Brunei was never one of those countries that popped up on our ‘must see’ list. In fact, before we reached South East Asia I have to be honest and say I don’t think I’d ever even heard of it. When we decided to go to Borneo island, we realised it was just a 20 minute flight from where we were staying in Kota Kinabalu and well, it would have been rude not to visit really.
I don’t want to turn into someone who travels around trying to tick off as many countries as possible, but the fact that we’d be able to nip in and spend a day exploring the capital, meaning we would have visited a whole new country in a single day was another plus point. We booked our flights and I duly began to scour the internet in search of things to do and to find out more about this mysterious new country that we’d be visiting. In this post we’ve included a quick run through of some ‘know before you go tips’ and our best things to do in Brunei.
A Bit About Brunei Before You Go
The population of Brunei is estimated at around 430,000 people and at 5,765km2 it’s the 172nd smallest country in the world. It’s also the fifth richest country in the world, which considering its size is pretty awesome. The wealth comes mainly from oil and natural gas and our research also turned up the fact that it’s estimated to have national debt at 0% of GDP. We also found out from chatting to our friendly taxi drivers that people in Brunei pay no tax and it’s not uncommon for people to own two or more cars as they’re so affordable!
I appreciate this may sound boring to some, but being a massive geek I found it very exciting to discover all these cool facts before we arrived.
The Friendliest People We’ve Met So Far
A couple of other bits about Brunei that were pretty interesting are that it’s up there with the friendliest countries we’ve ever visited. Without exception, every single person we spoke to was incredibly welcoming and seemed genuinely delighted to see us visiting. As westerners we definitely stood out more than in some Asian countries we visited – to the point where a majority of people stopped to say “hi” as we passed them in the street, and we found children would giggle when they saw us… although maybe that’s just us.
When we reached the foyer after wandering round one particular museum, we could hardly move for groups of people asking to take a photo of us or with us. We’ve had it occasionally happen before in a couple of other places (Sri Lanka and Myanmar off the top of my head), but this was next level. As soon as one group of girls started, the floodgates were open and everyone from young guys to families and older couples asked us to pose for selfies and photos. Honestly, it was pretty cool although we were ever so slightly embarrassed. So just a warning that this may also happen to you!
It’s Best To Keep Covered Up
Brunei is an Islamic country and, fairly controversially, has introduced elements of Sharia Law in recent years, with more policies currently undergoing review. Many people disagree with this type of governance which is fair enough, but it’s definitely more appropriate to cover up when you’re visiting.
We saw maybe one or two people wearing shorts but on the whole people wear long trousers or skirts and tops that cover shoulders and upper arms. Most also wear headscarves, and whilst this isn’t essential by any means you will need to cover your hair when visiting the city’s mosques.
Getting Around Bandar Seri Begawan
Getting around the city itself is fairly easy as it’s very small and pretty much everything is within walking distance. Buses depart from the airport to the city every thirty to forty minutes and cost around 2BND per person, although when we arrived there were none to be seen. The other option is to grab a taxi, which takes around 15 minutes depending on traffic and costs 15-20BND.
We found it easier to grab a taxi there and back, especially as one of the main mosques you’ll want to visit is near the airport and drivers will happily wait for you there and then drop you off at the terminal for your flight.
Getting taxis in the Bandar Seri Begawan once you arrive is a different story. Your best bet is to head to the rank near to the Chinese temple as there weren’t any at the other taxi ranks and it’s rare that you’ll spot one to flag down. Alternatively if you have an international SIM all taxi drivers carry cards with their details so you can use them again – we definitely would have done this if we had a working mobile.
The Best Things to do In Brunei in One Day
Onto business, and our plans with our day trip were to visit the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and see as much as possible before returning to KK in Malaysian Borneo. It’s a very small city and combines a modern city centre with some beautiful architecture and mosques, with the rainforest just a short hop down the river. We were hoping, and managed to, combine both of these on our trip.
The best things to do if you have a day to explore Bandar Seri Begawan are:
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Top of the list of our best things to do in Brunei, this beautiful mosque is located right in the centre of the city and features some of the most stunning Islamic architecture we’ve ever seen. There are robes near the entrance and if you’re female you need to cover your hair, then you can head in and look at the interior. It’s a very welcoming and friendly environment – we had a great chat with one of the gentlemen working there and learnt the glass for the chandeliers was actually shipped over from the UK.
Royal Regalia Museum
Not far down the road from the mosque, this museum is well worth a visit – and is another spot with free entry. Photography is only allowed in the foyer so we don’t have too many pictures, but the interior of the museum is fab. One highlight is the many gifts that the current sultan has received from other royals and governments from countries all over the world.
Tasek Lama Park
This is a little further out – around ten minutes walk – and we spent an extremely hot hour or so wandering round. It’s a popular jogging spot with locals and features a natural waterfall and small Japanese garden, amongst other highlights. Beware that the lookout was closed when we visited (April ‘17) so might be worth checking before you trek up the hill!
Kampong Ayer Water Village
One of the best things to do in Brunei is to take a boat trip from the waterfront and tour the local floating village and some other highlights. Don’t worry about finding a boat – they’ll come and chat to you to get your business as soon as you reach the port across from the village. The floating village is fairly small, and features sights like floating schools, shops and even a fire station.
Cruise the Mangroves
For 40BND (including tip), we had an hour’s river cruise and after a short journey around Kampong Ayer we headed down the river to the mangroves. Within a couple of minutes you’re far from the city and back in more traditional Borneo jungle landscapes – and chances are you’ll be able to spot proboscis monkeys which are amazingly cool animals with their oversized noses. We were pretty spellbound, watching them far more closely than we were able to in Kinabatangan. As an added bonus we also spotted a crocodile which was a lot nearer to us that I felt comfortable with!
Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
We dropped in here on our way back to the airport – the taxi driver was happy to wait. This is a mosque built for the current sultan, and is another incredible building, a really beautiful spot to admire. We didn’t get to go inside unfortunately as it was closed, but the exterior was impressive enough.
Last but not least on our best things to do in Brunei, we managed to spot the one and only Chinese temple that is located in the city centre. It’s relatively small but worth a look if you find yourself nearby. It’s included on the many tourist information maps that are dotted around the city.
All in all, our day in Brunei was short and sweet and we would recommend it to anyone who wants to see a completely different side to South East Asia. It’s friendly, welcoming and so relaxed that you feel like you’re stepping back in time, with a surprising amount to do for such a small country. You’ll find none of the hustle and bustle of other Asian cities in Bander Seri Begawan, even at the markets!