Brunei | A Short Weekend Trip

Brunei is not a very well known place. In fact, I did very little research prior to going to Brunei. I simply picked a country close to Singapore that I haven't been to where I could take a short weekend trip to. But what I learned was really fascinating and to be honest quite foreign to the way of life I live. Here are some top facts before we dive into traveling in Brunei:
  • Alcohol is banned in Brunei (and this lead to my realization that I was used to drinking beer every day). You cannot buy or sell alcohol in Brunei. You can however bring in 12 cans of beer and 2 bottles of wine as a tourist. 
  • Brunei is one of the richest countries in the world, due to oil. A lot of Shell's oil come from offshore drilling platform in Brunei. In 2015 Brunei was ranked #10 in the world for GDP per capita just slightly behind the US.
  • Brunei is incredibly expensive, on par with Singapore and twice as expensive as Malaysia. 
  • Brunei has the single most valuable bank note at $10,000 Brunei Dollars which is worth over $8,000 USD. The next most valuable is 8 times smaller - the $1,000 Swiss Franc note valued at just over $1,000 USD. 

Getting to Brunei
Where is Brunei? 
It is in South East Asia, neighboring Malaysia, and sharing the island of Borneo with Malaysia as well as Indonesia. The closest large Malaysian city to Brunei is Kota Kinabalu.  

Brunei International Airport is located in the city of Bandar Seri Begawan. You can fly there via Singapore with Singapore Airlines, Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines or Air Asia, and Manila with Cebu Pacific. If you take Royal Brunei Airlines, you can get in via Bangkok, Denpasar/Bali, Dubai, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kota Kintabalu, London Heathrow, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai Seoul and some other cities in China.  

From Singapore where I'm based currently, it was just a quick 2hr flight. 

Things to keep in mind
Brunei is a muslim country, so it is a matter of courtesy to be mindful of what you are wearing and to cover up especially in public or at mosques.

When I was in Brunei, it also happened to be Ramadan (May 16 - Jun 14, 2018). Each year Ramadan dates vary, but be mindful especially if you're traveling close to this period. Most restaurants will be closed between dawn to sunset (roughly 7am - 7pm). You could get takeaway, however you'd have to eat in private. You can eat and drink in taxis, however it is always nice to ask the driver first. In our hotel, breakfast was served in an enclosed area, and only room service was available during the day time. The restaurants opened after sunset around 6:30pm at night. 

What to see and do?
There were a few tours available through the tour agency desk at our hotel:

1. Water Village Tour & Visit to Private Home (Starts 9am, lasts 2hrs, cost B$58/adult) 
This takes you to the world's largest water village, or Venice of the East, Kampong Ayer. You start with a boat tour and then a walking tour within the village. This is great if you like to learn about culture and heritage. 

2. Bandar Splendour Tour (Starts 8:30am, lasts 4hrs, costs B$73/adult)
This will cover Brunei's history, religion, culture, heritage and daily life, including visits to Mosques, the biggest residential palace in the world, a tour of the water village, and the Brunei Museum.

3. Brunei Heritage Tour (Starts 8:30am, lasts 7hours, B$102/adult)
This takes you to Brunei museum, open markets, mosques, the royal palace, and a shopping complex. 

4. Brunei's Proboscis Monkey Tour (Starts 7am, lasts 2hrs, B$76/adult)
This takes you on a boat cruise through the mangroves, where you might see white-bellied sea eagles, great white egrets, king fishers, salt-water crocodile, monitor lizard, and other animals. You may spot Proboscis Monkeys which are only found on the island of Borneo. 

5. Seria Oilfields Tour (Starts 9am, lasts 5hrs, B$99/adult)
This is a 1.5hr drive through the country side, past Seria beach with lunch at Kuala Belait ferry terminal. After lunch you walk around town and drive through the Shell colony in Seria. 

6. Ulu Temburong National Park (Starts 7am, lasts 7hr+, B$163/adult)
You take the water taxi up around through Malaysian waters/South China Sea and back into Brunei on the east side and arrive at Bangar. From Bangar it's a 25min drive near the entrance of the National park, and then it's another 15-20min long boat ride to the start of the hike to the forest top. You'll visit a treetop walk as well as a waterfall before heading back. 

You can see more tours from the Sunshine Tour's website here: 

Ulu Temburong National Park
Ulu Temburong National Park is on the East side of the country of Brunei. This highly protected area of rainforest land is buzzing with creatures of all kind, from 400 species of butterflies to many types of hornbills as well as mammals, reptiles, and insects unique to the region. Because of many unique species that this park protects, it attracts scientists from around the world to study them here in their natural habitat. 

To get there, first you take a water taxi from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan to the neighboring town of Bangar. The water taxi jets through the  narrow waterways of the mangroves, then into the Malaysian waters in the South China Sea. We were lucky enough to spot a salt water crocodile chilling on top of a large floating log. 


At Bangar, we were picked up in a mini van to drive south to Batang Duri where we are having breakfast as well as lunch at the Freme Rainforest Lodge. The drive goes through the villages of Brunei where roads are rough from the hard summer rain. In the country side, the majority of houses were long houses which span 5-6 bedroom across and 2-3 bedrooms back depending on the size of the family. 

After arriving at the Freme Rainforest Lodge, we then get settled, have some breakfast and tea, and then we board a long boat to head down the Sungai Temburong stream to get into the National Park. About 15min down the stream is the Ulu Temburong National Park check in center as seen in the photo below. 


(Left) Long boat, (Right) giant forest worker ant


After checking in, we go on a small hike to get to the Belalong Canopy Walkway. It was a very short hike, for no more than 30 minutes up around 700 flights of stairs. On the way we saw some small animals such as a flying squirrel, a tiny forest scorpion the size of your pinky nail, and a lot of giant forest ants as seen in the photo above. 


The Belalong Canopy Walkway is a 5-6 floor structure which takes you to the top or canopy of this rainforest. All you see are endless treetops. 

At the end of the hike we come back down and head towards a small waterfall. The locals also call it a fish spa since the fish in here will nibble on your feet if you dip in. 

After the hike, you can choose to go zip lining or river rafting. Our group decided to go river rafting, but unfortunately fell right into the water at the first turn. The guide was this lady who didn't know much about river rafting and wasn't coordinating everyone really. I thought my Go Pro was still filming but the file got corrupted. We were washed down stream almost back to the rainforest lodge before we got back onto the longboat. The longboat driver didn't know what to do either. Thank god we didn't run into any crocs, though this is pretty inland already so it's no longer salt water. The scary thing was that the water is completely muddy and for the most part even when I tried sticking my ore down I couldn't feel the bottom. The river was at high tide and about 8m deep. 

Despite the little hiccup, this is a memory that I will remember for the rest of my life. River rafting for the first time, failing hard, but didn't get hurt. In fact, when we were bobbing along down the river, these 2 beautiful blue colored butterfly kept landing on my hand, as if it knew we were in distress and trying to calm us down. 

Kampong Ayer - the world's largest water village
For the second tour, we head to what they call the Venice of the East. It is at the heart of Brunei's capital where Brunei as a country was formed. These stilt villages on the Brunei River used to be where the government was seated. This village has been existing for several centuries but only discovered by an Italian Explorer in the 1500s. 

Currently it still has 15,000 residents and 42 districts or sub villages. You can only get to Kampong Ayer by water taxi, and each district has its own dock. The water taxis run between 4am - 12am to serve the residents here. To keep this dying heritage, the Brunei government keeps the infrastructure intact by providing replacements if any of the walkway gets damaged. There is also a floating secondary school, fire station, mayor's office etc. Each district also has its own specialty, some being blacksmiths, gold smiths and so on. 

On this tour you also get to visit one of the houses to see lives or ordinary villagers. Some even have pet pigeons and chickens floating with them beside their houses! 

This really reminded me of the floating villages in the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. But Cambodia was much more impoverished as those people were only living on water as they were mainly fishermen who couldn't afford land and housing on land. You can read more about Tonle Sap lake in my blog post here.



Stay here

For the 4 days 3 nights, we stayed at the Empire Hotel & Country Club. It's on the northern coast and has its own private beach area as well as many outdoor swimming pools facing the sea. Inside the country club, there's also many things to do, such as mini golf, a bowling alley, and even a movie theater! They have 9 restaurants 

It is said to be one of the most lavish hotels in this region. Considering that we wanted a place to really relax, this was perfect. The room service food was also amazing, full of dishes from all over Southeast Asia. 


(Left) Indian Mee Goreng, (Right) Indonesian Nasi Goreng


Seaside buffet restaurant - Pantai

(Left) Private beach, (Right) infinity pool at the beach front 


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