Ulu Temburong National Park, Brunei
Ulu Temburong National Park is one of Borneo’s few remaining expanses of virgin rainforest, a swathe of pristine jungle covering 550 square kilometres of the eastern enclave of Brunei, known as the Temburong District. Established as Brunei’s first national park in 1991, the park is so protected that only about 1% is accessible to tourists – the rest remaining open only to scientists, who come from around the world to research the unique flora and fauna within its primordial recesses.
In contrast to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, Brunei has managed to preserve much of its original rainforest – the wealth generated from its oilfields has prevented its rainforest being stripped for lucrative palm oil plantations. Before even arriving in Brunei, this could be appreciated from Google Earth.
So a trip to Ulu Temburong is an opportunity to venture into a rainforest that has existed in its current state for millenia.
The only (practical) way to visit Ulu Temburong National Park is as part of a guided day trip. And while the attractions of Ulu Temburong itself are not that numerous (the jungle, a canopy walk, and a picturesque waterfall), the whole experience makes the excursion a very memorable and enjoyable day’s activity.
Multiple companies in Bandar Seri Begawan arrange visits to Ulu Temburong. A standard itinerary includes a speedboat transfer from Bandar to Bangar in Temburong province, road transport from Bangar to Batang Duri, a longboat journey into the national park, the canopy walk, a visit to the waterfall and lunch, before returning by longboat, road and speedboat to Bandar Seri Begawan (“BSB”).
We booked through Borneo Trekker, a local operator with a helpful website, prompt and efficient service, and, most importantly, the opportunity to arrange private tours. Booking a private tour for just the two of us added approximately A$90, and was well worth it!
For starters, it meant we didn’t depart at 0630 to collect other guests, but at the far more salubrious time of 0745. (Some suggest starting early to “beat the heat”, but seriously, it is always hot in Brunei, and you are going to be in the jungle in the middle of the day regardless of when you start!).
We depart our lodging on Kampong Ayer by water taxi (always a glorious way to start the day), and travel the few minutes to the ferry terminal, where our guide from Borneo Trekker was waiting for us. We are booked onto the next speedboat for Bangar, and after a short wait, we pile in to the low stout boat and depart.
Brunei is split into two separate land masses by a tongue of Malaysian territory. BSB is in the western enclave, while Temburong is in the eastern enclave, and the only way between them is this 45 minute journey by boat, which functions as simply a bus service for local people to get between the two regions. We are the only tourists on the boat, which winds past more water villages and fishing shacks as it leaves BSB and heads up the Sungai Brunei River.
Soon, even these small hints of civilisation are gone, and the river is surrounded by thick jungle, and mangroves that narrow the waterway further and further. Our speedboat driver navigates the twists and turns with practiced ease, arcing through the slender channels with sprays of muddy brown water, whilst we scour the overgrown shores for wildlife.
Soon our phones ping with “Welcome to Malaysia” network messages, and we emerge from the narrow channels into open water. In the distance, a colossal road bridge connecting the two elements of the country is nearing completion, perhaps spelling the end for this charming mode of transport. But not yet…
After crossing the bay, we plunge back into the mangrove lined streams again, tilting and weaving through the jungle. Another ping announces we are back in Brunei and we journey upstream to the small town of Bangar, the gateway to Ulu Temburong National Park.
Bangar is small and sleepy, and we stop just long enough for a snack before we depart for the 16km drive to Batang Duri, where our longboat awaits us.
The only way to get into Ulu Temburong is by traditional longboat – a shallow draft known as a temuai, seating up to 6-8 guests in single file, facing forward on low seats, bags and cameras perched precariously on knees as the floor of the boat is wet (and is about to get more so).
The captain skippers the boat upstream, darting around rocks and rapids, surging forward and lifting the outboard motor out of the water at just the right moment when the water gets shallow. The recent rains have swollen the river, so at no stage do we need to get out and push the boat, but this is apparently a frequent occurrence at low tide. While the motor is a little noisy, it is still a serene experience to meander up the river, surrounded on all sides by impenetrable rainforest, while birds and butterflies flutter overhead.
We pass several camps en route, eventually arriving at Ulu Ulu Resort, where we register before beginning our hike to the canopy walk. After crossing an industrious suspension bridge, we ascend by approximately 700 well-constructed but uneven wooden steps, well signposted with distances and occasional rest stops.
It is hot and sweaty, but lovely, and for much of the climb it is just us and our guide.
Eventually we reach the canopy walk – a reassuringly sturdy aluminium and steel cable enterprise, rising like scaffolding in four narrow towers connected by walkways. The ascending steps are more ladder than stairs, with tight turns between each of the 20 levels, and while the exterior of each tower is enclosed, it would not be hard to fall within the tower itself. It is definitely not for those with vertigo! And those who are generously-proportioned may find the turns a little tight. Our guide, with phobias of both steps and heights, encourages us from the ground.
The walkway between towers 1 and 2 emerges about halfway up tower 1, but we push on to the apex, located 40 metres above the jungle floor. Here, the narrow tower sways significantly in the wind, but we have been reassured the canopy walkway was built using oil-rig infrastructure, and it feels safe(ish) despite the swaying. And at the base of the towers, there are guides who ensure only the maximum number of people are on any one section at a time.
And now to the view! The view is majestic – the old growth forest stretches as far as the eye can see, in lush shades of emerald and olive, unscarred by any civilization. Brunei can be justifiably proud of this vista, and the conservation work that has led to its preservation.
We cross between the walkways and towers, admiring both the view and the engineering.
Back on the ground, and joined by our acrophobic guide, we retrace our footsteps in a much quicker, but equally scenic, descent to the river, where our longboat captain awaits our return.
A short journey downstream, we alight at the site of an abandoned government camp, where a cascading waterfall fills a picturesque natural pool, filled with darting fish that nibble at your ankles. It is impossible to resist a refreshing dip, with the cool clear waters a welcome relief from the pervasive heat, and a great reward after the previous exertions. A hanging rope helps to ascend the face of the waterfall, with further scenic falls and pools upstream. Another group is just leaving as we arrive, and we enjoy the scenic spot in seclusion.
Lunch is included in the tours, and is usually a small buffet of traditional Malay foods, including curries and rice. Ours is accompanied by a monsoonal downpour – the jungle becomes a cacophony of rain pelting through the branches, pounding into the undergrowth. But the timing is impeccable – just as we finish our lunch, the rain is gone as quickly as it came, leaving just a haze of warm steam enveloping us as we finish our longboat journey back to Batang Duri and our transfer through the mangroves to home.
Ulu Temburong National Park is a delightful pocket of protected virgin rainforest in the heart of the Bornean wilderness, and the canopy walkway a great way to experience it from a unique perspective. While arguably not a wonder of the world, a visit to Ulu Temburong is a very pleasant way to spend a day in Brunei.
Know Before You Go
The only way to experience Ulu Temburong National Park is with a guided tour, as a permit is required to enter the park.
While it is possible to arrange boat and road transfers independently, this does not seem even remotely worth the effort.
As mentioned above, we used Borneo Trekker for our tour. They had a good website, detailed descriptions, impeccably prompt service from Yanie in their customer service department, and the option for private tours (the most important attribute in our opinion!).
A typical tour involves the following schedule:
A 45 minute ferry boat from Bandar Seri Begawan to Bangar
A 15 minute drive from Bangar to Batang Duri
A longboat journey into Ulu Temburong, taking between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the weather (ours took 30 minutes as water levels were high)
A walk from the lodge to the canopy walkway – the walk is easy but does involve 700 stairs. Walking at a reasonable pace, while still enjoying the view, took us 30 minutes
Time ascending the canopy walkway and enjoying the view
Descent from the canopy walkway and back to the lodge, and a longboat journey to the waterfall
Time at the waterfall
A buffet lunch at one of the nearby camps (and the opportunity to change into dry clothes if desired)
Return to Batang Duri by longboat (much quicker downstream, in our case only about 15 minutes)
A 15 minute drive from Batang Duri to Bangar
A 45 minute ferry from Bangar back to Bandar Seri Begawan
We commenced our journey at 0745 and arrived home at 1600, which we felt was the right amount of time for us.
Some tours also include the option of whitewater rafting if the river conditions are suitable, or visits to local longhouses if you are interested (although please note that these appear to be modern versions of longhouses, and not traditional longhouses that may be encountered elsewhere in Borneo).
Be prepared for hot, humid conditions, and the likelihood of getting wet, either from rain, or in the boat, or just from sweating profusely in the jungle humidity.
Backpack with waterproof cover
Dry bag for phones / wallets / change of clothes
A camera with a wide lens for the view from the canopy walkway
Waterproof cover for camera
Bathers if you want to swim at the natural pool – be aware that there is nowhere to change at the pool, meaning that you either wear your bathers all day, or try to change discreetly in some nearby jungle (given that Brunei is religiously conservative, A was conscious of wearing modest bathing gear, and had a long-sleeved rash-shirt and swimming shorts to wear over her bathers. But it turned out the only people present at the natural pool were westerners, and given the heat, and difficulties posed by changing in the jungle, bikinis seemed to be the accepted norm)
Walking shoes with decent grip – the stairs to the canopy walkway can be slippery with moss and leaf litter
Reef shoes for wading to the waterfall and climbing to the upstream pools
A small towel for drying yourself and your gear
A change of clothes for the journey home if you choose (we found it quite pleasant to be damp)
Sunscreen and insect repellent
You are unlikely to see any significant wildlife on your day visit to Ulu Temburong – the jungle canopy is dense, and wildlife is rarely seen outside of dawn or dusk, other than birds, insects and lizards. So don’t bother bringing a long lens for your camera on this excursion.
Others have also suggested wearing or taking a waterproof poncho, but we feel that this is unnecessary – you are likely to sweat so much inside your plastic poncho that you will be drenched anyway, and getting wet from the rain or the river is pleasantly cooling.
Tipping the guide is appreciated but not expected in Brunei.
One of the best aspects of our tour was the opportunity to have long conversations with our charming and hospitable guide, who told us all about life in Brunei, including insights into the current socio-political, legal and religious situation. It was a great way to get to know more about Brunei from the perspective of a young, progressive, thoughtful Brunei local, who was keen to share his thoughts and feelings.