Brunei is a tiny sultanate of only half a million inhabitants on the northern coast of Borneo and very rich in oil. If you’re expecting a kind of Dubai however, you will be either very disappointed or very surprised. Bandar Seri Begawan, short BSB, the capital and biggest (and actually only) city of Brunei, has a village-like feel to it and is probably even more relaxed than Belize. Seriously. Apart from eating – the best pastime in Brunei, because the food is fantastic – there’s not much to do.
What’s going on in Brunei?
Not much, to be honest. But every year, there are two big events in Brunei which everyone talks about: One is during Eid in the days after Ramadan when the palace is open to the public and people get a chance to shake hands with the Sultan or the Queen. The other big event is the Sultan’s birthday on July 15. We missed both. So for us, it was eat, relax, and take a trip to Brunei’s beautiful Ulu Temburong National Park.
Kampong Ayer, the water village (the world’s largest) on the Brunei River, is really worth a visit. Just hop on a water taxi of which there are plenty along the waterfront (you don’t even have to flag one down, they see you before you see them) and before you know it you’re in Kampong Ayer. Over 30’000 people live here and it’s a fun place to explore. There are wooden walkways – some of them very unstable and without handrails so watch your step! -, houses decorated with all kinds of stuff, potted plants on colorful porches, cats and kids playing on the walkways, and new concrete suburban style houses.
All around the fine Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque there used to be many more houses on stilts. The scenery is beautifully depicted on Brunei’s old 10’000 Dollar banknote. Which you’re highly unlikely to see because a) it’s old and b) it’s not a note you could pay your nasi goreng with – it’s equivalent to more than 7000 US Dollars. Crazy. Anyway, almost all those houses have now been removed and replaced by an ugly construction site; apparently the center will get a facelift. Which it could definitely use because there’s not much of a city center worth mentioning.
How to get around in BSB
Getting around in BSB is a bit tricky. There are public buses but not many because almost everybody owns a car. The buses are great to get from the airport to the central bus station and/or from there to anywhere in the city and they cost only one Brunei Dollar. It gets a bit more complicated if you are anywhere in the city and want to get to, say, the center or to your hotel. The buses don’t really run on a schedule and most bus stops are not marked nor visible on Google maps. It gets even more difficult if you’re anywhere in the city after 8 p.m.: There are no buses at all anymore. Taxis don’t just drive around like everywhere else but have to be called and they are very, very expensive. So after 8 p.m., be prepared to walk.
Brunei may not be what you expect but I think that is exactly what it makes an interesting destination for a couple of days if you’re going to Borneo anyway. People are very friendly, the food is great (I guess I mentioned that already), plus, it has one of the most beautiful national parks of the whole big island!