To Go To Brunei or Not?
Visiting Asia as Brunei usually takes people to the bigger stops like Malaysia, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul. The electric sounds and blazing neon of these metropolises can blind you to a tiny treasure nestled by Malaysia and the South China Sea. The Sultanate of Brunei is a nation often untouched by tourists, despite the wonders in store for them. Brunei is a stunning country that world travelers should take their time to savor, for the richness of Brunei is just not in gas and petroleum, it’s in the culture and the natural beauty of the land.
Here are some things to consider when pondering to go or not to go to Brunei:
Public Transport in Brunei and Lack Thereof
Probably the biggest thing that most travelers fret over is how they’re going to get from Point A to B.
In Brunei you are limited to a bus or taxi. There are a few tourist horror stories about not being able to find an adequate means of transport and having to walk for hours to get to their destination. Supposedly, taxis are around the capital and the airport but nowhere in between. If you do find one, prepare your wallet for annihilation. Prices for taxis are rather hefty (a 15 minute ride might cost you around 25 BND).
The public bus looks like they drove straight from the 1960s, albeit services are fairly cheap (1-3 BND) depending on where you’re headed. However, if you’re on a tight schedule, you might find yourself ripping up your itinerary into itty-bitty bits. The public buses have no inkling as to what “timetable” means. Therefore, most Bruneians won’t use these infamous purple buses. Six bus routes in daily operation around the area of Bandar Seri Begawan, and they’re supposedly color-coated as of 2013 (but as of 2016 a lot of purple buses remain):
- Northern Line – Green
- Southern Line – Silver gray
- Eastern Line – Royal blue
- Western Line – Magenta
- Central Line – Brown
- Circle Line – Cyan
The Brunei government is really trying to expand on the public transportation sector, but as of right now, there’s yet to be any true improvements. Brunei
Since Brunei isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, you can find some pretty decent deals on hotels right in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). For example, with 500-600 USD, you can stay in a 3-star hotel or hostel for about 8 days. Unfortunately, these vacancies get eaten up quickly. Kampong Jerudong, another location in Brunei, as decent rates, but with the public transportation conundrum, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the extra distance for a cheap place to sleep.
One note a fellow traveler made was that if you don’t arrange your room prior to arriving in Brunei, you might be the victim of price gouging. That is, what looks decent online might be raised to an exorbitant amount in person. Be smart. Book in advance.
Where Are Those Attractions Again?
Again, Brunei is by no means a resort town. There’s not much to do—and so you don’t have to deal with crowds. Fortunately, most attractions and museums are free. The golden mosques and hotels are stunning, but that’s about it.
Brunei isn’t very modern, so don’t expect miraculous examples of architecture and flashing lights. If you are imaginative and can make your own tours just by exploring, then Brunei might be for you. Consider this: A large portion of Brunei is built on a network of over-the-water stilt villages like Kampong Ayer. Not many people get the chance to experience something like that. It’s not exactly romantic like Venice, but a walk across the docks is humbling and eye-opening. Brunei is one of the richest countries in the world thanks to oil, yet the way of life is low-key and relaxed. You might even stumble upon an open market like Tamu Kianggeh. A rainbow of boats and umbrellas line the docks as people peddle their fruits and vegetables.
For those who love being outdoors, they won’t only find a unique journey in town, they can find it in the Bruneian rainforest, Ulu Temburong National Park. Tranquil rivers, boundless skies and excursions galore. Aside from resort hotels, there’s also a sustainable living village, where you can choose to stay in tents and eat jungle food that you harvest yourself. Plus, who can say no to getting up close to wild crocodiles, lizards, exotic birds and monkeys?
Another attraction similar to the rainforest experience is a cruise along the Tutong River that focuses on mangrove ecology and how to conserve natural resources. Brunei is also a great scuba diving location. Several shipwrecks can be found in the waters, as well as pristine coral reefs. Rental gear is cheap—about 35-50 BND.
What Do You Mean By “Dry”?
Because Brunei is an Islamic nation (the mosques should have clued you into that), don’t expect there to be any nightlife. If you’re the kind of person who likes slinging back drinks with the locals and hearing stories, you probably won’t be very fond of Brunei’s dryness. There are no bars, no clubs and overnight businesses are rare.
You are, however, allowed to bring a small amount of alcohol with you. An alcohol permit at the border of Brunei must be obtained before entering the country. Cigarettes are also a slight challenge to find.
During the month of Ramadan, when devotees of Islam take on fasting, you’ll find restaurants open. However, this doesn’t mean you’re open to woofing down food and drink in front of those who haven’t eaten in several days or weeks. You will be expected to ask permission to dine in front of those individuals. In 2014, the government passed a law that states it’s fine for non-fasting people and visitors to Brunei to order take-out during Ramadan to mitigate the offense. It’s a unique cultural exchange, but if that makes you nervous, plan your trip around Ramadan.
So should you go to Brunei? The answer is up to you. Brunei doesn’t have the glitter and glam of some other SEA locations like Indonesia or Malaysia, but that doesn’t mean it should be crossed off the list. People who love outdoor activities, fresh air and relaxation will find themselves perfectly satisfied by this happy little country.