Famously called the “Abode of Peace”, Brunei Darussalam is a unique nation. Independent, but located on the island of Borneo, the country was once an empire that ruled the entire island of Borneo, though it has now become a small remnant of history.
Holding power due to its large oilfields, the country is ruled by a sultan and is a deeply Muslim country. Now, the future of tourism remains a mystery because, in 2019, they chose to uphold strict Sharia law.
Those who do venture off the beaten track and make the journey to Brunei will be rewarded with luscious rainforests, coastal beaches, and a glimpse at protected wildlife.
Selamat Datang – Welcome to Brunei!
Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of the country, which is the heart of Brunei’s power. The seat of the government and the sultan both operate out of the capital.
Other important places around the city include its mosques, royal palace, and markets. The quiet location along the Brunei River also gives tourists the chance to explore by boat and head out onto the water for a nighttime glimpse at the city lights.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Brunei’s history has always been closely linked to Borneo’s, with the earliest settlements beginning when a colony called Vijayapura came from the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire to the island of Borneo. By the 15th century, a Chinese ruler named Po-ni converted to Islam, which turned Brunei into a Sultanate state.
While Brunei once ruled the entire island of Borneo, their territory dwindled as they faced war with Spain and British invasion. The Japanese also invaded Brunei during World War II until they were defeated by the British in 1946. At the turn of the new year in 1984, Brunei became independent.
Since then and with the discovery of oil, the country has slowly worked to secure its development and wealth. However, in 2013, Brunei’s relationship with Islam took a turn, and the country decided to incorporate Sharia law into its penal code. This meant that Sharia law would be upheld and enforced throughout all of Brunei.
For the country’s 437,000+ citizens (as of 2020), which is 2/3 Muslim, this move became quite controversial and was highly criticized by foreign governments. Now, Brunei is the only country in East Asia that practices Sharia law.
The culture in Brunei is unique because it’s influenced by location and religion. Malay culture is a strong influence on Brunei, as the majority of the population is Malay. However, with the integration of the Islam religion, Muslim culture is also prominent.
For both Malay and Islamic cultures, the roles in the family are important. Parents are to be respected, as is seen in many Asian cultures, and everyone has their place within the home. Islamic culture is stricter about gender roles, and Sharia law is quite oppressive to women.
Regardless, the Brunei people welcome tourists, and those visiting should not worry about taking a trip to the country – even if they are a woman. Foreign women will not be required to wear a hijab, and you can travel relatively safely throughout the country.
Malay is the official language of Brunei, which is used in the government, media, and schools. However, an informal version of the language called Brunei Malay or Melayu Brunei is often spoken in the privacy of homes, between friends, or in other informal situations.
The most important foreign languages in Brunei are Arabic and English. Arabic is the language of the Islam religion, and it’s also the language of the Quran. For Muslims in Brunei, their children will go to religious schools, where they will be taught Arabic. Most Muslim people in Brunei will have a fairly high proficiency level in speaking or writing in Arabic.
English is also an important foreign language, and it’s widely spoken throughout Brunei for business and tourism. Many children are taught how to speak English at school, and many higher-level education institutions will use English are the primary instruction language.
It’s also extremely important that travelers understand they will be subject to local laws when traveling in Brunei. This means that you may be subject to Sharia law during your time within the country. You should take care to respect local customs and traditions, as well as refrain from any criticism about the government, Sultan, or Royal Family.
Gambling, prostitution, and pornography are also illegal in Brunei. You will also be subject to khalwat laws, which prevent different genders from being in close proximity to each other. This includes displays like holding hands, kissing, or sexual activity.
You may also not consume alcohol as it’s illegal for it to be sold within Brunei, although non-Muslim tourists can import up to 2 liters of alcohol for personal consumption in a private location. Ultimately, you should keep in mind that if you’re traveling to Brunei, you will be stepping into a strict and controlled world.
If you’re looking for wild parties and endless freedom, you should re-think a trip to Brunei if you cannot conform to local customs and expectations for the duration of your visit.
Brunei is more expensive than other Asian countries, however, you can still travel on an affordable budget. You most likely need a moderate budget, but that doesn’t mean that you should be overall worried about spending too much. Most visitors don’t spend much time in Brunei, choosing to visit for only a few days.
Many tourists see that country as a place to pass through for curious travelers and not a place that you’ll hunker down and explore for an extended amount of time. The reasons for short visits are that Brunei really hasn’t been developed for tourism and the main tourist activities can be completed in just a few days.
Other people will tell you that since Brunei’s passing of Sharia law, tourism has gone down as interest in the country has dwindled. Still, you should look at the prices of airfare, accommodation, food, and transportation as part of your budget.
Airfare will be the most expensive portion of your budget, and there is a large range of prices going anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The large difference in price will depend on what class you fly when you fly, and how far in advance you book your ticket.
Brunei’s tourism season runs from June to September, but plenty of people choose to visit the country between January and May. This is when the weather is dry and warm without being too hot. It’s also the time that plane tickets will be the most expensive.
Once you have purchased a ticket, you should look toward booking your accommodation for the duration of your stay. While dorm beds are the cheapest places to stay in Brunei, guest houses are also a popular overnight option. With the potential perk of having a great host, you can learn more about the country’s culture.
Some of the country’s best hotels will also be the same price as a guest house. One of the top hotels in the capital is Hotel Badi’ah. Many travelers have chosen this hotel because of its excellent ratings, as well as for being in a prime and safe location.
Western-style hotels, like the Radisson Hotel Brunei Darussalam, will have similar prices to the US. Overall, the capital will be the most expensive place, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find accommodation that suits your preferences and budget.
While accommodation is always important, you will also need to eat to keep your energy up. Bruneian cuisine may not be the most well-known, but they do have dishes that are heavily influenced by the region and close by countries. Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese flavors can be found in their food.
One of the country’s national dishes is called ambuyat, which is made from the sago palm tree. Nasi katok is another national dish that was named for when you had to knock on a seller’s door to place an order. The dish is rice with a piece of chicken and sambal dip.
Pulut paggang is one of the most popular dishes that frequently sells out. It’s a rice-filled wrap that is grilled on the fire. Finally, roti is based in India, but Brunei has its own version that is often filled with curries or sweet sauces.
Overall, most dishes are very affordable throughout Brunei. While street food will cost less than restaurants, including higher-end ones, across the board, everything isn’t overall priced. Moreover, since alcohol is illegal in the country, and not sold anywhere, you won’t have to worry about adding that cost to your budget.
However, Brunei does allow tourists to import up to 2 liters of alcohol for personal consumption at a private location.
How to Get Around
Brunei is not the easiest country to get around because public transportation is not the best and stops at 6 pm. There are also no trains. Most people will choose to travel by taxi or car, but it can be very expensive.
Those interested in renting a car should be aware that driving is done on the left side of the road. With that being said, Brunei divers are much calmer than other Asian countries. Locals also commonly offer tourists rides and tipping drivers for their kindness is very appreciated. Some may not accept any payment, so don’t be offended.
The best way to get around the cities is actually walking. Big cities like the capital are perfectly safe for tourists, and most of the main attractions will be within walking distance. However, you should always be aware of your surroundings and don’t walk alone at night for safety.
Top Cities to Visit
While most people choose to visit Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, there are also a few other cities that are popular with tourists. With large temples, historic sites, and vast waterways, there are plenty of places to explore. Here are the top city destinations in Brunei.
Bandar Seri Begawan
Bandar Seri Begawan is Brunei’s largest city and capital. It also holds the most stunning picture of the area, which is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque architecture. The mosque is significant for all of Brunei, and its gold dome is a sight to behold. Inside the mosque are also stunning pieces of stained glass and Italian marble.
There are a lot of other important places in the capital, and you can choose to explore the museums, shops, restaurants, and markets that fill the city’s streets.
This is a historic site in Brunei that was built on stilts over the Brunei River. Now, tourists come to Kampong Ayer to experience the local lifestyle and view the small markets. With just a small boat, you can explore this area and experience the world’s largest floating village.
If you want to take home some local crafts, Tutong Town is the place to go to peruse the handmade goods. The Tutong Thursday market is famous for being a treasure trove and a place where you can support the locals by making a small purchase.
Once a small fishing village, Kuala Belait has become a popular place for tourists to visit who wish to see the mosque. The area is known for the Rasau gas field, but tourists can also stroll the quiet streets to interact with locals.
Close to Kuala Belait, Seria is the heart of the country’s oil. Here, oil was discovered, and many tourists come to learn about the history and importance of oil to Brunei and the world.
Points of Interest
Brunei is also filled with various points of interest that have become popular attractions for tourists. Home to mosques, palaces, museums, and beaches, there are plenty of attractions to include on your itinerary. Here are the top places to visit in Brunei.
Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Another famous mosque in the capital is the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which is a massive complex that is finished with a green roof and gold domes. The sheer size alone is enough to impress any traveler, and the beauty of the architecture will lure in for a closer look.
Also called Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s Palace is the world’s largest house, which is home to the Sultan. You’ll have to admire the palace from afar, as most tourists are not allowed inside. Still, the impressive architecture is enough to draw people by for a photo.
Royal Regalia Museum
If you want to see what the rich give as gifts, the Royal Regalia Museum is filled with gifts that were given to the Sultan. Here, you can get a taste of extravagance and view treasures from gold to jewels and a giant chariot.
Often called the spot to go see the sunset, tourists flock to Muara Beach to catch the view of the day’s last light. This stunning coastline is also the place to go for hikes, swimming, and picnicking.
Ulu Temburong National Park
The Ulu Temburong National Park is also called the “Green Jewel of Brunei,” which has been perfectly preserved because of the country’s oil fields. Visitors can step into jungles and bathe in natural pools. Boasting amazing beauty, this is one of the top places to go in Brunei.
At Laugan Lalak, you can walk a series of boardwalks to get out on the water and catch a glimpse of the rising sun. A freshwater swamp only adds to the beauty, which can be so still that it perfectly reflects the surrounding scenery and sky for a stunning photo.
While it’s not far from the capital, you will still need to leave Bandar Seri Begawan at 4:30 in the morning to make it by sunrise.
“Abode of Peace”
Brunei may not be Asia’s most popular tourist destination; however, that doesn’t mean that it should be skipped. The amazing architecture and pristine preservation of the land ensure that Brunei is one of the most beautiful places you can go that is off of the beaten path.
For those who are curious and want to expand their world travels, Brunei is the perfect country for a stopover for a short visit.