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Fascinating, Interesting, or Boring Brunei?

The sultanate of Brunei is located in the north of Borneo, between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. This has been the richest country in the world for a long time, with the sultan being the richest man in the world.

Nowadays, the economy is still very good, mainly because of oil and natural gas production. Tourism is one of the growing industries, based on the natural beauty of Borneo. Leaflets about the country will mainly show this fascinating part of Brunei. In the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan we will also learn some other aspects of this country.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

History of Brunei

In the old days, before the Europeans came to Southeast Asia, Brunei was a large and powerful country. Besides most of Borneo, it also consisted of parts of the Philippines. Slowly but surely however, the country became smaller and smaller. With treaties in exchange for protection against pirates, more and more land was granted to English North Borneo (nowadays Sabah) and the White Rajahs (Sarawak).

At the point that the whole of Brunei would disappear, they struck oil. From that moment on, Brunei was rich. And apart from the sultan and the oil company (Shell), the citizens gained from that as well. Health care is free, no taxes are raised, and the minimum wages are high. On the downside, alcohol is prohibited in this strict Muslim state.

Kampung Ayer with the Mosque in the backgroundSomewhere near the coast between Sabah, Sarawak, and Brunei is the island Labuan. This is where most of the treaties were signed between the sultan of Brunei, the British government, and James Brooke, the first of the White Rajahs. Nowadays, the island has a unique status. It is part of Malaysia, but not Sabah or Sarawak. Nice theory, but in fact it is a tax free haven where people from the three states can come for cheap shopping, drinking, and gambling. There is a direct boat connection between both Kota Kinabalu and Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, which we use to get from Sabah to Brunei.

First acquaintance with Brunei

After two boat trips we set foot on the shores of Brunei. After the formalities (we bought 6 bottles of beer, which we have to declare at customs) we appear to be 30 kilometers outside of Bandar Seti Begawan. No problem, there is supposed to be a bus, and money exchangers so we would be on our way in no time. But no such luck, there are no money exchangers, and the bus has just left. An expensive taxi seems to be the only alternative, until a man offers us a ride.

Our driver has a company in interior decoration, and has just been to Sabah to buy materials for a customer. Underway, he tells us that nothing is being made in Brunei itself. Because of the richness from the oil, people didn't bother to start other businesses, they got their money anyway. But it is difficult to spend it here, a lot is spent on houses and cars, and we do see some nice places in the outskirts of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Youth Hostel

In Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, we are dropped off at the only budget accommodation in Brunei: the youth hostel. It is part of a youth sports centre and is surrounded by a large sports complex and a pool. It is difficult to find the manager, but 10 minutes after knocking on his door, he opens it. We register, and he shows us the dorms. Boys and girls are strictly separate, even in different buildings. There are little or no other guests, so we have the rooms to ourselves. But since we are in different buildings, we have to agree what time we will meet outside. Not very convenient.

The first thing we do is take a look in town, to find an ATM. The center is small, just a few streets with shops and restaurants. Around it are wide streets with impressive buildings and a little further streets with apartment complexes. The shops and people are similar to those in Malaysia, but it feels different. Everything is clean, but moreover it's quiet. There are just a few cars on the streets and the lack of chaos makes it a bit dull. After getting some money and having some food, we go back for a dive in the pool.

The Big Mosque

Our one full day in Brunei we have to do some sight-seeing. First we go to the big mosque. This impressive building symbolises Brunei, it's picture is on every leaflet about the country. We admire the building from inside and out, although inside is not much more than a huge hall, nicely decorated though. Outside is the artificial lagoon, halfway round the mosque, with in the middle an island in the shape of a boat. Unfortunately, the path that would lead us there is blocked.

Kampung Ayer

Kampung Ayer, village on the waterFrom the mosque we walk onto the pathways of the most interesting part of Bandar Seri Begawan: the water village Kampung Ayer. The apartment blocks in the city are merely empty since most of the population decides to live here, in the ancient old houses on stilts. The first building we pass here is a school. We walk along the rooms and wave a lot to the children, shouting "hello, hello". There is not much special about the school, apart from it being built on stilts.

From the school the pathway goes to the houses. Although it is clear that the people in the houses aren't particularly poor, we feel like being in the poor suburbs. The houses are made of wood, not very big and packed together. And from a quick peek under the houses we learn that garbage is not collected here. The contrast with the rest of the city is large.

Via a labyrinth of pathways the houses, which are actually forming small communities, are connected. But most of the transport here is by boat. Speedboats are racing along the houses, searching for people or freight to transport. When we dine at the waterfront in the evening, we see that the rush our is not on the streets, but on the water. Speedboats are constantly picking up and dropping off people. A fascinating sight to see these boats, especially in the dark.

Back on the mainland we visit one of the luxurious malls. Similar, but less luxury ones can be found in most Malaysian cities, but there they are actually used. Here, it is very quiet again and we wonder if they are making money here. At least it is beautiful and clean here.


The Brunei museum is located a few kilometres from the city and we don't fancy walking there. Instead, we pass the mosque to visit the two museums that are located in the center. The first one is the history center, and shows the history of Brunei. It is a strange building with mainly photographs of official occasions, such as the declaration of independence. Remarkable is the presence of the sultan on each and every photograph. The subscript always mentions the full name and title of the sultan, taking more than three rows. Apart from the sultans family tree, there is little of interest here.

The golden carriage in the Royal Regalia MuseumThe second museum is the Royal Regalia Museum, which is entirely devoted to the sultan. It takes a while to find the entrance, but then we are immediately amidst the gold and glory. In the central hall is the golden ceremonial carriage, surrounded by flags and banners. But first, we have to follow the path through the museum, describing the personal development of the sultan.

We see photographs of the sultan in all possible situations: as a child at school, etcetera. Then, of course, those showing how normal he is: in the soccerfield, playing golf and riding a horse. Then, the official pictures: his wedding and the crowning. Al attributes used in those ceremonies are on display as well: a golden throne, crown, staff, sceptre, keris (Malay dagger), even a small golden beetle nut chest. But there is no picture of him chewing the red stuff.

The museum continues with a complete gallery of gifts and souvenirs from different countries. And then we arrive in the parade hall. Here is another carriage with around it the costumes of the people that should walk the parade. Everything well aligned, only the actual people are missing.

A small party after all

We return to the youth center for a refreshing dive in the pool. In the evening, after dinner, we enjoy our beer from Labuan on the ground in front of the center. The only other guests from the hostel, a couple and a Canadian guy, are sitting here as well. It seems a little like sneaking together with men and women together and alcohol, both being prohibited. When someone passes, he asks us to put the empty beer cans on the bottom of the garbage bag, so nobody finds out about our sinsÂ…

After 2 days we leave Bandar Seri Begawan and Brunei. We miss the attraction park with roller coaster. From what we hear, the best part about that park is that it is deserted as well, so there are no lines for the roller coaster. The locals don't appreciate that kind of entertainment either.

To get from Bandar Seri Begawan to Sarawak, we have to take the bus. But although it is a small country, we have to change buses twice. We also have to pass two rivers by ferry, one on foot, and one with the entire bus. We don not pass oil palm plantations, which is good. We do pass the city of Seria, and some oil fields and refineries.

Another attraction we do not visit is the monument for the billionth barrel of oil, standing near Seria. The fact that this monument is mentioned as one of Brunei's attractions is enough for the jury to pronounce Brunei as being the most boring country in the world. Yet, it was an interesting experience being here, and we guess tourism in Brunei will focus on luxurious resorts in the rain forest regions of the country.

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