Brunei, known in Malay as Brunei Darussalam or “The Abode of Peace”, is a small country entirely surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea and made of two separate areas. It is the only country fully located on the island of Borneo.
The majority of the population lives in the Eastern part of Brunei, where the international airport and the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, are located. The Western part of the country only accounts for 10% of the 400,000 Bruneians and is entirely made of lush and pristine jungle. The most famous park in Western Brunei is Ulu Temburong, home to several endemic species including the very shy Proboscis monkey, which you can also find in nearby Sabah State and Kota Kinabalu Park in East Malaysia.
The country is most famous for the eccentricities and excesses of the Sultan, once the richest man in the world, and one of the last remaining absolute Monarchs. Estimated to have accumulated a fortune amounting to $20 billion thanks to vast natural reserves of oil and gas, the Sultan regularly makes the headlines for his indulgences in custom-built high-performance cars and lavish homes. The Royal Palace, Istana Nurul, is the world’s largest palace and family residence. Open to the public only during the three days after the end of Ramadan, the Palace is said to have almost 1,800 rooms and over 200 bathrooms. There is a garage for one hundred luxury cars, the Sultan’s favorite over the seven thousand car collection he is believed to have amassed.
Despite being known for his wealth and extravagances, the Sultan introduced Sharia Law, the most conservative form of Islamic Law, in 2014, to much international dismay. Rolled out in phases, once full Sharia Law is implemented, punishments as primitive as flogging, stoning to death and cutting of limbs will be imposed in Brunei.
As a visitor, you can roam freely and safely, for the Sultan’s generosity with his people and the country’s limited freedom of expression makes this a peaceful country.
Brunei appears to most as a place devoid of any interesting sights. However, this is a country where you should find beauty in the smallest things.
1. Museum of Brunei
This is a great source of information about the culture and history of the country, including the recent developments in the oil and gas industry. The Sultanate of Brunei was a strong Empire up until the 15th century when wars and disputes caused its decline.
For most of the time after that, the country remained under various forms of protection from the UK until achieving full independence in 1984.
2. Royal Regalia Museum
This could be as interesting or mind-numbing as the Museum of Brunei, but it may give you ideas for that Aladdin-like gift that you are thinking of buying a friend who has it all.
The Museum is home to the gifts that Royals and Heads of State have given the Sultan. Expect gold and jewels galore. The entire place is reminiscent of the Armory, in Moscow’s Kremlin, where the Tsar’s richeses are displayed.
3. Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien
The Mosque, built in honor of the Sultan’s late father, is made of solid gold and fine marvel. The crescent lake between the mosque and the water village, Kampong Ayer gives it a heavenly aura. Watch out for monitor lizards cooling down in the water. The large and colorful boat in front of the mosque is a replica of the 16th-century Royal Barge. Although it is open to visitors, this is a functioning Mosque so practice respect at times of prayer
4. Kampong Ayer and proboscis monkeys
Rent a boat from the harbor to motor through the world’s largest water village with 30,000 people and towards the mangroves where you can spot proboscis monkeys. These monkeys, endemic of Borneo, are shy and will fly away if bothered but, with the right pair of camera lenses or binoculars, you may be able to see their funny noses. If you go there at night you will also be able to see the red eyes of crocodiles resting on the shore and the blinking light of fireflies.
On your way back, you can ask the captain to drop you off at Kampong Ayer and wander along the suspended streets. Kampong Ayer is a developed and often wealthy part of town. Some of the newer houses are as good, if not better, than the ones on land and can go for as much as $100,000.
5. Ulu Temburong
As opposed to the rest of Borneo, where logging and palm oil plantations are the source of much concern from environmental agencies and the public in general, Brunei’s jungle is untouched.
Logging is banned, providing a unique insight into an unspoiled eco-system of overgrown vegetation and thick forestry. Birds chirp away, monkeys jump from tree ropes and eye-catching plants attract visitors to long hikes. A trip to Ulu Temburong National Park is a must when in the country. You will have to book with a tour company because independent visitors are not allowed. Only about 1% of the park is open to the public whereas the rest remains closed off and only accessible to researchers and park personnel.
Aside from the possibility to spend some time with nature, Ulu Temburong is primarily known for the canopy walk, a suspended structure hanging high atop the jungle.
You have to take a boat, a van and a long-tail boat to get there. If the tide is low you may have to get out of the long tail boat and push. Once you arrive at Ulu Ulu the real trekking begins. The walk up 1,000 steps is hot and humid but the reward at the top of the hill is all worth it. Built in steel and standing high at sixty meters, the canopy walk provides an incredible view over the jungle top, if you can bear the altitude and the scary rattling of the structure as you climb up.
This is what Borneo would be everywhere else if the palm oil industry had not arrived.
6. Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Built in 1992 this is the best expression of utter exuberance and Royal extravaganza. It is, of course, filled with more gold, and because the Sultan is the 29th reigning Monarch in his dynasty, there are 29 golden domes. At night, when it is lit, it is impossible to miss. It stands bright and tall in the surroundings. Well worth a stop.
7. Jerudong Park
Once Southeast Asia’s most expensive amusement parks, this is as kitsch as parks can get. Costing $1 Bn to build, the park was entirely funded by the Royal Family. When it opened, it became known for the various concerts performed by singers of international acclaim such as Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. Although it originally opened without an entrance fee, it later started charging when the visitor numbers declined. Today, several of the attractions have been closed and sold off and it is now a decrepit place that is busy on weekends with families having a picnic. The entrance is free and you pay to use the rides. Not sure they are completely safe. Could be an interesting place to see.