Brunei – The magic of a quiet sultanate

“Boring country”, “not much to do there”, “not worth a visit”… Sadly, these are some of the reviews often found on the Internet when looking for info about Brunei. That’s so unfair!! Hopefully, this is about to change. Welcome to the magical Brunei! 

 

Brunei - The magic of a quiet sultanate

 

First of all, let’s answer the question that some of you probably have in mind: “Brunei?! Where is Brunei?” Hmm, let’s have a look at the map below. Do you see that big island in the middle? That’s Borneo Island!

 

asia-borneo_en

 

So, are Borneo and Brunei the same thing? Well, not exactly… Brunei is in Borneo, but it represents just a small portion of the island. What about the rest of it? Malaysia and Indonesia territory! One island, three countries.

 

borneo_countries

 

Now that it’s clear where Brunei is, it’s time to discover its magic!

 

A NATION BUILT ON THE WATER

Kampong Ayer, also known as the Water Village, is undoubtedly one of the most visited tourist attractions in Brunei. But it’s more than that. Located in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the country, it is the vivid memory of the nation’s history. For several hundred years, business relationships with foreign traders made of it an important port and commercial center.

 

Panoramic view of the Water Village in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

 

So, a former important port and commercial center. Doesn’t sound too exciting, right? Well, let’s say this one is a rather unique one. Dubbed ‘Venice of the East’ by Western visitors in the 16th century, Kampong Ayer, the administrative center and seat of government during the height of the Bruneian Empire (15th to 16th century, covering the northern part of Borneo and the southern Philippines), is the world’s largest water village! Connected by a large network of foot-bridges, thousands of wooden houses built up on tall pillars emerge from the water. Isn’t it fascinating?

 

Foot-bridge in the Water Village in Brunei

 

Water Village in Brunei with modern buildings in the background

 

Oh! Don’t think it’s an abandoned village! Although at the beginning of the 20th century social and economic activity was moved to the mainland, the village is still home for thousands of people. Kids coming from school and grown ups doing their domestic duties provide a real life feeling when walking through the village.

 

Girls walking in the Water Village in Brunei

 

River traders and floating markets have been gradually replaced by speedboats taking people from the mainland to the village (and vice versa) and modern infrastructures like schools, clinics and a fire station have been built. ‘Floating’ houses in the river are also equipped with electricity, clean water, telephone, etc. What a cool place to live!

 

Modern houses in the Water Village in Brunei

 

A NATION BUILT ON RELIGION

Brunei is a Sultanate, and therefore it is an Islamic country. In fact, everything seems to revolve around the Sultan and the religion. Stunning mosques, museums and monuments dedicated to the Sultan are easily found when walking Bandar Seri Begawan city center.

 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque entrance

 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, named after the current Sultan’s father, is the most famous mosque in the country. This jaw-dropping construction, with marble minarets and golden domes, is surrounded by an artificial lagoon… in which there is a stone boat!

 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and its lagoon

 

Not only is it worth it to appreciate its magnificence from every angle, but also at different moments of the day. Observing the mosque at dusk, while the sky gradually changes its color, is something hard to forget.

 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque at dusk

 

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and its stone boat at dusk

 

But the really magical moment comes at night, when the illuminated mosque combined with the sound of the prayers makes you feel like if you were in an Arabian Nights Fairy Tale!

 

 

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the current sultan’s reign, is the largest mosque in the country. Its lavish and massive interior is complemented with beautiful gardens and a fountain. Here comes the funny fact, I dare you to guess why the mosque has 29 golden domes… Something related to the Sultan? Bingo! The reason is because the Sultan is the 29th Sultan of Brunei!

 

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque entrance

 

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque interior

 

Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque big interior

 

MORE ABOUT THE SULTAN OF BRUNEI

But hey! There is more! Building the mosque wasn’t the only major change made in the city because of the Silver Jubilee of the Sultan’s coronation. An astonishing exhibition of the Sultan’s life is permanently held in the Royal Regalia Exhibition Hall. It includes family pictures, luxurious gifts from Heads of State, national treasures, thrones, chariots… And even a real-scale representation of the Silver Jubilee parade!

We were fortunate enough to be in the country when another celebration was going on: the 70th birthday of… yes, you’re right; of the Sultan (did I mention that everything revolves around him?). Big posters announcing it all over the country, street food stalls, etc. Nice!

 

Sultan of Brunei 70th birthday poster

 

I’m talking a lot about the Sultan, but… who is this guy? Well, his name is Muda Hassanal Bolkiah, he’s one of the world’s richest men, and you can see his face in this 100 Brunei dollars bill. Just add him some years!

 

100 Brunei dollars bill

 

A GREEN NATION

So far I’ve been talking mostly about the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan (which is home for half of Brunei’s 420,000 inhabitants). Mosques, museums, water villages… What about the rest of the country? Here comes good news. Brunei has preserved most of its primary forest untouched and around 70% of its land area is forest area, becoming a green paradise full of wildlife. Proboscis monkeys and crocodiles have become celebrities there!

Let me tell you a funny story! The first day we arrived in Brunei, we found a mysterious huge egg in the fridge of the house we had rented. Some days later we found out… it was a crocodile egg! It turns out that the owner of the house was a crocodile handler!! Sooo cool!!

To be honest, we didn’t go to the forest… Too lazy? Haha, nooo! The truth is that by the time we arrived in Brunei, we had already been enjoying Malaysian rainforest for some days. We needed a rest! Of course, we’ll get to that in a future article. 😉 Meanwhile, why not having a look at Sharon’s adventures? Unlike us, she did go to the forest. It looks awesome!

 

A MULTICULTURAL NATION

Commercial relationships with Chinese people first and Europeans later undoubtedly had an important influence in Brunei’s culture and customs. Besides that, decline of the Bruneian Empire was followed by a period of wars which ended up with Brunei being a British protectorate for roughly a century (from 1888 to 1984). Surely, heritage from that period goes far beyond Brunei being a left-driving country ;).

 

Left-driving traffic in Brunei

 

Today, most of the population is Malay, being Malay also the official language. Chinese population is also important, accounting for one tenth of the country’s population. Despite Islam being the official religion, and most of the laws being based on Islam principles (in 2014 Sharia Law was introduced in the country), other religions like Buddhism and Christianity are also worshiped in the country.

 

A RICH NATION

Oil and natural gas found in the 20th century has played a key role in Brunei development over the last decades, becoming one of the richest nations in the world (ranked top-five by GDP per capita at purchasing power parity). The large amount of oil reserves in the country, plus a supportive policy, results in gasoline price being insanely cheap!

 

Petrol price in Brunei

 

Having the second highest Human Development Index in Asia after Singapore, Brunei is considered a developed country. The large amount of nice detached houses easily spotted when crossing the country provides good evidence of it! Even though it’s a rich and developed country, the cost of living is far from being as high as Singapore one. However, it’s higher than most of its neighbours in Southeast Asia.

 

Nice detached houses in Brunei

 

A BORING NATION?

After reading this article I really doubt you could possibly think of Brunei as a boring place… Oh, wait! If you’re looking for bars, clubs or nightlife, don’t even think about going there, Brunei is definitely the most boring country in the world. Don’t expect to go for a drink at night, you’re not going to find anybody in the street after dusk! Not even tourists!

Satisfying your curiosity about a unique and exotic nation, admiring the magnificence of its constructions, observing its people having a completely different lifestyle, enjoying its forests and rare wildlife and feeling like in an Arabian Nights Fairy Tale sounds far better that hanging out. So… a boring country… Really?!


Sharing experiences with other travellers, we found out that fortunately there are more people out there who didn’t listen to the bad reviews, went to Brunei anyway, and were pleasantly surprised when finding such an interesting country. Those positive reviews have to be on the Internet too! If you agree with us, please share the article! 🙂

For those wanting to know more about what to do in Brunei’s capital city Bandar Seri Begawan, check out the following guide written by the travel sisters Patti and Matilda: Enjoy the city!

And what about you, have you been to Brunei? Do you think it’s a boring country? By the way! If you don’t want to miss magical places like this one you can drop your email here below and we’ll let you know about the next one! 😉
 

Borja Bonet

Hi! I'm Borja, and I'm so glad to be a part of this project and to be sharing ideas and experiences with all of you! Let's do it together! Welcome to Ambitious Tracks!

4 thoughts on “Brunei – The magic of a quiet sultanate

  • November 2, 2016 at 11:02 pm
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    I always find every place interesting. Brunei may not be one of my top places to visit but after reading your write up of the country, you make me wanna see it. nice pics by the way.

    Reply
    • November 3, 2016 at 9:03 am
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      Hi jmaxnow! I’m glad you liked the article and the pics! Brunei has a completely undeserved bad reputation, so usually a visit there is not included in bucket lists. So happy to hear now you’re considering a visit there, completely worth it!

      Reply
  • February 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm
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    I also thing Brunei has nothing to do with the concept of boring! I remember the feeling when I got there, I found it crazy to be in the “last sultanate” of the world, in the island of Borneo and in a country with the sharia as a law. I personally liked it! I explored the city, the history museum, went on a boat cruise around the water villages and to the forest to see the monkeys and wild animals! Who wouldn’t like to visit it?

    I have just discovered your blog through your post about 15 days in Vietnam, as I am considering to explore the rest of the Southeast Asia that I haven’t still visited. If you didn’t have any time constraint and willing to pay for a visa, how long would you stay in a route across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos?

    Thanks!! xx

    Reply
    • March 1, 2017 at 7:33 am
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      Hello Núria! Brunei is definitely worth a visit! So different from any other country, it really feels very nice to explore it!

      I would spend 3 months in such a route, spending more or less 1 month in each country (that way you can also optimize your visas). Of course you could stay longer if you really want to take it easy, but I think 3 months is enough to have a nice picture of the region ;). Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are amazing, you won’t get bored there! Let us know if you have any questions!

      Moltes gràcies per seguir-nos Núria! Disfruta del viatge! 🙂

      Reply

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