I was planning my last trip to Thailand when I found out some good value tickets with Royal Brunei Airlines. I could fly business class at the same price of economic with the other airlines! And I could stop over in Brunei for few days too. I asked myself what could I do in Brunei, what are the things to do and see in this tiny country?
There is not much out on the web. Brunei tourism is not the main resource, probably not even in the top 10. This explains possibly the lack of information. The first thing I had to do was to actually google the map. I knew Brunei is one of the richest country in the world, thanks to the own oil resources but that was it
Where is Brunei and Bandar Seri Begawan
Brueni is a tiny country in the Borneo, neighbouring Malaysia on the land side and the South China Sea on the water side. The anomaly of this country location is that it is physically divided in two regions that are not connected between each other. From the capital city, by land, you would need to pass through Malaysia to reach the Ulu Temburong National Park. The alternative is by long boats through the river and the sea, this is what I experienced during my trip
The capital of Brunei is Bandar Seri Begawan, a small city of just over 27,000 inhabitants, basically a town, with the own airport where Royal Brunei Airlines operates.
The airport is very tiny as well. In these last years Royal Brunei Airlines is trying to launch new routes at a very convenient price. I experienced a great service and I would definitely take it again. The only drawback is that they do not serve alcohol, but I can definitely live with that LOL
I think it’s time to go to the Top 10 things to do in Brunei!
Ulu Temburong National Park
This is by far the best experience I had in Brunei. I believe this is the top thing to do in Brunei. I had such a great time and I was almost on my own in the jungle, feeling like the Indiana Jones of the travellers LOL
Do not think you should go on your own of course. If you get lost, well, good luck. There are very well organised paths through the jungle, a few stations and a walk on top of the trees, where you can get a unique view.
Everything is done with a guide. There are few tour operators I was said (though I could find only two on the net). The one I had was great and we had such a small group of just 6 people! Lots of spare time for questions and one-to-one chat with the guide. Always interesting
I decided to go for the day trip leaving Bandar Seri Begawan in the early morning (7:30am). We travelled by local water taxi from Bandar through a network of rivers and channels around the back of Brunei Bay. We passed by dense mangrove islands till we reached the village of Bangar
From there, after a morning tea, we navigated with a long boat towards a station in the jungle to have a break and again a long boat to the start of the walk.
The walk was really unique, one of my best experience ever. I guess the almost private guide helped a lot.
The tree top walk was just amazing. The view was never ending in the jungle. The only pity was the weather, too misty to have a clear view, but beside that I did enjoy every single meter.
On the way back we stopped also in a little inlet. The guide took us there because of the presence of the small Garra Rufa fish (if I remember well the name). This is the fish you find usually in the spa, the one eating the dead skin off your feet.
Of course the guide did not say anything to us till the very last second, I guess he wanted to have a bit of fun with us. Believe you me, he was successful! We all started jumping when we began feeling something strange on our feet! Great fun though!
We had our lunch (included in the price) in a small hut on the river and on the way back to the pier we stopped at one of the long houses in the Iban village. These are the traditional homes of the locals shared by the full family, from the grand children to the grand parents, a real family business.
We were back in Bandar Seri Begawan by late afternoon.
I booked with Freme Travel Service (the guide was Min, fantastic person with plenty of information). You need to pay a day in advance and credit cards have a 3% service charge. The office is just beside the Brunei Hotel (the name of the building is Wisma Jaya). Go to the 4th Floor , Unit 409B/410B.
I contacted also Intrepid Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they offered a similar trip. I just went for the one that first replied back. I guess they are both pretty similar.
The price is the same, around 150B (US$100). Definitely money well invested and Min, the guide, was really a star
Ops, something went wrong with this bridge, luckily when there was nobody on top
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
A visit to this mosque is a must once in Bandar Seri Begawan and Brunei, generally speaking. It is also at walking distance, if your hotel is in the city centre, easy to reach and explore.
If you want to go inside you need to be properly dressed. They do provide long clothes in case you have shorts or your shoulders are uncovered. Keep in mind that these clothes are dressed by many visitors before you in a hot day(read “expect a bit of smell”)
Have a walk around. On the left side you find the baths, with a beautiful arabesque architecture. You pass that and you will see a man made lake with a walk on it. Very picturesque
Water tour around Kampong Ayer – Venice of East
You can plan this tour at your own pace. Just go to the river and start bargaining with 2 or 3 boats (water taxi) the best price. Plan an hour trip. I was with another person and after some bargaining we paid 25B ($17) for the tour.
The “captain” also worked as a guide and he took us even to his house, on the back of the main fishing village. Loved my tour. We gave a 5B tip at the end as well.
Now, comparing Kampong Ayer to Venice is a bit of a stretching. This is however the largest water village in the world, with over 30,000 people living in stilt houses connected by wooden pathways. Quite remarkable, definitely a unique experience
The view from the water gives you a better understanding of how the population lives. Even the schools are located in stilt buildings. Literally a life on the water.
If you think that the Brunei population is just 300,000 people, you soon realize that a tenth of the population live in this water village, situated just across the river from the Bandar Seri Begawan center.
Kampong Ayer walk
Even if you had a water tour I suggest also a walking tour in the village. The water taxi from one side of the river to the other is around 2B (US$1), very affordable.
Once in Kampong Ayer you can walk on the many wooden walkways to experience and see the local life.
This was a great place for my photography. The unusual water village is most definitely a great subject! From the children coming back from school to the stilt houses, the local life and the water taxi back and forward.
I tried also some panning with some good results (panning is when the moving subject appears still and anything else in the photo is moving, read how to do it here)
Kampong Ayer Cultural & Tourism Gallery
If you are interested in understanding the Brunei history and the way this country has evolved than check out this gallery.
I was personally quite intrigued to understand how the people in this water village live and why they did not move to the mainland. Interesting findings.
It is a small gallery and a full visit takes probably one hour. Entrance is free and they have air condition. Basically you can’t complain 🙂
The water village by night – The Gallery building
This is most probably the first place you will visit. So I did. This is the centre of the daily life with people that move across to the Kampong Ayer (water village). I personally suggest to visit the area either in the early morning or even better in the late afternoon and not in the hot hours of the day
There is not really a main spot to be, just a walk
Tamu Kianggeh Open Air Market
Probably the most interesting market of Bandar Seri Begawan. Look out for pickpocketing. Nothing happened to me however I was at least said three times to pay attention. It must be for a valid reason!
Tamu Selera Night Market
Great place to head for dinner. There is a central yard with lots of available tables. You can pick your food from one of the many stalls and eat wherever you want. I had some awesome food too
Beside the food, the market is on the poor side. Ok for a walk
Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex
A shopping centre right in the down town of Bandar Seri Begawan. To be visited during the hot hours of the day thanks to the great air conditioning 🙂
There are few cafes and bars to eat lunch and eftpos machine in case you need some money
The Mall in Gadong
Probably the biggest shopping centre in Brunei. You can find everything you want. There is also a night market, which I did not experience though.
This is another good place to have a hot afternoon in a cool environment
Hotel in brunei
Options are quite limited, especially if you are on a budget. I booked my stay at the Terrace hotel
It was clean and basic. There was also a swimming pool which worked great for a late afternoon refreshing swim. I have experienced better hotels in other countries but in Brunei was the best option I could find at a reasonable price and walking distance to the main attractions of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Down the road you have also the Radisson, which is much better (I was said by another traveller I met on my jungle trip) however it’s a different cost category. In saying that she had a great deal and it was a pity I could not find the same 😀
If you want to splurge your budget you should have a try at one of the most luxurious and famous hotel in the world, the Empire Hotel. Just have a look to the picture. I was tempted till I saw the price….but for one off it’s awesome
Is brunei safe
My experience, few days, was very positive. I could not see any place that was unsafe. I guess the country is very reach and criminality is not a real issue. Also the tiny size of the capital helps the police to have an easier control.
Probably the only place to pay more attention is the Tamu Kianggeh Open Air Market, which is quite normal for any market in the world
However Brunei is not just Bandar Seri Begawan. The majority of the country is cover by jungle. If you decide to take a trip at the Ulu Temburong National Park you should follow the directions given by your guide. If you get lost you may really have a hard time.
There is no alcohol sold in the country. As simple as that. You can however take it to the country. Brunei has a very generous free allowance. I was in Brunei for few days and I could live without alcohol, no worries. However on a long stay you may want to plan it.
There is no alcohol in the Bandar Seri Begawan airport duty free either. You need to import the buzz. You have up to 2 litres and 12 cans of beers. That should be enough. You need to declare it at the border with a provided form.
Travel & Photography Tips
- The climate can be really hot and humid. With the time, everything you carry with you will become heavier. I personally suggest just one lens, beside your camera.
- A long range lens works best. I had my Nikon D600 with the Nikkor 24-120 lens. It covered most of my needs
- I used the F/1.8 50mm lens for the open air markets. You need a quick lens because light is limited and the flash is a no-go
- The best location for a photo to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque are on the left side (see map for more details)
- Panning can give some great results with the crazy water taxi traffic
- Photography in the jungle can be a real challenge. It will be probably quite misty. Loot at the 7 steps for your best misty and foggy landscape photography for few suggestions. Rule of thumbs is to try to NOT include the sky, easy to say however quite complicated in some cases
Map of things to do in Brunei