What is a Sultanate? And where is Brunei? Has anyone heard of it? I feel like every now and then I want to visit a country just because I don’t know anything about it and it may not really be a tourist destination. Timor Leste is on my list for that reason and Brunei was as well. I have to say, I knew very little about it and had only seen a few snapshots of the main mosque prior to my arrival, but I wanted to pay a visit to this tiny nation nonetheless.
The word sultan comes from Arabic and means strength or authority. It is used for rulers in Islamic nations and can also refer to the leader of an area. A sultanate is the dynasty and lands that a sultan rules. Brunei is short for the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, or Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace. I didn’t know what to expect when entering this tiny country that takes up less than 2% of the land on the island of Borneo, but I knew it had a lot of money and was predominantly Muslim.
We arrived by boat from Jesselton Pier in Kota Kinabalu via Victoria Island, still part of Malaysia, so that’s where we got stamped out. Thankfully, there was a money exchange office right at the pier upon arrival and taking the bus into the city was a breeze. You could see the difference between Malaysia and Brunei immediately. Brunei is clean, and because of the nation’s wealth, buildings, housing, and other structures looked more grand and new. They recently did become a country in 1984, after all. In that time, they have gone through major change and progress. They are one of the richest countries in the world and derive their wealth from oil, and unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, their oil is not from palms, but from deep under the ocean. There are more ties to the Middle East and often signs are in the local language (Malay) and in Arabic.
With only 24 hours on our hands, we had to act fast! We checked into our two-bed room at the Joy Guest House, centrally located and just across from the “Water Village.” The woman working there was nice enough to give us free towels and coffee and she helped us make a rough plan for the day. We immediately set out to grab a water taxi down the river to see the mangroves, macaques, and proboscis monkeys. We tried to negotiate a cheaper deal with the driver, but he held firm at $30 BND (about $24 USD). He pointed out crocodiles, monkeys, and some other structures along the riverside. He gave us a tour around the water village, the largest in Asia. It’s home to nearly 20,000 inhabitants who all live in buildings and homes built on stilts above the Brunei River.
In all, there are 29 small villages connected by walkways. When we arrived to one of the main piers, we met a family outside of their home. We initiated conversation with them and they invited us inside. They told us how they were able to get the lot and purchase the home. They have prime real estate right up front and said they’ve shown their home to many VIPs from all over the world. We didn’t want to keep them for too long so one of the girls led us to another home where they make a local style soup for $1.50 BND, just over $1 USD for dinner.
A family enjoying dinner was kind enough to share their fresh banana fritters with us, so free dessert. In one of the richest countries in the world, I’d say we did pretty well on our low budget meal!
We spent the rest of the evening strolling around the downtown area, taking photos of the mosque and some other sites at night. Brunei is mostly a dry country and the night life is quiet. We went back to the hostel at a decent hour and got some rest. In the morning, we ventured out to “Empire Hotel,” a 5+ star resort over looking the South China Sea. We didn’t know it at the time, but the only bus back to the city was at 3:00 pm (and costs $2.00 BND). Our flight was at 4 pm, so that would be too late. Luckily, the city bus driver agreed to pick us up at 12:30, saving us a $25 taxi cab ride! We strolled through the enormous, shiny marble encrusted lobby. The large pillars and long staircases had golden accents and as we made our way to the back doors, we could see the neatly manicured lawns, large crystal clear swimming pools, and flowing fountains with the calm sea behind it all.
We stopped into the cafe before heading back into town and I ordered the most unusual combo of flavors all whipped into one frozen beverage: butternut toffee, espresso, milk, and peach syrup. If it doesn’t sound too appealing, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much! Once we returned to the downtown area, we finished up the last of our 24 hours with a stroll through the mosque in the daylight, but only once I paid a visit to the local post office. In keeping with my plan on sending my 9 year old niece and nephew something from every country I visit, I had to make sure they got at least a post card.
I was quite satisfied with our visit to Brunei. I only wish I’d had more time. There are some more interesting things to see there like parks, hiking trails, and an oil and gas museum that I really wanted to visit (yeah, I’m a total nerd in case you didn’t know ?). I also did not have time to visit a gym, so I definitely need to go back for that! If you ever get a chance to visit, I would say these are the top four things you must do if you’re short on time:
Pay the $30 water taxi charge and have a boat driver bring you down river and around the water village. You will see wildlife, mosques, a view of the palace, and the water village from the river level.
Stop off at the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery. We did not have time to see this as it had already closed by the time we arrived, but there’s also a glass-enclosed viewing tower that may be worth a visit.
Stroll through the walkways of Kampong Ayer (Water Village) and observe local life. Make your way to the little family owned restaurant and have some “Soto” (soup) and fresh banana fritters.
Visit the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and if possible, check it out both during the day and when it’s lit up in the evening. It’s quite stunning with it’s golden dome and bright white walls.
One thing to skip: taking the local but to the sultan’s palace, Istana Nurul Iman. You can’t get a glimpse of it from the main gate. It is apparently the most expensive “home” of a leader of a nation, and it’s set back and well protected. The sultan opens it up once a year for three days after Ramadan and locals can pay a visit. They even leave with parting gifts. If you’re interested, plan accordingly as Ramadan ends on a different date every year. We thought we’d get a view of this massive structure, but no such luck, just well maintained lawns and roads that lead up to it.
Like so many places I’ve visited and traveled to, I really enjoyed Brunei. It’s predominantly Muslim (and I’m not a follower), but I appreciate the quiet and calm found within the small capital city. I’m sure with more time, one would find their favorite things to do, neat hang outs, and of course, the best gym! I hope to make it back some day.
What “less-traveled” locales have you visited? Where would you like to visit?