Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
The Islamic Call to Prayer fills the air with its beautiful tones from the many surrounding mosques. Locals adorning brightly coloured Hijabs and purple long shirts walk from the malls to pray at the mosque. The stifling heat almost suffocates you with its soup like humidity.
This is Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital city. Everything from the golden domed mosques, the thick surroundings of uncharted jungle, the traditionally dressed locals, and poster plastered everywhere of the current sultan resonates of this empires past glory. Brunei is something different, an unfamiliar face you should get to know.
Where is Brunei?
Tell anyone that you have been to Brunei and you are most likely to get a blank stares. This tiny nation wedged in between the two provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia’s Borneo was actually once a great Islamic Empire the span across South East Asia. From the Southern Philippines, to the shores of mainland Malaysia there are remnants of the Sultanate.
These days this country is known for its imposed Sharia Law, its massive oil fields, and a Sultan who is fond of Ferraris. Brunei compared to its neighbors is incredibly different. Because of the oil boom there is no need to cut the trees down for palm plantations, and its rich Islamic history is very unique as the majority of Borneo is known for its tribal culture.
Getting to Brunei
Brunei’s land borders with Malaysia are a bit of a mess. Getting to the Capital from Malaysia’s Sabah by land will require you to enter Brunei, and leave it once again before actually getting to the section of Brunei where the capital is located. This can be very time consuming, not because of distance, but simply because of Immigration queues.
My journey into Brunei began in the Capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. I arrived in Kota Kinabalu midday. After checking into my hostel the Fat Rhino, I walked down to the ports hoping to find an alternative route to Brunei.
The port was incredibly straight forward. The well posted ticket office directs you to a few numbered booths that sell ticket to various islands in the area. Ticket booth number 4 will take you to Labuan. Labuan is the jumping off point to Brunei. The booth sold me both tickets, Kota Kinabalu – Labuan, Labuan – Brunei. The total cost was 60 MYR, which pans out to be just under 20 dollars. There are a few times this boat leaves, I chose the 9:00 AM.
The Island of Labuan
The ferry was very straight forward and an altogether great experience. It was comfortable and left exactly at the time it was supposed to. From Kota Kinabalu to Labuan the journey takes about 2.5 hours. The boat itself is a completely closed cabin that blasts AC, so it’s best to bring a sweater aboard.
Arriving in Labuan is a bit of a shock. The island looks like a quick attempt to construct a semi modern tiny city that is full of alcohol, smokes and a few western chains. Labuan defiantly has a bootlegging frontier town vibe, as it is also quite remote.
Our Ferry arrived at 11:30 AM, and the ferry to Brunei doesn’t leave until 1:30 PM. Walking around Labuan main commercial centre is about all there is to do in this time. There is a few decent restaurants serving up typical Malaysian and Chinese fare, and also a KFC, if you have a hankering for some remote questionable Western food.
Capital of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan
The Final leg of the journey only takes about an hour. When you arrive into the Brunei Port of Muara you must clear customs. Outside customs a small bus awaits passengers going into Bandar Seri Begawan, which is about a 30 minutes’ drive from Muara.
Tip: Make sure you either have US Dollar or Brunei Dollar because the bus will not accept Malaysian Ringgit.
The first thing I notice getting into Bandar Seri Begawan is how small the city really is. The centre can be navigated completely on foot, no need for a taxi. It’s also incredibly quiet, very little traffic, and people. Cars will stop for you to cross the road, and nobody is using there horn obsessively.
Downtown near the HSBC bank there is a guest house named KH Soon. Its location is very central, but don’t expect much for quality. A twin room cost me 38 Brunei Dollar, with shared bathrooms (Squatters Only), but it is only a few minutes’ walk to the mosque and Water Taxi’s.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
Look up Brunei and you are surely to see images of this gold domed mosque as the fronting image of the entire nation. To be honest at first sight this mosque is quite underwhelming. Look closer however and you will see there is much more to this mosque than just its image.
The interior is only open at certain times of the day, unfortunately I did not make it for these specific times, but I got a quick glimpse inside.
Surrounding the Mosque is a murky lagoon. As I walked towards the back end of the Lagoon I noticed something in the water. Looking closer I soon realized it was a five foot monitor lizard! The Godzilla like creature slowly swam through the waters making for quite a surreal scene.
At night the mosque lights up with colours of green and white, it really is a beautiful structure, and when the Call to Prayer beckons out you really start to feel like you are somewhere very unique.
Flying through Mangroves and Floating Villages
South of the Lagoon Is the Water Taxi port. These small wooden boats plastered with Ferrari Memorabilia standby taking passengers to the Stilt Villages across the bay. The locals in Brunei actually prefer living in these villages so the water taxi becomes quite an essential part to Brunei life in Bandar Seri Begawan.
For 40 Brunei Dollars these boats also take tourists through the villages and into the Mangrove forest to look for the rare Proboscis Monkey.
Now this boat tour is not just a relaxing stroll through the channels. No, the Ferrari Memorabilia is put on these boats for a reason. This small 6 seat wooden boat blasts its engines to top speed jumping to about 70km per hour almost instantly. The drivers are incredibly skilled taking tight corners around bridges, mangrove forests, and houses at these top speeds. You almost feel like you are in a James Bond chase scene with these guys.
As we flew through the forest the driver made frequent stops alongside the shoreline to spot the big nosed Proboscis Monkeys. They jump around the trees and gawk curiously down at you. Emerging from the forest at the speed of light our driver took us into the Stilt villages showing us the local fire station, police station, and schools that are all almost floating above the water.
This tour really gives you a deeper look into traditional life in Brunei, it also is great for blood pumping adrenaline high speed boating. I highly recommend this while you are in Brunei.
Getting to Sarawak
From Bandar Seri Begawan my next destination was Miri in Malaysia’s Sarawak Province. At 7 am there is a bus that goes directly there. It can be a little bit confusing where the bus leaves from and not many people seem to completely know about it either. If you are heading this was then follow this.
There are no tickets to be bought, you buy the ticket on the bus, and it costs 20 Brunei Dollars. The bus is located on the water front just one block north of the bus terminal in a parking lot. Be there at 6:30 AM and you will see it. The owner/ Manager is easily recognizable from his vest with many badges of countries around the world.
Location: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei – Borneo
Hotel: KH Soon Guest House, 20 – 38 Brunei Dollar
Currency Conversion: 1 $USD – 1.6 Brunei Dollar
Tour Guide: Dania Perlumbaan, +673 8801180
Recommended Guide Books: Lonely Planet Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, Borneo Lonely Planet
Tips: Brunei is a very religious country, you should dress decently, meaning no shorts! The guide I recommended; Dania, can help with bus tickets, jungle visits, and anything within Brunei.