Brunei Darussalam is a unique nation because it’s independent but located on the island of Borneo. The country was once an empire that ruled the entire island of Borneo but has now become a small remnant of history.
Often called the “Abode of Peace”, Brunei has held onto some power due to their large oilfields. The country is ruled by a sultan and are a deeply Muslim country. Now, the future of tourism remains a mystery because in 2019 they chose to uphold strict Sharia law. But for those who do venture off the beaten track, they will be rewarded with luscious rainforests, coastal beaches, and a glimpse at protected wildlife.
Selamat Datang – Welcome to Brunei
Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of the country, which is the heart of Brunei’s power. The seat of the government and the sultan both operate out of the capital. Other important places around the city include its mosques, royal palace, and markets. The quiet location along the Brunei River also gives tourists the chance to explore by boat and head out onto the water for a nighttime glimpse at the city lights.
Culture and Language
Brunei’s history has always been closely linked to Borneo’s with the earliest settlements beginning when a colony called Vijayapura came from the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire to the island of Borneo. But by the 15th century, a Chinese ruler named Po-ni converted to Islam, which turned Brunei into a Sultanate state.
While Brunei once had all the power and ruled the entire island of Borneo, their territory dwindled as they faced war with Spain and British invasion. The Japanese also invaded Brunei during World War II, until they were defeated by the British in 1946. But on the turn of the new year in 1984, Brunei became independent. Since then and with the discovery of oil, the country has slowly worked to secure its development and wealth.
However, in 2013, Brunei’s relationship with Islam took a turn and the country decided to incorporate Sharia law into its penal code. This meant that Sharia law would be upheld and enforced throughout all of Brunei. For the population, which is 2/3 Muslim, this move became quite controversial and was highly criticized by foreign governments. Now, Brunei is the only country in East Asia that practices Sharia law.
But the culture in Brunei is unique because it is influence by location and religion. Malay culture is strong influence for Brunei, as the majority of the population are Malay. However, with the integration of the Islam religion, Muslim culture is also prominent. For both Malay and Islamic culture, the roles in the family are important. Parents are to be respected, as is seen in many Asian cultures, and everyone has their place within the home.
Islamic culture is stricter about gender roles and Sharia law is quite oppressive to women. However, the people of Brunei welcome tourists and tourists should not worry about taking a trip to the country – even if you are a woman. Foreign women will not be required to wear a hijab and you can travel relatively safely throughout the country.
Malay is the official language of Brunei, which is used in the government, media, and schools. However, an informal version of the language called Brunei Malay or Melayu Brunei is often spoken in the privacy of homes, between friends, or in other informal situations.
The most important foreign languages in Brunei are Arabic and English. Arabic is the language of the Islam religion and it is also the language of the Quran. For Muslims in Brunei, their children will go to religious school, where they will be taught Arabic. Most Muslim people in Brunei will have a fairly high proficiency level in speaking or writing in Arabic.
English is also an important foreign language and it is widely spoken throughout Brunei for business and tourism. Many children are taught how to speak in English at school and many higher-level education institutions will use English are the primary instruction language.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Brunei, you do not need to obtain a tourist visa prior to your arrival if you are staying for less than 90 days within the country. However, it is very important that you do not overstay your visa. In Brunei, it’s safe to say that they do not always think in the most sophisticated ways and if you overstay your visa, you can be subjected to a jail sentence, fine, and caning. Yes, as shocking as it is, you can be caned for overstaying a visa in Brunei.
Other requirements for entry into the country include have a US passport that has a 6-month validity past your arrival date to Brunei. You will also need a blank page for every entry stamp, which means that you’ll need 6 blank pages in total. Yes, it’s a lot of pages but there really are that many stamps. While there are no vaccinations required to visit Brunei, you should also be aware that there is an HIV/AIDS travel restriction and you may be subject to a medical examination upon entry into the country. There is a currency restriction of 15,000 Brunei dollars or currently, 11,140 US dollars for entry and exit into the country.
It’s also extremely important that travelers understand they will be subject to local laws when traveling to or in Brunei. This means that you may be subject to Sharia law during your time within the country. While Muslims are the only people likely to be subject to Sharia law, you should remember that it’s famous for being brutal and having infractions can lead to grave consequences. You should take care to respect local customs and traditions, as well refrain from any criticism about the government, Sultan, or Royal Family. Gambling, prostitution, and pornography are also illegal in Brunei.
You will also be subject to khalwat laws, which stops the different sexes from being in close proximity to each other. This includes displays like holding hands, kissing, or sexual activity. You may also not consume alcohol as it is illegal for it to be sold within Brunei. However, non-Muslim tourists can import up to 2 liters of alcohol for personal consumption in a private location.
Ultimately, you should keep in mind that if you are traveling to Brunei, you will be stepping into a strict and controlled world. If you’re looking for wild parties and endless freedom, you should re-think a trip to Brunei if you cannot conform to local customs and expectations for the duration of your visit.
While you don’t have to spend money on a tourist visa, it is still important that you consider the budget for the rest of your trip too. Brunei is more expensive than other Asian countries, but you can still travel on an affordable budget. You most likely won’t be able to live off of $15 dollars a day or less, but that doesn’t mean that you have to blow your budget out of proportion either.
It’s important to know that many visitors don’t spend a lot of time in Brunei. In fact, many travelers choose to spend a single day or two days in the country. Most people see Brunei as a place to pass through for curious travelers and not a place that you’ll hunker down and explore for an extended amount of time.
The reasons for short visits are that Brunei really hasn’t been developed for tourism and the main tourist activities can be completed in just a few days. Other people will tell you that since Brunei’s passing of Sharia law, tourism has gone down as interest in the country has dwindled.
Still, you should look at the prices of airfare, accommodation, food, and transportation as part of your budget.
Airfare will be the most expensive portion of your budget and there is a large range in prices. Most ticket prices can cost between $800 to over $6,000 US dollars. The large difference in price will depend on what class you fly, when you fly, and how far in advance you book your ticket.
Brunei’s tourism season runs from June to September, but there are also plenty of people who choose to visit the country between January and May. This is when the weather is dry and warm without being too hot. It is also the time that plane tickets will be the most expensive. Most people will choose economy, which means that plane tickets can still cost over $1,000 US dollars. However, you shouldn’t have to spend over $6,000 US dollars unless you wish to fly in a premier class. You can also book your ticket further in advance to save a little money.
Once you have booked a ticket, you should look towards booking your accommodation for the duration of your stay. Dorm beds are the cheapest places to stay in Brunei and many will cost about $15 US dollars per night. However, if hostels are not your style, guest houses are another popular accommodation option. Many guest houses will be about $70 US dollars per night for two people and may come with the extra perk of having an exceptional host.
Some of the country’s best hotels will also be the same price as a guest house. One of the top hotels in the capital is Hotel Badi’ah, which costs about $70 US dollars per night. Many travelers have chosen this hotel because of excellent ratings, as well as for being in a prime and safe location.
However, Western style hotels will have similar prices to the US. The Radisson Hotel Brunei Darussalam costs $120 US dollars per night for a double room. A junior style suit at the Capital Residence Suites is $150 US dollars per night, which is one of the more expensive hotels in the city. Overall, the capital will be the most expensive place, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find accommodation that suits your preferences and budget.
While accommodation is always important, you will also need to eat to keep your energy up. Bruneian cuisine may not be the most well-known, but they do have dishes that are heavily influenced by the region and close by countries. Malaysian, Indonesia, Singaporean, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese flavors can be found in their food.
One of the country’s national dishes is called ambuyat, which is made from the sago palm tree. Nasi katok is another national dish that was named for when you had to knock on a seller’s door to place an order. The dish is rice with a piece of chicken and sambal dip. Pulut paggang is one of the most popular dishes that frequently sells out. It is a rice filled wrap that is grilled on the fire. Finally, roti is based from India, but Brunei has their own version that is often filled with curries or sweet sauces.
Overall, most dishes are very affordable. Street food at the markets will be the most affordable with prices usually staying under $3 US dollars. Restaurants are still affordable, and many dishes can be bought for about $8 US dollars. Nicer restaurants can be more expensive with a dish costing about $20 US dollars.
Another way you can save money in Brunei is on your drinking budget because it will be $0 US dollars while you are in the country. The sale of alcohol is illegal in Brunei and it is not sold anywhere. This means that you won’t have to worry about buying beers or sipping cocktails. However, Brunei does allow tourists to import up to 2 liters of alcohol for personal consumption at a private location.
Overall, Brunei can still be traveled on an affordable budget. Most people can travel in Brunei for about $40-$60 US dollars. If you are staying in more expensive accommodations, you should expect your daily average to go up. But most people won’t spend more than $200 US dollars per day in Brunei, even if they are staying at the top hotels.
How to Get Around
Brunei is not the easiest country to get around because public transportation is not the best and stops at 6pm. There are also no trains. Most people will choose to travel Brunei by taxi or car, but it can be very expensive. Some people choose to rent a car. Unlike other Asian countries, most drivers are a lot calmer in Brunei, but you will have to drive on the left side of the road. Car rentals start at about $40 US dollars per day and gas is about $0.40 US cents per liter.
You may also hear stories of locals driving tourists around. In Brunei, it is common for locals to offers tourists a ride and you may give them a small tip of $4 US dollars for their kindness. However, don’t be offended if they don’t accept it, as some are just happy to help.
The best way to get around the cities is actually by walking. Big cities like the capital are perfectly safe for tourists and most of the main attractions will be within walking distance. However, you should always be aware of your surroundings and do not walk alone at night for safety.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While most people choose to visit Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, there are also a few other cities that are popular with tourists. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Brunei.
Bandar Seri Begawan
Bandar Seri Begawan is Brunei’s largest city and capital. It also holds the most stunning picture of the area, which is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque architecture. The mosque is very important for all of Brunei and its gold dome is a sight to behold. Inside the mosque are also stunning pieces of stained glass and Italian marble. But there are a lot of other important places in the capital and you can choose to explore the museums, shops, restaurants, and markets that fill the city’s streets.
This is a historic site in Brunei that was built on stilts over the Brunei River. Now, tourists come here to experience the local lifestyle and view the small markets. With just a small boat, you can explore this area and experience the world’s largest floating village.
If you want to take home some local crafts, Tutong Town is the place to go to peruse the handmade goods. The Tutong Thursday market is famous for being a treasure trove and a place where you can support the locals by making a small purchase.
Once a small fishermen village, Kuala Belait has become a popular place for tourist to visit who wish to see the mosque. The area is known for the Rasau gas field, but tourists can also stroll the quiet streets to interact with locals.
Close to Kuala Belait, Seria is the heart of the country’s oil. Here, oil was discovered and many tourists come to learn about the history and important of oil to Brunei and the world.
Points of Interest
Brunei is also filled with various points of interest that have become popular attractions for tourists. Here are the top points of interest in Brunei.
Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Another famous mosque in the capital is the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, which is a massive complex that is finished with a green roof and gold domes. The sheer size alone is enough to impress any traveler, but the beauty of the architecture will lure in for a closer look.
Also called Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s Palace is the world’s largest house, which is home to the Sultan. But you’ll have to admire the palace from afar, as most tourists are not allowed inside. Still, the impressive architecture is enough to draw people by for a photo.
Royal Regalia Museum
If you want to see what the rich give as gifts, the Royal Regalia Museum is filled gifts that were given to the Sultan. Here, you can get a taste of extravagance and view treasures from gold to jewels and a giant chariot.
Often called the spot to go see the sunset, tourists flock to Muara Beach to catch the view of the day’s last light. This stunning coastline is also the place to go for hikes, swimming, and picnicking.
Ulu Temburong National Park
The Ulu Temburong National Park is also called the “Green Jewel of Brunei”, which has been perfectly preserved because of the country’s oil fields. Here, you can step into jungles and bathe in natural pools. With an amazing beauty, this is one of the top places to go in all of Brunei.
At Laugan Lalak, you can walk a series of boardwalks to get out on the water and catch a glimpse of the rising sun. A freshwater swamp only adds to the beauty, which can be so still that it perfectly reflects the surroundings scenery and sky for a stunning photo. While it is not far from the capital, you will still need to leave Bandar Seri Begawan at 4:30 in the morning to make it by sunrise.
Get Out and Go
Brunei may not be Asia’s most popular tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean that it should be skipped. The amazing architecture and pristine preservation of the land ensures that Brunei is one of the most beautiful places you can go that is off of the beaten path. For those who are curious and want to expand their world travels, Brunei is the perfect country for a stopover for short visit.