“You went where?”
It’s safe to say this is the reaction you will get from most people when you mention your trip to Brunei. A tiny country in southeast Asia located on the north coast of Borneo, it’s a destination that few people have even heard of, much less been to. But it’s worth a visit—especially if you’re one of those people who like accumulating passport stamps—as you can get a good grasp on what Brunei is about in just a couple of days.
One of the first things you’ll notice is how quiet is. Brunei has made its riches from oil, but the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan is as far from a bustling metropolis as you can get. Expect to wander through most streets undisturbed, and there is no need to make reservations for dinner.
Also of note is that being a strict Muslim country, there is absolutely no alcohol in Brunei, so you’ll have to make do with virgin cocktails. Non-Muslim visitors can bring along up to two litres of alcohol, but must claim them at customs.
One last tip: don’t bother with buses. Brunei is small enough that you won’t be charged an arm and a leg by taxi drivers, and the public transportation system is kind of a joke. We ended up sitting at the airport stop for over an hour waiting for a bus, until an airport worker took pity on us and drove us to our hotel himself (so nice!). The time we did manage to catch a bus at the depot, it was crammed full of people and we idled for over 20 minutes in the sticky heat before it got moving again.
There are only a few hotels in the entire country, and most visitors stay in Bandar Seri Begawan. We stayed at the affordable Brunei Hotel from which you can easily walk to most landmarks, including the waterfront. But if you’re up for a splurge, book a room at the stunning Empire Hotel & Country Club. It’s a little ways out, but the hotel is absolutely five star, featuring beautiful rooms, a spa, golf course and indoor and outdoor pools.
Start your sightseeing with a visit to the Royal Regalia Exhibition Hall, a fascinating museum full of a collection of items from Brunei’s royal family. The display includes the colourful royal chariot, sultan’s crowns and gifts given to the family from countries all around the world. There is also a collection of memorabilia related to the history of Brunei. The best part? Admission is free!
Continue your jaunt with a quick walk over to the Sultan Oar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, a beautiful landmark that makes for some incredible photos—both during the day and at night, when it reflects off the water.
The grand building is painted a bright white, and features a golden dome which you can see from kilometers away. Visitors are allowed inside, but women should dress respectfully and cover their head and shoulders.
Grab some lunch, then head down to the waterfront to hail a taxi to take you to Kampong Ayer, one of Brunei’s main tourists attractions. Expect to spend about 20-30 Brunei dollars round trip—and be careful as you get into the boat, as the stairs leading down can be slippery (that’s a story for another day). Kampong Ayer means ‘water village’, and that’s exactly what you can expect.
Hundreds of shanty-type homes joined by rickety bridges are perched on stilts, making it the biggest settlement ever built on water.
While it may look like a slum, homes actually have plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, even internet access. After touring Kampong Ayer, have your guide take you further down the river, and keep an eye out for monkeys in the trees! This is also a great way to enjoy the sunset.
Finally, end your trip to Brunei by taking in the spectacle that is the largest residential palace in the world: the Istana Nurul Iman.
The official residence of the Sultan of Brunei, the palace has nearly 1,800 rooms, including 257 bathrooms, a 110 car garage and five pools.
The only caveat for visitors is that the palace is only open to the public once a year, during the celebration of Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The three-day festival sees over 100,000 visitors over a three-day period. Visitors are also welcome during the 10 days of Ramadan to perform prayers. If you are not in Brunei during this time, you’ll have to make do by peeking through the front gates—and sadly, you won’t be able to see much.
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