As one of the richest countries in the world thanks to export of crude oil and gas as natural resources, Brunei Darussalam – The Adobe of Peace is definitely a must in your travel list while wandering around ASEA. The majesty of current Sultan Hassanil Bolkiah with luxurious royal life and a diversity in biological system on Borneo island does attract a number of tourist come to Brunei for unique experiences. This post provides you most updated facts and detailed information regarding to traveling in Brunei Darussalam as a Backpacker.
Where to begin?
Most direct flights to Bandar Seri Begawan – the capital of Brunei, are departed from either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. You may want to choose among the king of low cost airline in Asia – Air Asia with just as low as 99RM for one way flight from Kuala Lumpur to Brunei with a duration of 2 hours and 30 minutes. It’s best to chase for a deal of Malaysia Airline, Singapore Airline or Royal Brunei Airline (which is operated by the Brunei government) as these usually offer good prices of around 200RM-400RM for a direct one way flight depending on your package. Please note that Brunei International Airport is really strict for drug traffickers with death as well as overweighted cabin baggages. I even heard 3 or 4 announcements of standard baggage as on board and had to weight my little bag for 3 times in just one flight!!!. It’s not really busy in Brunei International Airport but to some extent, empty and quiet most of the time. So, you don’t have to manage your time so much on immigration and custom process there.
If traveling from Borneo, Miri, Labuan and Kota Kinabalu of Malaysia will be the best departures for you. Different choices ranges from boat with duration of 2 or 3 hours or buses for 3 or 4 hours and direct flights from 60RM and above. They do have other routes but I suggest you need to search for them carefully.
Sadly, the system of transportation in this country is extremely inconvenient to backpackers and anyone who travel without a partner. You are supposed to pay a dozen or more of Brunei Dollars for just 1 or 2 kilometers taking taxi. It should be stated that there are only 20 taxi for the whole Bandar Seri Begawan, and in case you don’t know, most people there have their own cars, then taxi is not a necessary!
The government didn’t operate public transportation but a private business does instead. With just 1 Dollars for each journey regardless of distance and destination, you may find it smart to travel as far as possible. Suprisingly, all buses timetable is from 6AM to 6PM, which means you have to organize your trip well or you walk back to the hote if missing the last bus. Buses are categorized in 4 main lines:
Circle Line – This one passes through most tourist spots in Brunei, from James Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque to Gadong Market and The Mall. For this route, try to search for bus 01 (they can be even 1A,1B and 1C).
Northen Line – Please take note on this line as you will need it to transfer from Bandar Seri Begawan city centre to Brunei Airport. 22 and 23 are the two most recognizable bus numbers for this line. It operates travel between Jerudong and city centre.
Southern Line and Eastern Line – you don’t need to care much of these two as it is often used by locals.
Bus terminal is in Bandar Seri Begawan downtown on Mc Athur Street. It’s really old and dark inside the bus terminal, however, easy to track your bus since every routes are on the boarding outside. The bus itself is old and vintage like 20th century :D. Should you have any inquiry on where to go, ask the bus driver.
For anyone who wants to cross Brunei River to Kampong Ayer water village, the best way is to take a short 5 minutes trip of water taxi near the canal of Jalan Mc Arthur for just 1 Dollar per one way.
Believe me, you will find it hard and likely impossible to reserve a cheap dorm bed or single room for budget traveler. This is obivously a pain for anyone who have an idea of saving single peny on accomodation, particularly “lonesome” traveler. It shouldn’t cost more than 50 Brunei Dollars for a single room and 80 a Double room accordingly. There are some hostel in Gadong District in The Mall area for 20-30 Brunei Dollars for one available on Booking.com and Agoda. But bear in mind that buses in this area is not that friendly; they don’t have particular bus stop but picking up guests randomly anywhere!! Except for one near Gadong market.
I stayed in Joy Rest House, which can be booked via Booking.com and Hostelworld at a flat rate of 20 Brunei Dollar for a single dorm bed and 27 for a whole room. This one has a great location on Mc Athur Street and next to bus terminal. On Contrary, both facilities and rooms are out of dated without hot water. Rooms are unbelievably small with no tower distribute. The wall is not thick enough to separate you with “private conversation” from the next room. Cheaper hostels? Actually yes but in rural area and travel expense will break you immediately.
It’s rather wise or unwise to exchange money at Brunei Airport depending on your thought, but it should be the same rate or not a great fluctuation in both City centre and the Airport. You will be lucky to spot any 20 Brunei Dollar Banknotes as it is not really common to see. Most used notes are 1,5 and 10 Dollars. In my mind, Brunei living cost is not that much compared to Singapore, but just as low as Malaysia Metropolitians. A dish can be found easily at some local restaurant in the centre with just 2 or 3 Dollars. For fast food chain, Jolibee and Mc Donalds offer most with 4-7 Dollars. Services are also cheap. Even with grocery and clothes.
Bandar Seri Begawan City
The Capital of Brunei Darussalam is Bandar Seri Begawan. This city has its center at Pusat Bandar. This can be considered as the modernest, bustling and “outgoing” area of the city as most tourists choose to rest here. Streets are in good conditions with not many cars. The bus terminal also lies here. From this zone, you are able to pass through most of tourist places as well as historical sites including Kampong Ayer and Royal Palace. Around is some choices of fast food and local restaurants. It’s also better for you to take a taxi here rather than other places.
No matter what you eat, Ambuyat and Nasi Katok are the two must-try dishes since it reflects the culture and past of Brunei Darussalam. With Ambuyat, prepare to pay a huge sump of money of 10 Dollars or more for a combination of a big portion of Ambuyat with side dishes as lamb meat, curry sauces, vegetbales and others. Refering to Nasi Katok, I really enjoy this one, just simple with a piece of chicken and rice cooked in coconut with sauce of Brunei Sambal, another version of Malaysia Sambal.
Besides, There are hundreds of food choices for you in Gadong Night Market with just 1 Dollar.
It’s hard to find a restaurant with pork in Brunei as most are Halah. Even with beer and wine, not a single drop can be found anywhere as they are strictly prohibited due to Shariah law. This also means no Bar, Pub or nightclub exist in Brune.; such a healthy lifestyle 😀
Spots To Visit
Oma Ali Saifuddien Mosque
This is the most famous and iconic mosque in Brunei as it’s located right at the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Named by the previous sultan Oma Ali Saifuddien, the fresh and maiden structure with real solid gold coated domes attracts and amazes numerous visitors right at the first sight. It may take you around 1 hour or so in this mosque to observe the inside decorations and jog on the bridges at the two sides. Free entrance for guests but once entering the mosque, make sure to check for the time of operation as from 8:30 Am to 8:30 Pm for the outside zone.
To be inside the mosque, you are required to wear polite and formal satires although you still have to wear a long black islamic coat to cover. No camera is allowed inside. The best background for taking photos are at the flower gardens in front of the mosque or the two bridges. Another symbol of the mosque is the big stone boat as a substitue for the real one that is used in formal events and occasions.
Right next to the mosque is a complex of residence and a small mall with some food offers.
At night, when the mosque is lighted on, everyone gathers around to bike on delighted colorful electronic bikes. Food stalls are also installed with variety of choices. It can be said that this is the most lively and funny area though not that much bustling.
James Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Parallel with Oma Ali mosque, this mosque is by far the genuine gemstone of Bandar Seri Begawan. Located in Gadong district but from a far distance, a construction of a huge mosque with two big real gold coated domes and 8 tall pillars can be observed with admiration. The white stone and black decorations with foutains does make it seem like arabic mosques in Syria.
It is built to honor the current sultant Hassanil Bolkiah as the one printed in Brunei Dollar banknotes for what he did to the country. Be aware that they do have pray time for muslims. As I remember, it is opened free for guest with no camera inside at 8:30 to 12pm and 15:30pm to 17:00pm.
If not, you are just able to walk around the mosque. The only way to get here is to rent a car, take a taxi or jumping on bus Circle Line no 01; ask the bus driver to drop you off at the eastern entrance. You should be back here at night if possible, just a 10 minutes walking distance from Gadong Night Market. I bet you will be astonishing at sunset with the mosque background.
The Mall is, without any mistake, the largest and mordernest mall in Brunei Darussalam. In fact, this mall is surrounded by many restaurants, hostels and convenient stores in Gadong district. Hence life here is more bustling than the city center. Thanks to those facilities, you can find it livelier and a little bit outgoing to stay in Gadong area. It’s worths hanging around food corners and milktea stall there in the Mall. Most stalls are clothes, souvernir and food trades. It has 4 flours and takes 30-40 minutes to cover all stalls for “exploration”.
Still the big structure of glass is unique and somehow turns it to be an icon in the district.
Gadong Night Market
To say that this is a night market is not true, but as for many tourists, arriving here at night to enjoy local cheap food is what they usually do. The market is seperated in 2 main parts: The wet and the night market. Wet market is operated until 4:30pm for daily needs of meat, poultry, vegetbles and seafood. I highly recommend you give here a chance to understand how people trade, which is a tradition value of Brunei. The second part is Night Market, which is opened quite early at 3:30pm to midnight 12am. There is no way you can find so many dishes with generous portions rather than this place. From Nasi Katok to Bakso, Takoyaki, fried chicken, grilled meat, Kebab, Cendol or Durian, all can be found in this food heaven stretching for 500 meters. The best part is that most can be bought with as low as 1 Dollar.
Some stalls in the market
The most expensive one I have seen is 3 Dollars for a big Kebab. In addition to tourists, locals also wander around as it seems to be the only place that is really “funny” in Brunei Darussalam. But, don’t be overexcited to miss the last bust to Bandar Seri Begawan at 5:45pm (Circle Line No 1) or else you have to walk for 3 kilometers back to the city. With anyone staying around Gadong, please take this opportunity to enjoy all the food there.
Kampong Ayer, Probicis Monkey and Boat Tour.
If you just want to explore the hidden beauty of Kampong Ayer without paying so much, take a boat across the Brunei River and walk to enjoy. But in case you desire to enjoy Brunei with what others can’t see, join someone to take a boat tour for 3 hours along the river, to far beyond inside the mangover forest. This doesn’t dissapoint me as the cost is just 6,5 Dollars for one (boat of 6) with such a long way to the mangovers as well as explanations and presentation of the boat driver. They will show you how Kampong Ayer was established, the history of Brunei driver, the royal palace of Sultan, which can’t enter until the first day of Hari Raya and more than that the monkey Probicis.
Why it’s hard to spot such a monkey? Because he can just show up at some specific time and really timid to see human. Then, boat has to be at slow speed and wait for the right time to catch a sight of this monkey, which can just be seen in Borneo, yes only Borneo in this world!!!. That’s a gift nature gives Brunei. It’s true to claim that nature takes an important role in Brunei as it divers the biology here as well as help to eliminate the pollutants.
The fauna and flora of Brunei does excite me so much. You can’t imagine how cool and eyecatching it is to sit on the boat going around the mangover. That’s also a time for me to make friend with locals and other tourists. Take this chance to explore a hidden Brunei that you won’t ever seen in the city.
The tour also take you to the longest one-cable bridge in Brunei with such a good view below.
Please note that you must bargain hard with the boat driver for this tour. It shouldn’t be more than 50 Brunei Dollars for 3-4 hours of traveling including Kampong Ayer, The Bridge and Probicis Monkey Spotting. It’s wise to partner with someone for this trip. First, you can make more friends; second, it will slow down the price when it comes to division. During the trip, you can ask the boat driver to stop anywhere you want as long as it’s in the route.
Last but not least, it’s royal museum that reveals the life of Sultan’s majesty as well as his rule over the nation. The museum is free of charge and can be reached easily just by walking 5-10 minutes from Oma Ali Saifuddien mosque. Remember to take shoes off and leave the cameras in the locker, there will be an information reception to ask upon any inquiries. The royal itself if not so huge but the items and collection inside is marvelous. From pictures of the Sultan when he was young to gifts and presents by other nations that show the respect and cooperation of Brunei with other countries. I used to be surprised at how rich the Sutan is as there is 2 or 3 items to be used during the ceremony or royal process, and definitely they are all valuable.
As a backpacker, you may find traveling to Brunei Darussalam costlier to others in ASEA and undoubtedly quiet. However, taking a chance on this lovely nation and you realize it doesn’t matter the fact it is but the inside value that you have explored in one of the most mysterious wealthy country.