I had no intention of ending up visiting Brunei Darussalam while backpacking through Southeast Asia. As these things go, it just kind of happened. So, what does one do when life gives you two days for visiting Brunei Darussalam and absolutely no plans?!
Ultimately, Brunei was not my favorite. Nope, nope, nope. Like other humans (especially those not benefiting from cis-straight-dudeness), I do not particularly relish men staring me down as I walk past their hangout spots. Or wondering if showing up in off-season makes you a tad less welcome than usual. Certainly less-than-thrilled with the bizarre feeling that there’s some seriously shady shit going on just underneath the politico-cultural surface.
A BIG however: I’m not about to totally write-off an entire country based solely on two very short days in a single city and neither should you!
In fact, I would highly encourage travelers swing through Bandar Seri Begawan for a conservative culture-shift, mosques’ gorgeous Islamic architecture, the “we can smoke cigarettes here” water village, and (of course) the delicious market.
A word on dress code while visiting Brunei Darussalam
Brunei is a fairly conservative country and there is an implicit request for modest clothing. This means no spaghetti straps or cleavage and pants/skirts that go below the knee for the whole jaunt, not just inside mosques. I do not care if you “wouldn’t ask a woman to take off her hijab in America.” Are you defending your clothing choices for religious purposes? Probably not. Do you think you’d be making a great feminist statement? Guess what, hijabs are feminist, too. Besides, you are a guest in this country and choosing to wear modest travel clothes for a day won’t kill you.
Phew. Hopefully, that’s out of the way. Onwards!
Take a Water-Taxi Ride
Take a water taxi any time during your two days in Brunei, though I highly recommend getting there an hour before sunset. Tour guides like “Superman” are lined up along the docks. Ya can’t miss ’em. This tour was so nice, I didn’t even mind taking it twice, though, I am a sucker for boat rides. You’ll see proboscis monkeys, mangrove forests, palaces, and have a decent view of Kampung Ayer—the super developed water village. Since sultanate rules don’t quite apply on the water, this is also one of few chances to sneak in a cigarette.
Walk along Kampong Ayer
With your extra nice water-taxi escort (or you could safely wander around on your own with enough time), You’re guaranteed to be impressed at the street-like boardwalks and the fully-serviced town. This village has everything from fire station to hidden ice cream parlors.
Hit the markets
If you’re visiting Brunei Darussalam, do me a favor, eat ALL of the delicious snacks you can handle! Nearby to KH Soon Guesthouse, you’ll find a local market selling delectable durian (eat it outside)and maybe even a few specialty items. We were delighted to meet a stall owner selling “forest berries.” She was likewise delighted to watch a couple of ya-ha foreigners make faces over the shocking sourness of those berries!
If you’re lucky, you’ll have connected with a few local Bruneian to drive to Pasar Malam Gadong, the night market. Hint: join the Miri couchsurfing meet-ups before going to Brunei. Go hungry and bring a crowd. You’ll never be able to eat your way through the entirety of tasty food available, so be sure to hit different sections (meats, veggies, and sweets!). My personal favorite treat is the Kuih Dadar. They also last long enough for a next-day treat!
Visit the Mosques
Alright, so we all already know that I fall hard for good food and nature immersion, but what’s the biggest reason to add visiting Brunei Darussalam to your Borneo jaunt? The mosques! Whether in daylight or by streetlamp, the mosques of Brunei are quite simply not to be missed. If you go while either Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah or Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque are open, you’ll be sure to meet people that are happy to share a bit about the mosque’s beauty and background of Islam in Brunei.
After Visiting Brunei Darussalam…
When you’ve drank your fill of golden beauty, seen enough pictures of the Sultan to last a lifetime (they’re given out directly to citizens and businesses), and noshed the market eats, then it may be time to move along. You might enjoy heading to Ulu Temburong National or take the ferry via the duty-free-island, Labuan, to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia.
Either way, you’re sure to remember even just two days in Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan for quite some time. With occasional news of Christmas tree banning, continued implementation of sharia law, and royal hypocrisy continuing to make headlines worldwide, you simply won’t be able to help yourself!