Brunei is easily the most underrated destination in all of Southeast Asia. The environmentally and culturally rich kingdom has loads to discover and is sure to thrill any traveler. Yet, less than a quarter of a million tourists visited in 2015. Most visits to the country call for a few days in the capital of the Muslim state, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB as locals call it. Although there are rumors that the streets of BSB are paved in gold, the world’s fifth richest country as of 2016, isn’t all that different from its ASEAN neighbors. Here you can expect to explore villages, eat at hawker stands, discover stunning temples, swim in the South China Sea, and incredible wildlife native of the lush jungles. The royal family is one of the wealthiest in the world, their private streets may very well be paved with gold as they live at Istana Nurul Iman, the world’s largest residential palace complete with 1,788 rooms, a helipad, and five swimming pools. Afterall Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has ruled since 1984, is reportedly worth $20 billion. We spent nearly a week in the city–here is our guide to where to stay, what to do, see, and eat in BSB.
WHERE TO STAY IN BSB: JUBILEE HOTEL
We were guests of the princess during our trip to BSB. Well, not exactly. We were invited to stay at the Jubilee Hotel which is conveniently located in the city center within walking distance to most of the below sites and restaurants. In the rather expensive BSB city center, Jubilee Hotel offers guests a comfortable place to stay with moderate prices with full amenities including complimentary buffet breakfast of western and eastern specialties, a small swimming pool, in-house cafe, and concierge service. Throughout the property are beautiful vibrant paintings of local flowers, such as this stunning iris.
The rooms and furnishing are a bit outdated but it adds to the charm of what must have once been a very glamorous hotel. Our room was really large with a super cozy bed. We enjoyed having coffee in our small sitting area each morning and taking in the views of the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque from our room! The staff is incredibly kind and they even offer complimentary airport transfers for guests. Jubilee Hotel is an ideal place to stay for a quick visit to BSB!
WHAT TO DO IN BSB
CHASE WATERFALLS AT TASEK LAMA RECREATIONAL PARK
Start your day exploring BSB with a morning walk to one of the city’s many parks. BSB could seriously compete with Singapore as being one of the greenest cities in the world–at least as far as natural green spaces go. It is only fitting that The Kingdom of Unexpected Treasure would have a beautiful waterfall nearby the capital city center. Not only is it easily accessible but no hardcore trekking is required to reach the waterfall–simply follow the paved path and you’ll arrive in no time.
SEE THE JAME’ASR HASSANIL BOLKIAH MOSQUE
The most beautiful mosque in Southeast Asia is the incredible Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah otherwise known as the Kiarong mosque. The external carved walls look like exquisite tile ceramics and are complemented with 29 real gold domes, 4 minarets, and a small yet gorgeous green garden. The mosque is the largest in Brunei and features traditional fountains, as water holds deep significance in Islam.
We were able to get a quick look inside the lavish interior complete with stained glass windows and intricately detailed and colorful woven carpets before we were told to leave. We were under the impression that we could visit any day except for the holy day of Friday but were incorrect. The mosque is located far enough from the main city that you have to take a pricey taxi to arrive so we decided to look at the exterior of the mosque rather than come back during visiting hours.
ENTER THE OMAR ALI SAIFUDDIEN MOSQUE
The central city mosque is not to be missed and is vastly different from the Kiarong mosque. The Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque overlooks a picturesque lagoon where a lavish 16-century replica barge was erected to commemorate the 1,400 anniversary of Nuzul Al-Quran. While the Kiarong mosque is the most beautiful in the region the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque is the unofficial landmark of Brunei and the most important Islamic center in the kingdom. Guests are welcome inside free of charge during visiting hours outside of prayer times and are provided complimentary robes as modest attire is required for entire the mosque.
Although you can’t take photos inside I guarantee you the structure is dazzling–with Italian marble floors and walls, British chandeliers, and magnificent intricate carpets from Saudi Arabia. We were told that the massive dome is truly made of real gold-leaf. The dome can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, even from our room at Jubilee Hotel! The minaret rockets into the sky and at 52m it is the tallest structure in BSB. Rumor has it that the Islamic Bank of Brunei had been built higher than the sacred minaret and the sultan required that they remove the top floor in order to respect the mosque.
EXPLORE KAMPONG AYER
After you’ve explored the two most prominent mosques in BSB grab a penambang water taxi for 1 Brunei dollar per person and head across the Brunei River to the world’s largest water village–Kampong Ayer. Around 30,000 people reside here in colorful stilt homes built over the river. Most of the inhabitants are fisherman, boat drivers, and traditional weavers. We met many locals who live at the water village who proudly told us they were water people, not land people like those who reside in BSB and work in various corporate industries.
Kampong Ayer is also believed to be the oldest floating village on the globe as it’s been occupied for over 1,000 years! It was even once the capital of Brunei before the honor moved across the river to the mainland to form BSB. A fire devastated the water village not long ago and the government moved many of the villagers to plots of land, thus forcing them to leave behind their life as water people and try to learn agriculture in an attempt to become land people. The government renovated the burned down sections of the village, you’ll notice a stark difference between their seemingly luxurious structures and the stilt homes that are traditional in the area.
The Cultural & Tourism Gallery has an abundance of information about the history, policies, traditions, textiles, and crafts of the Kampong Ayer villagers as well as a few documentaries. Here I learned that female mutilation is still a common practice in the village, something I am firmly against and was aghast to see in such a progressive nation. After we’d soaked up knowledge about the village we wandered around aimlessly across the crumbling wood walkways and stopped to chat with villagers every chance we got.
Parts of Kampong Ayer are extremely run down and could be shocking to travelers who aren’t used to visiting rural villages. I urge you not to be judgemental about the standard of living you witness–just because you wouldn’t want to live in these conditions doesn’t mean they are perfectly suitable or comfortable for others. When reading about the GDP in Brunei consider that perhaps there is a deep void between the upper and lower class. Kampong Ayer is certainly not paved in gold but what it lacks in wealth it makes up for in character and extremely warm and welcoming people. Be open-minded and your visit is sure to be memorable.
VISIT THE ARTS & HANDICRAFTS CENTER
After you’ve explored Kampong Ayer make your way back across the Brunei river in a penambang and then walk to the Arts and Handicrafts Center. Borneo boasts many incredible arts and crafts due to its many ethnic tribes and the kingdom of Brunei is no exception. The Arts and Handicrafts Center has carefully curated exhibits of many of the artisan goods with dedicated areas to silverware, brassware, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, and hand-painted fabrics. The displayed pieces are all for sale so it’s a great place to pick up a moment for your trip and trust that it was made by artisans who were paid fairly and are working hard to keep their cultural traditions alive. I was lusting hard over a beautiful jong sarat–a hand-woven garment made from real gold and silver thread. Many of these exhibits also contain artisans working on creating new pieces which is absolutely fascinating to witness. They even offer courses in learning how to craft the goods yourself, something I wish we had the time to try!
BOAT RIDE ON THE BRUNEI RIVER
In the late afternoon when the weather has cooled down make your way back to the jetty to hire a local boat driver to take you on a cruise down the Brunei river in search of wildlife. It shouldn’t cost more than 10 Brunei dollars for an hour ride, we extended our ride as we had come across a family of 20 proboscis monkey’s playing in a group of trees right along the riverbed and couldn’t pull ourselves away.
The best time of day to see proboscis monkeys, an endangered species indigenous to Borneo, is in the early morning or early evening as the funny-looking creatures don’t like warm weather. Almost immediately after we exited the city we spotted one or two solo male monkeys perched high above in the treetops. I love these vegetarian monkeys and was thrilled to see them, even from afar. Our darling boat driver was encouraged by my enthusiasm and took us further down the river in hopes of finding more proboscis monkeys.
And did we ever! We came across a few small families mostly of the mothers with their young when we heard the ruckus of a few males calling out further down the river. We crept up slowly to find at least 40 proboscis monkeys–males, females, and babies. It was such a treat to sit there and admire the way they interact. Male proboscis monkeys have large bulbous noses that appear odd to us mere humans but actually serve a purpose. No, they don’t enhance their sense of smell, instead, they attract and impress female monkeys just like male orangutans wide cheek pads, called flanges. Those strange looking noses get the job done as usually one male mates with seven females.
As we made our way back through the mangroves to BSB we kept our eyes peeled for a crocodile. We were almost all the way back to the city before we spotted a massive beast about 3m long! We paused to admire his terrifying face when suddenly he swam towards our small wooden boat and went underneath the water. A truly terrifying experience! Proboscis monkeys aren’t afraid of these epic reptiles though. The primates often swim from one side of the Brunei Bay to the other. There webbed feet make them great swimmers but they’re no match for the deadly jaw of a crocodile.
WHERE TO EAT IN BSB
Our favorite spot in BSB was Piccolo Cafe, a sweet spot operated by a local Pakistani family. We ate here several times as the prices were reasonable and they accept credit cards. Also as floral tea fanatic, I couldn’t have enough fresh rose tea and lavender lattes! We were also able to indulge in some of the western food we’d been missing like kale salads, pesto pasta, and waffles!
Head down to the Tamu Selera open-air hawker center to try an assortment of Brunei street food and don’t miss out on my favorite snack–fried tempeh. Indonesian food is common and I tried my first gado gado at a local food stall which is one of my favorite vegetarian dishes in the world! The food market has hundreds of stalls so everyone is sure to find a dish to their liking. Bring a blanket and enjoy your meal at the surrounding park.
This little modern coffee shop is conveniently located across the street from Borneo Guide so we frequented often for their strong black coffee, delicious panini’s, and to-die-for chocolate cake. The ambiance here is what I’d expect from a cool coffee shop in the East Village with rustic wooden tables and industrial decor details.
After seemingly endless meals of noodles and fried food, we couldn’t resist the chance to indulge in a sushi feast and were thrilled when we stumbled across Kaizen Sushi after watching the sunset at the Brunei waterfront. The massive Japanese restaurant is located right on the water with spectacular views and features a sushi bar and hibachi grill. We scored a table by the river facing window and ordered way too much food, but promptly devoured it all!
While in Borneo you absolutely have to try an incredible unique dish– an almost transparent goop made from tree bark. In Sarawak, Malaysia the dish is called sago linut but in Brunei its called ambuyat. The gooey goodness is made from the sago palm. It’s an acquired taste and I didn’t like it at first but the more I ate the more I started to enjoy the unusual texture. But you don’t eat it alone, ambuyat is served with a selection of vegetable or meat dishes. You use a chopstick-like device to roll your bite of food into the ambuyat until it gives it a nice coating, or you can dip the ambuyat directly into the sauce of other dishes. The dish is served in many restaurants but we tried it at a local spot with our friends from Borneo Guide and sadly didn’t make note of the restaurant’s name.
Thank you, Jubilee Hotel, for hosting us in BSB. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links, please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.