I chose to start my Borneo trip in Brunei so I could visit Ulu Temburong National Park. This national park is just the first example of the eccentricity of Brunei. Most of Borneo has suffered from clearcutting initially for lumber production and now for palm oil plantations but Brunei’s rainforests have largely been left untouched. Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia (Borneo’s other countries) Brunei is an incredibly wealthy country due to its oil fields and they haven’t needed to sell their forests like many others in the region. In fact Brunei has some of the best rainforest habitat in all of Borneo even though it is makes up just 1% of the island.
My next blog will focus on my trip to Ulu Temburong National Park but this one will focus on Brunei’s capital city (Bandar Seri Begawan). Originally it was called Bandar Brunei (Brunei Town) but it was renamed after the sultan’s deceased father. I did not even try to refer to it as Bandar Seri Begawan and instead lazily called it Brunei City while other travelers chose BSB.
Travel blogs are not particularly kind to Brunei so I arrived with low expectations. Unlike it’s ASEAN neighbors (except Singapore) it’s a small and wealthy country. Initially you might think it compares to Hong Kong and Singapore but both are vibrant, energetic cities that are economic powerhouses in Asia. Brunei is an orderly and well taken care of country but it is at the absolute opposite end of the energetic spectrum.
One possible reason for that is that it is a dry country. That doesn’t really bother me but I found that the city (200,000 people) basically shut down at 10pm on the evening I was there. I found it bizarre that the only social spot open late was a coffee shop and virtually every other business was closed. Another reason is that despite Brunei being significantly larger in size than Hong Kong and Singapore it only has 10% of the population. Brunei City has a decent sized population of 200,000 (half of the country’s population) but perhaps that is a large reason for the lack of energy. Perhaps it has to do with the Muslim background of the country and the adoption of the potentially harsh Shari’a law. I am usually on my best behavior when traveling but even more so in Brunei. Regardless of the reason one must temper their expectations when visiting Brunei. There are several interesting things to do in the afternoon and I was glad I was able to spend a day there. I would not go there just to see the capital city though unless you only wanted to add a country visited to your list.
I chose to fly from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei even though it cost more money ($80 vs $20ish). If I was backpacking with an endless amount of time I would have loved to take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan Island to Brunei but I would have arrived late afternoon and I wouldn’t have been able to sightsee in Brunei.
Almost immediately I ran into my first problem. There isn’t a public bus that connects the airport to the city. It’s likely that this is due to being a wealthier country and most travelers that fly to Brunei have reservations at moderately expensive hotels (B100+/night). I did not have a reservation at one of these hotels since that is not the budget that I travel on. Taxi’s are fairly expensive and after asking several people including the information desk (no help) I found out that there was a public bus that passes <500m’s from the airport.
I would not make it to the bus stop before a Chinese Bruneian family offered me a ride to town. Not only did they give me a ride to town but they gave me a quick tour of the town. They finally dropped me off at the best budget accommodation in Brunei. Pusat Belia is a government run youth activity center that has dorms for the events that it hosts. They also let travelers stay at the dorms for just B10/night (8USD). The hard part is contacting the manager to arrange your stay. We tried waiting, returning later and finally we found some nice (everyone in Brunei is nice) girls to try calling but we were never able to stay there. I ended up staying in one of the worst guesthouses I have ever stayed in for considerably more money (still cheap in Brunei).
Part of the city tour that I was given by the Chinese Bruneian family included the location of Tasek Lama park. They were impressed that I knew about their park but I had researched my trip beforehand. There is a waterfall at the park so I knew about it. Since I wasn’t able to check in at Pusat Belia I chose to spend the morning at Tasek Lama Park visiting the waterfall. The park is small and completely landscaped but it was nice to walk around. Apparently it gets busy with various exercise groups but it was empty on a Sunday morning. Part of the path is pavement, part of the path is wood but they also had a rubberized path for part of it. The rubberized part was ground up tires (colored) similar to what you can buy landscaping your garden. There are many uses for this product but I had never seen it glued together like a sidewalk. It was quite spongy to walk on but it felt good.
At the end of the loop trail there is a small but beautiful waterfall. It looks like there is a reservoir above the waterfall so it might have a somewhat constant flow. There are also additional trails in the park that go on much longer hikes.
After the short hike at Tasek Lama I returned to Pusat Belia hoping that I could book a room there but I was still unlucky. I met a Filipino trying to do the same so we wondered around the city for the afternoon together. One mandatory stop was lunch at Jollibee. Jollibee is the Filipino equivalent to McDonalds. I have eaten at Jollibee before in the Philippines but I have grown to strongly dislike traditional fast food during the last decade. But I needed to eat and stopping there made my new friend very happy.
One nice thing about BSB (Brunei City) is that it is small and you can walk everywhere quite easily. Pictured above is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The boat in the foreground is replica of Brunei’s long history. Brunei ruled over much of Borneo and parts of the Phillipines in the 1500’s. The sultan used the boat to visit his territories and he held Qur’an reading competitions from it. The villagers that pleased the sultan were generously rewarded and this was one reason that Islam so effectively spread throughout Borneo.
My favorite part of BSB was visiting the Kampung Ayer Water Village. It was once described as the Venice of the East by an early traveler but it wouldn’t be mistaken for that today. The stilt village has been around for over 1000 years and at one time half of Brunei’s population lived there. The initial observation of a traveler is the poor living conditions of the village but that isn’t completely true. The government has tried to encourage people to leave the water village but many don’t want to leave their homes for nicer homes. The government has tried building a new water village but it seems to have so far gotten a poor reception from the locals. I found the new village to be a big disappointment. It basically looks like an American suburb on stilts. All of the houses look the same. The best part of the old water village is the individual character of each house. The living conditions could be improved but the people seemed very happy living there.
This was one of the nicer houses that has everything that a person could want. Instead of replacing the water village I would like to see the government invest in modernizing the old houses. They are a very cool part of Brunei’s history.
I never ended up staying at Pusat Belia but I understand that it’s not a business and I was trying to contact the manager on a likely day off. Brunei doesn’t have to be expensive like many think. You can spend a lot of money on nice hotels, restaurants and shopping but there is a 8USD/night dorm (if you can contact the manager), there are numerous restaurants with 3-4 USD meals and several interesting (and free) things to do in Brunei.
Overall I enjoyed my day in Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei City) but I think I would have lost my mind if I had to stay there for multiple days. One of the best parts about Brunei is that everyone is very nice and helpful. It’s the kind of country where cars stop at crosswalks if you are just standing on the curb waiting for them to pass. That is marked difference from Taiwan where the cars and scooters just drive around you when you are actually crossing in a crosswalk. There were some longer hiking trails that I could have done at Tasek Lama Park and one of the better attractions in BSB is the museum with all of the gifts given to the many Sultans of Brunei. Someday I will return to further explore Ulu Temburong National Park but I will probably only schedule one day in BSB when I do. My next blog will be my trip to Ulu Temburong National Park and Sumbiling Eco Village. It was very relaxing and very beautiful and was definitely the highlight of my trip to Brunei.