Brunei Travel Guide

Brunei Travel Guide

For overseas travellers planning an Asian holiday, Brunei is unlikely to be the first country that comes to mind. But this little sultanate in northwest Borneo does have attractions for senior travellers. It’s safe and stable, the people are hospitable and the pace of life is unhurried. And it has some fine rainforests and diving sites for those who want a little adventure.

Most visitors combine a few days in Brunei with time in Malaysia’s eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, which surround it.

Overlooking the South China Sea, the country is well known for its oil and natural gas reserves, mostly offshore, which give its people one of the highest living standards in the world. Its ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is one of the world’s richest persons and one of the longest-reigning monarchs. People in Brunei pay no taxes and enjoy many benefits, including free health care and education.

Balanced against that is the fact that the sultan is an absolute ruler. There are no national elections and the media is strictly controlled. But his rule is generally seen as benevolent and he appears popular among his people. Crowds queue for hours at his palace on his birthday to shake his hand.

Buildings in downtown BSB displaying posters of the ruling sultan. Image: © David Astley

Brunei’s official name is Brunei Darussalam. It’s divided into two parts, separated by a big swathe of Sarawak. The larger part is more developed and includes all the major cities and towns. It’s where visitors arriving by air begin their journey. The smaller and more easterly part, Temburong, is rich in rainforests.

Ethnic Malays make up about two-thirds of the country’s population and ethnic Chinese around 11 percent. Other population groups include Indians and various indigenous communities.    

Brunei has introduced strict Islamic laws. Alcohol is banned, although non-Muslim visitors are allowed to bring it in for their own consumption. During the annual Muslim fasting month, even non-Muslims are discouraged from eating or drinking in public during the day.   

Bandar Seri Begawan

Brunei’s capital is home to about 200,000 people, roughly half of the country’s overall population. It lies on the north bank of the Brunei River, which runs from the city down to Brunei Bay several kilometres away.

The city, known by locals as BSB or simply Bandar, has little of the clamour of other Asian capitals. It has no skyscrapers, and no nightlife to speak of, although it’s worth visiting the colourful night market in Gadong. Shopping and eating out are the main pastimes.

Shoppers watch an event in a Gadong shopping mall.   Image: © Alan Williams

Renting a car is probably the best way to see the city and its surroundings. Many expats work in Brunei and having friends show visitors around is often the best option. While taxis are available, there aren’t a lot of them, and bus services are limited.

The city’s main attractions include two large mosques. Finding the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the central city area is an easy task. Named after the current sultan’s father, it was completed in 1958 and is surrounded by an artificial lagoon. A mosaic with real gold leaves covers the main dome. 

The Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is newer and the country’s largest. The present sultan built it in 1992 in the suburb of Gadong to celebrate the 25th year of his reign. It’s ornately decorated inside and out. The mosque is visible from many parts of the city but it’s too far to walk from the city centre.

The Brunei National Museum, about 5 km out of town, is worth visiting. Brunei has an intriguing history – it once covered a vast area of North Borneo and the southern Philippines – and the exhibits reflect this. There is also a display sponsored by Brunei Shell on the discovery of oil and the part it plays in Brunei today.

The Royal Regalia Museum in the city centre features, among other things, gifts presented to the sultan by foreign dignitaries and the ornate chariot he used during his 25th anniversary procession in 1992.

Half-day bus tours are available that take in the mosques and museums, and a view from the entrance of the Istana Nurul Iman, which the Guinness Book of Records recognises as the world’s largest residential palace.

Kampong Ayer

Visitors spending more time in BSB will undoubtedly want to see Kampong Ayer (‘water village’ in Malay), the centuries-old stilt settlement built along the banks of the Brunei River. The short trip across the river by water taxi is exciting and the stilt-house settlement is believed to be the world’s largest, housing about 30,000 people. The journey is safe for senior travellers. 

Water taxis are the only transportation to and from Kampong Ayer.   Image: © David Astley

Ecotourism

More than two-thirds of Brunei is reportedly still covered with pristine rainforest, and the country promotes itself as a destination for ecotourism. This centres on the Temburong district, which is separated from the rest of the country and has some of the finest rainforests. A limited area is open to the public and the best way to see it is on an organised day tour. These take visitors by water taxi from BSB to Bangar, Temburong’s small capital, from where they will journey up a river by long boat to Belalong Wilderness National Park, about an hour away. The park includes a canopy walkway and tours usually include a guided nature trek.

From BSB there is also a half-day cruise available among the mangrove swamps along the Brunei River in search of proboscis monkeys and other wildlife.

Scuba diving

Brunei is becoming known for its shipwreck diving sites in the tropical waters of the South China Sea. While this probably isn’t something a senior traveller with no diving experience would want to attempt, experienced divers have more than 30 wrecks to choose from, with plenty of opportunities for photography.  

Currency and exchange rates

The Brunei dollar is pegged to the Singapore dollar at par. B$1 is worth S$1 and the two currencies are accepted in both countries. As the Singapore dollar is one of Asia’s strongest currencies, this has obvious benefits for Brunei in terms of financial stability.

There are money changers at Brunei International Airport, hotels and shopping centres. Credit cards are widely accepted.

Best months to visit Brunei

There’s little to choose, weather-wise, when deciding which month to visit Brunei. It lies just north of the equator and the weather is hot and humid all year round, with little variation. Average temperatures are around 30-32°C during the day and 23-24°C at night. December and January are generally the coolest months but there’s little in it.

It rains throughout the year but May and October-December are usually the wettest months.

Header image: © Anujak Jaimook | Dreamstime.com

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