen. I went at sunset and stayed to see it gloriously lit at nightfall.
This mosque is not downtown, but in an area called Gadong, that has many popular restaurants. I found a taxi driver in town that offered to take me here, then take me to the food courts nearby, wait for me, then bring me back. This was wonderful, but pricey, at 25 Brunei dollars.
I returned again the next day during visiting hours to see it in the light of day and also to see inside. My taxi guy must have been off that day so I found another driver. They all hang out near the bus station, by the way. He offered to take me to a mosque, wait for me, then take me back, for only 5 Brunei dollars ($3.50 USD). He provided pleasant conversation, asking me all about American politics, of course. When we arrived at the mosque, he walked around with me and took pictures for me! How great was that? Having gained a personal photographer for the day, I insisted on giving him 10 Brunei dollars.
I walked around the grounds and marveled at all the beautiful details.
Photo cred on this one to taxi driver who’s name I sadly forgot!
They don’t permit photos inside but I can attest to the fact that it was absolutely stunning. A white marble palace with gold accents.
This is the airport’s mosque:
I’m not sure what I expected. I thought this country would be sterile and orderly like Singapore with the opulence and social stratification of a Gulf country. Instead what I found was a very southeast Asian culture, except quieter and cleaner. There is a long history of Chinese influence in Brunei, like much of the region.
What if I was to tell you there is a village on the water with over 30 thousand inhabitants dating back to the 1500’s or even earlier? Some call this the “Venice of the East”. You can leave the city by boat and a few minutes later be transported back in time to Kampong Ayer. At first glance it looks like a slum, but I found out they have electricity, AC, plumbing, police, firemen, schools, soccer fields and mosques.
To get a water taxi/tour, simply walk to the riverside and a man on a boat will find you and offer you a deal. The going rate is 20-25 Brunei dollars for 2 hour tour. Everything is negotiable, of course. I was lucky enough to get a “Ferrari”.
Water Taxi driver wasn’t a bad photographer either!
Just ten minutes outside of the modern capital city is literally the jungle of Borneo. The same water taxi that took me to the water village also took me into the jungle to see Proboscis monkeys. How cool is that? If you have more time you can spend a couple days in the rainforest.
If you like Indonesian and Malaysian food, you will love the food in Brunei. They share many of the same dishes except some with a local twist. The food stall game is strong, just like in Malaysia. Food courts with many stalls of different items is my favorite way to try new foods and the proprietors are very happy to explain what everything is. The best food stalls are in Gadong at the night market. Ask any taxi driver and they will know!
This is Soto. It’s soup sort of like Laksa in Malaysia except made with broth instead of coconut milk. I had this at a place called Soto Pabo, with a lovely terrace on the water. They also had grilled satay skewers with a delectable peanut sauce. I believe I ate grilled clams here too. I am sorry I didn’t photograph everything because I stuff it in my mouth too fast!
Apam Balik or Kueh Malaya is a pancake made from coconut mild on a griddle and covered with peanuts and a little brown sugar. Or you can have with cheese. This is a street stall favorite.
Ayam Penyak was another local favorite and it’s also best in the food stalls that are in a nice park downtown. Again, just ask at your hotel where to go. It’s basically fried chicken, but first smashed with a mortar and pestle to make it softer. It’s served with rice (of course), cucumber, and sambal (spicy sauce).
I really enjoyed visiting this museum type place. Not sure exactly what to call it. It is full of lavish ornate gorgeous things. Many of them gift from various country’s leaders to the Sultan. I remember a small mosque made entirely of crystal. A full room is devoted to a life size model of the Sultan’s wedding carriage and procession with entourage. I hated that I couldn’t take pictures. The items in here are literally jaw-dropping. They only allowed photos in this main hall. There were many security guards despite only two tourists (including me) in here!
I’ve received some criticism for traveling to a country that is regarded as anti-human rights, as I mentioned above. As a traveler, I strive to be responsible and not put my tourist dollars towards activities that cause harm. I’m not trying to throw shade at the beloved Sultan, but I can’t say he is a model citizen. He owns a palace with over 1700 rooms and a huge solid gold dome, a fleet of private jets and is an infamous womanizer. Don’t even get me started on his brother’s shenanigans.
That being said, I don’t want to punish and boycott an entire nation of people because of their government, especially in this case where it’s a leader they didn’t choose. I spent money at some small local restaurants, on airfare for Royal Brunei Airlines and for my hotel, The Brunei Hotel. Does that mean my money went directly into the Sultan’s pocket? I guess some may have. He has made his billions from oil so anyone who buys Shell oil for their cars is directly benefitting the Sultan. So…there’s that.
I definitely do not condone many aspects of the new law. I especially didn’t like that there is no alcohol! However, it is not the horrible police state you may imagine. I found it to be laid back and informal. I didn’t see any police officers. People seem to park wherever they want, jaywalk, etc. Not all women wore hijab and when they did, it was often with normal but modest clothing. I had a female cab driver who was super friendly and chatty. Many females work and walk alone in the street. Life seems pretty normal here.
The bottomline is that ordinary Bruneians (of whom 80 percent are Muslim and 10 percent Christian) seem happy. The Sultan subsidizes nearly every aspect of civic life with the nation’s oil revenues. Bruneian citizens pay no income taxes! For health services, they pay 1 Brunei Dollar (80 cents), and if they need to be flown overseas for a treatment that isn’t available, it is done on the government’s dime. They are even given an allowance and allowed to bring a guest. Education and foreign exchange study also are free. At age 50, Bruneians get $200 a month from the government, in addition to their pension.
I can’t say that Brunei was the most fun or exciting destination, nor a cheap one. It’s place that’s interesting culturally and I’m glad I got to see for myself what it was like. I enjoyed it because I got to relax and slow down from the frantic pace from which I was traipsing across Southeast Asia. I also enjoyed the utter lack of tourists.
Being American, I live amongst people that fear Muslim culture and would never visit a Muslim country. This made me want to visit even more because I feel that visiting countries different than our own is vital for personal enrichment. The fact that it’s very safe and the people are very welcoming reinforced my decision. Instead of believing everything you hear about a country, sometimes it’s best to see for yourself. The people I interacted with in Brunei seemed excited to have an American tourist, something they clearly don’t see often. I had so many random and wonderful experiences with locals. While I won’t tell someone to rush to visit Brunei, I left feeling happy that I had the chance to discover this mysterious kingdom.
*UPDATE MARCH 2019 This week Brunei has implemented harsher penalties for adultery and homosexuality that allows death by stoning. In light of this news I would not recommend travel here and I would not return.