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Brunei Darussalam is a small monarchy located north coast of the island of Borneo and squeezed between the Malaysian state of Sarawak and South China Sea. Brunei became a British territory in 1888 and made a living from trade before oil was discovered in 1929. Today, the oil is still flowing, and for its size, Brunei is one of the richest countries in the world!
But, Brunei is nothing like any other Southeast Asian country where skyscrapers are over the top. Honestly, Brunei was never on top of my travel list. In fact, prior to my trip, I was thinking that okay if you want to be thrown into undisturbed Mother Nature and experience solitude while hiking through the virgin rainforest then this is the place to go. I mean, when considering whether to travel to a place, we normally look for concrete attractions like famous buildings, themed park or delicious foods. All these connotes fun and adventure and that’s what holiday is supposed to be, right? But, my journey to Brunei made me realize that sometimes it’s not these tangible attractions, but rather the overall feel of a place that counts.
The ride from the airport to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) reminded me of the trip from Singapore International Airport to Orchard with long freeways eventually leading to the bustling city center. Only that in Brunei the long freeways ended in a city that was the complete opposite … it was unruffled and quiet, and not a single street looked busy, nothing was moving. The streets were deserted, the shops hermetically shut and the air of silence was deafening. The whole image I faced gave me the impression that my brief stay would be boring and futile. But then it’s too early to judge right? So, I shrugged the idea off and tried to be positive.
The following day I’ve noticed that there aren’t that many public buses and taxis in BSB. Most people drive their own cars and most of the homes I passed had large entries with multiple cars parked in the shade. But what’s interesting is that the roads do not suffer from the chronic congestion. Also, the roads seemed strangely quiet even during rush hours. Soon I realized that unlike in India where every driver has a finger on the car horn, in Brunei, no one was noisily honking their way through the traffic. Drivers even halted out of nowhere to let humans cross the street. There was even a time I thought that the roads were all mine Haha! Opposite to what we have in the Philippines… The air quality seems good too.
It is worth mentioning here that since Brunei’s wealth comes from oil and gas, the gasoline only costs just 50c a liter! The price never changed in the last twenty years. Also, there’s no competition – only Shell has the license to sell gasoline here. No wonder everyone drives their own car!
I also learned that there’s no goods and services tax (GST). Bruneians do not need to pay any income tax. Basically, they get to keep what they earn! Education is free up to college. Similarly, medical are heavily subsidized as well. Bruneians only need to pay a token fee of B$1 per consultation for healthcare and if the medical assistance is not available in the country, they are sent overseas at the government’s expenses.
In terms of infrastructure, the styles were rather outdated. The houses seem plain, honestly, I am not that impressed considering how wealthy this country is. But the mosques were something else – grand and palatial! I froze in awe when I took a stroll towards the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) Mosque. The view of the gigantic honeycomb of gold was nothing but spectacular. I had seen many mosques in India and Malaysia but seeing the SOAS Mosque glowing at night was a very special experience.
Another mosque that is worth the visit is the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque or JAME Mosque for short. The largest mosque in Brunei and is considered one of the grandest monuments in Islamic culture. It was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sultan’s reign. I managed to make it in time to snap a few postcard-worthy photographs before the mosque closed for the night.
Equally stunning is the Istana Nurul Iman the official the residence of the sultan of Brunei and the largest residential palace in the world. It is located a few kilometers outside Bandar Seri Begawan, on the banks of the Brunei River. I was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to admire the palace from the inside during my visit. You can only do so on the second day of the Hari Raya – a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. But if you want to catch a glimpse of it at any other time of the year, then check it out from Taman Persiaran Damuan.
To see a different side of BSB you should make a trip to the stilt houses known as the Kampung Ayer. It is an extensive water village within Sungai Brunei River a few minutes powerboat ride by water jitney from the city’s dry land. According to Kampung Ayer’s tourist center, over 30,000 people live there in wooden houses on wooden piers. Like Venice, all are connected by walkways for short hops and boats for longer ones. What’s so interesting about Kampong Ayer is that they have their own schools, mosques, police stations, medical facilities, and fire brigade! Which means they don’t have to go to the “dry land” just to have an access to this services. And believe or not this style of urban living dates back at least a thousand years according to historical records, fascinating isn’t it?
You can also peek into the lifestyle of the rich and powerful head of state at the Royal Regalia Museum in town. This museum is specifically dedicated to the sultan of Brunei which allows visitors to have a remarkable glimpse of his life, as told through objects and photographs.
Actually, a visit to Bandar (the capital) can be done within a single day as the attractions are within the city.
There is very little in terms of shopping as only a few international brands are there within the country. Far from the glamor and bright splendor found in the malls of Singapore and KL. I was told that the Mall is the place to go shopping, but there’s nothing much to see and do here. If you have a lot of spare time to kill, then go. Otherwise, it’s not worth a trip.
Just in case you’ve had enough of The Mall you can always go to Yayasan shopping district. It is located opposite Sultan Omar mosque, it’s a good place to spend time away from the sun during the hottest time of the day. It’s not that crowded and there are eateries n shops. A pretty big place but nothing special in my opinion.
If you are a foodie then the fasting month is not a good time to visit due to restrictions on the public sale and consumption of food. As eating, drinking or smoking in front of people who are fasting is considered rude. You will only be allowed to take-out foods from all restaurants and eat privately in respect of the Holy Month of Ramadan.
The first Bruneian dish that I’ve tried was the Nasi Katok for B$1.00. Nasi Katok, a dish of hot rice served with a side of spicy sambal, and a piece of chicken or beef or pusu (anchovies). There’s nothing really special about the dish, but what makes “Nasi Katok” interesting is the tale behind it. Nasi means rice in the Malay language and Katok means knock. Back in the old days, there were no 24-hour eateries, so the only way for a hungry person to get a midnight fix was to knock on the doors of a food outlet and get the owner out of bed. The sleepy owner will then prepare a simple dish which evolves into the present day Nasi Katok.
There is no sale of alcohol within the country and consumption of it in public is prohibited by law. However, non-Muslims are entitled to enter the country with up to two bottles of liquor and up to 12 cans of beer. Just be sure to let the customs authority know what you’re carrying. Still, if this is too much of a hassle for you, why not consider an alcohol-free vacation and just try out the teh tarik, a sweet milk tea, as well as the wide array of coffee (kopi) available all throughout Brunei 🙂
The locals seem happy enough. There were certainly plenty of smiles directed at me each time I got the chance to interact with them. Another detail that soon caught my attention was that I never heard raised voices whether I was strolling throughout the city. Often the soft tones of the people forced me to ask them to repeat the price of a certain dish or directions to a building. Similarly, they always use their thumb instead of the index finger to point. Match perfectly with the manner in which they speak.
So, what more to say of Brunei Darussalam? Overall, it’s an interesting place and I’m glad I made it there. Would I return? Probably not in a hurry although I can proudly say that I had a great time.
Happy travels everyone!