Enclosed on the island of Borneo, between the two huge Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and just above the sprawling dense jungles of Indonesian Kalimantan, Brunei Darussalam is a tiny sultanate that is rich in oil reserves. But what else does this miniscule state have to offer backpackers (aside from some of the cheapest petrol on the planet)?
I enjoyed my time in Brunei Darussalam. I was lucky enough to stay in a good hotel in the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan for a few nights before an overnight adventure trip into the Ulu Temburong jungle. Brunei doesn’t have a wealth of tourist attractions, but what it does have is an abundance of local life and culture from the tropics, such as water villages, Islamic mosques, and lush rainforest.
Unfortunately, Sharia Law was reinforced in 2014, and this means that among other things, flogging and stoning to death is now part of the official law in Brunei. Whether this dissuades tourists from coming here is one matter, but for the regular Bruneians who live here, they have to contend with this legislature on a daily basis. Another bad thing with Sharia Law in Islamic Brunei is that alcohol is completely banned. You cannot even order any beer or wine in hotels, although I think I did see some in the duty free shops at the airport in Bandar Seri Begawan. Overall, I found Bruneians to be very conscientious towards me, although the younger ones were almost always too busy to interact with, as they were career men or university students, and as such, didn’t have much time for tourism.
Tourism to Brunei is not very common, and this is a great shame, as the country has a lot to offer. There are resplendent hotel resorts, such as the 5-star Empire Hotel and Country Club beside the South China Sea, which cater to the richer tourists, but if you’re backpacking in Brunei then you may have a tough time finding suitable accommodation. Hostels do exist, but they are not very high in quality. Taxis in the Sultanate are also very expensive (and there aren’t many of them), so getting around from site to site is not easy.
Brunei has a handful of beautiful beaches. They do not compare to those of southern Thailand or the Andaman coast of Malaysia, but they are on par with the more famous beaches in Bali. Meragang Beach was my personal favourite and it was nice to enjoy the sights and sounds there without crowds of tourists.
Brunei has some peaceful parks. My personal favourite was Taman Tasik, which reminded me of some of Singapore’s green parks, especially Bukit Timah. You have to watch out for the cheeky macaques in the park, but most people use Taman Tasik for bird-spotting (and bat-dodging!) or jogging routines.
There is a famous water village in Brunei called Kampong Ayer. It gives a fascinating insight into locals live on the stilted houses above the water. You can take a speedboat ride around the villages and even pay a visit to go inside one of the local’s houses. For me, this was one of the main highlights of Brunei.
Brunei has its fair share of resplendent mosques, and none are more resplendent than the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. It is one of the major attractions of the country and a huge tourist destination with its great example of modern Islamic architecture. The dome of the mosque is made of pure gold, which is in stark contrast to the water villages of Kampong Ayer which surround the mosque.
Jungle expeditions are also common in Brunei. From the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, you can take a longboat ride into the jungle at the Ulu Temburong National Park where you can enjoy the sounds of nature while camping out in a tour group. There are overnight treks available, and also tours of many days which will give you a better understand of jungle life, including canopy walkways and river rafting. Entry to the Ulu Temburong National Park is only by longboat through deep rivers, as no roads lead to the park. Read all about my personal overnight experience at Ulu Temburong!
Compared to some of its more illustrious neighbours such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, or even Singapore, Brunei Darussalam may not always be on the radar for backpackers in the region. However, if you make the effort to take a cheap flight out there, and if you can find some good value accommodation (the backpacking industry is yet to flourish here), then you will discover that Bruneians will be honoured that you are taking time to come and visit their country.