To those that are unwary, Brunei can amaze you, with its ornate mosques and buildings, its eclectic cuisine, and its friendly and hospitable inhabitants. It can also shock you, as the oil-rich sultanate has a cost of living on par with Singapore, making the cost of lodging and other things twice as expensive as its neighbouring Malaysian territories in Sarawak, Sabah and Labuan.
Despite this initial surprise, guests will find much to explore and experience over several days in this tiny domain. Initially, Brunei was in negotiations to join the Malayan federation back in the 1960’s, but it seemed that the central government wanted too much of a cut from the sultanate’s oil revenues, so the decision was made to go it alone. In 1984, Brunei received its independence from Britain, and things seemed to have worked out since then for this wealthy corner of Borneo.
From the decadent Royal Palace, to the water villages of Kampong Ayer, there is plenty to keep the dedicated traveler occupied during their stay in Brunei. Just don’t come here on your birthday if you plan on living it up with a few drinks: alcohol is BANNED in Brunei, as it is overwhelmingly a majority Muslim nation. That aside, there is plenty to see and do, so let’s get started!
Currency: Brunei Dollar
Languages: Bahasa Malaysia, English
What To Do
The first thing on any traveler’s agenda in Brunei should be to view one of the most extravagant pieces of real estate anywhere in the world: Istana Nurul Iman, the royal palace of the Sultan of Brunei. Built on a man-made hill so he could oversee his beloved subjects and his domain, this monument to excess and materialism is estimated to be worth 600 million USD if it were to go up for sale tomorrow.
Most of the time, the closest that you can get to this exorbitant palace is via a river cruise, as the interior is closed to the public – except during the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, where selected portions of the complex are open for three days. During this time, 110,000 people pour through the gates, so if you want an inside look at how of the world’s richest men lives, you’ll have to tailor your trip to this time of the year and brave the crowds … it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most, so make the most of it if you have the chance!
Next, go from the lap of luxury, to the edge of working class existence in Brunei by visiting Kampong Ayer, a village built over the shallow waters of Sungai Brunei. This rickety but functioning community of 39,000 people is the largest water community of its kind in the world, and contains all the accouterments of home: stores, mosques, places of work and of course, personal residences. Locals are largely welcoming of travelers, and photographic opportunities abound.
After you have had your fill of Kampong Ayer, hop back into a boat and head over to the mainland, where the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque awaits. Designed in the sultan’s honour, this place of worship contains Malay and Islamic influences in its design. Tours are available when prayers are not in session, and if you show up at the doors with less than respectful clothing, robes are provided to preserve the dignity of this sacred place and yours.
Finally, if you have certification in SCUBA diving, there are a lot of goodies waiting for you in the waters off Brunei, so prepare to get wet! During the Second World War, many ships were sunk on both sides of the conflict, leaving a legacy of excellent wreck diving for divers skilled enough to reach them. Since then, other ships have also sunk, including popular sites such as Blue Water, which boasts clear water around it and is largely intact.
What To Eat
Cuisine in Brunei is influenced by the Malay, Islamic traditions, native Borneoians, as well as a minority population of Chinese. The one dish that locals agree is unique to this small nation is Ambuyat, a starchy, bland sap that comes from the trunk of the sago palm. This thick sap, which resembles Tapioca in consistency, is then dipped into a savory sauce, giving it some much needed flavour.
If Ambuyat bores you too much, there are many other dishes from Malay and Chinese traditions that will suitably inspire your taste buds. Head out to the night market and try some exotic satays, such as Hati Buyah, which is marinated and stir-fried beef lung, Ayam Tongkeng (chicken butt), and finish them off with some Pulut Panggang, consisting of grilled sticky rice stuffed with beef or shrimp, cooked up in a wrapped banana leaf.
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