Unlike places like Doha or Dubai or even Reykjavik, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) doesn’t really lend itself as a stopover. You pretty much have to head there on purpose and it’s probably going to cost you.
Traveling around Borneo, it’s hard to pass up a chance to go to the Sultanate of Brunei. A tiny Asian country, located on the eastern coast of the island, it’s one of the richest countries in the world. It’s small, it’s Muslim, and it’s poverty-free, all compelling reasons to visit. Brunei’s tag line is, “The Green heart of Borneo.”
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How long does it take to see Brunei?
Unfortunately there just isn’t that much to do for a perpetual tourist like me. Before booking our Air Asia tickets, we debated whether we should fly in for one day or spend the night. We chose to spend the night and were surprised at the number of people loading our flight that had no luggage. We were the exceptions, most people were flying in on the 8:00 and flying out on the 5:00.
We chose to fly in on the 8:00 one day and out on the 5:00 the next day, giving us plenty of time to do everything we could plus being able to photograph the mosque at night.
When we arrived at our hotel, we found we were an easy walk from just about everything. That is, an easy distance but boy was the the heat and humidity oppressive while we were there. It was so hot and humid that after five minutes of walking, trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, we were drenched in sweat. Luckily, our hotel offered a free city van tour at 11:00, a half hour after we arrived.
Catching the van, there were more than 15 people crammed together. We were the only Americans, and it was a fun little jaunt. Little it was, lasting only about 45 minutes, the driver followed the roads, pointed at buildings, while mumbling something. I couldn’t hear anything he said. Only Jim who sat right next to him caught some of what he was saying. It wasn’t really much of a “tour,” but we did get the lay out of the city and he dropped us off at the place we wanted to go first, so that was a bonus.
On our own, we wanted to start at the Royal Regalia Museum. We took off our shoes, lining them up on a shelf, and entered barefoot. The downstairs hall was impressive right from the start. The first very large exhibit was a wagon pulled during parades. The carpeted path takes you by it on your way to the lockers where you must put everything, including all your cameras and phones. There is no cost for anything, not even a locker fee, so we proceeded to wander shoeless and unencumbered throughout all the opulent exhibits.
The museum holds the collection from the sultan’s coronation and later jubilee celebrations. Everything is there, from the massive chariot he rode in the parade (pulled by a number of uniformed, spear and shield bearing warriors) to the smallest and most humble of gifts (a small wooden carving of a boat sculpted by a village child). My favorite was the coronation room.
Solid gold columns, throne, foot stool, candle holders, and of course, a perfectly formed, solid gold forearm with open hand cupped perfectly for the sultan to rest his chin during the crowning. The gift rooms were amazing, stuffed with countless gifts from heads of state, military leaders, ambassadors, and movie stars. One can only have so much of this wealth flaunted in front of them so after gawking at the riches and jewels we decided to brave the heat of the day and walk the three blocks to the mosque around the corner.
At the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque we gaped at the tiled boat replica in the man-made lagoon and gasped in the brutal heat. We were able to get some photos before the camera started to melt and decided we’d better save the rest of the photos for the evening and head to the comfort and coolness of nearby shopping mall.
Ordinarily we wouldn’t spend any time in a mall but the air conditioning was just too inviting. And that must have been the case for most people since this is where we found the inhabitants of this seemingly deserted city. Aside from the free AC and some uncomfortable benches there’s not much to recommend there. The most comfortable spot was sandwiched in between a KFC, Jolly Burger, Dairy Queen and prayer hall. Eventually we hit the heat and made it back to the hotel to await the cooler evening.
As the sun began to set over the steaming rain forest, we were charmed by a troop of macaques that had come down the hill and were playing in the yard across from our hotel. The cloud cover was building and a real tropical storm was brewing but we decided it had cooled enough to get out of the hotel and do some more exploring. First stop, food of course! The Tamu Selera night market is also a close 10 minute walk so off we went in search of food stalls. We weren’t disappointed.
The market had about 20 hawker stalls set up. Our favorite was the point and shoot place with bowl after bowl of tempting dishes and grilled chicken on the side. We chose a selection of fried fish, curry, noodles, chicken, and rice plates and were soon plowing through another amazing meal. And by this time the threatening rain storm was unleashing its fury so we were happy to be dry and snug under the awnings. We ate and waited out the worst of the storm (or so we thought) before heading out to take some night shots of the city.
Well, the rain wasn’t finished; we got soaked but did manage some decent photography in between squalls. I’m not sure how we managed to keep the gear dry but we did. And we had a blast being able to explore comfortably without the oppressive heat that had practically knocked us flat earlier in the day. Well fed and happy we slowly made our way back to the hotel for the night. The town had closed down around us with no night life to speak of whatsoever (that we could see) so we called it a night.
The next morning after breakfast we hit the waterfront and negotiated a 2.5 hour water taxi tour. Our “captain” was a young man of about 18 years that knew the water villages and mangrove swamps quite well. We spent time in the jungle, on the river, among the villagers and flying down the open, litter stew water-ways.
We saw some monkeys, macaque mostly with a few proboscis as well, and were able to see where a sizable part of the population live on the water. The village is more like a town in many ways, complete with schools, mosques, shops, and gas stations. We didn’t see many children today, unlike the water village in Sandakan where the kids were playing and swimming all around us. But the village was colorful and interesting nevertheless.
After the water taxi we only had time for one last meal before making our way to the airport. We had seen a local curry restaurant earlier and thought if it was air-conditioned it would probably be a good enough place. Well, we walked up to the open front and had two thoughts right away. First, obviously no AC and, second, must be a great place to eat. This place was packed and the curry looked delicious!
Even though the food looked fantastic, we almost turned around and left, because let’s face it eating and sweating are not my favorite two activities to do together. Luckily a server convinced us to look in deeper and showed us the (spool heavenly music) dining rom complete with AC! We couldn’t wait to order! Again, the typical point and shoot assortment of fish head curry, lamb curry, chicken curry, aloo gobi (yumm!), etcetera. All of this was served up with a pile of roti and some rice and we were in curry heaven! I would definitely recommend the Ismajaya Restaurant right in the center of town.
Some final thoughts on Brunei:
1. You can easily do it in a day but it was nice to be there for the night markets and evening photography.
2. Most people have cars. There is a very limited bus service and taxis are not common so getting around could be difficult.
3. Be careful near the waterfronts. Waving at someone driving by in boat will get several water taxis coming by to try and get your fare. Clearly a friendly wave is the standard hail.
4. Be aware, if you stay in the downtown core (where most of the tourist sights are to be found) it is conducive to visiting the sights, but this is also the government/business district and it closes down early.
If you go:
Jubilee Hotel was decent and offered complimentary breakfast, Airport transfer, and one free city tour. The rooms were clean but needed an update and the staff was helpful and friendly. Location was good with the above mentioned caveat.
Eat at a night market, as in the rest of the region this is the best local food at the best price. Tam Seran market had plenty of options and is near the central district.
Have you been to Bandar Seri Begawan? What is your vote, do a one-day or two-day…or even more? What was your favorite sight?