The Sultanate of Brunei (Full name: Negara Brunei Darussalam) is a small but – thanks to natural gas and petroleum resources – very rich country located in Southeast Asia. It is surrounded by Malaysia and has two parts physically separated by Malaysia, almost being an enclave. Strategically located on the South China Sea, close to vital sea lanes linking Indian and Pacific Oceans it has a population of 398,000 as of 2008.
The earliest recorded references to Brunei concern China trading in the 6th century. Prior to the 1400’s, it was controlled by Sumatra and Java dynasties. The Sultanate of Brunei’s heyday occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries, when its control extended over coastal areas of northwest Borneo and the southern Philippines under the 5th sultan, Bolkiah. Brunei subsequently entered a period of decline brought on by internal strife over royal succession, colonial expansion of European powers like the Spanish and Portuguese but they failed to make inroads, and piracy.. A series of treaties ceding land and power whittled away at the internally riven sultanate and in 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate. Two years later, Limbang was lost to Sawawk, dividing Brunei in two. Oil was discovered in 1929 turning the state into an economic power overnight. It was offered to join Malaysia as a state in 1963, but opted out of the Federation due to a disagreement on the amount of its oil income that would have to be given to the central government in Kuala Lumpur, and it stayed a Britiah protectorate. Independence was achieved in 1984 under the popular Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The same family has ruled Brunei for over six centuries. The country still has very close political, econmic and military ties to Britain. After independence it adopted a national ideologyknown as Melayu Islam Bejar which stresses Malay culture, Islam and the legitimacy of the sultan.
The backbone of Brunei’s economy is oil and gas and the Sultan of Brunei is, famously, one of the richest persons in the world with an estimated personal wealth of around 40 billion dollars. Per capita GDP is far above most other developing countries. Its wealth affords its citizens one of the highest standards of living in the world – per capita GDP is over $US50,000 and the government runs a budget surplus of 39%. Substantial income from overseas investment supplements income from domestic production. The government provides for all medical services and subsidizes rice and housing.
All sectors of economy are fairly heavily regulated and government policy is an odd mixture of subsidies, protectionism and encouragement of entrepreneurship. Brunei’s leaders are attempting to balance the country’s steadily increasing integration into the world economy with internal social cohesion. Plans for the future include upgrading the workforce, reducing unemployment, strengthening the banking and tourist sectors, and, in general, widening the economic base beyond oil and gas.
Work. Many of the jobs in Brunei are in the gas and oil industry but many positions have opened up for international English Teachers due to the booming economy and business sector. Placement in one of these teaching jobs in Brunei can be a great way to absorb the culture and see many of the wonderful attractions Brunei has to offer, while making money to boot.
Brunei is officially an Islamic state, the most obsevant Islamic country in SE Asia, with many large beautiful mosques across the country. However, Bruneians embrace integration into the global economy, striving to strike a balance between international trends and local traditions. Sale of alcohol is banned. Only 67% of the population is actually Muslim. Buddhists (13%), Christians (11%) and indigenous (10%) make up the rest.
The bulk of the population is Malay (67%) and there is also a significant Chinese minority of some 15% as well as a number of indigenous peoples (3.4%), including the Iban and Duson tribes who inhabit the jungle upriver in the Temburong district, (the smaller eastern part detached from the rest of Brunei). There is a large number of foreign workers who work on the oil and gas production or in lower positions such as restaurant staff, field workers and domestic staff. The male to female ratio is 3:2. More than a quarter of the people are short term immigrant workers, most of whom are men.
Literacy stands at 93%, average life expectancy is 76 years, and there are free pensions for all, free medical care, free schooling, free sport and leisure centres, cheap loans, subsidies for many purchases (including cars), short working hours, no income tax, and the highest minimum wage in the region. The people of Brunei should stay happy (though in some cases slightly bored), with their felicitous lot.
Geography and climate
Brunei’s climate is semi-tropical, and Bandar Seri Begawan’s is sub-tropical. The temperature ranges from 14°C to 33°C – January being the hottest month. Rainy season is always mild and humid, followed by a hot and humid dry season. The difference between the two seasons is not that marked, however.
Brunei’s topology is of a flat coastal plain rises to mountains in the east, the highest point being Bukit Pagan at 1,850 meters, with some hilly lowlands in the west. Away from the coast, Brunei is mostly jungle, with about 75% of the country still covered by virtually untouched forests. Clear cutting, ‘selective logging’, road building and palm oil plantations – the most serious threats to Borneo’s incredibly rich ecosystems – stop dead at the sultanate’s borders. Brunei has several forest reserves as well as one national park, the superb Ulu Temburong NP, a 500 sq-km swathe of protected primary rainforest.
There are no typhoons, earthquakes, severe flooding and other forms of natural disasters to contend with, and the biggest environmental issue is the seasonal haze resulting from forest fires (that is caused by illegal clearing of land) in nearby Indonesia.
Brunei has four districts: Brunei and Muara – Heart of the country where the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is located. Tutong – Lies under the coverage of the virgin forest, scattered small scale plantations. Belait – Western-most district, also the centre of the country’s petroleum industry. Temburong – Isolated eastern district, separated from the rest of country by the Sarawak district of Limbang is much less developed.
Bandar Seri Begawan — the capital, sometimes known as “Bandar” or “BSB” for short.
Bangar — the tiny district capital of Temburong district.
Kuala Belait — town to catch transport to or from Miri, Sarawak.
Muara — main port of Brunei with passenger ferries to Labuan and Sarawak.
Seria — oil capital of Brunei, also known as “Shelltown”.
Entry requirements. Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Brunei visa-free as long as they present a passport valid for at least 6 months:
For up to 90 days: All European Union member states, United States, Canada.
For up to 30 days: Australia, Kuwait, Iceland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates
For up to 14 days: Cambodia, Canada, China (including Hong Kong SAR and Macao SAR), Japan, Indonesia, Laos, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Peru, Philippines, Switzerland, Thailand and Vietnam
Nationals of Israel will be refused entry, but other passports containing Israeli stamps and visas will not be an issue for entry.
Proof of return or onward travel is required to check in for your flight to Brunei. If you plan to leave by ferry you will need to purchase a cheap flight out of Brunei before you arrive there.
Brunei’s sole airport of significance, Brunei International Airport (BWN), the hub of national carrier Royal Brunei Airlines, is 8km north of central BSB. In addition, Singapore Airlines flies 5 times a week from Singapore, and Malaysia Airlines flies from Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. In July 2006, discount, no-frills carrier AirAsia started flights from Kuala Lumpur, bringing some much-needed competition. AirAsia is the cheapest carrier to serve Brunei from an international Hub, with fares as low as US$35 one-way from Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia flies from 35 destinations in Asia to Kuala Lumpur, where connections to Brunei are available. Cebu Pacfiic fly red-eye flights to Manila.
Departing by plane from Brunei involves paying a departure tax: B$5 for flights to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu and B$12 to other international destinations. This is included in the price of RBA tickets.
Getting there/away: A taxi to Bandar Seri Begawan takes 20 minutes and costs around B$25. A covered walk down to the end of the car park further away from the Terminal (turn right from Arrivals) leads to a bus stop for Purple buses to the city centre (B$1) along with other busses for tours & hotel shuttles. The reason for the long walk is extensive construction of airport upgrades.
To/from Miri: The Miri Belait Transportation Company runs buses between Kuala Belait in Brunei and Miri in Sarawak, Malaysia. To/from Limbang: The direct bus from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinibalu serves Bangar, Limbang, Lawas and other stops en route to Kota Kinibalu. It leaves opposite Tamu Kianggeh at approximately 8am. Alternatively, you can catch a local bus from Bandar’s bus station to Kuala Lurah on the border, walk across the checkpoint into Tedungan in Sarawak and catch a Syarikat Bas Limbang bus to Limbang. Do the reverse if coming from Limbang to Bandar. Buses depart from Limbang bus terminal several times a day and bear the destination “Batu Danau”. Taxis are also available on both sides of the border but bargain hard for the fare. You can also get to Temburong district by bus from Limbang, although again, there are no direct buses into Bangar; all buses (destination “Pandaruan”) stop at the ferry landing at Pandaruan, where there is now a Malaysian immigration checkpoint. Cross the river by ferry and catch a taxi for the 5km to Bangar.
To/from Kota Kinibalu: There is a daily bus from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinibalu. The bus departs opposite Tamu Kianggeh approx 8am.
The main ferry terminal in Brunei is the Serasa Ferry Terminal at Muara, about 20km NE of BSB, where there is one ferry at 8:45 daily to Pulau Labuan (1 1/2hrs) and from Pulau Labuan connecting to Kota Kinabalu at 11:30 (115km by sea). And one daily ferry each to/from Lawas and Sundar, both in Sarawak. With a change of boats in Labuan, you can even make it to/from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in a day.
Please note that the ferry terminal is quite a distance from actual Muara town where the container port is located. The terminal is about 25km from Bandar Seri Begawan. There are three express buses a day linking BSB’s bus teminal from the berth for bus 39 at 6:30 AM, 11:30 and 2:15 PM, and purple buses (No. 37, 38 or 39) linking the ferry terminal with BSB. Or you can just take a tour van / taxi. Note that your passport must be stamped and boarding ends one hour prior to departure.
By taxi. There are only ± 40 taxis in whole Brunei (2009), because the car ownership and usage are high. Since there are around 10 waiting at the airport and 8 in the Belait District there is a little chance of finding a free taxi along the road, especially during morning and afternoon peak hours when they are hired by business men. Needing a taxi might require a phone call. None of the taxis has a taxi meter since there is no taxi company nor regulation requiring to have one. Drivers have fixed prices for most trips, although the tariffs may vary between different drivers, or they will give a price for an irregular trip.
By tour vans. Another alternative is hiring a tour van to drive you around Brunei, for example, for a whole day, or several hours. Try asking them from the ferry counters in Muara. Discuss the price first before agreeing to board the van.
By bus. Around the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, there is a good-sized network of purple minibuses. Brunei’s high rate of private car ownership means very few Bruneians take these buses, which largely cater to foreign workers. The speed of the buses are limited to 50km/h but are actually quite efficient and reliable. Note that bus routes cease operation before 8pm. In general, the bus system around the capital radiates from the bus terminal in the central district.
Talk. The official language of Brunei is Malay, but due to its British colonial past, English is widely spoken and understood in urban areas.
Sights and Activities
Kampung Ayer. 28 contiguous stilt villages, home to 20,000 people, on both sides of the river (but esp the southern). Start your visit at the KA Cultural and Tourism Gallery directly across the river from BSB’s waterfront promenade. Cross the river by motorboat.
Omar Ali Salfuddien Mosque. (closed Thrusdays and only open 4:30-5PM Fridays). Lovely mosque surrounded by a lagoon. Floors and wall of Italian marble, English stained glass windows and chandeliers, carpets from Saudi Arabia and a 3.5 million-piece Venetian mosaic inside the main dome are the highlights.
Royal Regalia Museum. A tribute to the sultan, it recreates his coronation parade, displays his medals and gifts.
Brunei Musem. 4.5km East of Central BSB (closed Sunday). Displays Islamic art, Brunei traditional culture, natural history and independence.
Twelve Roofs House. Museum dedicated to relationship of Brunei with the UK. Towards the Brunie Museum. (bus 39 or a water taxi)
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. 3km NW of central BSB. Four terrazo-tiled minarets and a jaw-dropping interior. (Bus 01 or 22)
Istana Nurul Iman This is the world’s largest dwelling, 200,000 sq-m in size (4x the size of the Palace of Versailles and 3x larger than Buckingham Palace. The 300-acre palace sits on a man made hill with a clear view of Kampong Ayer. Istana Nurul Iman is the residence of the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and the palace is quoted to have an estimated value at US$600 million, 257 bathrooms and 1788 rooms. It is open to the public only for 3 days at the end of Ramadan. The best way to check it out is by a water taxi cruise.
Ulu Temburong NP. There are many eco-tours which typically go to the Temburong district by boat then to a native “longhouse”. It is then followed by a powered boat (by the natives) up the river to the Belalong National Park, a reserve in the Borneo rainforest. Only about 1 sq-km of the park is accessible to tourists. For all intents and purposes, the only way to visit the park is by tour (B$110 from BSB). There is a canopy walk on a delicate aluminum walkway secured by guy ropes, that takes you near the jungle canopy up to 60m above the forest floor. All manner of life proliferates up here.There are no explanatory signs and most guides don’t have the background to explain the ecosystem and point out the huge number of organisms that can live up a single tree: orchids, bird’s nest ferns and other epiphytes, ants and myriad other insects, amphibians and snakes, and a huge selection of birds.
Jerudong Park was once a decent theme park with a multitude of rides. Sadly, a downward cycle of neglect, declining admission and unaffordable maintenance costs led to the closure and sale of most of the big-ticket rides, including the three rollercoasters. This has given the park a sad “circus left town last week” air about it. Though in recent years there have been attempts to revive the park, including some new rides (mainly for children) as well as clown shows. The original bumper cars, go-karts, paddle-boats & merry-go-round are still operational. As is the fountain & light show.
Scuba diving. Brunei offers some great diving. In addition to coral and fish, Brunei is home to several shipwrecks and many species of nudibranch – one of the best places in S.E. Asia for macro photography. Water temperature is generally around 30 degrees and visibility is usually in the 10-30 meter range, although this can be changeable during the monsoon season. As diving here is not overly developed, it means that the sites, and especially the coral reefs, are unspoiled and in pristine condition.
Popular dive sites include the Blue Water Wreck, Cement Wreck, Australian Wreck, Rig Reef, a decommissioned oil rig. There are 9 structures to be explored, each seeming to be home to one dominant group of fish.
Diving is very reasonable, averaging out to BN$35-45 per dive depending on how many dives you do and whether you bring your own gear. There are a number of organisations you can do trips with such as; Poni Divers, Oceanic Quest, The Brunei Sub Aqua Dive Club in Brunei-Muara & Panaga Divers based in seria
Buy. The local currency is the Brunei Dollar (B$). You might hear Ringgit used to refer to the Dollar but be sure that participants are not talking about the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) which is valued at less than half a B$ .
As of October 2013 $1 BND = 2.5485 MYR = 0.499 GBP = 0.590 EUR = 0.807 USD
The Brunei Dollar is tied to the Singapore Dollar at a 1:1 rate. By law both currencies can be used interchangeably. The Brunei Dollar is divided into 100 cents. There are banknotes  from B$1 to a whopping B$10,000 (handy if you’re shopping for Rolls-Royces) and coins of 1 to 50 cents. All smaller notes and the 2004 series of larger notes are printed as brightly coloured polymer notes.
Costs. By South-East Asian standards Brunei is roughly on par with Singapore, meaning roughly twice as expensive as neighbouring Malaysia. You can reduce costs by eating at local restaurants and avoiding the more expensive restaurants in hotels. Budget accommodation, once very limited, has expanded in recent years and you can now get a decent bed for the night for around B$30.
Eat. Bruneians love to eat out and there are many excellent restaurants in Brunei serving a wide variety of cuisines, thanks to the large number of foreign workers in the country.
There is also the local nasi katok, a simple combination of rice and curried beef or chicken, which can be quite spicy. It is relatively inexpensive when compared to other food that you can buy, for example local food such as chicken rice. However, it is not a healthy option, with few vegetables and too much fat.
Drink. Brunei is a dry country: alcohol is not sold anywhere in the country and consumption of alcohol in public is prohibited by law.
Cigarettes. Currently (Jan 2013), cigarettes are difficult to obtain here. If you wish to smoke here, it is advisable to bring your own supplies. You are allowed to import 200 cigarettes or 225g of tobacco duty free.
WARNING: Brunei treats drug offences extremely severely. The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15 g of heroin, 30 g of morphine, 30 g of cocaine, 500 g of cannabis, 200 g of cannabis resin and 1.2 kg of opium, and possession of these quantities is all that is needed for you to be convicted. For unauthorised consumption, there is a maximum of 10 years’ jail or or a heavy fine, or both.
Brunei uses caning (for males only) for less serious crimes, including illegal entry, overstaying your visa for over 90 days, rape, robbery, corruption, and vandalism. Caning is no slap on the wrist: strokes from the thick rattan cane are very painful. The wounds can take weeks to heal and even scar for life. These laws apply to foreigners as well.
Brunei is a very safe country, with theft being uncommon and violent crime almost unheard of. However, you should use common sense, no matter what.
Stay healthy. Eating out is generally safe because of good food safety standards. Though tap water is not fit for drinking & should be boiled first. If that sounds like too much effort, bottled water is very cheap.
Respect. The Brunei Government is run as a Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB), and the Sultan of Brunei, apart from being one of the richest men in the world, is in charge and frequently appears on the front page of the two daily newspapers. At all costs, do not insult or speak badly of the Royal family.
Furthermore, though Bruneians are generally courteous and tolerant, it is a good idea to be aware of sensitivities surrounding certain topics of conversation, especially politics (domestic, regional & international) and world events, particularly those relating to Islam or Islamic countries.
Accommodation. This is significantly more expensive than in neighboring Malaysia. Pusat Bella in the Youth Hostel offered basic hostel services across the street from the Toutist Information Center, but has been closed since the fall of 2013. It was slated to open in 2014. KH Soon Dorms charge $18/night for a dorm room. Reviews of this facility are mediocre and I could not reach it by phone or email. The cheapest accommodation listed in Agoda.com was $68, a price not in most backpackers budget.