Often overlooked by travellers as a viable Southeast Asian layover port, the sultanate of Brunei Darussalam boasts majestic mosques, swathes of virgin rainforest, an entire 'suburb' on stilts, and a thriving food scene well worth stopping by to soak up for a couple of days in transit.
Nestled between the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, tiny Brunei was known for little more than its oil wealth until 2014, when the sultanate made headlines for becoming Southeast Asia’s first country to adopt the Islamic penal code at national level. Criticised by the UN for its harsh punishments, the move hasn’t exactly served as a tourism draw card. The good news, however, is that Brunei remains one of the world’s safest countries for travellers. Because booze is banned (although non-Muslims are allowed to bring a small amount into the country), Brunei is an increasingly hot foodie destination, with a slowly but steadily emerging third-wave coffee scene. With no need (yet) to turn its pristine rainforests into palm oil plantations, these verdant expanses of greenery teem with wildlife that is becoming more and more difficult to spot in greater Borneo, and, just offshore, its coral reefs, shipwrecks and disused oil rigs are finally starting to give Brunei’s fledgling diving industry some wings.
Tourist arrivals per year: around 268,000
Daily budget: B$30, plus hotel, for BSB. Add B$50-$160 for a day trip, and B$315 for a one-night visit to Ulu Temburong National Park.
When to go: October to January are the coolest months, but rains can restrict access to Temburong.
Random fact: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the 29th Sultan Sultan of Brunei, owns more than 5,000 cars, including dozens of Lamborghinis, Porsches, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Jaguars, BMWs, Bentleys, and Mercedes-Benzes.
Districts and sights
Bandar Seri Begawan
Hugging the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), 12kms upstream from Brunei Bay, clean, quiet and ordered Bandar or BSB feels like more of a sleepy town than a capital city.
All of central BSB is within comfortable walking distance of the gold-domed Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with a few attractions north, east and west of downtown easily reached by taxi. In one day (or half if you opt for an organised tour) you can easily take in top sights including the iconic mosque (which is brilliantly illuminated at night), the bigger, newer Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Royal Regalia Museum, and the city's famed water village, Kampung Ayer. The enormous, 1788-room Istana Nurul Iman (the Sultan’s palace) is only open to the public for three days at the end of Ramadan, but you can get a good enough look at it from Taman Persiaran Damuan, a landscaped park 1.2km beyond the palace.
This small enclave of Brunei, physically separated from the rest of the nation by Sarawak, contains one of the largest preserved tracts of primary rainforest in all of Borneo. The main draw is the beautiful Ulu Temburong National Park, accessible only by longboat.
The park’s main attraction is a delicate aluminium walkway, secured by guy ropes, that takes you through (or, more accurately, near) the jungle canopy up to 60m above the forest floor. In primary rainforests, only limited vegetation can grow on the ground because so little light penetrates, but up in the canopy all manner of life proliferates.
It’s possible to make day trips into the park (or the nearby Peradayan Forest Reserve) from Batang Duri, but opting to lodge at the lush Ulu Ulu National Park Resort – the only hotel in the park – allows the opportunity to take the canopy walk at dawn, when you’re more likely to see gibbons swinging through the treetops, and orange-beaked rhinoceros hornbills flap by. Waterfall visits, kayaking, tubing, night jungle walks, and medicinal plant walks are also possible.
Most travellers merely pass through the districts west of BSB en route to Miri in Sarawak, but there are a few attractions on the way. Tutong is home to Pantai Seri Kenangan (literally, the ‘unforgettable beach’ and arguably Brunei’s best strip of sand), there’s a Forestry Museum in Belait, and the Oil & Gas Discovery Centre and Billionth Barrel Monument are centred in Seria. There are some good walking trails in the Sungai Liang Forest Reserve (in the Andulau Forest Reserve), dotted with treetop-level viewing huts. Frequent buses link Kuala Belait, Seria and Tutong with BSB, but the best way to visit the area is to take a tour or rent a car.
South and Central Brunei
Most travellers venture into Brunei’s interior, occupied predominantly by the Labi Hills Forest Reserve, to visit the longhouses of Labi. BSB tour operators typically make a stop at these Iban settlements, the Wasai Kadir Waterfall, and several jungle viewpoints on day trip itineraries.
Where to eat
Great eating can be had all over BSB, the best of it centred in the Gadong area, just north of the centre. Top picks include Pondok Sari Wangi for Indo-Chinese, Thiam Hock (5 Yong Siong Hai Building) for Chinese, Aminah Arif for Bruneian favourites such as ambuyat (a sago starch-based delicacy) and Jing Chew Kopitiam (10, Simpang 5) an institution on the Brunei cafe scene. The city’s most revered pasar malam (night market), where you can fill your belly with all manner of treats with change from B$5, is also in Gadong. Nearby shopping mall Regent Square houses the city’s best Korean (Kimichi) and Japanese (Excapade Sushi), while High Frequency, Brunei’s first bona fide hipster cafe, can be found in The Sempura Complex, just north of Gadong.
In the city centre, head to the foods stalls at the Tami Kianggeh market for a cheap and tasty lunch, while Lim Ah Siaw, near The Raddisson, will satisfy those with pork cravings. Fine dining is limited to the three splurge-worthy restaurants (international, Italian and Chinese) at Brunei’s opulent Empire Hotel & Country Club, about 20mins north of BSB. Come for lunch, and stay on for an afternoon by the resort's luxurious seaside pool.
What to pack
• Light, modest clothing: it’s hot and humid year-round, and while you’ll see other tourists (and even some locals) wearing short shorts and strappy tops, clothes that cover the shoulders and knees are suggested. Headcoverings for women are not necessary unless attending official functions. Robes are supplied at mosques.
• A raincoat and binoculars: for Temburong.
• Bug spray: for sand-flies at the beach, and mozzies in the jungle.
• Alcohol: if you’re non-Muslim and can’t face forgoing a holiday tipple, you can bring up to 2L of spirits or wine and 12 cans of beer into the country.
Brunei’s airport, about 8kms north of central BSB, is serviced by several bus routes, but it’s easier to catch a taxi (B$25-30) if your hotel doesn’t arrange transport. In the city, walking is the best way to get around.
Foreign offices widely advise travellers to exercise normal safety precautions in Brunei.
Religion and etiquette
Brunei adopted Islam back in the 15th century, and while the current Ssultan has slowly been moving Brunei in the direction of Islamic conservatism for decades, the introduction of sharia law in 2014 still came as a shock to many. It remains to be seen, however, how strictly these laws – currently being phased in over three years – will be applied. All visitors should be mindful of the code, which could also apply to non-Muslims. It’s taboo to discuss – or worse, criticise – the law, Islam, and/or the Sultan.
Destination Editor Sarah Reid visited Brunei as a guest of Royal Brunei Airlines (flyroyalbrunei.com), the world's only airline offering a Dreamliner service on all long-haul flights.