Brunei Darussalam is a small, oil-rich country on Borneo that most people don’t ever visit or even hear about in their lifetime. Despite the fact that Brunei is not known for any major sights or nature, I decided to pay the small sultanate a visit while I was travelling through Borneo.
Brunei has one of the highest standards of living in Asia and has a large welfare system with free medical care, free education and food- and housing allowances. There is also no income tax, as most of the country’s money comes from oil taxes.
While all of this sounds great and should be the perfect base for a free life, unfortunately, that is not the case with Brunei.
Brunei is controlled by a Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, who decides everything. He’s one of the richest men in the world and is often criticized by the Bruneians for this, as they also want to have better living conditions. As it seems, Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but the Bruneians don’t see much of that wealth in their everyday lives. I set out to see with my own eyes how the average Bruneian lives.
As the bus departed from the ferry terminal to go to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, the first thing that I heard was the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. That was my first experience of the Islamic culture in Brunei – one that I would experience many times in the next two days. The call to prayer continued as we drove past one big, fancy house after another, before coming into a more rural area with farmhouses and tropical rainforests. Brunei is undoubtedly a country of big contrasts!
When I got to Bandar Seri Begawan – or BSB as the locals call it for short – I was surprised to see that the city looked like any other Southeast Asian city. A bit run-down in areas, but otherwise modern and somewhat westernized. In my imagination, BSB was a city of gold streets and fancy limousines, but while some places were nice and clean, it was nothing like that. While Brunei is an extremely wealthy country, aesthetics aren’t generally cared for.
With my long trousers and t-shirt on, I went for a stroll in the center of BSB, allowing myself to get a bit lost in order to really get a feel of the city and its inhabitants. I was in a place where not many tourists go and where the English-speaking locals are very limited, but still I enjoy getting myself lost (with a map handy, though!). While on my stroll, I saw neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise; I saw how people lived humble lives although they were surrounded by wealth. And I experienced the friendly nature of the Bruneian people.
When I was venturing onto an unknown street, I came across a small shop, where I walked in to buy some water. It was a really hot day and I had run out of water, but unfortunately, also of cash.
I asked the shop owner if I could pay by credit card, although I knew that the answer I wanted was not the one I would get. But instead, he asked me to take a photo (look below) of him and a boy, who I presume is his son, and then handed me a bottle of water for free. What a friendly man and what an absolute hero!
There were two things that I really wanted to see while I was in BSB. The first thing was the famous water village called Kampong Ayer. This is the largest water village in the world; A cluster of 42 villages built of stilt houses including homes, shops, mosques and restaurants, and 36 km. of wooden pathways connecting it all, with a population of over 39.000 people.
Years ago, half of Brunei’s population lived here, and even today many Bruneians still prefer the lifestyle of the water village despite many of the houses being run-down. Something generous that the sultan has done for the country is that in order to improve the living standards of the inhabitants in Kampong Ayer, he built modern two-story stilt houses that would be given to people in need of a new home, if they wished to continue living in the village. But whether or not this was actually a good deed, seeing as the original water village is the traditional inheritance of the inhabitants, I couldn’t really figure out.
For just 2 BND, a local fisherman took me from the mainland across Brunei Bay to the water village. The sun was boiling that day and on the water it got even worse. I didn’t have much energy to walk around, although I really wanted to explore the water village. But something else made me quit what I was doing; The uneven and broken pathways with loose screws everywhere! There was nothing underneath to support them, so I would’ve fallen straight into the bay if they had collapsed. I felt like they could collapse any second, so after a quick walk around one of the villages, I jumped on a boat and went back to the mainland.
I didn’t feel safe on the broken pathways, but I admire the inhabitants for their bravery and their spectacular way of life. I wish I could’ve seen more, but I was wary of every step and therefore not really getting anywhere; it would’ve taken me days to explore it all.
The second thing that I wanted to see was easily seen from everywhere in the city; The golden mosque called Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque dominates the skyline of BSB. It’s often considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Asia and not without reason. The mosque is grand with marble minarets and golden domes and every angle is one that captivates attention.
The mosque from 1958 serves as a symbol of the strong Islamic faith in Brunei; a faith that I also got to experience firsthand. When I had finished exploring the mosque, I was starting to get really hungry, as I had skipped breakfast that morning. It was only then that I found out that all shops and restaurants in Brunei close down for two hours on Fridays from 12 to 2 PM, which meant that I had to wait two hours to get anything in my stomach. I have been to several muslim countries and never experienced anything like this, but in the end, I managed and when I finally got some food, it was the greatest reward.
Going to Brunei was a little setback in my budget, as accommodation there is very expensive and dorms haven’t even been heard of. But I wanted to see this tiny, unknown country, even though the one thing that it is known for, is that there’s not much there to do.
I was surprised by many things that I saw in Brunei, mainly how people were living, especially at the water village. I was surprised to see a woman driving a taxi, which I hadn’t come across in the other Southeast Asian countries. In Brunei of all places, I would’ve never thought that it could happen. I was surprised to see how the Islamic law affected the country, the citizens and even the few tourists that were there.
Getting to Brunei was a hassle, as I had to take two ferries from Kota Kinabalu to get there and two ferries back just two days later. I couldn’t stay longer than for two days, as my budget wouldn’t allow it, but spending two days travelling to see a country for one day is not really the perfect scenario. Still, I was happy that I decided to do it and on the way back, I even met some fellow travelers, who I’m going to be meeting up with later on on this journey.
Writing this post was harder than I had thought it would be, mainly because I still haven’t really processed the experience of visiting Brunei. It’s so different from anything that I’ve ever seen before and yet I still can’t seem to find the right words to describe it. It was a very perplexing experience and although it’s probably not a country that I would go back to, I can recommend it to anyone travelling in Borneo, if you have some money and time to spare. Brunei is a unique place and in order to really understand how the Bruneians live, you would have to see it for yourself.