Since we were in Borneo and so close to Brunei, we decided it was worth a visit. The Nation of Brunei is the only sovereign state located completely on Borneo. It gained independence from the UK in 1984 and being rich in oil and gas, is one of the few countries with 0% debt. The total population is under 500,000 though there continues to be an influx of expats, particularly from India.
Driving into Brunei from Miri we were able to see several different types of neighbourhoods with a mix between the houses and flats we have grown accustomed to see as well as larger houses with lush gardens and several parking garages. As we drove into Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), the capital and our base for the two nights, we were awestruck by the glittering dome of the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque.
What is noticeable about BSB is that aside from the opulent mosques, it is not a city that shows that it is dripping with wealth. On the other hand, from talking to locals, it is one where they believe all are provided for, resulting in no homelessness.
As we arrived from Miri in the early evening of the first day, we were left with only one full day to venture into the highlights of Brunei. We decided not to delve into the rainforest (the Ulu Temburong National Park) since we had just visited Mulu, and to stay mainly around BSB. Highlights of our visit include the following:
Areas around downtown BSB:
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
This is the mosque that is most often photographed in Brunei and sometimes referred to as the Sultan’s palace. It is named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, and located on an artificial lagoon. The most recognizable features are the gold dome, and the ceremonial boat at the front connected by a marble bridge. The mosque was built at a cost of $5 million. Its picture is at the top of this page.
The mosque is open to visitors and is free of charge. A modest dress code is required and if the guards feel you are not well covered, a robe is provided. It is possible to go to the top of the tallest minaret via an elevator to get panoramic views of BSB.
Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar Ali Saifuddien
This is a park located in front of the mosque and is where the proclamation of Brunei’s independence from the UK was made on 1 January 1984. While there is not much to do in the park and it is not one where you will tend to linger since there are minimal shaded spots, it is used quite often for sport activities.
Mercu Dirgahayu 60
While walking on the waterfront in a quest to find a reasonably priced water taxi, we came upon the Mercu Dirgahayu 60 monument. The monument was a gift to the Sultan of Brunei on his 60th birthday from the people of Brunei, and includes the Arabic symbol for 60. It is situated at Jalan McArthur.
Kampong Ayer water village
After negotiating with various water taxi drivers and reaching what we felt was a reasonable fare, we took one over to visit the water village. The village is made up of several small villages, linked together by wooden walkways and as we rode along in the water taxi we noted the different styles and class of houses. The villages are complete with tanking stations and fire brigade stations. At the entrance of one of the villages is the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism gallery, which was built to give visitors an insight into the history of the water villages. It can be visited free of charge. There is an observation tower with a panoramic view of the water village and of BSB’s skyline.
Bukit Subok Forest Reserve Recreational Park
As we are always on the look out for places where we are able to get great views, Bert had discovered the existence of some steps, at the top of which the views over BSB and Kampong Ayer were supposed to be spectacular. After asking several people, we found out the steps were located in the Bukit Subok Forest Reserve Recreational Park, and therefore had the water taxi drop us close to the bridge at Pintu Malim. We made our way up more than 300 steps and were rewarded with moderate views, due to the overgrowth of trees which blocked our views.
Areas further afield:
Gadong Night Market
Night markets are the norm in much of Asia and we like to just check them out to get more insight into the local routines. We got dropped off at the Gadong Night Market by the hotel shuttle and quickly found out that this was a night market with a twist as it was mostly a food market, with barely any shops selling clothes or other merchandise. While interesting to see, it was not all that impressive.
Jame Asr’ Hassanil Bolkia Mosque
Since we caught the last shuttle of the evening back from the night market, the shuttle driver offer to give us a night tour of BSB. From the street alone, the view of the mosque is impressive. Driving into it from a back entrance the opulence is jaw-dropping. The mosque, built in the 90’s to commemorate the current Sultan’s 25th anniversary of reign is the largest in Brunei, has 29 golden domes, several crystal chandeliers, a private escalator for the Sultan and is set in lush well-manicured grounds. To visit the mosque a guided tour is required.
Istana Nurul Iman (Sultan’s palace)
After visiting the mosque, we stopped by the Sultan’s palace, which is the largest residential palace in the world with 1,788 rooms and over 560 chandeliers. Unfortunately, much cannot be seen from the road, and it is not open to the public (with the exception of special occasions), as such we were unable to see the renown car collection of the Sultan. Views are supposed to be better on the river with a water taxi, but currently with the overgrown trees, not much can be seen.
Sleeping in Brunei
Searching for reasonably priced hotels (with good reviews) around BSB took quite some effort, but it was essential for us that we were located not far from the downtown area so that we could walk to most of the sites.
The Capital Residence Suites had relatively good reviews on both tripadvisor and booking.com and is perfectly located on the periphery of the downtown areas. We had booked a standard room for two nights, but the hotel manager upgraded us to a larger room as soon as he saw my pink cast. The room, though slightly outdated included a dining and living room area as well as a separate fully equipped kitchen.
Breakfast was included in our rate with a moderate range of options. A shuttle was available and could be used to get to the sites nearby or the places further afield.
Getting around Brunei
While there are local buses that can be used to get around Brunei at the cost of B$1, we walked to all the places in the downtown area or made use of the water taxis and the hotel shuttle. In some areas we soon found out that walking was not advisable due to the lack of pavements.
The standard one-way fare for the water taxis is B$1. For a longer ride to see the water village, the Royal Palace and the Proboscis monkeys the fare is generally around B$20 – B$30. We opted out of riding deep into the forest and seeing the monkey’s and were able to negotiate a lower fare.
Getting to/departing Brunei
The bus from Miri took approximately 5 hours, and left at 15:30. We purchased the tickets online however they could’ve been bought at the bus station. We got off the bus twice, once at the Malaysian immigration, and secondly at the Brunei immigration. Since we were the only bus at the immigration checkpoints, the stops were for a short period only. Visas are not required for both US and Dutch citizens.
On our way back to KL, we flew out of the Brunei Airport. The airport is very close to the downtown area and in the shuttle it took us between 10 – 15 minutes.