Header image courtesy of Bernard Spragg (via Creative Commons)
Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo. Its territory consists of just a sliver of the island, while the rest belongs to Malaysia. Situated in the “heart of Borneo,” Brunei prides themselves in their rainforest conservation efforts and diverse wildlife. The capital city is Bandar Seri Begawan, with a predominantly Muslim population. When you’re there, you’ll mainly hear the local people speak Malay. However, the majority of them can also communicate in English.
Don’t let their small geographic size fool you; Brunei is actually the fifth-richest country in the world. Not only do they have their own currency (the Brunei dollar) and airline (Royal Brunei Airways), Brunei also has one of the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita globally, which is probably why most of their infrastructure is in great condition. So wait no more and travel to Bandar Seri Begawan on Royal Brunei Airways—their food and service are impeccable. Fun fact: The airline released some brand-new commercial aeroplanes in 2019!
Brunei’s political system takes the form of a government monarchy, therefore their sultan is a highly respected figure. One of the country’s most prominent attractions is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, which is considered the largest and most beautiful mosque in Asia. Despite being a small nation, Brunei is rich in oil—allowing for ample funding to go into perfecting their mosques and infrastructure.
The Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest gold mosque in Asia, which screams luxury. Upon entering, women have to dress in black robes that cover their entire bodies. These robes are available at the entrance and are included with the entrance fee. Brunei is a mainly Muslim country, so any visiting females should pack more “conservative” clothing such as tops with shoulder sleeves and long flowy pants to respect the local culture. The mosque was immaculate—it was clear that the best materials were used to construct this masterpiece. The main colour scheme of blues, whites, and gold is striking, adding to the overall lavishness.
Kampong Ayer is a historic site in Brunei’s city centre, whose name translates to “water village.” It is inhabited by fishermen, reflecting the people’s history and traditional way of living. The village is connected via wooden boardwalks built on stilts and is the largest village in the world made up of stilt houses. One can tour the interior of the stilt houses and when inside, you won’t even realise that you’re standing above water. However, some creaking may be heard as one walks through the houses, which might be slightly unsettling. To get to the village, just flag a water taxi near the jetty.
For dinner, we recommend having dinner at Brunei’s most popular night market, Gadong Night Market, that serves fresh and authentic Bruneian- and Malay-influenced food. Night markets are common in these parts of the world because it is cooler once the sun has gone down, so the food can maintain its freshness for longer. Cooked food markets are very efficient—one can get a taste of all the local delicacies at great prices, so go ahead and check it out.
Around two hours away from Bandar Seri Begawan is Ulu Temburong National Park, located in the heart of Borneo’s wilderness. Ulu Ulu National Park Resort is the only accommodation available in the national park. When you arrive you can expect to be greeted by all the staff in the resort as well as an array of Malay goodies, including desserts such as kuih talam (steamed coconut milk and rice flour pudding), kuih ketayap (sweet coconut pancake), and many more! They are the best treats to have after the fairly long commute from the city into the rainforest.
The resort has cabins and rooms of all sizes, for every budget and situation. Some rooms are shared living quarters with bunk beds, which others are private rooms with en-suite bathrooms—perfect for couples and families. The resort is situated along the river, a refreshing and scenic view to wake up to. You can also lounge in the sun—an alternative way to admire the natural wonders. It's quite a walk from one end of the resort to the other, so good walking shoes are a must.
One of the most notable attractions in Ulu National Park is birdwatching. There is a zoologist research team on-site around the clock that monitors the prevalent bird species inhabiting the park. To catch the sunrise from above, you can do an early hike to the start of the canopy walk. Be warned—the walk is not ideal for someone with a fear of heights. However, the hike to the canopy walk would still be worth it even if you decide not to do the walk itself. After climbing 746 steps up a 43-metre-tall tower, you’ll reach the top of the canopy, where you can begin the birdwatch. There are a total of three canopies to walk over. The adrenaline rush is amazing as you carefully walk over the canopies overlooking the entire jungle. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any birds—the trick is to be quiet.
Once you’ve gotten back onto solid ground, enjoy the jungle from another perspective by river-tubing. This is definitely an activity to take advantage of because not all rivers are safe to tube down! You can take part in this activity off the little beach of the Ulu Ulu Resort. Just another gentle reminder for ladies—wear one-piece swimsuits with shorts or a rash guard, as bikinis are not considered appropriate. Visiting the heart of Borneo is a once in a lifetime experience, so start planning now! Make sure you’ve applied for your visa, and onto the next flight you go. We highly recommend trying Royal Brunei Airline—the seats are super luxurious, even in economy.