Brunei

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Sumbiling Eco Village is located just outside of Ulu Temburong National Park.  In addition to doing a national park trip from Sumbiling Eco Village guests can also choose to do the rainforest trek.  They lead treks of different lengths including overnight camping trips.  The hike isn’t hard but the humidity could make it tough for some.

More information on Sumbiling Rainforest Trek

The trip starts with a longboat crossing of the river.  There are two guides for the trek.  Apai (pictured) is a local Iban villager that knows everything about the local forest but speaks very little English.  Nazri also led our Ulu Temburong trip, speaks excellent English and has an easy going engaging personality.

The trail is the old hunting trails that have been used by the local Iban tribe for decades.  If it has rained recently it will be muddy but overall the entire trail was in good condition.  At the beginning of the trail Apai described a few examples of animal snares that the Iban have (and still) used for catching animals.

This was a tiny scorpian on one of the coolest trees.  The tree constantly sheds its bark is one of the only trees that isn’t mossy in the rainforest.  The coolest animal we saw was a bright orange civet cat (Malay weasel).  It turns out that it’s kind of rare to see one since I can’t find many photos on the internet.  I also don’t have a photo but this blogpost has a photo of one in the 5th photo.

Apai found some wild fruit.  It looked like a potato but it was sour like a lemon.

 

At one point on the trail we passed from secondary forest to primary (never cut) forest.  I couldn’t tell the difference until it was pointed out but the trees were larger.

The map of the different hikes from Sumbiling Eco Village.   I hiked the light green SEV 01 route.

My map of the same route although it was about 5.5 kms instead of 4 kms.  Still fairly easy.

Ulu Temburong National Park was cool but staying overnight at Sumbiling Eco Village made the trip special.  It is possible to daytrip to Ulu Temburong National Park from Bandar Seri Begawan but the Temburong region is very relaxing.

Staying at Sumbiling is like glorified camping without any of the work.  You sleep in not so modest tent cabins that in truth are nothing like tents and instead are awesome.  You are served three great (and healthy) meals per day.  There are several different little adventures like the Ulu Temburong trip, a rainforest trek and a night hike that you can sign up for.  The best part is that you can spend hours just relaxing by the river.

Directions to Sumbiling Eco Village

Sumbiling shouldn’t be confused with a resort though.  The accommodations are basic.  The showers are cold.  The temperatures are cooled by fans.  For some this is the perfect way to see a Borneo rainforest.  Others might need a little more comfort.

Sumbiling Eco Village shouldn’t be confused with an eco village.  Typically the word eco village means a self sustainable farming community that produces much of their own food and consumes very little resources such as electricity.  At Sumbiling it is a combination of eco tourism and a place to stay during that trip.  They have been doing several things to reduce the impact of their business.  They supply filtered water and encourage tourists to bring their own water bottle.  They attempt to buy locally grown food.  They use a lot of locally harvested bamboo for building structures (when possible).  In addition to that tourists aren’t supplied with AC or hot water for showers greatly lowering the natural gas and electrical consumption.  It’s not zero impact but they have done a lot to reduce the impact of their business in a beautiful place.

One of the many great meals.  Larger groups can order bamboo chicken (not pictured).  The chicken is cooked using a traditional Iban (native) method.  The chicken is put into a section of bamboo with herbs and they seal the top with tapioca leaves.  The bamboo tube is then put next to a fire and the chicken is cooked inside the pressurized tube.  Here is a blog with more information on the cooking method.

The van drops you off at the local Iban community and it is a 5 minute walk to the camp.

Here is the tent cabin.  There are only two of them so larger groups might need to sleep in a traditional tent.  There are also some basic rooms available.

They were building a tree house while I was there.

One of the villagers fishing

This is one of the only reasons to go to Brunei in my opinion.  It’s a nice country overall and there are some other interesting things to see but if you are going to Brunei this is probably the reason that you are going.  My previous blog was about the little odd country of Brunei and I briefly mentioned the Temburong region.  Temburong is a geographical oddity since it is an exclave and isn’t connected by land to the rest of Brunei.  The Temburong region is special ironically because Brunei has made a lot of money on oil and they have almost completely preserved their rainforests.  The result is an almost completely preserved region with 25% of Brunei’s landmass but only 2.5% (10,000pop) of the population.  The national park itself is almost entirely closed off to visitors except for a small 1 sq km region.  Visitors can stay at the Ulu Ulu Resort and hike 1 km up a hill to a canopy skywalk.  Ironically it is more difficult to view wildlife here since the animals live in a large forest instead of being concentrated into one small area where palm oil plantations border the tourist corridor.  Ulu Temburong is almost teases you with how great it is because you can only see a little of that greatness.

You must go on a guided tour so the trip is not cheap but by far the best options are to stay at Ulu Ulu Resort or Sumbiling Eco Village overnight.  Information on both can be found on my guide at the following links.  Ulu Temburong National Park Sumbiling Eco Village

The first part of the trip on most tours isn’t even part of the park.  Your guide will meet you in Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei City) and you take a 45 minute speedboat ride to Bangar through the mangroves.  Everyone is seated inside an enclosed cabin but I snuck up to the bow to film a portion of it.  This will likely be your first chance in Brunei to spot a crocodile.  A controversial new bridge is being built connecting the two parts of Brunei (Malaysia is in the middle) and is scheduled for completion in 2018.  It’s a 13.4 km bridge across the bay and tours will likely be driven in a van from Bandar Seri Begawan to the Temburong River.  The speedboats will likely stop running completely when finished.

In Bangar your tour guide takes you in a van to a longboat launch.  Borneo Guide runs all of their trips through the Sumbiling Eco Village.  The longboat ride is similar to sitting in the middle of a long, flat bottomed canoe.  Each longboat can take about 8 people (my guess) and has an outboard motor to cruise up the Temburong River in about 45 minutes.  Our longboat was a local Iban villager and did an excellent job.

We saw a monitor lizard, two crocodiles (one is pictured) and numerous different birds on the trip.

Our longboat dropping us off for the start of our 1km hike up the stairs to the canopy skywalk.  You should plan to get wet in the longboat but don’t be surprised if you stay dry.

Researchers are given special access in the park and can go places that tourists cannot.  A Czech researcher is showing an unknown species of ant (or something like an ant) to our guide.  They use the tube to suck the ant into a chamber and then it will be named later.

The canopy skywalk rises over the tree canopy.  Unfortunately on my trip a thunderstorm with wind and a little rain blew in right when we reached the skywalk.  It was difficult to turn back but our guide (Nazri) made the correct choice.  Climbing metal towers in a lightning storm significantly decreases one’s life expectancy.

We sped past the Ulu Ulu Resort.  Staying here or at Sumbiling Eco Village is highly recommended versus only signing up for a day trip.

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.

Directions to Pantaran Waterfall in Tasek Lama Park

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.