Everyone tells me Brunei is boring. Really? I wanted to find out for myself. It was a 4-days-3-nights spontaneous decision to heed the call of #DiscoverBrunei and enter what Brunei Tourism calls the “Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures”.
It’s easy to see why hardly anyone considers travelling to Brunei as a holiday destination despite attempts to market it as an underrated travel destination. 5 hours into Brunei and I saw why everyone who has lived in this oil-rich country tells me “Brunei is boring, there’s nothing to see or do here.”
Brunei is not at all impressive at the first sight, especially for a Malaysian. Their government-commissioned travel pamphlets ramble a list of all too familiar sights and sounds: water village, mosques, rainforests, pasars and a list of food that do not stray too far from the Malaysian menu. There is zero nightlife and everything closes at about 9pm. The locals speak the same Malay tinged with an accent and their English is perfect, perfectly similar to the beautiful sound of Manglish.
True to its status as a hudud-enforced Muslim nation, Brunei is a dry country. You won’t be able to buy a single drop of alcohol here (not even at the airport), unless you know a guy who knows a guy in the underground drinking market. Or else, you’d have to drive two hours to the Brunei-Miri border where all the booze and bars are.
In Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city, there is no city buzz nor glitzy skyscrapers. The streets are quiet in the day as it is at night. If I were to remove the word “Brunei” from the signboards, I could’ve mistaken Brunei Darussalam as Kelantan Darul Naim, Terengganu Darul Iman or Kedah Darul Aman. That was what Brunei felt like from the get-go – familiar and comfortable.
Upon arriving, the first thing I wanted to know was if the rumours I heard as a child were true. Are the floors really paved in gold? Is there a glorious amusement park with free entry?
“True, but not exactly,” Jun Lee, a true blue Bruneian whom I met at the guesthouse told me. The streets are not paved in gold, but the dome of the country’s icon, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is. The Jerudong Park amusement park used to be free during its glory days, but is not exactly free anymore.
My Brunei travel partner Matt and I have just met Jun and he immediately offered to drive us into town. The ride quickly became more than that as Jun played tour guide, driving us to the interesting sights in town and feeding us with unexpected factoids – like how they imported marble from Italy to build the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, how the Brunei Sultan used to own all of Borneo, and how the Malaysian Sultan gifted Brunei a questionable blue clock.
As we listened to Jun’s story, the dull facade of Brunei was slowly filled in with colours. My favourite story was how the name of Nasi Katok, Brunei’s version of Nasi Lemak, came to be. Nasi Katok was originally sold from homes. To buy a packet, you’d have to knock, knock, knock on the door until the house owner answers. ‘Ketuk’ is the Malay word for knock and ‘nasi’ translates to rice, hence the name Nasi Katok.
I thought the country have moved on from the Nasi Katok “knock to buy” model but I was sorely wrong. While we were visiting Kampong Ayer, a massive water village complete with schools, fire department and police stations, we saw signs selling ice-cream for a few cents. The A4 paper signs were tacked by the front door, but the door was closed and there was no one in sight. We knocked on the first shop; nobody answered. We tried the next shop and after a couple of knocks, we heard footsteps shuffling towards the door.
The door opened to reveal a young boy, barely 10. He opened the door just large enough for his head to poke out. I caught a glimpsed of a television set in what looks like a living room behind him. This is obviously not a shop.
“Ya?” his small pre-pubescent voice piped up. “You sell ice cream?” We asked.
He confirmed that we can procure ice cream from this establishment. He asked us for our flavours, closed the door, and ran in to get the goods. Then, he opened the door to inform us that they were out of watermelon flavour. We said it’s okay, what about durian and cocktail? He closed the door. He opened the door with ice-cream in hand to exchange the goods and money. He closed the door again to get change. Finally, he opened the door one last time to return our change and bid us good-bye.
That was the most confusing and intense ice cream purchase ever. I wasn’t sure if we were buying ice cream or cocaine. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very good.
The more we saw these unexpected quirks of Brunei, the more Brunei grew on us. For such a loaded country, Brunei does not boast its riches. While the rest of the world chases after the titled of world’s tallest building, biggest this and longest that, Brunei is happy with the world’s largest water village and a gold-plated mosque. Those, however, do not look like efforts to win some global kiasu contest. They look like sincere efforts to maintain their culture and heritage. For one, Kampong Ayer was always large to start with. It was the country’s administrative centre until some white guy told them it’s not proper for government offices to be on water.
I’ll admit it – the locals are right, there is not much to see, do nor buy in Brunei. The city will keep you occupied for half a day at most. There are two beaches, both are public and serve as a recreation park for the locals. The water is murky and there are sandflies so don’t expect any sunbathing. The other notable sights, an Iban longhouse, and the Ulu Temburong National Park are supposed to be amazing yet they are more than 2 hours away from the city. I’m gutted I didn’t have time to visit the forests, but let me tell you about diving in Brunei.
Oh, Brunei has such amazing diving that deserves more recognition! Unbeknownst to many, Brunei is one of the world’s best wreck dive sites. It is also nudibranch heaven and a mecca for underwater photographers. I did 6 dives with Brunei’s best dive centre Oceanic Quest and saw more nudis that I can count. There were also seahorses, octopus, scorpionfish; there were reef dives, wreck dives, oil rigs… The Brunei diving scene is definitely a story to tell in my next post.
If the land attractions didn’t make me feel for Brunei, the underwater scenes definitely did it for me. At the end of my 4-day travel in Brunei, it hit me that when residents say Brunei is boring, they are not moaning about it; they are merely stating a fact. If you further the conversation past “there is nothing to do in Brunei”, they will tell you that Brunei is a good place to live and one that they enjoy. The currency is strong, there is no stressful traffic jams, it’s very peaceful, crime is low, and is a healthy place to bring up a family.
According to Jun, they have more quality time to spend with their families and the luxury to explore their hobbies because there aren’t any vices to distract them. True enough, one evening at the park we spotted several families out for a lovely barbecue picnic. On the water, there were people zooming past in a very expensive hobby Matt excitedly calls “the F1 of boats”.
On top of that, all the Bruneians we met here are a friendly and happy bunch. Drivers would patiently stop for pedestrians, shop owners would strike up interesting conversations with us, one passerby at Pasar Gadong saw us tucking into a grilled fish delicacy and stopped to tell us exactly what we were eating (fish wrapped in leaves and grilled with tamarind). They are the kind of people who would stop and offer you a ride if they see you walking on the streets alone.
Brunei is not an exciting country to travel and does not try to be one. The pace is slow and the vibe is chilled out. It’s not the destination for tourists looking for an explosive holiday with tonnes to see, do and buy. If you want a small hometown vibe where you can slow down and discover the forests, diving, and people, then Brunei will be your cup of tea. Brunei may not have much to offer on paper, but a Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures it is indeed.
Mei’s Brunei travel tips:
- According to the locals, the best place to eat in Brunei is a Japanese restaurant called Kaizen Sushi. It’s delicious, but it’s also exactly the same as any Japanese restaurants in the Klang Valley. Price is about $B45 per person. Call early to book a window seat with a view of Kampong Ayer.
- You won’t be able to buy alcohol in Brunei. Non-Muslims above 17 are allowed to bring in 2 litres of liquor or 330ml of beer (about 12 cans) upon entering the country. More info here.
- The Bruneian dollar is pegged to the Singapore dollar. $SG is accepted in Brunei and vice versa, though you are likely to get a look from the Singaporean cashiers.
- Buses are the only public transportation in Brunei and it ends at about 8pm. Towns are far and wide apart so start your day early or rent a car.
- Avoid taxis, they are expensive as hell. Everyone owns a car in Brunei; nobody uses the taxis. A taxi driver told us that there are only about 40-odd taxis in the country. One 30-minute ride we took from Gadong to Muara cost us about $B40 (RM121).
- The Brunei airport is very, very strict with the cabin luggage policy. They weigh your luggage twice, once upon check-in and another at the boarding gate. Make sure you only carry one cabin bag and one small handbag. I was using a half empty 10litre bag pack as my handbag and they stopped me. They weighed both my bag pack and cabin luggage to make sure that the combined weight did not exceed 7kgs.
- The best time to dive in Brunei is between April to August. Read: Make Brunei Your Next Dive Trip: Everything You Need To Know.
- Brunei is a very safe country for backpackers. Read: Is Brunei Safe For Solo Women Travellers?
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