Brunei, the world’s fourth richest country, home to the largest water village in the world and 74% covered in rainforest. It also only welcomes 270 000 tourists per year making it the perfect off the beaten path getaway right in the heart of South East Asia. Don’t come expecting the wild parties of Phuket or the skyscrapers of Singapore but if it’s history, culture, nature and a bit of something out of the ordinary then a trip to Brunei should be high on your list.
We stayed in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan and spent three days exploring the sights. There are also plenty of options for seeing some of the rainforest and wildlife in the area so if that sounds like your thing then add a few more days. The pace of life in Brunei is very relaxed and you may also find yourself staying for a few extra days just to read a book, sit in a café or watch the world float by on the river.
Basic Facts About Brunei
Population: 400 000
Currency: Brunei Dollar 1 BND = € 0,62
Fun fact: the Brunei dollar is equal to the Singaporean dollar and you can use both currencies in both countries.
Language: Standard Malay, English is widely spoken
Tap water: Safe for brushing teeth, drinking water should be boiled
Wifi: Wifi is not available in many public places or restaurants but the connection is fine. In the water village there are no cables so the signal is not as strong.
Visa: Many nationalities enjoy visa-free entry to Brunei including EU, New Zealand, US, Canadian, Russian citizens. For more info read the visa policy of Brunei.
How to Get to Brunei
There are regular and cheap flights to Brunei with Air Asia from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Manila. There are also long-distance fights with Air Brunei direct from London, Melbourne and other international destinations.
If you are travelling overland from other areas of Borneo there are buses from Kota Kinabalu which take around 8 hours. Make sure you have a few spare pages in your passport as it will be stamped eight times during this journey! (It passes in and out of Malaysia twice as well as through Sarawak province which requires its own stamp.) You can buy tickets online here, it’s cheaper than buying them at the bus!
An alternative is to take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu to the duty-free island of Labuan where you change ferries to Brunei and take a bus to Bandar Seri Begawan. This route takes about the same amount of time but can be far more pleasant as the journey is broken up into parts. You can read more details about the trip in our post about travelling from Brunei to Kota Kinablu (coming soon).
Where to stay in Brunei
For exploring the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, you can’t miss the amazing opportunity to stay in the world’s largest water village. It’s a chance to see a totally different way of life and luckily there is a gorgeous homestay set up right on river just 30 seconds boat ride from the city.
Kunyit 7 Lodge is owned by the sociable Kem who hosts travellers from all over the world in her beautiful and relaxing homestay. The basic rooms are comfortable and clean but the real draw card is the huge balcony overlooking the river with the city on the other side, the perfect place to relax with a book or simply watch the world go by. There’s also a great home-cooked breakfast included. Check prices and availability here.
Things to do in Bandar Seri Begawan
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is the new centre piece of Bandar Seri Begawan. Built in 1958 it is dedicated to the previous Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III. It is surrounded by a small lake and a pristinely manicured park which is a popular local hangout in the evenings. Tourists are welcome to enter the mosque for free and a stroll through the park as the sunset reflects off the giant golden dome is a true spectacle.
Jame’Asr Hassanila Bolkiah Mosque
We’ve been to a lot of muslim countries but this mosque was truly impressive, simply for the size. We also loved that it was set on a long driveway lined with palms, like a mosque meets Beverly Hills. Its also free to enter and its only open 9:30 to 11:30 am and between 2 and 3 pm. To get there take bus number 1 from the bus station.
If you’re not staying in the water village, or even if you are, a walk through Kampong Ayer is a must. Kem from Kunyit 7 Lodge offers walking tours of the village and will give you the low-down on all the history. Or you can take yourself through the jetty paths of the village on both sides of the river past houses, schools and even a mosque in this huge collection of stilt structures. If you get tired a water taxi between any two jetties costs $1 or the drivers can take you for a tour on the water for a negotiable price.
Monkey River Cruise
Brunei offers an incredible opportunity to see proboscis monkey in the wild. It’s not guaranteed but if you head on a river cruise just before sunset there are good chances of seeing them. You can organise a boat trip through a tour agency or by negotiating with a boat taxi driver personally.
Brunei History center
All of the museums in Brunei are free so it’s easy to fill a day’s touristing with museum time. We aren’t usually museum people but since we knew so little about the history of Brunei we decided a quick trip to the Historical Museum might be a good idea. Plus it’s a great way to escape the heat for an hour or so.
The museum is actually really nicely put together and although it’s missing some explanations in English it gives a good overview of Brunein history. It even has a great kids section with a stamp treasure hunt and a spice room (yes, we had a go!)
Royal regalia Museum
The very premise of this museum had us intrigued. We had heard that the Sultan of Brunei is one of the world’s richest men and this museum is set up to house all of the gifts he’s been given by various nations. Basically a giant display of golden shiny gifts, we had to check it out.
It was surprisingly interesting. Not only were there hundreds of lavish gifts but there were also exhibits about the life of the current Sultan and his family. At the end there was also a recent history of Brunei including developments, law changes and achievements and its plans and goals for the next 20 years.
Gadong Night Market
A little outside the city centre is the Gadong Night Market which is a great place to get cheap, local food and soak up the atmosphere. There is plenty of barbeque style cooking with iced drinks, fried delicacies and peanut and condensed milk pancakes. It gets started around 5 pm so head for an elongated dinner and try a variety of dishes.
Places to eat in Bandar Seri Begawan
Piccolo Café – serves a great range of Western foods including waffles, cakes and burgers as well as excellent coffee.
Home Dish Restaurant - Really friendly little local place which serves a huge range of dishes at affordable prices. The garlic fried eggplant is to die for!
Thai food (next to Cafe Piccolo) – This is a little street food style booth with some seats outside. Small and simple but they do it well. Amazing pad thai and green curry.
Things to do outside of Bandar Seri Begawan
Although most visitors to Brunei (like us) only spend a day or two in the capital there are some other areas of the country to explore. They offer similar experiences to the rest of Borneo but without the large tour groups. Unfortunately this also means a lack of much infrastructure such as transport, information or guides but it’s definitely possible to get off the beaten path and explore some amazing spots that hardly anyone knows about.
Ulu Temburong National Park
74% of Brunei is covered in rainforest, most of still virgin and protected. One of the best places to explore it is by taking a water taxi to the enclave of Brunei and doing a tour of Ulu Temburong National Park. This area is only accessible with a tour but gives you the opportunity to see some of the world’s most untouched rainforests. There’s a river cruise and a canopy walk included in the tour as well as lunch and transport to/from Bandar Seri Begawan.
Tutong is a small town located 5 minutes from Brunei’s most popular beach area. If having a beach to yourself is your idea of a great holiday then head to one of the resorts for a few days or even take a day trip from Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei is small!) and enjoy the sun, sand and sea somewhere much quitter than the tour-group filled Malaysian beaches.
Labi Hills Forest Reserve
This area takes up a large amount of the interior of Brunei and can also be visited as a day trip from Bandar Seri Begawan. The main attraction are the famous Iban long houses on stilts but there are also walkways through the wetlands, waterfalls and jungles to explore. It can be done independently but there’s not a lot of info or infrastructure so a tour might be more rewarding.
Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park
Tasek Merimbun in the largest lake in Brunei and is a peaceful place to wander. Don’t expect much tourist infrastructure but it’s very calm and there is lots of interesting flora and fauna to discover. You will need to arrange transport there by taxi or tour as there is no public transport servicing the area.