Brunei would probably be the least visited of Southeast Asia’s Asean region which is understandable given its cost of travel when compared to neighbours, and it’s just not that easy to reach. The popular route to Brunei would be from the surrounding regions of Malaysian Borneo although, for our visit, we fly direct there on low-cost carriers. But its high prices and lack of access do work to its advantage in parts where there’s not really much tourism or the expected hard sell and hustle known in the more popular areas of Southeast Asia. Instead life feels calm, serene and almost somewhat utopian. For travel it can be hard to find even a basic tourist infrastructure where there are few tour companies, not really many hotels, and taxis are hard to come by. Taxi prices are also high so it’s probably best to rent a car and driver for the day, then explore the top attractions in Brunei by yourself. It can be done in a day or two. With less than 1oo hotels in the entire country, 3o are found in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawam, or BSB for short, (Bandar Seri Begawam Hotels Here), and 55 are in the popular tourist area of Kuala Belait. These are obviously the more convenient areas for a stay and make the best bases to explore the top attractions in Brunei.
As an oil rich country Brunei is one of the world’s richest countries (by GDP) and it shows in the sheer extravagance of many of the buildings here. A sizable chunk of this of course goes to the Sultan of Brunei, and his family, who enjoy spending it on extremely nice things. Two of the main attractions near the BSB centre would be the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, and Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, with extravagant marble minarets and domes of pure gold. Next would be the Brunei Museum where equally extravagant trinkets are on display including gold and jeweled ceremonial treasures. But this is just a slight fraction of the Sultan’s collection of wealth where much is kept behind the closed gates of his personal residence ‘The Istana Nurul Iman’. You can photograph the palace from the front gates but this is as close as you’re ever going get. Otherwise we did get a slight glimpse of his opulent lifestyle where we stayed at the Empire Hotel which was originally built by the brother of the Sultan, Prince Jefri. It is a 5* experience, as expected, and is said to be one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, but the more affordable deluxe rooms don’t quite reflect the extreme opulence of the Sultan. The seafront here also boasts some of the best beaches in Brunei and is one of the hotel is a top attraction in itself.
The Traditional Water Village
Built on stilts on the perimeter of the Brunei river the Kampong Ayer water village is known as the largest water village in the world. It is also easy to access and explore where it feels like only a stone’s throw from a number of small jetties of Bandar Seri Begawan. While it is cut off from the mainland, it only takes a quick water taxi to travel between the two. Once there you can navigate wooden plank walkways through the village where you’ll find a sustainable infrastructure including mosques, shops, independent businesses and a police station. On our visit we are welcomed to a local stilted home where the owner actually has two houses, which is apparently normal for most, as one is part of the water village, and the other is found on the mainland. The older generations are said to prefer life in the water village, while the younger generations and workers of the family tend to return from the mainland at weekends. I did somewhat expect a more old world charm and traditional way of life in these houses but what I find is rather swank longhouses, decked out with all the modern appliances. But this modern living does come with its hazards and on the boat taxi back we pass a section of the water village which had been burnt to a crisp due to electrical wires falling onto the walkways and water. If interested in learning more of the traditional life of the water villages there are museum displays at the Malay Technology Museum, and this can be included on any self-penned city tour. The water village is one of the top attractions in Brunei and it is also included on many of the organised city tours. We did consider an overnight stay in the village but couldn’t find any hotels, although there are some hotels nearby.
Brunei is found within the Borneo lowland rain forests and they are relatively easy to access through tours (and possibly independently). The more accessible rain forest is Ulu Temburong National Park which can be visited on day trips or overnight resort stays (some tours here) and we choose the latter. To reach the resort we travel by minivan to a pier near the water village jetties, before taking a speedboat to some far-flung village. Here we are transferred back into another minivan which follow winding roads to find the main river flowing through Ulu Temburong National Park. Here we take a longboat through, at times rapid, river ways between mangroves and dense jungle surrounding. After roughly four hours we arrive to our final destination at Ulu Ulu Resort. Ulu Ulu translates from Malay as “far, far away” which is exactly where we are. This is actually headhunter territory home to the infamous Iban Tribes of Borneo who have fortunately left behind their more gruesome head hunting traditions in favour of more amiable work at the resorts. They seem a nice bunch. At the resort there are all sorts of activities and adventures available to explore the surrounding rain forests including a canopy walk, night jungle walks, waterfall trekking, kayaking, tubing, trekking and bird-watching. The canopy walk was one of the most fascinating experiences we’ve ever come across. Note we are deep in primary rain forest so expect all sorts of animals, nature and creepy crawlies.