Visiting Brunei - Should you Go and What to Do
It is very likely that the small nation of Brunei has never found itself high on your travel to-do list. Or if it has, it is equally likely that recent news regarding changes to the legal system convinced you to go elsewhere.
But we are very pleased to report that, as is almost always the case, if you look past the media headlines and open your mind and heart to something different, you will discover a warm and friendly country that offers so much more than you might have expected.
Ok, so lets address the elephant in the room upfront - yes Brunei’s Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, the absolute monarch and the country’s singular legislative authority, has recently enacted the second phase of a Sharia penal code which many will find antiquated (being nice) or abhorrent (being honest) and a genuine reason to not visit the country.
Brunei has always been a conservative Muslim country. No alcohol is allowed in the country, and religious obedience is expected for Muslims in regards to Friday prayers and Ramadan. However, the country is also considered progressive in regards to women’s rights and standards of living, and most Bruneians would be considered well educated and tolerant.
In 2014, the Sultan enacted the first phase of Sharia law, alongside common law, which included fines and prison sentences for ‘crimes’ such as not attending Friday prayers, promoting religions other than Islam and pregnancy out of wedlock. While criticised internationally, there was not massive media coverage at the time. But in April 2019, the second phase saw the introduction of penalties such as hand amputations for theft and stoning to death for adultery and homosexuality. Worldwide outrage swiftly followed, with condemnation by the United Nations, and calls to boycott the Sultan’s Dorchester Hotels group by celebrities such as George Clooney and Elton John.
So should you go to Brunei?
It is a difficult question, and something that each traveller needs to consider for themselves.
Do you choose to travel to a country where you don’t agree with the politics? Where you don’t agree with the religion? Where you don’t agree with the customs? If the answer is no, you are unlikely to ever venture far from your home town. One of the joys and most enriching aspects of travelling is to see and experience cultures and customs and thinking that is different to your own, and recognise the value in these differences.
So do you boycott a country based on its politics? There are many countries in the world with despots and dictators (and democratically elected presidents!) who’s policies you may abhor. Myanmar, the Philippines, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Syria, (the US?) - the list is depressingly exhausting. And while many of these countries may be no-go zones for safety reasons, in other cases your avoidance of a country because of its leader may be depriving the ordinary local citizens of much needed income and exposure to the outside world, adding to the hardship created by their government.
So back to Brunei…
We are the first to admit, we were already slightly wary of travelling to what is a largely unfamiliar destination, and when we learned of the pending legal changes during our travel research we were given reason to pause for thought.
For those that don’t know, while we have been a ‘couple’ for over 25 years, we are not married, and while we didn’t expect to be a target of current or incoming laws in Brunei, we were still aware of the fact our relationship choice may not be considered ‘acceptable’.
However, for us there needs to be a very strong reason, usually revolving around a high chance of physical danger, to not visit a country. We have learned time and again, that basing travel decisions (and personal opinions generally) purely on media reports, without firsthand knowledge or experience, is an all too common modern failing. So despite some trepidation from friends and family, we resolved to go and see for ourselves (as we would encourage all of you to do too).
And, as is also almost always the case, we are so glad we did!
We discovered a clean, safe, modern country whose people, at least in day-to-day life, away from officialdom and imposed religious obligations, are far more liberal-minded than you might expect. Well-educated, well-travelled and well-informed about the world outside of Brunei, the Bruneians we met were aware of the consternation that the Sharia law issues were causing at an international level, but felt the actual implications were minimal. Many felt that the laws were more of a guide to moral living, akin to The Ten Commandments in Christian countries, rather than a penal code.
To add to the intrigue, one of our guides during our stay was a member of the LGBTQ community and was not concerned about letting it be known. He confirmed that while naturally the new laws were not popular with LGBTQ people, and acknowledged they could have serious ramifications, the everyday Bruneian, including those in his community, were not overly worried. He even stated “it’s not like anyone is going to start going around knocking on hotel doors”. He felt daily life was as normal here as anywhere else in the world.
Whether this represents misplaced optimism or otherwise remains to be seen, but in the interim, it is a relief to know that ordinary Bruneians are not suffering under the new laws.
What is there to do?
So if the socio-political situation is not deterring you from travelling to Brunei, you may be asking, is it actually worth a visit anyway?
Now here we will temper the expectations a little. Unfortunately Brunei does not possess a lot of attractions that you might find on a world sightseeing list. In fact, the country is one of the few that doesn’t even crack a mention on Howard Hillman’s “Top 1000 Wonders of the World”. But what this small oil-rich nation does have is an abundance of primordial rainforest, the world’s biggest water village, and a great chance of spotting the endangered (and endearingly unattractive) proboscis monkey. There are also numerous highly impressive mosques within the capital, including the opulent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
With realistic expectations in place, we planned a two day stay in Brunei, exploring the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, the water village of Kampong Ayer and the pristine rainforest of Ulu Temburong National Park.
Ulu Temburong National Park
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, in 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.
The Temburong District is physically separated from the primary Brunei landmass and is generally reached by tourists via boat (to reach it via land you must pass through Malaysia at present, though a new bridge connecting the two elements of the country is under construction, despite ongoing delays).
You can soon read our dedicated post about the National Park here - Ulu Temburong National Park (Link to come).
Literally meaning “water village”, Kampong Ayer is located on the Brunei River in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
The world’s largest water village, this expansive community is built on stilts over the water, and is home to an estimated 13,000 people. The water village has existed for centuries and was the historical site of Brunei’s capital. There are homes, shops, restaurants, schools, mosques and halls over the water, all connected by ramshackle boardwalks and bridges. Although many buildings are old, there are new “suburbs” within the water village, with modern townhouses and apartments in neat rows above the water.
To reach the water village, you simply hail one of the many water taxis (small motorised dinghies) that are constantly zipping back and forth between the waterfront of Bandar’s main town and the village itself.
There are multiple pick-up and drop-off points on the waterfront, but don’t stress too much about finding them, just head to the water and in the unlikely event a boatman doesn’t find you first, just wave your arms above your head and they will do so momentarily.
The cost is one Brunei Dollar per person one way (locals pay 50 cents).
On the village side of the river, there are a number of jetties, all simply labelled by number. Get dropped off at any jetty, and from there wander around the village and experience the juxtaposition of the old, decrepit, unloved buildings, the elaborately decorated traditional homes of house-proud owners, the modern stilted townhouses and the futuristic Sungai Kebun Bridge in the background.
Found only in Borneo, proboscis monkeys are undoubtedly one of the most intriguing-looking (if we are being nice) primates in the world, with the large males in particular having enormous bulbous noses, protruding pot bellies, and a disconcertingly obvious permanent state of arousal.
While we were actually expecting to only see the proboscis monkeys in the wild in Brunei, it turns out they are still prevalent in much of Malaysian Borneo, and we were to see several other families of proboscis monkeys in Sabah. Nevertheless, spotting them for the first time in Brunei, from a little boat on the river at dusk, was a pleasing reward for our efforts.
As best we could determine, you have two broad but opposing choices for your accommodation in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Either you chose to stay at a large, modern, nondescript, western-style hotel. Or you seek out a local homestay. There is no in between, and certainly no boutique, luxury options that would normally be our lodging of choice.
We have taken the soft option once or twice in our lives when travelling to places we were unsure about, and probably regretted it each time. On this occasion we decided to pass on the bland (although admittedly air-conditioned) concrete towers and instead avail ourselves of the opportunity to get closer to the local life and try to experience what we could of the real Brunei.
Kunyit 7 Lodge is located in the heart of the water village and locating it couldn’t be easier. Catch a taxi from the airport to the waterfront of Bandar Seri Begawan (about a 20 minute drive). From the waterfront head directly across the river to Jetty 2, about a minute boat ride away. At the point of disembarkation you are literally right in front of the lodge, a mere 25 metres of boardwalk away.
The Lodge is a cozy family home consisting of a quaint, airy front patio, an open-plan living and dining area, three small guest rooms, a fourth room for the owner, shared bathroom facilities (two toilets and two showers), a small communal area where coffee and tea is available and the family kitchen (not open to guests).
You get a ring-side seat to all the action on the river from the patio, including a view through the buildings on the other side to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
The owners name is Kem, and as best we can tell she is a powerhouse in the local tourism community, not to mention within her village.
At the time of our visit, she was contributing her time as a Mentor at Startup Weekend Brunei - Social Enterprise Edition.
However she still found time to sit and talk with us and teach us some of the history of the water village and about life in Brunei (including her childhood when the then Sultan, the current Sultan’s father, would come to her house in the village and she would play at his feet).
Now you have probably already guessed, as lovely as Kunyit 7 Lodge is, and it is very lovely, it is not the type, nor level of luxury, of accomodation we would normally choose nor recommend here on YOLO Travel. But you know what, it really was a great experience and the best way we know to get to appreciate and learn about a country that otherwise we hear and know very little about.
And no, there is no air-conditioning, fans only. And despite the heat, yes you can do it!
We booked Kunyit 7 Lodge via Airbnb.
Food & Drink (of the non-alcoholic variety)
There are no bars and basically no nightlife in Brunei, but eating is a beloved cultural activity. So saying, there are very few “traditional” restaurants in BSB, and the notion of traditional Bruneian cuisine is difficult to pin down. The only true national dish, called ambuyat, made from sago starch, is variably described as paste, goo and gelatinous goop, with Lonely Planet describing the process of eating it as: “use the special chopsticks to twirl up the tenacious mucous. Once you’ve scooped up a bite-sized quantity, dunk it into the sauce. After your ambuyat is sufficiently drenched, place the glob of dripping, quivering, translucent mucilage in your mouth and swallow – don’t chew, just let it glide down your throat”. While we have tried our fair share of pasty, goopy delicacies in southeast Asia, this one sounded particularly unappealing, and we passed.
Like in neighbouring Malaysia, much of the best food in Brunei is not found in restaurants but in food courts and markets. With a love of both eating and shopping, Bruneians combine these past-times in large modern shopping malls, several of which are located in the outlying BSB suburb of Gadong. But closer to Kampong Ayer, the waterfront and adjacent streets have several recommended restaurants (although the waterfront is not utilised nearly as much as it could be), featuring Malay, Japanese and Indian cuisine. We can also highly recommend Piccolo Café – with air-conditioning so cold its windows are streaming with condensation, it is a delightful place for a pitstop, with delicious snacks and the best Milo smoothies we have ever tried!
Know Before You Go
We are really rather confident it was total overkill and completely unnecessary, but… we actually purchased cheap, mock wedding bands and wore them at all times while in Brunei, just to avoid any questions, or cause any inconvenience to our homestay host (there are hostels in Brunei where unmarried couples cannot stay together).
While conservative dress is appreciated (such as pants / skirts / dresses to the knees, and sleeved rather than strappy / skimpy tops), women visitors are not expected to wear traditional clothing or to cover their hair.