Exploring Brunei

For pictures from the trip, go to the bottom of the post for a Flickr gallery.

As part of my 2022 grand tour around Asia I decided to visit the controversial little sultanate of Brunei, which is the only country that is entirely located on the island of Borneo, and fully surrounded by Malaysia. Brunei is controversial for being an absolute monarchy and having implemented and enforced a strict interpretation of the sharia law, as the country is islamic. It gained international notoriety in 2019 when it was decided that LGBT people could face death by stoning in the country under a reworked penal code. But the international outcry regarding this move made the sultan back down from implementing this specific punishment. Yet being LGBT in the country isn’t easy, same goes for many other ways of life otherwise deemed haram. With this in mind, I was excited, but also a little precarious about visiting this sultanate. The desire for adventure and exploring a place that is otherwise poorly visited was too strong for me though, and so off I went by AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur for a short 3 days visit to the sultanate.

Upon arriving in Bandar Seri Begawans tiny yet modern and impressive airport you receive a standard immigration embarkation card that you are to keep for the entirety of the stay in the country, and hand in on disembarkation. This card features a nice little reminder on the backside that drug trafficking/posession carries death penalty in Brunei. Welcome to Brunei. Beyond this, there’s also some fairly big restrictions on freedom of speech and blasphemy, so you need to be careful how you express yourself, one good tip is to not openly criticize the sultan or the royal family.

From the airport there’s several lines of busses running into town, but just as in any other airport in the world the taxi drivers are ferocious and dishonest, claiming theres no busses or other public transport. So I ended up in a overpriced taxi to take me into the small city center. Incidentally the taxi driver told me how he had used to work for a danish oil extraction company back in the days, and so he knew a lot about Denmark and even spoke a bit of Danish. And oh yeah, Brunei has made its wealth from its immense oil riches, and the sultan is thought to be one of the richest men alive. Bam.

Anyhow Bandar Seri Begawan is a fairly small city for Asian standards, and the city centre is very compact and easily navigable by foot. So it didn’t take long to reach the hotel. The hotel was located across from the corniche, with views over the Kampong Ayer water village, more on this interesting feature later. But first let me set you the scene of Bandar Seri Begawan. The city features several very grand mosques, the immense sultan palace (largest royal residence in the world) and several huge ministry buildings – including the prime ministers palace. Surprise, the sultan is also the prime minister, and as such has 2 immense palaces to switch between. But beyond all these grandiose public buildings, the normal residential blocks are far more modest and humble. It should also be mentioned that the general population of Brunei is well off, but not extremely rich as we see in the gulf countries. So we have this great discrepancy between the grandeur of the royal family who hauls wealth and luxury, while the common folk are a lot worse off.

Worst is the previously mentioned Kampong Ayer, which is a collection of water villages, built right out in the bay of Bandar Seri Begawan. In fact it is the largest village built on the water anywhere on the planet, with over 10.000 people living there, down from over 25.000 at its height. And these houses are very basic wooden shacks essentially. It looks like a slum area, placed right out in the middle of the bay across from all the fancy mosques and palaces of the capital. Its such a stark contrast that is hard to ignore, which is probably also why the government is working hard to try to relocated people onto the mainland. The watervillage is connected by a grand network of wooden walkways, which connects to the mainland. There’s also boat taxis which can take you around, or bring you there for a low fee right from the corniche. It is definitely worth going there to walk around and explore this alternative way of living. You’ll find all basic amenities out in Kampong Ayer – there’s schools, shops, guest houses, small mosques, a fire station and even a police station with a small jail among other things.

The capital city is also surrounded by lush forests – the country being located on Borneo means that there’s a lot of wild nature here, although in Brunei it is mostly found outside the capital city. But a short speed-boat ride away from the capital is the mangrove forests where you can spot probiscos monkeys, otherwise known as nose monkeys. Something I would do twice on this trip! So it is only a short trip into the wild from here.

Anyhow, with the scene set, lets check into my hotel and meet a character that would end up being very reoccuring throughout the whole stay. Lucky Mel. Lucky Mel is a local elderly man who works as a freelance guide, spending his days hanging out at the citys hotels or wandering the streets and main sights on the hunt for tourists to take on tours. He was sitting in the reception of the hotel when I arrived, and quickly introduced himself after I checked in, immediately offering to take me on a tour to the mangroves that very same evening, as he already had a group of other tourists going there. That sounded great, as I had prepared nothing before arriving. So I agreed, and settled the further details with Mel before going to my room to drop off my bag. It was around noon at this time, so I still had several hours to explore the city before having to be ready for the mangrove tour. Don’t worry, we’ll get to hear a lot more about Lucky Mel later, he is indeed quite a interesting character.

I walked out to explore the main sights of the city, immediately crossing over to the corniche to grab a look at the Kampong Ayer out there in the bay. I didn’t go there though, instead opting for following the corniche down to the humble main food street, also leading down to the Grand Mosque, the sultans own mosque which sits at the center of the city, not too far from the bay, and impresses with a giant golden dome. The food street was dead during the day, as it only comes alive during the night, you cant even buy food here during the day. So I just walked down the short street towards the mosque. I had seen videos from Drew Binsky online how he had been thrown out from the mosque, and it is apparently well known online that non muslims cant enter. But friendly locals I met on the way there ensured me that I could definitely enter. As I reached the main entrance there was a sign outside saying that a religious cermon was in session so no access. Incidentally I ran into Lucky Mel here (I had spent some time taking in the sights, and getting to the mosque, so he did have good time to make it there), and he informed that inside was a quran recitation competition on that day and the next day, so there would be no access for non muslims then. Of course the only days I would’ve been able to visit. But I could still wander around the mosque grounds and look at the building and sights, including in the lake surrounding the mosque, a replica of the sultans boat, which they are apparently very proud of. A path lead out to the boat, and it did offer a nice view of the mosque, but not much else.

On the field between the mosque and the bay, they’ve erected a frame similar to the one in Dubai, just a lot smaller, where you can take pictures of the mosque surrounded by a frame, and of course I had to go there and do so.

After finishing at the mosque I ventured further into the town, walking down to the royal regalia museum, where the Brunei crown jewels are displayed a long with an endless amount of other trinkets collected and gifted to the sultan over the years, as well as a full exhibition on his life and especially coronation. I learned a bit, but of course the exhibition only portrays him as a humble benevolent leader. It is pretty one sided. The museum is certainly worth visiting, but it takes a while to see everything, and it does get rather boring to look at trinkets and gifts to the sultan after a while. The museum was also pretty much completely empty beyond the staff and several security guards following me around, keeping an eye on me. It is however a nice chilly escape from the suffocating humidity of the city.

From the Royal Regalia museum I walked up a steep hill for a view of the city, and also hoping to find a trail head I had read about online. The trail was there, but realizing I didn’t have enough time, I settled for just the view. And what a view! A perfect composition of the grand Regalia museum building in the foreground, with the Grand Mosque behind it, and finally the run down extremely humble Kampong Ayer out in the bay. Staggering clear view of the insane differences between the royal family and everyone else.

After lingering on the hill for a bit, I walked back down again, first attempting to find a currency exchange, which turned out to be extremely difficult, as all the places labelled and money exchange on google maps was actually money transfer places. In the end I found one place and exchanged some euros, but also noting that the place had a very limited opening hours. You might wonder why not use an ATM instead? First of all there isn’t a lot of ATMs in the city to begin with, secondly almost all of them do not support international cards for some reason. Lucky Mel would eventually – the next day – tip me off to the Islamic Bank of Brunei supporting international cards, but I ran across town futilely trying to withdraw cash for a while before that. Anyhow, after having secured some Brunei Dollars from the exchange place, I wanted to get some food. First I walked into the one Burger King located on a main street of the capital. But the menu was very limited and prices were insane, so I walked right out again, finding a supermarket and bought some snacks, drinks and food from there instead – still not exactly cheap compared to Thailand and Malaysia that I had just visited before coming to Brunei. With the shopping done I walked the few 100 meters back to the hotel and settled in until I had to meet Lucky Mel for the mangrove tour.

In the late afternoon I met up with Mel and he took me to a small dock along with 4 other people, two couples. A married couple working for National Geographic, traveling around Borneo, and 2 German guy friends just traveling around like me. Mel would act the guide, and he had allied himself with a friend of his who owns a boat, and steered us out into the mangroves, but not before giving us a brief tour of the Kampong Ayer, seeing the children go home from school by boat, and showing us the main sights of the village, such as the mosque, fire station, schools, police station and such. Mel knew the history and could answer all the questions we had about the village. Then we set out full steam for the mangroves. The couple from National Geographic had a very keen eye for spotting rarer birds way before the rest of us, and also monkeys in the trees. At first we only encountered regular macaque monkeys, but no proboscis monkeys. But just cruising through the mangroves was a journey in itself. But it wouldn’t take long until we found some proboscis monkeys! And then just more and more. They would just sit high in the trees, not really being bothered by the boat coming to a halt underneath. Giving us great opportunities to shoot some great photos of them and their impressive long noses. We would be lucky enough to have several sightings of individual and groups of proboscis monkeys. We also saw a huge monitor lizard on the shore, but no crocodiles, which also call the mangroves their home.

To be fair, the mangroves aren’t super far from civilization, and this shows, as there’s many plastic bottles and other trash floating around even in the furthest parts you reach on such a tour, and there’s clearly a lot of land exploitation taking place not far from the water many places. It is sad to witness, and also a smudge on the profile Brunei tries to give itself of a natural wildlife sanctuary. Even if there’s other parts of the country that is entirely protected and wild.

On the way back Mel would tell us parts of his life story, about how he grew up in a lot freer and more liberal Brunei, as a punk rocker who rocked out to western punk music, went to concerts abroad, and did his fair share of alcohol and drugs. Something he talked completely openly about. To this day he still performs some music himself on the streets of the capital out of pure enjoyment. He showed videos of him singing Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and mind you this is a man who isn’t entirely young anymore. During these years he worked many different jobs to support this lifestyle. But after Brunei took a strict conservative turn and all alcohol and drugs were banned, Mel luckily did find his way back onto the righteous path, becoming a religious man. He also told about how his family doesn’t live in the capital, and he leaves his wife for days at a time to try to get work as a tourist guide, and will then sleep either at cheap hotels along with the tourists, or simply spend the night at mosques for free. Certainly an interesting character with lots of stories to tell of a unusual life. Another quirky detail is that he always carries a big notebook around with him with tour reviews from previous guests, and he gets everyone to write in it at the end of each tour, and also uses it actively in his hunt for new customers, showing positive reviews from other people from ones own country. He also finishes every tour with taking a picture with the participants, all pointing at his back – because he always wears a tshirt with his own face and “Lucky Mel” printed on it, along with some of the sights of Brunei. So we all point as his shirt. Its extremely cringe honestly, but fine.

After finishing the tour and being dropped off at the piers, the German guys asked Mel for food recommendations, and very quickly we ended up at the local indoor night market, serving lots of delicious local and regional food and drinks for a very cheap price (1 BND per meal). Mel volunteered to be our guide, took us around the different stalls and explaining about the different dishes, and also the running of the night markets (some stalls close early, and so sells their food even cheaper right before closing time, these stalls are then taken over by other people throughout the night). We all picked out some food we wanted to try, and sat down to eat it. I just went for some noodles with chicken, not being too adventurous, instead sampling different cookies for desert. Priorities.

After more stories from Mel while eating, and just chatting with these two Germans, we returned to the hotel – the Germans was staying at my hotel as well – I really felt like going for a run. The temperature was below 30 at this time of night (around 21:15), and the long corniche going all the way up and down the bay would make for a perfect, and safe, running path. When coming back from the mangrove tour, as we sailed past the corniche, I had seen other people out running, in shorts and short sleeved tshirts. So off I went in my running gear. Even though the temperature was to the lower side (..) the humidity was still gruelling, so I ended up being extremely drenched in sweat by the end of my 35 min run. To the great amusement of everyone, both Mel who I ran into outside the hotel, the hotel receptionist, and the Germans coming back from a late night supermarket run. Dripping sweat all the way, I made it to my room, showered and settled in for the night.

The next day, I was to go tour with Mel again. We had agreed the night before that I would go with him to some other sights of the city, as my plans to visit the Temburong national park, the truly wild part of Brunei, had failed. All the tours going there was seemingly already fully booked. The German guys were going there, and fortunately when we met up later they would say that it had been rather underwhelming, so good riddance.

Anyhow, to start the day I went out with Mel to a local breakfast restaurant to have some delicious local breakfast, all on Mels bill. That was nice of him. At the same time he told me he had found more people for the tour later that morning. It turned out to be 3 young guys, 2 French and 1 German, who were exchange students in Singapore and taking a 1 day tour to Brunei, flying in and out on the same day. Hardcore. Anyhow we would meet later after they had arrived, until then I asked Mel to drop me off at the corniche so that I could go over to Kampong Ayer and walk around on my own for a bit first. He agreed, and took me there. I had about 1 hour to explore Kampong Ayer before we had to meet up again, but having miscalculated just how little there is actually to do there in the late morning when the sun is burning down, and everybody is indoors, and also the lack of shade from the brutal sun, meant that I barely stayed on for half that time. But I did have a good time walking the paths between the clusters of houses, and trying to imagine living a life so far removed from what I’m used to myself.

Meeting up with Mel and the group of 3 guys, we set off on the tour around the further parts of town for a cultural tour. Our first stop was the Istana Nurul Iman – the sultan palace – or rather the front gate, as that’s as far as you can go. During out brief time there, several cars with big security escorts departed and arrived from the palace, each time leading to the guards and Mel yelling at us to not stand in the way, despite neither of us being in the way (standing on the road is what they were referring to). But don’t do anything to inconvenience the sultan or his people in any way, I guess. From the gates you cant really see much of the palace, but there’s a big sign out front at least.

Next we went on a tour around to several important and historical mosques. For each and every one of them it was the case that non muslims could not enter. It is apparently just the standard in Brunei. Something I find really strange. Having traveled to several muslim countries, I always find that they are extremely hospitable, and welcoming of anybody into their mosques, being proud of their beautiful and promoting and atmosphere of tolerance and fraternity. Be it Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iraq, Palestine etc.. Never had such a problem before. But there was one minor exception to this rule. The last place we went was the Prime Ministers palace (remember, the sultan is also the prime minister), and while the palace itself is also blocked off from the public, there is a mosque connected to the palace that is open for the general public, including non muslims!! Or rather, non muslims can step inside the door of the prayer hall, but not enter the actual prayer hall, and couldn’t make any noise or disturbance at all, despite prayer not being in session. But at least we got to see a mosque from the inside.

To finish the day off, Mel took us to a city park with some free roaming macaque monkeys, and a waterfall. The park also contained some partly shaded hiking, walking and running paths that plenty locals and internationals alike used while we were there in the midday sun.

At the end of the tour, Mel convinced the others to go on the mangrove tour with him that same evening. Me not having any other plans, and not minding a chance to see the proboscis monkeys again, and maybe even a crocodile quickly asked to join as well. Mel just being happy for the extra income gladly agreed. But as the other 3 were students, and probably just better hagglers than me, they managed to make Mel agree to paying just about half what I had paid the previous night, as they claimed that was all the BND they had with them. Mind you the tour last night had been pretty overpriced, so it was still a good deal (I believe we paid 25 BND each for this second tour), and I was of course also asked the same price as the others.

The guys had a flight in the not too late evening, so instead of going an hour before sunset like we had done the previous night – because that’s when the chance of seeing the animals is greatest – we would go in the middle of the afternoon. But first Mel took us to a local restaurant for late lunch. The second mangrove tour was very similar to the first tour, including a small tour of the Kampong Ayer, although it was still fairly dead at this time of day, and not so many school children going back after school. In the actual mangroves we again saw macaques, but also a whole herd of proboscis monkeys. So I got to take a lot more pictures, making the seconds trip to the mangroves entirely worth it. We still did not see any crocodiles however.

Finishing the tour with another group photo of us pointing at Mels shirt, and writing in his guest book. We sent the guys off on their way to the airport, and Mel and I parted ways. I went back to the hotel for a quick siesta and researching some restaurants nearby. But before I could go for dinner, I had to find a way to get more BND, as I had used my last ones to pay Mel, and buying a few drinks on the way to the hotel. This is where, as previously mentioned, I went all over town to find a working ATM, without any luck. And the one exchange place I had found was already closed. I needed money both for dinner, and paying for transport to the airport the next morning, so in a minor panic I contacted Mel to ask for help, and that is when he pointed me to the Islamic Bank of Brunei ATMs (they only have them in the banks headquarters, which isnt on the main streets, so thats why I hadnt found them earlier), which luckily turned out to work. Then I could go for dinner with peace of mind, I had found one local restaurant on Google Maps that sounded good, but when I actually got there, it was just a empty derelict parking house. Not sure what that was about. So I just wandered the streets looking for a place, and eventually, on the main street, found a place with local food for a fair price. And lo and behold, the 2 German guys from the previous day was there! So I joined them, and we had a good chat about their day in Temburong, and my day going around the city with Mel again.

After food and a drink we went back to the hotel, both tired from a long day. We said our good byes and went to our rooms. The next morning I got up early and took the first and best bus to the airport. But not without it taking some fairly alternative route that first went towards the airport, but then at one point veered away from the airport, which left me very nervous for a few minutes, until we again headed out onto the way to the airport.

I got there and got well on my way to Yogyakarta in Indonesia, with a layover in Kuala Lumpur on the way. And as such my short stay in Brunei came to an end.

Certainly a very interesting place, but also a place that reeks of inequality, where all the wealthy is coalesced around the Sultan, while the common people are left to live a fairly squalid life. Freedoms are fairly poor, yet people are friendly. You should just steer clear of talking politics or the status of the country in general. Absolute monarchies mixed with sharia is no joke. It should be said however that I did not feel unsafe anywhere during the stay, it is a safe country as long as you play by the rules. But having these limitations put onto you is never a good thing. That, and the whole thing with non muslims not being allowed in the mosques leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. I probably wouldn’t recommend visiting Brunei. Its a country with appalling human right records, and there’s pretty much nothing unique here to see, perhaps beyond the Kampong Ayer. All the animals can also be found in the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo etc.

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