48 hours in Brunei: the jewel in Borneo's crown

by patandliza

Find out about Brunei's rich cultural heritage; tropical flora and fauna; museums and mosques; and find a peaceful and friendly atmosphere

It’s not often you meet someone who has helped a reticulated python recover after its head was squashed in a road accident.

‘Jungle Dave’, who runs Mona Florafauna Tours (209, 1st Floor, Kiaw Lian Building, Jln Pemancha; 223-0761; mft@brunet.bn) in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, nursed it to the point where a new jaw was regenerated and sometime later it was successfully returned to the wild. This was just one meeting that made our stay there so memorable.

Where to find it

We were stopping off in Brunei, in the heart of Borneo, having travelled by speedboat from Kota Kinabalu, via the island of Labuan, before continuing down the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Other travellers that we met were on stop-overs to Australia or had come off Italian cruise liners.

Brunei, on the shores of the South China Sea, covers just 5,765 square kilometres with a population of only 380,000 that enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. Its wealth derives from crude oil, petroleum products and liquefied gas. It is an independent Islamic state ruled over by the 29th Sultan but this should not give the impression of suppression.

Visas for thirty days are granted free to most European nationals on arrival and although alcohol sales were prohibited in 1992, non-Muslims are allowed to import liquor for their own private consumption. Malay is the official language but English is widely used. The local people were very friendly and seem to enjoy living in a state which has no income tax and many free benefits.

The sights

In Brunei it seems appropriate to start at the top. When a grateful nation builds a second giant ceremonial carriage to celebrate the silver jubilee of the Sultan’s coronation, where do you store it? Well the Sultan solved the problem by building a Royal Regalia Museum (Jln Sultan; 222-8358). As well as featuring opulent symbols of Brunei’s 600 year old monarchy it includes a fascinating section dedicated to the gifts world leaders bestowed upon the second richest man in the world.

A short ride away on the No 39 bus is the Brunei Museum (Jln Kota Batu; 222-3235). Here you will find Islamic artefacts, including intricately decorated Korans; ethnographic displays; natural history collections and comprehensive bronze collections. Nearby, in the same complex, at the Malay Technology Museum - completely free like all the exhibitions in the country - you are given an absorbing insight into the lifestyle of the Brunei people in earlier times.

To complete the historical picture we visited Twelve Roofs House, a delightful colonial building (Bubongan Dua Bellas; 224-4181), which is the former residence of British High Commissioners. Now it has an interesting display of photographs focusing primarily on state visits by members of the British Royal Family.

The river

The river dominates life in the city and there are splendid views to be had from this vantage point. If you make your way by footbridge or boat to the traditional water villages, it is possible to get stunning views of the Omar Ali Saifudin Mosque (Jln Elizabeth; 222-2623). At sunset, the golden dome gleams and the replica of the sixteenth century barge creates an ‘Arabian Nights’ atmosphere. Cheap public speedboats ply the waterways and it is worth taking a thrilling 45 minute ride to Bangar (B$6; £1=B$2), which gives views of the tropical rain forest. We also opted to go on a two hour evening cruise safari arranged by Jungle Dave, (B$80) per person, where we had views of the Sultan's luxurious palace (Jln Tutong) and spotted a few proboscis monkeys; baby crocodiles; monitor lizards and fire flies.

A friendly welcome

There is a high car ownership in Brunei but one advantage is that the local people often offer tourists free lifts in the city. We had reached the extensive and ornamental Bolkiah Mosque (Jln Hassan Bolkian, Gadong; 223-8741) by public bus but a return trip was proving elusive until we were rescued by a kind official. There is a growing tourist infra-structure where travel connections have improved considerably. Assisted, for no extra fee, by Danny, a freelance tour guide (+673 8801180; danny25174@yahoo.com), easily identifiable by the soft toy proboscis monkey strapped to his rucksack, we found we had a brand new coach to ourselves taking us the three hour journey to Miri across the border in Sarawak (B$8).

Where to sleep and eat

We stayed at the comfortable Terrace Hotel (Jln Tasek Lama), which had double rooms for B$85, including breakfast; it also featured a delightful swimming pool in a jungle-like garden setting. The popular restaurant served appetizing food such as steamboat - where you cook your own food at the table; black pepper chicken and river prawns. Typically a meal for two, with fruit drinks, came to B$20. Nearby the Sheraton Hotel (Jln Tasek Lana, 224-4272) had an attractive bar which served imaginative fruit juice cocktails and a restaurant which had Western cuisine available, but there were more exciting eating options a ten minute walk away in the city.

We had tangy beef and chicken satay kebabs with rice, peanut sauce and fresh coconut juices for B$5. These were served in food stalls by the river and following a local’s recommendation we made a fortunate choice with the first one by the steps. Indian food, such as murtabaks (roti stuffed with meat or vegetables) cannot be bettered than in Hajah Halina Restaurant (54, Jln Sutton; 223-4803). Again prices were absurdly low for such top quality food. There were also standard Western restaurants such as Fratini’s (Jln Macarthur; 224-2372) and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Jln Sultan).

A footnote

In some ways, Brunei is an anachronism. Politically and socially it seems a backwater but it has a quaintness; a diversity of sights; a rich natural heritage and a welcoming atmosphere that deserves exploration.