7 Experiences to Make Brunei Worth Your While

7 Experiences to Make Brunei Worth Your While

Not a typical destination, Brunei lacks the typical attractions of big tourist cities. It does, however, charms its visitors with beautiful sights and meaningful experiences – if you give it the chance to.

Lonely Planet certainly has a way of summing up places in a singular, most satirical manner. Just who are these people behind the guides, and how do they achieve such acerbic perfection?

More specifically, take a read at the opening paragraph that introduces this humble nation to the world:

“The small sultanate of Brunei almost looks like a geographic comma plunked between Sarawak and Sabah. It certainly forms a conceptual one, because unless you’re a petroleum engineer, when folks ask ‘Why go to Brunei?’ the answer is usually the travelling equivalent of a pause: transfer, or stopover.” – Lonely Planet Brunei

It is true. 

Brunei does get a bad rap for being unexciting, nondescript, and somewhat spiritless. So much so that any decision to take on this country as a travel destination would likely result in a “You’re going… where? For… what?”

For a sultanate this tiny and oil-rich, Brunei is, first and foremost, quiet; and has none of the usual hustle and bustle that plagues the hub of every economically robust city. Some may find it hard to attune their travel personalities to this sheer aspect; but for many others, the discernibly passive pace of life is a welcoming antidote to today’s life in the fast lane.

Despite being a prime segment of Borneo and a significant part of Southeast Asia, Brunei still remains largely unknown to most – or more often than not, left out of turbo-tourist itineraries altogether. The country’s humble and unassuming semblance has rarely been known to charm the wanderlust out of anyone – even Borneo zealots prefer to pay homage to its neighbouring twin sisters, Sabah & Sarawak; or sometimes even Kalimantan.

But seldom ever Brunei.

And the numbers show. The country itself receives less than 250,000 tourists a year; and while this statistic must seem shocking to most – especially those from tourism-led nations – the fact is, Brunei doesn’t need tourism. She has everything she needs to outplay most of its geographic counterparts with just her natural resources alone; and while this means a lot less prettying up in an attempt to sell the country as a tourist destination, the reduced effort doesn’t make her any less beautiful at all.

Unless you’re a rainforest radical, there will be little reason to travel out of Brunei’s capital once there. 80% of the country’s surface area is jungle-clad anyway, and most of what needs to be seen lie well within the confines of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB).  Recalibrate your expectations before you begin though: Brunei does not have a reputation as a place of theatre and spectacle; expecting so will leave you highly disappointed. On the flip side, if you’re willing to sit back and let the country come unto you as she may, you will find in her a quality that will make your detour worth the while.

1. Be blown away by the sheer majesty of the Jame’ Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque

Image credit: MyBukit

And I mean, blown away.

Built in 1988 and officially completed only six years later, the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque commemorates the silver jubilee of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah’s reign, and is the country’s undisputed piece de resistance. Beautiful landscaped gardens and intricate structures make this an impressive sight by day; and by night, floodlights from all corners illuminate it like a Holy chapter right out of the Book. The fine artistry of this stunning edifice boasts meticulous attention to detail and excellently manicured grounds. It is, by far, the largest and most opulent mosque in the whole of Brunei.

2. But if that doesn’t do the trick, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque will

Image credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ

Built in an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque stands like an exclamation point amidst the skyline of Bandar Seri Begawan. It is, after all, the tallest building in the whole of central BSB, and there is almost certainly no way you can miss it unless you deliberately try to.

Though less imposing than the Jame’ Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is perhaps more iconic in its existence; as it was built in the name of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s late father himself, the 28th Sultan of Brunei. Its impressive architectural detailing features floors and walls handcrafted from the finest Italian marble, stained-glass windows and crystal chandeliers specially imported from England, lavishly woven carpets flown in from Saudi Arabia and Belgium, as well as a 3.5-million piece mosaic tile interior sourced from Venice.  But its most recognizable feature to date remains its main dome, which is covered in 100% pure gold.

3. Stumble back in time at Kampong Ayer, the largest water village in the world

Image credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ

Image credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ

A boat tour around Kampong Ayer typically lasts 40 minutes to an hour, and gives you a pretty neat glimpse into the lives of people residing in these water villages. Depending on your arrangement, you may even be able to explore the stilt houses on foot and meet the locals; many of whom are undocumented immigrants of Brunei’s underclass today.

This settlement has been dubbed far and wide as the Venice of the East, but don’t expect to travel down quaint canals or be guided along slowly on a gondola. It lacks all the romantic intricacies of a classic Venetian experience – but then, in a most bizarre way, stands in a league of its own with that distinctive kampong charm. 

Reported to have existed for some 1,300 years now, this water settlement is a bridge to Brunei’s past for its people – which explains its curious location right smack in the heart of the city centre. The villages’ frugal appearance makes for an intriguing juxtaposition against the city’s extravagant backdrop of mosques, palaces, and luxury cars; and you’ll be surprised to find this unassuming network of villages fully equipped with modern amenities like hospitals, schools, police and fire stations, a Shell gas station (a particular favourite of mine), electricity, plumbing, air conditioning, satellite TV, and even internet access.

With more than 30,000 residents calling Kampong Ayer home today, perhaps the biggest misconception of this settlement is that it is one huge village community of people. Contrarily enough, it isn’t. Kampong Ayer actually consists of 42 different entities of stilt villages, all of which are linked together by more than 29km of footbridges and 36km of boardwalks.

Talk about living in a world of their own.

4. Visit Pasar Gadong, Brunei’s night market

Image credit: ¡kuba!

Here’s a market – literally – the size of a football field.

Pasar Gadong is Brunei’s best known Night Market and it runs from 4pm to 11pm daily. As with all things ‘Malaysian’ or ‘Singaporean’, the key attraction here is food, and visitors are greeted upon entry by rows and rows of smoky stalls selling a wide range of fresh local produce and delicacies. Chicken wings, dumplings, barbecued meat, assorted rice and noodle dishes, and all kinds of meat parts marinated in special sauces – these are but the tip of the iceberg at Pasar Gadong.

Image credit: Noranna

One particular must-not-miss is Ambuyat, a starchy glutinous mass derived from the insides of a sago palm, grounded to powder and mixed with water. It is usually served twisted around chopsticks and dipped in a powerful combination of sambal belacan and a sweet-and-sour tamarind-based sauce – although, it can virtually be dipped in anything. Many variations of the sauce exist (some even dip it in ice cream); and in fact, if Brunei ever needed a national dish, this would probably be it.

For a country this sedate, Pasar Gadong boasts a bold, vibrant setting, and is a decadent adventure for those willing to get their hands dirty on grub. It offers an exciting street gourmet experience that is well worth the visit.

5. Or try out a morning one, in the form of Tamu Kianggeh

Image credit: Ron Knox 2001

Located on the banks of Kianggeh River where residents of Kampong Ayer travel to and fro the capital, the Tamu Kianggeh Morning Market is an integral part of daily Bruneian life, comprising hundreds of small stalls selling a wide variety of ingredients such as everyday meat and produce, medicinal forest herbs, fresh catches from local waters, and even local-made handicrafts and antiques. 

It pains me to resort to this hackneyed phrase, but, at Tamu Kianggeh, there really is something for everyone; even if you’re not looking (or cooking). Sumptuous ready-to-eat delights are available at your service too, from traditional savoury dishes like fried marinated mackerel to sweet delicacies like sago, tapioca, and a whole colourful assortment of kuih.

This is the place for keen photographers and tourists looking to capture the essence of local Bruneian life – after all, it has been around since the 60s and has become a distinctive feature in Brunei’s history. In fact, it is such an authentic representation of the traditional Bruneian culinary experience that English Celebrity Chef Antony Worrall Thompson once trekked through the bustling scenes of this very market in search of fresh ingredients for his ambitious travel-cooking documentary in Brunei.

6. Dive into the heart of royalty at Istana Nurul Iman

Image credit: de:Benutzer:Chtrede

Think the biggest palace in the world sits tucked somewhere amidst the rich, unmatched elegance of old-world Europe? Think again. The world’s biggest palace in the world sits but just two countries away from Singapore.

Istana Nurul Iman, a two-million-square-foot palace commissioned by none other than Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (again), boasts 1800 rooms and a 110-car garage; and is officially the largest palace in the entire world. Estimated to cost $1.4 billion, the residence even houses a mosque that holds up to 1,500 worshippers a time and is designed for a grand total of… one family.

Yep, that’s right. The Istana Nurul Iman is still very much a private residence despite the vast extravagance – after all, it houses the Sultan’s personal collection of cars, which stands at a whopping total of 5,000, including hundreds of Ferraris and Rolls Royces and custom-made Bentleys.

If you think all this is beyond your lifetime to behold, thank your lucky stars today. The Sultan opens up his humble home to public three days in a year during Eid’il Fitri; so if you’re interested, you might have to time your visit well to enjoy the perks of this one.

7. And to wrap it all up, take on the city by foot

Image credit: Mark爱生活

As with all cities that require a little bit of an acquired taste for appreciation, perhaps the best way to uncover Brunei’s charm is to take it on by foot.  

Lucky for us, the usual round-up of tourist must-sees are all conveniently located within the boundaries of central BSB; and of the handful of museums available for perusal, possibly the one worth making a trip down to is the Royal Regalia Museum, which houses all of the Royal Family’s personal gifts from other heads of state. Also, much of the capital’s urban life revolves around its malls, so check one out. The tenant mix is rarely spectacular, but it’s a fantastic way of getting a feel for the country’s urban culture.

End the day with a leisurely stroll along the waterfront promenade. This city may not have a skyline to gleam like gold under the blaze of the burning sun, but there is startling captivity that presents itself to the perceiver – mostly in a veiled, indiscernible form.  

Enjoy Brunei. I know I (sort of) did.

About Author

Shafinah Neville

Shafinah Neville is a midnight baker, a heedless traveller, and an awfully distracted writer - all of which she does far too infrequently for her own liking. Her poignant likes include mismatched socks, carnivals, hyenas, war history, and magic; and in her free time, harbours far-fetched dreams of one day writing and travelling for a living. Wander with her on Instagram @shafinahneville.


Related Posts