Looking to travel to Brunei and not sure about what to expect? Have read a lot about the country’s famous wealthy Sultan or its Sharia Law and are curious to see what all the fuss is about? Let me share some interesting facts about Brunei and what it is like to travel to this tiny yet unique country.
I had been trying to organize a weekend in the tiny Borneo jungle state of Brunei for some time but the high flight prices deterred me every single time. With the Hari Raya weekend approaching, Brunei offered something exciting: the opportunity to meet the very famous Royal Family. I find countries like Brunei very interesting, even if I do not support their believes, so doing a lot of research and reading all these fascinating facts about Brunei made it all even more surreal.
The largest palace in the world, the largest collection of Ferraris, etc. but what is it really like to travel to Brunei? Are the locals benefiting from the Sultan’s wealth? Is this Asia’s Dubai, with claims over the tallest, highest, largest laid every day? Read more to find out what it was like to visit Brunei, meet the Sultan’s wife and corroborate some of the most interesting facts about Brunei in real life. And when you’re done, be sure to read my ultimate guide to Brunei here.
1. The abode of peace
Brunei, known in Malay as Brunei Darussalam, means “The Abode of Peace”, referring to its peaceful and quiet life.
2. You can meet the royal family
Every year, during the holidays that mark the end of Ramadan, Eid al Fitr, the Sultan and the rest of the Royal Family, open the doors to their palace, the largest palace in the world, with almost 1,800 rooms. All we had to do to meet them up was queue up with everyone else. Result! If you travel to Brunei during those dates you can visit the tiny Sultanate and meet one of the richest men in the world, all at once. There is a catch. If you are a women, you are only allowed to meet the Queen, not the Sultan himself, close enough.
Bear in mind that meeting the royal family requires time and patience as the queue can be really long, so go early to make sure you get to the end before they finish welcoming people for the day.
As we finally managed to get to the end of the queue and greet the Queen, a lady gave us instructions to hang the handbag on our left so we could easily shake the right hand with her. Photography is not allowed and we had to leave our cameras outside of the stately room where they were all standing.
“Where are you from?”, Exclaimed Her Majesty.
“Spain and England!”
“And what are you doing in Brunei?” She insisted, seemingly curious.
“On holiday, just visiting.”
As we went through the semi-circle line-up of Royalty members another woman mumbled to the one next to her, “Great shopping in Spain.”
We didn’t leave the Palace empty-handed. There was another queue, to collect a greeting card with a photo of the Sultan and his best wishes for the Hari Raya and a fruit cake tightly fit inside another yellow golden box with the Istana Nurul Palace relief on the top.
Visiting Brunei at the end of Ramadan and during Hari Raya also has its disadvantages. As the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar, Hari Raya is an eminently family-oriented holiday so most of the stores and restaurants are to remain closed as locals stay in, visiting relatives and celebrating the holiday. So bear that in mind when planning your trip to Brunei.
3. Brunei is a vice-free country
Brunei follows the most strict form of Islam and so, like other countries such as Iran or Sudan, alcohol is not available. To take this one step further, cigarettes are also banned. However, unlike these other countries, non-muslims can bring in their own alcohol from abroad and pay for the taxes at customs on arrival. This alcohol is meant for personal consumption only and you can obviously not sell it further. Your allowance is basically two litres.
4. Is Brunei boring?
This has to be the most asked question by every traveler and the one that get debated the most in the travel community, is Brunei worth it or is it just a boring place with not much to do? Let me answer this from my point of view.
Brunei is not the most happening place, especially in Southeast Asia where party and fun are commonplace. Sharia Law was introduced in 2014 and the country radically follows the Holy Koran. Adulterers and homosexuals may be stoned to death and thieves have their hands cut. Flogging is another physical form of punishment recently introduced and, missing Friday prayers may lead to imprisonment. The sale of alcohol is prohibited, to anyone.
Although alcohol does not have to be the requirement for having a good time, what we could not fully anticipate was the quietness of the entire country. You can find yourself aimlessly trying to find a place for dinner, and failing miserably. Only KFC, Pizza Hut and Jollibee seemed to be open for business in the evenings, worse even during Ramada or Eid. I managed to find a 24h cafe, the only one in the entire downtown area, but that was pretty much the only place to eat past 7pm.
5. Brunei is made of two disconnected districts
One of the most fascinating facts about Brunei is related to its geography. The country is entirely surrounded by Malaysia, it is the only fully located in Borneo and it is made up of two disconnected parts. To avoid having to constantly cross into Malaysia and go through passport control, Bruneians use boats to cross via the sea between the two parts. The impact of this is minimal since only about 10,000 inhabitants live in the Eastern district of Temburong which is largely made of pristine, untouched jungle.
6. Cutting a tree is illegal in Brunei
Brunei has been an example of conservation in the quickly disappearing Borneo jungle. Logging is forbidden in the country and you can see the effect it has had at Ulu Temburong Park where you can observe the thick virgin jungles from the top of a canopy walk. Tree cutting is not allowed in Brunei even in cases of natural accidents. For example a tree had snapped and was about to fall in the middle of the path we were walking on to reach the canopy walk but because it could not be cut, visitors to the park and rangers had to wait for the tree to fully fall until it could be moved out.
7. The most unique local food is gooey
It is hard to find a better way to define Ambuyat than gooey. While most of Brunei’s food is very similar if not exactly like most Malay food, there is one dish that is uniquely Bruneian. Made with sago (the root used to make the bubbles in bubble tea) blended in and eaten by rolling it around two chopsticks and then dipped into sauces and fried meats, this is perhaps the strangest food you will ever taste. Ambuyat is pretty bland so you really need the hot sauces and meats to bring some flavor to it.
8. Brunei’s weather is the same all year round
Brunei enjoys the exact same temperatures year round. Being so close to the Equator means the thermometers never move so if you are traveling to Brunei you can be sure to expect high humidity and high rainfall through the year with a marked drier season Feb-April and a wetter one from October to December. It was hot, hot, hot, and that is coming from someone who walks everywhere in Singapore, under the scorching sun. In the jungle, the humidity will turn you into a fountain of sweat.
9. Wildlife can be found right by the city center
One of the most surprising facts about Brunei is how much of its territory is covered in jungle teeming with endemic wildlife. The moment you step outside of the main downtown center all you see is thick forest and wildlife. Several endemic species, including the very funny proboscis monkey, live in the Borneo jungle. At night, we spotted fireflies. This was the best way to spend the evenings in such a quiet place. We paid a water taxi to take us around the river looking for these fairytale insects blinking in the darkness.
Unavoidably, we also spotted too many crocodiles for comfort. In the darkness and stillness of these animals all we could see where their red eyes on the river banks. Nature at its best minutes from the capital and an example in conservation.
10. Brunei has the world’s largest water village
Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital and main urban center, is located by the Brunei River and faces the world’s largest water village, Kampong Ayer, where as many as 30,000 people are said to live. The village is modern and has all the facilities including schools, hospitals and mosques. The parking lot by the river where locals drop their cars before jumping on a boat to get to their homes over water, is filled with luxury cars. Kampong Ayer is not the poor suburb but the choice of local Bruneians that value this heritage living.
11. Not Malaysia but Malaysian-looking
Visiting Brunei feels like a quieter and propped up version of Malaysia with low unemployment, virtually no poverty and virgin jungle. Locals are two-thirds from Malay origin and the rest is made up of a variety of minority groups including Chinese, Filipino, expats working in the Oil & Gas industries and Indigenous population. Bahasa language is largely spoke and the traditional attire very much resembles the Malay,
12. Brunei makes you a super star
This is something that I find tremendously amusing across Asia. I am not blonde but always seem to look very exotic to locals of most Asian countries. As a result, I get asked for photos all the time. Brunei was no exception. Locals were kind, peaceful and interested in tourists. We were photographed several times, especially at the Palace, while waiting for a taxi by the main gates. There was a constant stream of onlookers asking for a shot until we had enough in the heat of the day, and we expressed our negative.
13. Is Brunei safe?
The question a lot of people thinking of traveling to Brunei have is: What was it like to visit a country that has recently re-introduced Sharia Law and corporal punishment? Is it safe to visit Brunei? Let’s look at how I felt on the ground and at the facts which is how I always approach questions about a country or a destination’s safety.
Locals seemed contempt and conservative but without looking repressed. Of course tis is a superficial assessment as I did not have conversations with any. Women were covered in what felt a 50/50 ratio and we were the center of attention for being foreigners (my friend is also blonde) and not because we were uncovered, or so it felt. I get the same across Southeast Asia irrespective of religion. We walked pretty much everywhere, including at night, and the streets are always empty. During the day it is far too hot to walk and at night there is not a single soul. Locals stopped to offer rides and we had a creep following up with the car but he didn’t do anything other than create a mild scare.
Now onto the facts about safety in Brunei. Freedom House classifies Brunei as “Not Free” with a score of 75, 100 being the worst, so hearing locals talk bad about the Sultan is uncommon and punishable. The internet is monitored and immoral content banned. The Government is also believed to read email exchange of citizens considered subversive. Homosexuality is illegal and punishable as is adultery.
14. One of the youngest countries in the world
Brunei is officially known as “Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace” and it is one of the youngest countries in the world having achieved full independence from the British only in 1984. Only a couple of countries are younger than Brunei, South Sudan and Palau.
15. One of the wealthiest countries in the world
Brunei is known for its riches mostly derived from oil and gas exploration. It is one of the few countries without any national debt and it has one of the highest GDP per capita at purchase parity ranking 9th in the world according to the CIA World Factbook after Luxemburg, the Isle of Man or Qatar.
Unemployment is low at less than 3% and the population is young with a median of 29 years, and well taken care of. Life expectancy, at 77 years old, reflects a healthy rich country close to Western Europe. Education and Healthcare are free in Brunei. However, wealth is not equally distributed and the Sultan concentrates most of it.
So when you travel to Brunei you do not see the usual lavish constructions that are common in places where oil has brought in progress and sudden wealth, like some of the Middle Eastern countries. In Brunei the streets are calm and you can have one of the most peaceful vacations in Asia. Visiting Brunei is not like going on a theme park adventure like when going to Dubai or Qatar.
16. The largest Palace
The sultan’s Palace is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest private residence in the world. It was finished in the same year the country achieved its independence from the UK and it has almost 1,800 rooms and over 250 bathrooms. There is a hall that can accommodate 5,000 people and five swimming pools. The Palace also has a stable for 200 ponies and a garage for 110 cars, the Sultan’s selection from his 7,000 plus collection of luxury cars.
17. The Sultan is known for his extravagant taste
One of the most headline worthy facts about Brunei are those which revolve about the Sultan himself. Sultan Bolkiah, whose full name is Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, was once the richest man in the world.
Today, his estimated fortune is worth $20Bn according to Forbes. As opposed to the wealth of those near him in the same list, like Bill Gates, Armancio Ortega or Caslos Slim, the Sultan knows how to spend it and often makes the headlines for his excesses. He is said to have once spent $21,000 on a hair style and is believed to have over 7,000 rare and exclusive cars. Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari, Bugatti and Rolls-Royce all make new cars exclusively for him.
The Sultan’s love life is enough to fill the pages of many glossy magazines. His second wife was a stewardess for Brunei Royal Airlines and his third one a TV host. He divorced them both.
The youngest son of the Sultan married a data analyst in April 2015 in a lavishly Aladdin-like ceremony completed with emeralds the size of golf balls, diamond encrusted golden outfits and a mind blogging gold extravaganza. The photographs of the ceremony were everywhere, from the Brunei Airlines in-flight magazine to every single restaurant. At first I wondered why everything was yellow until I realised it was gold. From shoes to outfits, chairs and flower arrangements made of gems rather than flowers. The bride’s shoes were a pair of incredible Louboutin jewel-encrusted heels.
Australian TV program 60 Minutes exposed the Sultan’s hypocrisy in an undercover video complemented with commentary from one of his former Royal Harem members, Jillian Lauren, entitled “The Playboy Sultan“.
The Sultan is an absolute monarch and holds the role of prime Minister, Finance Minister and Head of the Military. While he has reintroduced Sharia Law in phases back into Brunei since 2014, he continues to indulge and seems to be above the law. Worse, his younger brother is renowned for his debaucherie and continuous sexual extravaganza.
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