Brunei is that tiny country trapped between two provinces of Malaysia on Borneo, the third largest island in the world. It is currently ranked in the top five richest nations in the world according to GDP (PPP) per capita. Its wealth stems almost completely from exports of crude oil and natural gas.
If you arrive to the country by ferry, as we did, there’s no mistaking the massive, numerous oil rigs dotting the ocean beyond its shore. It is so rich in oil that, supposedly, the price of oil in Brunei is less than a bottle of water (but I never checked).
Personally, I had never heard of this speck-on-the-map country before deciding to travel to Borneo. We started out in Malaysia’s Sarawak province then hopped over to northern Borneo. While traveling through Sarawak and Sabah (the northern province), we asked Malaysians if they had ever visited Brunei.
Brunei? No, why? It’s boring there. Nothing to do. People from Brunei come to Malaysia on weekends or for vacation. They don’t think there’s anything to do in Brunei either.
We received a variation of this response, without fail, every time! Everyone said it was boring. Nothing to do and nothing to see but a bunch of neighborhoods and a few palaces they said.
But we were so close to this little, super rich nation. It intrigued us. There had to be something there worth our time.
The Ferry From Kota Kinabalu to Brunei
To take the boat from KK, Malaysia to Brunei, try to get to the Point Jesselton Ferry Terminal before 10am, as I believe the boats from Kota Kinabalu don’t leave after either 10 or 12. The jetty is a bit out from the center of the city, but still within walking distance. We had just taken an overnight bus from Semporna back to Kota Kinabalu. The little bus we took from the bus station to the city center was an old, rickety thing. As the bus made its last stop in the center of the city, the front tire blew. Had the tire blew any earlier, we wouldn’t have been able to make the ferry to Brunei, but thankfully we made it in perfect time. 🙂
If I remember correctly our one way trip ticket to Brunei cost about RM60. But both when you leave Malaysia and when you leave Brunei, you are charged a leaving tax. Both times this tax was around the equivalent of $1 or so. Your ticket to Brunei will include two ferry rides as your first stop will be the little Malaysian island of Labuan. To get to this island, the ferry ride from KK is roughly an hour. From Labuan to Brunei it takes roughly two hours. You’ll have to switch ferries when you get to Labuan. Both ferries were freezing cold and played super violent movies (what’s with that?) during the trip. So maybe bring a jacket and headphones?
The second ferry brings you to the Serasa Ferry Terminal where you’ll go through a customs and immigration line. There’s one cash exchange booth at this terminal. Bring some cash currency to trade since I didn’t see any ATMs in the surrounding area.
You don’t have to leave quite so early when going from Brunei back to Kota Kinabalu, though beware that the last ferry leaving Labuan is either 3:30 or 4:30pm and the public bus to the Serasa Ferry Terminal can take up to two hours from the capital. If you miss the last boat to KK from Labuan, don’t worry! We missed the boat and actually ended up having a great stay on Labuan. There’s plenty of accommodation and food around. There’s even a school and some sites to see.
From what we read online, Brunei held a decent sized middle class, visible by middle class housing, cleaner surroundings, and higher fashion. Actually, the reputation of Bruneians often described them as a bit uppity and cold to those from elsewhere.
We were expecting and truly hoping to see some wealth, to take a fresh breath away from travels that had placed us among a lot of poverty.
At the university in Brunei, many of the students who are educated in English have been said to sometimes adopt US American tourists and proudly show them around the sights of Brunei. We were hoping we might be able to experience this.
But we ended up 11 kilometers away from the uni, too far to bother visiting without a car.
As usual, without real plans, we boarded the only bus outside the ferry terminal when we arrived and let it take us wherever it was going.
It brought us to Bandar Seri Begawan.
Bandar Seri Begawan- Capital of Brunei
Betcha didn’t know that one. I didn’t know Bandar Seri Begawan was the capital of Brunei either until two seconds ago when I googled it. Until now, I thought we had visited Muara, Brunei, but turns out Muara was just the port town we arrived in. It’s a good thing I keep this blog, right? Else who knows where we’ve been!
For being the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan certainly did not impress us.
Props for having the funkiest clock tower though!
On the several hour BD$2 bus ride to the capital, we saw a few decent-sized homes and less shanty houses, the roads were in good condition and the greenery of the country was beautiful, but there wasn’t much to see until we entered the city.
Regardless of what the country had to offer, I was excited to be there and learn what that piece of the planet was like. But, in all honesty, we could see what the Malaysians had been saying.
Accommodation for Tight Budgets
After getting dropped off at the bus station right in the center of town, out into the new world we went in search of wifi and affordable food.
One thing that will become quickly apparent when researching a trip to Brunei are the painfully high prices, especially compared to the countries around it. For just about anything, we found the prices to be about 3x more in Brunei than in Malaysia.
By way of hostels, there isn’t much to pick and choose from. The cheapest option that came up online was Youth Center Hostel. This one is tricky because the staff are only available to check you in from 12-4pm. I ran over to check it out, although it was well past 4pm. I found it eerily empty, not a soul to be seen.
We ended up staying at the only other hostel option that appeared online. The Joy Downtown Rest Station‘s location was central, close and ideal. To find it, simply turn in the direction towards the water from the bus station. You’ll see it to your left, next to Piccolo Cafe.
Please do complain about the teeny tiny rooms. Doing so got us a well-reduced price. They were like closets with bunk-beds in them. The deluxe rooms, in our opinion, were not at all worth the price increase. We took a double bed room for the three of us (I travel with an air bed, so I slept on the floor) for $30 Brunei dollars, basically the cheapest we could find in town.
The receptionist made our stay there very pleasant, despite the cramped room. She had moved to Brunei for work only 4 months prior from the Philippines. She was very helpful with telling us which buses to take and how much they should cost (the bus drivers often overcharge tourists, as they tried to do to us), and kindly answered all our many questions. We were excited to find out that she was a Christian as well. 🙂
When we asked about what she thought of Brunei, she confessed that it was a large and difficult change from her home culture. Although the capital, the entire city was deathly quiet all the time and people were sparse. The Philippines is a place bustling with people, full of families, laughter and parties. I couldn’t think of two countries in starker contrast to each other.
The Waterfront and Floating Village
We went for a couple walks along the waterfront just in front of our hostel. Anytime you walk that sidewalk, be prepared for many boatmen to come rushing over asking to take you on BD$50 tours to see the floating village and some other touristic sights. We didn’t figure it was worth the price.
Apparently there is an information center somewhere along the water front. A traveler we met months after visiting Brunei told us that there’s a public ferry that will bring you across to the water village for a standard B$2 each way.
For some reason, these villages built on water have been advertised as the number one attraction in the city. But they are just homes on stilts. However, there is a neat view tower at the front of the floating village.
Pants or Shorts
Brunei is a Muslim nation under sharia law. Despite this, at least in the big cities, you can wear shorts. We saw several Chinese tourists exploring in shorts and skirts. As a hot and humid country, it’s certainly more comfortable, weather-wise. But people aren’t used to seeing them and will stare.
There are also businesses that will not serve you if you are in shorts.
I would recommend wearing pants to keep from drawing attention to yourself, etc. Brunei’s values are somewhat hostile towards Western culture.
Food for Shoestring Budgets
We’ve all gotta eat, but restaurant prices in Brunei will likely blow you away if you’re a budgeting backpacker. Here are your two best options:
#1. There’s a sub place, pretty much a copy of Subway under a different name, with Subway prices. It’s on the main street just a bit up from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Good way to get in some meat and veggies.
#2. If you walk down from the hostel along the boardwalk, you’ll soon see a large building. It’s a bit hard to tell from the outside, but it is a mall. A grocery store is located on bottom floor. Our hostel allowed us to use their small stove, so you can make spaghetti, the backpacker’s staple meal in expensive places.
I discovered Ritter’s chocolate bars while in Malaysia and formed an addiction, especially to the mint ones. Surprisingly, in the grocery store the Ritter’s bars were the cheapest I had seen (about USD $1). Don’t miss out on this if you’re a chocoholic like me.
Brunei also has Dairy Queen. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s a fun splurge.
World’s Largest and Smallest Palaces
Smack in the center of the city sits the world’s largest palace, as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Istana Nurul Iman (or Palace of the Faith Light) belongs to the head of state and costs a whooping USD $1.4 billion.
Since it looks like a mosque, we first assumed that was what it was. After seeing many spectacularly large mosques in Turkey, such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, this mosque-looking palace didn’t raise too much awe or curiosity. But they say more than a hundred Rolls Royces, among many other custom made sports cars, hang out in the garage, as part of the Sultan’s massive car collection.
Istana Nurul Iman is only open for viewing three days a year, but our map showed another palace a brisk, afternoon walk away. We arrived at the designated dot on our map and twirled all around looking for a palace. On the left was a line of run down shops. On the right, one house enclosed by a metal fence quietly sagged, looking long unloved and deserted. It was unusually shaped, almost like a temple you’d find in Thailand. But the size of it was so regular that we had a hard time believing it was anything special.
I almost took a picture of it just in case but thought, nah.
We turned around, blocked by construction work behind the house and went back to the hostel. We told the hostel receptionist about our wild goose chase. But, “Oh no, that is the palace,” was the reply, “only it is no longer being used.”
Maybe that was the world’s smallest palace.
The Park: Brunei’s Best Feature
As I mentioned earlier. I don’t know why the floating villages are hyped up as the main attraction. I’d say the real main attraction is the park, the National Park of Brunei. While most of the city was empty, save a few people milling around, at 4pm or later, the park becomes packed.
When I go to a country, I’m most interested in learning about how locals “do life.” What do their everyday activities, traditions, and idiosyncrasies look like? What’s a normal day for a Bruneian?
The park was a candid place of answers to satiate my curiosity. After a day at work, the cars roll in. It’s not long before the parking lot fills up.
Bruneians come to jog, bike, hike, hang out with friends, or play with their kids. They laugh, wear ugly exercise clothes, and unwind from a busy day.
We happened upon this park after following our map to the spot marked “waterfall.”
Before getting to the waterfall though, we hiked up a hill in the park, because, well, everyone else was doing it.
As we neared the top, we heard shrill, girly screaming. But since there was the occasional laugh thrown in, it seemed that the screams weren’t from a serious cause of danger. What was going on?
I was wrong. We got to the top while the girls still screamed. The problem was definitely serious. A group of macaques, or what we like to call naughty monkeys, were stalking towards the girls’ bags.
Naughty monkeys are the worst.
The girls’ stuff was on a cement curb near the forest. They are notorious thieves, so every time the monkeys got closer to the stuff the girls yelled, unwilling to get close to the macaques and unable to defend their belongings.
Eventually someone got a stick and drove the monkeys away. The big drama over, screams returned to laughter as the girls, women actually, started their workout routine once again.
More than monkeys, at the top of the hill there’s also a look-out tower you can climb to get views like this one:
If you have time, you can hike all around the park, use the outdoor exercise equipment or playground, read a book near the stream, or go for a run on the bouncy rubber running track.
Without much daylight left, the waterfall became our priority. From the entrance of the park, the waterfall is a fast and easy walk. We thought we’d have to hike out to it. But a cement path leads you to a wooden platform directly in front of it.
Of our five days in Brunei, the day at the park was our day best spent. We walked to it from the city center, and although we saw a bus sign, I don’t believe any buses run out to the park anymore. The park bathroom is equipped with showers and changing rooms. Coconut sellers wait outside the entrance if you’re in need of a drink.
* * *
Brunei didn’t wow us with its wealth, neither did it pierce us with its poverty. You could have sat me down anywhere and said I was in Cambodia or Indonesia or Jordan. I would have believed you. It was not at all what we were expecting from one of the richest nations in the world.
For us, traveling is ultimately all about the people we meet. We met a couple friendly Bruneians, but for the most part, locals stood aloof and fulfilled their stereotype. The kindest, most personable people we met there were from the Philippines, which made us excited about going there next.
I’m grateful for the ability and chance to see Brunei. Now I won’t have to wonder. While I’m sure there is so much more to do and explore in this unique nation, five days was plenty for us.
If you visit Brunei, tell me what you think and what other things you found to see and do!