A WEEKEND IN BRUNEI
Even throughout all my time spent in Southeast Asia, before this visit I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about Brunei. This made for a fascinating trip.
The nation of Brunei is small both geographically and in population which is why many Westerners haven’t even heard of it. But the little country on the island of Borneo is fascinating to look at because while Brunei’s population isn’t even 500,000 people, the nation boasts one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs. This is primarily due to overseas investments and the production/exporting of oil and natural gases.
Where We Stayed
This weekend trip was part of a longer Southeast Asian writing tour that my dad and I took together, travelling, exploring, and obviously writing along the way. Since it was just the two of us and we were only staying for a few nights, we opted for a hotel over an airbnb (believe it or not there are some airbnbs in Brunei!).
We stayed at the Radisson Hotel Brunei in Bandar Seri Begawan, the nation’s capital. The Radisson is one of the higher rated hotels in the country and the only one that is American-owned. It is certainly not 5-star but I would recommend it if you like to know what to expect when it comes to accommodations. The Radisson is essentially the “in-between” choice when staying in Brunei. By this I mean that there are also high-end, luxury resorts with beach fronts and there are hostels and backpackers for the budget travellers.
Friday: Initial Exploring
We arrive in Brunei midday from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After checking into the Radisson, Dad and I do exactly what my family does to start every trip to a new place - we wander. Our international data plan does not extend to Brunei so we take a paper map from the hotel with us to navigate. Luckily, since the city is both geographically small and located on a river it doesn’t take long for us to get our bearings.
The city is damp from a recent tropical downpour and the streets are eerily empty. Where is everyone? It is almost spooky. We finally see a sign of life in a small cafe. We stop to eat some rice and noodles as an Asian soap-opera captures the attention of everyone else in the cafe (everyone else being an old man with a big bowl of curry, the man that waited on us, and an older woman who was likely the man’s mother and also the cook).
After lunch we carry on to the riverfront. There are a few more sightings of fellow pedestrians now. Across the river we see what most intrigued me about coming here - the water village: Kampong Ayer. The water village in Bandar Seri Begawan is the largest in the world. Roughly 30,000 people reside there (almost half of the entire city’s population!).
It looks as if another downpour is coming so we head back to the hotel to rest and get cleaned up before dinner - maybe even squeeze in a little writing by the pool.
For dinner we return to the waterfront for a place that had a very cool looking deck area facing the river and the village. Turns out all that was on the menu was Western food! Our first night in Brunei and we are eating pizza and french fries. What!? We are just too hungry to find someplace else. By the time we are walking back to the hotel it is pouring again and my sandals are not doing much to protect my feet from the growing puddles. Not the greatest end to a great first afternoon in Brunei.
Saturday: Water Village and Proboscis
Our day begins at the Radisson. We eat breakfast at the hotel and get some writing done by the pool. Come lunchtime we are ready to get into the city. We find a local restaurant/cafe like the one from Friday on our walk to the riverfront where we get to do what ended up being the highlight of the trip: exploring Kampong Ayer.
The riverfront is abundant with boat taxi drivers hounding tourists and locals alike for business. We find a man to take us across and drop us at “Jeti 10” (one of the numerous “docks” throughout the village). From here we, once again, wander.
The village is incredibly impressive and seemingly endless. It also has a wide spectrum of social classes within it. Some of the nicer homes looked like middle-class American homes on stilts while others were wooden with metal roofs.
We hail another boat taxi so we could see more of the village from the water. The extent of this village is breathtaking. They are even equipped with their own primary schools and police departments separate from those on the mainland.
The sun seems to be sticking around and I wanted to take advantage of that. So we decide to add on another activity to this exciting excursion - a river trip to see the proboscis monkeys. Proboscis monkeys are native to the island of Borneo and live in the jungle along the river. Learn more about these big-nosed monkeys here.
As an animal lover I’ll take any chance I can to see exotic creatures in their natural habitat. My dad and I find another river boat taxi and take a beautiful ride down the river to see the proboscis.
I didn’t have my camera with me on the boat but, so you can picture these strange-looking monkeys, here is a shot courtesy of Pexels:
In light of our time exploring the water village, my dad and I wanted to do something for dinner that was a little more authentic to Bruneian.
The national dish of Brunei is called “ambuyat.” Ambuyat is a vegetarian dish, a starch, made from the inside of a sago palm plant. It is relatively bland aside from hints of durian and is meant to be eaten with spicy side dishes (like fish or curries) to add flavor. What will be most surprising to Westerners is its texture. Ambuyat is very sticky and can be twirled onto chopsticks to be eaten.
Full Disclosure: This dish was not for me. But if you go to Brunei what is the harm in at least giving it a try?!
How to make sure you find legit ambuyat? Just ask your host. Our hotel was happy to direct us to a restaurant not far outside the city and arranged a taxi as well.
Sunday: Temples and No Cars
In 2016 the Bruneian government began an initiative called “No-Cars Sunday.” For a good part of every Sunday in Bandar Seri Begawan all of the city’s main roads are closed. This initiative is meant to encourage people to both reduce their carbon footprint and practice a healthy lifestyle. In addition, it provides local businesses the opportunity to sell at stands in the street in a farmers-market fashion.
After breakfast, Dad and I walk into the city centre to explore the activities. This is the most people we have seen all weekend! Locals and expats alike all eating, drinking, and riding bikes in the park. We decide to rent bikes for an hour and don’t even make it 30 minutes - that’s how hot and humid it is. So we end up getting some snacks and iced milo from the local vendors and do some shopping around town.
It’s now time to go to the jewel of the capital: the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. This islamic mosque was named after the 28th sultan of Brunei and is known for being one of the most stunning in Southeast Asia.
Be sure to check its visiting hours before you go because all prayer hours are closed to non-muslims. Also note that there were floor-length gowns available for us to wear inside the mosque but bringing a shall to cover your head or legs is never a bad idea when visiting any mosque or temple.
No photos are allowed inside the mosque but I managed to sneak one of the gorgeous interior of the dome.
For dinner we go back to the waterfront for a restaurant we spotted earlier in the weekend: Kaizen Sushi. This is definitely one of the nicer restaurants in the city although not Bruneian. The sushi was very good (not great) but the service and the atmosphere are impeccable.
Brunei is an incredibly fascinating place to visit - but a weekend in Bandar Seri Begawan was plenty for what my Dad and I wanted to experience. It is definitely a great addition to a greater trip through Southeast Asia.
Visited Brunei January 2018
For more information about the fascinating country of Brunei click here!