BRUNEI AT FIRST GLANCE
You mention “wealthy, prosperous, ordely South East Asian micro-state”, and most of the time, you (and many people around you) would probably think about Singapore. That’s completely understandable of course, however Singapore does not hold a monopoly on the title of “rich little country” in the region. A little less popular, a lot less glittery, though no less wealthy, is its neighbor just across the Strait of Malacca, and it’s called the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam.
Despite being one of the few countries in the region that could be considered “developed”, Brunei doesn’t really figure that high as a travel destination, which is both good and bad. Bad, because it’s not that easy to get info about the place, and it’s not that easy to go around when you get there, but good – because you’re not likely to find spots that are touristy and feel “synthetic”, and you don’t get a horde of other tourists banging shoulders with you. The fact that it isn’t usually in the tourist trail gives it a “mysterious” aura, and when you mix that with a perception of having a quiet and conservative society, then you have an adventure destination.
Bandar Seri Begawan, or simply “Bandar”, is Brunei’s capital city. Apart from having the longest name among the cities I have been to, it also holds the distinction of being the “quietest”, most laid back national capital I have seen. Noontime in Bandar is probably what Manila feels like at 6 in the morning. “Rush hour” here brings light traffic, a few pedestrians, and a wide-open “the world is yours” feel. You can do cartwheels on a sidewalk in the middle of the city at 12:00 Noon without hitting anyone.
Like Singapore, I found Brunei incredibly clean and orderly (you can be 100% assured traffic will stop for you on a crosswalk). The streets in the capital city (and infrastructure in general), are very well maintained, and wide multi-laned expressways lined with very lush greenery radiate from the city to its fringes. Also like Singapore, you get that safe and secure feeling while going around its capital – you don’t see any cops around, but somehow you can feel that your safety is being looked after – and walking, even at night, does not give the jitters you normally would get from most large cities. You could also hear the familiar “Sing-lish” accent spoken quite a lot too, and Singapore currency can be used in lieu of the local Brunei Dollar, valued 1:1.
The similarities between the two end there however. Whereas Singapore feels like the ultimate “city that never sleeps”, Bandar at 8pm feels like midnight in other major cities.
Central Bandar is also such a compact area that it can be walked, end to end. If you’re not inclined to tour through the soles of your shoes though, then there aren’t a lot of other options. There are no taxi cabs that go around waiting for passengers, and owing to the fact that most locals have cars, mass transport is barely existent, coming only in the form of purple mini-buses with a route system that isn’t very easy to understand for typical tourists. Your best bet would be to hire a cab through the hotel, and paying by the hour, especially if you also plan on visiting other places outside of the city center.
Brunei is perhaps most known for its water village, called Kampong Ayer. The village sits right across the river from central Bandar, and every minute, numerous boats cross to and from the two shorelines, bringing people – locals and visitors alike – from one side to the other. The water village almost comes close to being a city in its own right. It’s got everything to sustain itself, including its own schools and even its own fire station, all sitting on stilts above the water. Though we weren’t able to get a really close look at the houses, since we opted not to take a boat tour, the village already looks amazing from afar. For this, some people call Brunei the “Venice of the East”, though to be honest it probably wouldn’t even come close to Venice’s romantic charm. Still, it’s not so often that you see a whole town standing over a river.
Perhaps the most vibrant places in the country are its outdoor markets. During the mornings, especially on Fridays, Tamu Kianggeh, right beside the city center, will teem with life as locals scour around for the best produce. Things will get quieter here as the day goes by though (pictures below were taken at noon), so the best time to go and mingle would be early in the morning.
As evening falls, the activity shifts to the night markets. Brunei is known for its relatively conservative society, and these night markets are what would qualify as night-life in this place. The largest one, in a district called Gadong a few minutes from the city center, is a one-stop shop for Malay and Brunei cuisine. Basically nothing more than rows of tents across a parking lot, the Gadong night market is a perfect place for those on a “food adventure”.
There aren’t too many choices for lodging in Brunei, at least not as many as most other major cities. The handful of hotels that are there span a pretty good range though, from the incredibly luxurious, to the spartan “backpacker” types.
We booked ourselves at a place called the Brunei Hotel, and we couldn’t have made a better choice. The hotel is right smack in the middle of the city, within walking distance from the waterfront, the Yayasan mall, the Kianggeh market and not too far from landmarks such as the Royal Regalia Museum and the picturesque Omar Ali mosque.
The hotel itself is attractive, especially once you go inside. The lobby exudes a modern and slightly minimalist chic, giving a feel that’s somewhat of a cross between a boutique hotel and a full service one. The rooms are clean, reasonably spacious, and comfortable – and it’s the only hotel I know that restocks your complimentary drinks (including canned drinks) and snacks. Though all this comes at a price that isn’t exactly cheap, it wont break a leg either. Perhaps the only downside is their meager breakfast buffet.
Brunei is known for not being “flashy”, and it is evident as soon as you land in the country. By international standards, Brunei’s airport is “modest” at best, especially if you compare it against the bombastic ones built by its neighbors like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The terminal building itself is just about the right size for a country that doesn’t really have a large population to begin with. It does have everything you need in an international airport, but nothing more. There’s a modest amount of shops to keep passengers entertained while waiting for their flights, plus a few restaurants for those who prefer to spend time munching, and the seating at the departure area is reasonably comfortable too, but that’s about all that it will offer. The place is purely functional as an “air passenger teminal”, and while it does what it can to make everyone comfortable, it will not bother to impress anyone.
And, curiously enough, it is the only airport I know, outside of the Philippines, that will collect an air travel tax ($12 BND) at the check-in area.
* Photos takens last June 2012 using an Olympus E-420 with Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.