Brunei Darussalam, with its “strict” Islamic laws and high cost of living, is an unlikely travel destination, even for tourists from neighboring Southeast Asian nations. The country, if not totally unheard of by others, is only arguably famous for 2 things – its oil and its Sultan, who was once the richest man in the world before the advent of tech billionaires.
During my travels in Indonesia and Malaysia in 2012, I’ve made many Bruneian friends who intrigued me with tales of their country. This, aside from the fact that we shared the same humor and interests, made me want to go to Brunei. So I made a promise to visit them when I had the time and money. (READ: Meet my Bruneian sister)
In April 2015, I was finally able to fulfil my promise when I went to Brunei (and Kota Kinabalu) with my college friends for the Holy Week. When I told my Bruneian friends that I’ll visit them when I booked our flights in September 2014, they were very excited. I knew we were going to have a good time.
We arrived in Brunei International Airport via Royal Brunei Airlines from Manila on April 2. The flight took less than 2 hours and it was quite an experience flying in a Muslim-owned airline. I’d recommend RBA for any traveller for its comfortability and service.
Public transportation is either difficult or expensive to access in Brunei. There are no busses or trains from the airport to the city center and cabs are expensive. Make sure you arrange an airport transfer from your hotel, as we did. You’d pay a much cheaper price compared to taking a taxi.
Aside from public transportation, it’s also difficult to find cheap accommodation in Brunei since there are very few choices for travellers. So it’s a good thing we booked our hotel a month before our arrival through Agoda. We paid a relatively cheaper price for 2 rooms and 3 nights compared to the usual 4-star and 5-star accommodations available in the country.
The welcome I had from in Brunei is one of the warmest I’ve ever experienced. Since it was difficult to take public transportation, my Bruneian friends drove us around the places of interest. They showed us the cheap but excellent food places to eat in and even invited us for high tea in one of their homes. It was Bruneian hospitality at its finest!
That being said, here are the 7 places that I suggest for travellers visiting Brunei.
1) Masjid Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
As the name suggests, this mosque was built to celebrate the current sultan’s 25th year in power in 1992. Its 29 golden domes are symbolic of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s place as the 29th ruler of his dynasty.
Located in one of the suburbs near the city center, the magnificent Masjid Jame, as the locals call it, is one of the most beautiful ones in Southeast Asia and the largest one in the country. It is intricately decorated with picturesque gardens and quaint fountains.
Inside the mosque are huge decorated prayer halls for men and women. Every pillar and stairway shows the devotion of Bruneians to Islam.
Tourists can actually go here for free as long as they wear the proper attire. Women are required to wear black robes before being allowed to roam inside the mosque. People can visit any day except Fridays when Bruneian men have their afternoon prayers in Masjid Jame.
2) Masjid Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saiffudien
Considered as the major landmark and tourist spot in Brunei, this mosque tops the beauty of Masjid Jame. It was finished in 1958 by the father of the current sultan. Since then, no buildings were allowed to be built higher than this masjid – about 52 meters – so it naturally dominates Bandar Seri Begawan’s skyline.
It’s a great example of modern Islamic architecture with marble minarets and golden domes. Beside the mosque is an artificial lagoon and barge, which was added in 1967 to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of the coming down of the Quran.
The interior of the mosque, adorned with imported items from across the world, is actively used as a place of worship for Bruneians. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the prayer hall but tourists can go around the vicinity of the mosque for free.
We visited the mosque at sunset and the view was breathtaking.
3) Royal Regalia Building
As if the mosques they built are not yet enough testaments to the wealth of the Brunei royals, they’ve also built a museum to house the treasures they own.
The Royal Regalia Building is home to the royal regalia – the royal chariots, crowns, and jewelry, among others – of Brunei’s monarchs. Since this was built to celebrate the current sultan’s silver jubilee in 1992, all the gifts from foreign presidents and kings are also displayed here.
Among the sultan’s collections were golden swords from Middle Eastern countries and small replicas of famous landmarks from across Southeast Asia. Even former president Corazon Aquino’s gift to the sultan was displayed, proof of the longstanding good relations between the Philippines and Brunei.
The museum is located in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Tourists can enter for free but are only allowed to take photos in the main gallery.
4) Brunei Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum was only opened last March 2015 and is located along the banks of Brunei river, in the town of Kota Batu in Bandar Seri Begawan.
It currently showcases a joint exhibit with the Guangzhou Maritime Museum of replicas of ships used for trade during the 14th to 17 centuries, when Brunei was at the peak of its power.
Around 13,261 significant artefacts from a shipwreck discovered in 1997 are also found here, mostly porcelain vases and plates originating from ancient China.
Since the museum is new, only 1 of the 3 galleries have exhibits open for the public. There are no entrance fees and the museum is open from Saturdays to Thursdays.
Some other museums you may want to visit are the Brunei Museum and the Malay Technology Museum, both located near the Maritime Museum and both with entrance fees of only BND 1 (P32). We didn’t have time to check those out but they’d be good places to visit if you wanna learn more about Brunei’s history.
5) Kampong Ayer
Perhaps one of the most famous tourist destinations in the country, aside from the mosques, Kampong Ayer is marketed as the “Venice of the East” by the Brunei government.
Chillin’ like villains aboard the boat ride around Kampong Ayer.
Kampong Ayer, which literally means “Water Village,” is home to thousands of people living in stilt houses along Brunei River. There is also a school, a mosque, and stores among the residential areas.
A few years back, those living in the village were given a choice on whether to stay in their houses or move inland. The houses of those who preferred to stay in the water village were developed into modern two storey houses so you’ll see very few traditional houses remaining.
The only way to go around Kampong Ayer is to rent a motorboat from BSB waterfront. Some tourists who went ahead of us were actually asked to pay BND 20 per person for a 30-minute tour. But since we had our Bruneian friends with us, we only paid BND 5 per person. You can haggle with the boat drivers since the price differs depending on who you ask.
6) The Empire Hotel
This is a complete opposite to the residential areas you’ll find in Kampong Ayer. The Empire Hotel and Country Club is the best and most expensive accommodation in the country with presidents and other foreign leaders staying there whenever they visit Brunei.
The hotel reflects the country’s majestic heritage and the Royals’ lavish lifestyle. A slice of cake from one of the shops in the hotel lobby, for example, would cost BND 50 (P1,600).
There’s a very beautiful beach outside the hotel that is open to the public. There’s also a pool beside the beach but I’m not sure if non-members and non-guests can swim there. My bestfriend and I just had to hit the shore before we witnessed the beautiful Brunei sunset.
If you have the money to spend, I suggest you stay in the Empire Hotel. I know I’d do so the next time I visit Brunei.
7) The Mall
The Mall, as it is creatively called, is the only shopping mall in the country. Don’t expect too much though as there are no luxury or designer stores inside. Apart from the cinemas, some cosmetics shops, and a department store, there’s really nothing much to see or buy inside the mall.
This is why Bruneians, or at least those who have money, never shop inside Brunei. They usually head to Kota Kinabalu, Miri, or Singapore to buy branded clothes and other imported goods.
There’s a strip of shops, moneychangers, and restaurants outside the mall where you can buy some Brunei souvenirs. For Filipinos, there’s also a big Jollibee branch there that you might want to check out.
Speaking of food, you can go to BSB City Center or the small food courts around the city for authentic Brunei food. The one we went to is the Sumbangsih Food Court in Gadong. The authentic Brunei/Malay food there are delicious yet cheap!
If ever you rent a car to drive around BSB, you can also pass by Istana Nurul Iman, the king’s palace. You can’t enter but you can take a quick photo outside the gates.
Being an Islamic monarchy, Brunei is a dry country – alcohol is not sold anywhere and it is illegal to drink it in public. But unlike other countries, Brunei is more lenient and foreigners can bring in alcohol and cigarettes.
Tourists and non-Muslim Brunieans can bring up to 12 bottles/cans of beer and a bottle of liquor/ hard drinks for free. You have to fill up a form upon entry at any land border, and in the seaport and airport. Cigarettes are taxed at BND 50 cents per stick but the customs officers would let you pass by for free if you’re only bringing in 1-2 packs.
You can only drink your alcohol inside your hotel room. This is more fun if you have travel companions or local friends with you but not as fun if you’re travelling alone.
According to my friend who works for the Brunei government, the country is trying to boost its tourism efforts. This, aside from putting up investments abroad, are the government’s measures to make sure the economy doesn’t crash when the country’s oil reserves run out.
In a few decades, my friend said, Brunei’s oil fields would run out and the government would have to rely on other sectors to sustain the economy. Brunei is a small country with a small population so it won’t be as hard to keep the economy going.
The best thing about Brunei is that it’s still vastly unexplored. Its strict laws also limit the number of tourists visiting the country. Because of these, the culture is very much preserved and the traditions, safeguarded. The locals are also some of the friendliest and most accommodating I’ve met in Southeast Asia so you won’t really have any problems.
I’d visit Brunei again in the future. But first, I must finish Project 25.