The Kingdom of Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo in the Indonesian Archipelago. Besides its costal border along the South China Sea, Brunei is completely surrounded by Malaysia’s state of Sarawak. Brunei is essentially a city-state with several nature preserves, but just one major city – the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
Brunei is apart of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and because I have already traveled to every other nation in this organization, I wanted to make a trip to Brunei so I could claim all ten. While the country itself isn’t much of a tourist destination, I wanted to get there to get my passport stamped and claim another country on my rapidly growing list.
Bander Seri Begawan has some tourist attractions – I would say just enough to justify a one night stay. So in February 2017, that’s exactly what I did. I flew to Brunei for one night to explore this fascinating country. Seeing as not many tourists come to Brunei, there was very little information about this country online for budget travelers. I hope this guide will serve others well looking to make a quick trip to Brunei to check it off the list.
How To Get There
The easiest and cheapest way to get to Brunei is through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. KLIA and KLIA2 combined together form one of the largest air travel hubs in South East Asia. It’s very difficult to travel around this region without transiting through these airports at least once. As I was making my way to Thailand, I had to transfer through Kuala Lumpur so I made a point to stop for a few days and check out Brunei.
AirAsia flies twice a day between Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan. The flight is about two and a half hours, and if booked in advance, one-way tickets can get as low as $20. From the airport to the city, a taxi costs around $7. There is no public transportation to and from the airport.
Where To Stay
Before visiting I had read online about a potential hostel in Bandar Seri Begawan, but this apparent hostel did not accept reservations or have any contact information listed. I had read reports that people showed up and were unable to find a room. Given my short amount of time, I decided to opt for a cheap hotel through Booking.com so that I could have a confirmed reservation and not waste any time. I stayed at Le Gallery Suites Hotel which was a decent place run by Filipino staff that most importantly offered free airport pick-up.
While I was in the downtown area, I did come across a hotel called Joy Downtown Rest-Station that offered single rooms for approximately $15 USD. This option would be a little cheaper and in a slightly better location than my first hotel, but not by much. They can be reached via email or Facebook. Just look at the photos on their Google Maps location for contact information.
What To Do
Brunei is a small place so all the main sights can be seen in just one day on foot. There are other optional activities further away from the city, but I will not go into these as they cannot be done in one day.
When I arrived in Brunei, I arranged with my hotel for an airport pick-up so I was on my way fairly quickly. Once I got in, I put my bags in the room and set out for a day of exploration. The Gallery Suites is across a small river from the main downtown area. When I was visiting the pedestrian bridge was still under construction. Fortunately this isn’t a problem in Brunei because there is a large system of water taxis constantly running around the river. I had to watch a few locals flag down a taxi before I understood the process, but getting around the city couldn’t be easier.
For just one Bruneian dollar or $0.75 US, it is possible to catch a water taxi anywhere around the downtown area. There are many docks leading out onto the water, and the best way to flag one down is to do a big circular motion with your hand at a passing skiff. Once on, you tell them where you want to go and pay the dollar upon arrival. Remember the dock number from where you came (or better yet take a picture) so you can find your way back later on.
Once I arrived in the downtown area, I was super hungry so I went to get some of the best chicken and rice in Brunei at Nasi Katok Mama. Nasi Katok is a Bruneian staple. For just one dollar you get a piece of fried chicken, rice, and sambal (chili paste). Nasi Katok Mama is one of the most popular destinations for this dish selling it out of a window to-go. They put all the ingredients together on a waxy piece of paper, wrap it up, and give you a little plastic spoon altogether in a bag to-go. Grab a couple of them and walk down to one of the covered pagodas along the water to enjoy your meal with a nice breeze.
Brunei is quite hot – even in February – so after I finished my lunch I needed to escape the mid-day heat for a few hours. Right along the river I found a nice coffee shop called Piccolo Cafe serving up iced lattes in an air-conditioned room with free wifi. Can’t beat that!
When things started to cool down a bit, I began to make my way north to check out Brunei’s Royal Museum or Royal Regalia Building which also had A/C. As you can see, I really wanted any excuse to get out of the heat! The museum was free and filled with possessions related to the royal family which while opulent wasn’t exactly the most interesting museum. It was however a nice way to escape the heat. I also made a stop at the Brunei History Centre which was really only worth it for a respite from the heat. No admission charge. Unless you’ve got a keen interest in old royal documents, this one can probably be skipped.
After the two museums, I continued north to the Tasek Lama Recreational Park, one of the true gems of the city. This park has numerous walking trails, man-made gardens, waterfalls, and even a watch tower for beautiful views of the city. This is a great place to see what Brunei’s natural forest looks like. While here you will see many local people jogging or walking their dogs in the evening. There are even vendors near the entrance that sell whole coconuts for a refreshing drink on a hot day.
As it was getting close to dinner time, I made a short walk from the park to the Tamu Selera food stall area for some awesome ayam penyet from stall (gerai) number six also known as Lam Cafe. Ayam Penyet is basically fried chicken that is smashed with the pestle against mortar to make it softer then served with sambal and rice. I would also recommend the Soto Ayam or Nasi Goreng Ayam from this stall. Soto Ayam is like a yellow spicy chicken soup with potatoes and vegetables, and Nasi Goreng just means to friend rice. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ayam means chicken in Malaysian or Indonesian! Lastly, if the shop owners don’t quite understand your pronunciation, just point on the menu. For more tips on food in Brunei, check out this interesting guide.
Now that I was full and happy, I made my way back towards downtown to check out the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at sunset – the main highlight of my trip to Brunei. This mosque is the main landmark in Bandar Seri Begawan and the tallest building in the city. I had a great time walking around snapping pictures with the golden-hour lighting.
After the mosque, I paid another quick visit to Nasi Katok Mama for some breakfast the following morning and hopped back on a water taxi to my hotel. After a day in the scorching heat I was exhausted and needed to get some sleep before my early flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
Everyone I met in Malaysia told me not to go to Brunei. They said it would be boring and a waste of time. This could not be further from the truth. While Brunei is quite a small country, and being a non-Muslim could make it a boring place to live, I encourage anyone considering a visit to take a short trip here and see what this country is all about. The food culture in Brunei is enough of an excuse for anyone to visit, and combined with the beautiful mosques and picturesque natural beauty, this country is a great place to check out for a night or two. Now that Air Asia has such cheap flights, it is easier than ever to visit Brunei and check it off the list.