Brunei…have you heard of it? When I was telling people about my upcoming trip to Borneo, they would (even being Hong Kong locals) say, “umm…sorry but where’s that again?”
“Borneo? The third largest island in the world? The one where David Attenborough makes movies about Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys? The one with an incredibly old and diverse rainforest? No? Alright.”
If people didn’t know where Borneo was, I certainly didn’t blame them for not knowing about Brunei.
Let me tell ya. It’s the 32nd smallest country in the world, only about twice the size of Luxembourg, yet once ruled all of Borneo and parts of The Philippines until territorial squabbles and British colonialism shrunk it to its current day size. Even still, Brunei has the third highest GDP (PPP) per capita in Asia and the fourth highest in the world. How? An extraordinary wealth of oil offshore. It’s also one of the most devout Muslim countries in Asia, still practicing Sharia law. I’ve always been fascinated by the little countries of the world. Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino…why do they exist and what are their people like? Brunei is no different, and I’ve been curious about the place for a while. Obviously, I worked tirelessly to find the best route to the Abode of Peace.
The hardest part is finding an affordable means of getting to Brunei. From Hong-Kong, the cheapest and quickest way turned out to be flying Air Asia to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah (One may also fly direct to Brunei from Kuala Lumpur for a decent price).
I arrived late, as I had lectures all day before my flight, and got to the city around 23:30. I instantly checked into Space Cap Hotel, which has the trekky capsule rooms I grew fond of on my trip to Kuala Lumpur. Loud disco music downstairs and a loud snorer below me kept me up until 3 am, and my alarm got me up promptly at 5:30 to catch my 7:00 flight with Royal Brunei.
If you’re on a budget or have more time, which I wish I had, you can take an eight-hour bus from Kota Kinabalu or a ferry to Labuan, then a ferry to Brunei.
My only hesitation pre-journey to Brunei was its extremely strict drug enforcement policy. If found with any illegal substance, the punishment is execution — no questions asked. The back of the immigration form read in bright red letters, “WARNING: Death to all drug traffickers under Brunei law.” I haven’t touched a drug worse than beer or cigarettes in a while, yet there was still this paranoid thought in my head that someone slipped a little baggy into my shoes while I slept (I dunno, I don’t know how smuggling works). I even feared that my malaria medicine would incur suspicion since I forgot my doctors signature in my dorm. My 6:00 am brain played the scene over and over again:
“Sir, what are these pills?”
“Doxycycline, for malaria prevention.”
“Do you have proper documentation?”
“I have a photo of the receipt for my prescription…that little curly ‘Q’ at the bottom is his signature…” and then I’m instantly carried off, beaten with a salty cane, and tied up to a mossy Mangrove where the Proboscis Monkeys incorporate me back into the planet.
Yes, my 6:00 am mind is ridiculous. My malaria pills past inspection, and my shoes didn’t have any hidden baggies. Bruneian’s are some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve encountered in all my travels.
And yes, Brunei has been one of the highlights of my entire time in Asia over these past four months.
The flight only lasted about 40 minutes, which was just enough time to oogle out the window at the beautiful Bornean coast.
I arrived early in the morning, still not quite hot enough to scorch but definitely hot enough to get my sweltering. I went and asked the tourists desk how to get downtown, and the woman pointed me to the bus stop. She noted that buses have no schedules, and will show up when they show up anytime between 6 am and 6 pm. Great.
I sat, gradually getting hotter in the already 30 C morning heat until a bus showed up after a good twenty-minute wait. The bus is a lot like a Hong Kong light bus, more or less a minivan driven by a man who hasn’t slept in 48 hours, staying awake by sheer adrenaline. The attendant gave me a warm smile and “Selamat Pagi” (Good Morning) as I entered and the crazed driver shot out of the parking lot. The bus downtown cost B$1 (US$.60) and took a good twenty minutes through the outskirts of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). By the time we got downtown, the Bornean sky had opened up and poured down. People were running and hiding for cover, and I walked through the rain to a little shop to buy my favorite Teh Tarik (a bit like a chai) and some morning bread to enjoy with the rainstorm. The rain was a welcome relief to the constant sunshine we’d been experiencing in Hong-Kong.
The rain continued between about 8:00 and 11:00, which gave me plenty of time to just sit and watch. I love a good rainy day.
When the rain finally stopped, I learned that everything and anything in the country shuts down between 12 am and 2 pm on Fridays to allow for prayers. I shot up and tried to find some lunch, stumbling into a delicious local shop for some Nasi Lemak (fried chicken with rice, peanuts, sambal, and anchovies) before heading to Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, the main Mosque of downtown BSB.
Clean and elegant, the Mosque acts as a symbol of the city. I don’t think they get many tourists here, so I drew more attention than usual taking photos around the Mosque at prayer time.
I love listening to the call to prayer, and it’s always one of my favorite things about being in a Muslim country like Azerbaijan or Morocco. I appreciate the aesthetic of geometry in Islamic art, and a call to prayer ties both sight and sound together in the most harmonious way possible.
As soon as the call to prayer sounded, every shop and building in the city shut down and a flood of people rushed to the Mosque. I walked around in a ghost-town capital. No shop with open doors, just some Korean tourists over there, a German couple there, and a man taking a selfie with me here. It was a surreal scene, to walk around a nearly empty capital. There’s nowhere else I can imagine being able to do such a thing in Asia. But a ghost-town does grow lonesome, and my tired soul just wanted a little siesta before taking on the night. I headed to Ae Backpacker’s Hostel for impeccably clean rooms and incredibly welcoming staff for a much-needed catnap.
When I finally got up I headed to Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, the largest in the country, for the sundown call to prayer.
It doesn’t seem like they have too many tourists, and every local I’ve encountered up to this point has at least made eye contact with me and nodded or smiled with a “hello”. People often slow down their cars to wave at me, and some come up and shake my hand wishing me a good day. I can always appreciate a place that makes me feel welcome, and the strangers in Brunei have been some of the most welcoming I’ve experienced in my life.
Alcohol is not allowed in Brunei, making my usual ‘go to the bar for a few’ plan impossible. So I adapted and went to the Gadong Night Market for some street food.
It happens to be Durian season, making the entire covered market filled with the smell of fresh stinking durian, not to be confused with sweet rotting onions.
One thing that really stuck out about this market was the lack of shitty tourist stalls. In just about any night market in Asia, there’s always a section of Chinese knickknacks and souvenirs for the passerby wanting a shot glass or fridge magnet. But there’s none of that here, other than a little shop I bought some postcards from next to the mall. Right next to the food market is a mall, and figuring it would be the life of Friday night BSB, I decided to hop in. Turns out I’m pretty big in Brunei.
The locals told me this is pretty much all they do on Friday’s, just walk around and hang out. I can dig it, but the 5 am wake up starts hitting and I have to head back to get some rest.
Today started out with a hop on the bus into downtown. Ae Backpacker’s hostel is a bit outside the city, about thirty minutes walking. There isn’t a reliable public transport system here, you just kind of hop on the bus when it comes, but I can appreciate that. I respect organized chaos.
The plan is to fly back to Kota Kinabalu in the afternoon, so I have to squeeze everything else out of BSB before heading out. First stop is Kampong Ayer, the water village nicknamed the “Venice of the East” just across the river from downtown BSB. River taxis are everywhere, and they just come up when they see someone in need of crossing. A ride into Kampong Ayer costs B$1, which I’m sure you could talk down but I felt it was pretty cheap. For one of the richest countries in the world, Brunei is extremely affordable to travel around. Even though the Brunei Dollar is valued the same as the Singapore Dollar, most items cost just a little bit more than they would across the border in Malaysia. A good meal will cost about US$2, with a more luxury meal going at US$4. Buses are all US$1, and Ae Backpackers Hostel was US$13 for one night, but worth the cost due to its comfort (and for being one of the only hostels in the city).
Anyways, the river taxi took me straight across into Kampong Ayer.
There’s also a Mangrove forest nearby with wild Proboscis monkeys, and you can debate with your captain over the price for the journey. I didn’t make it there, but if you have the time, why not?
Kampong Ayer was one of the areas I was most curious to see when preparing for my trip. My Norwegian couchsurfing host last August told me how interesting it was, so I had to go.
As Brunei is quite wealthy, it has the ability to equip otherwise derelict water village houses with plumbing and electricity, unlike most of the other water villages in Asia. Some of these houses sell for more than the houses on the land, and it’s bizarre how some of these houses are so fancy, yet propped up in the middle of a murky river.
I mean, these houses would fit in just as well in suburban Cleveland.
The locals were just as friendly as everywhere else. Everyone said hello to me, kids practiced their English as I walked by, and one of the purest senses of “welcome” possible washed over me. I was the only tourist in the water village, and people did not seem to want anything from me. They were merely interested in me as a person, not seeing any monetary gain by being nice to me. Bruneian’s feel very genuine to me. Those that wished to talk to me were extraordinarily genuine and real in the smiles the showed, and in the questions they asked. In return, every “terima kasih” (thank you) I gave was as legitimate as I could muster. It’s the least I could do.
Hopping back on another water taxi, I went back to the mainland in search of food. I wandered into a busy Indian restaurant for some roti with daal and a teh tarik. While I ate, the man that had taken a selfie with me during prayer time the day before walked up to me shook my hand, showed me the selfie he took with me and walked away laughing as if we had been friends for years, and we had some terrific inside joke.
Full of roti and teh tarik, I headed to the airport, sad that I could not stay a bit longer in the Abode of Peace. I liked Brunei a lot more than I had expected. My paranoia was not worth the fuss. The first day, I was on my best behavior. I did not want to make a faux pas, as the consequences were unknown. Brunei is an extremely peaceful place, and that’s how they seem to like it. As long as you go to Brunei and respect the fact that Brunei is peaceful and a bit quiet, the locals will return the favor in spades and show you amazing hospitality and the warmest of smiles.
Next: On to Sabah, Malaysia to squeeze every bit out of my Borneo Weekend Ramble as possible! Thank you for reading and part two is coming up soon.