At the gates of Istana Nurul Iman for the guide to Brunei

At the gates of Istana Nurul Iman

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.

I recently visited Brunei, with a friend, at the end of Ramadan and Hari Raya Aidilfitri and these are the best ways to fill your days in Brunei.

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

Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien

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

Kampong Ayer

Kampong Ayer

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.

Proboscis Monkey

Proboscis Monkey

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

Brunei's Borneo Jungle

Brunei’s Borneo Jungle

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.

  • Marie

    Living in Singapore I’m very close to Brunei. I’ve been a few times and each time I’m struck by it’s beauty of both nature and her people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this beautiful place.

  • That canopy walk looks amazing, I would love to see it

  • Marie

    Living in Singapore I’m very close to Brunei. I’ve been a few times and each time I’m struck by it’s beauty of both nature and her people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this beautiful place.

  • That canopy walk looks amazing, I would love to see it

  • contented traveller

    I love your articles. I am a little distressed about Sharia Law. We did a river cruise from Sabah to the border to see the monkeys and they were not shy that day. I think it would be interesting to see the indulgences of Brunei. Keep these posts coming Mar.

    • Thanks a lot for your kind words! Yes, very distressing about Sharia Law. Having lived in various countries in the Middles East these things always make me real sad. We will have to see how much of it is really enforced. But certainly concerned about the fact that he does not apply to himself what he applies to his people…

  • contented traveller

    I love your articles. I am a little distressed about Sharia Law. We did a river cruise from Sabah to the border to see the monkeys and they were not shy that day. I think it would be interesting to see the indulgences of Brunei. Keep these posts coming Mar.

    • Thanks a lot for your kind words! Yes, very distressing about Sharia Law. Having lived in various countries in the Middles East these things always make me real sad. We will have to see how much of it is really enforced. But certainly concerned about the fact that he does not apply to himself what he applies to his people…

  • I love taking photos of mosques because of the architecture. I understand however one cannot take photos inside Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin? Is this true as well for Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque?

    • Actually we couldn’t see either from the inside because it was Ramadan so non-Muslims were not allowed. I believe you are not allowed because I have not seen a single one 🙂

  • I love taking photos of mosques because of the architecture. I understand however one cannot take photos inside Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin? Is this true as well for Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque?

  • Would love to go to Ulu Temburong National Park. It’s my kind of place. Although buildings full of gold are also quite nice to see!

  • Would love to go to Ulu Temburong National Park. It’s my kind of place. Although buildings full of gold are also quite nice to see!

  • Traveltipy

    I would like to be that sultan 🙂 However I would not introduce Sharia Law, instead I would do more for the people in terms of their life quality and freedom.

  • Traveltipy

    I would like to be that sultan 🙂 However I would not introduce Sharia Law, instead I would do more for the people in terms of their life quality and freedom.

  • Such an interesting and contrasting place. After reading your post I went straight to google to get know more about Brunei and its history.

    Thanks for sharing info and tips from such a unique place.

    All the best,

    Nat

  • Such an interesting and contrasting place. After reading your post I went straight to google to get know more about Brunei and its history.

    Thanks for sharing info and tips from such a unique place.

    All the best,

    Nat

  • Kate-Frankie Brennan

    I had actually heard that the Sultan does a lot for the people. Poverty is extremely low and crime has been much lower than other countries. Its an interesting argument about Sharia Law and there has been a lot of criticism. I would love to visit the Borneo jungle and see endemic species

    • Very true. You do not see any poverty and people are very well take care of. The jungle was extremely beautiful and pristine, something you don’t see a lot in these days of palm oil destruction

  • Kate-Frankie Brennan

    I had actually heard that the Sultan does a lot for the people. Poverty is extremely low and crime has been much lower than other countries. Its an interesting argument about Sharia Law and there has been a lot of criticism. I would love to visit the Borneo jungle and see endemic species

    • Very true. You do not see any poverty and people are very well take care of. The jungle was extremely beautiful and pristine, something you don’t see a lot in these days of palm oil destruction

  • The museums look like the perfect place for me to visit!

  • The museums look like the perfect place for me to visit!

  • Lisa Ferland

    I also would suggest visiting the Empire Hotel if you are in BSB. Not to stay in overnight but to see the beautiful grounds and swim in the gorgeous pools overlooking the sea.
    There is also a cinema there that is very nice but I have never been

  • Lisa Ferland

    I also would suggest visiting the Empire Hotel if you are in BSB. Not to stay in overnight but to see the beautiful grounds and swim in the gorgeous pools overlooking the sea.
    There is also a cinema there that is very nice but I have never been

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