Welcome to the little-known Islamic Sultanate of Brunei that shares Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. Did you know Borneo is actually the 3rd largest island in the world? Brunei lies in the northern part of the tropical island between the Eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak-hence the many passport stamps to enter the country. Read on to see Brunei undiscovered.
Before heading off on any adventure it’s extremely important to obtain a travel insurance policy. One of the best parts of getting travel insurance with World Nomads? Not only is it the most affordable and reliable option but also many adventures are covered by the standard plan such as ziplining, scuba ping, surfing, white water rafting, canyoning, and more! Hot air balloon rides and helicopter rides are only covered on the explorer plan. These can change so do your diligence to research and read the World Nomad travel insurance plans completely. Find out exactly which adventure activities are covered. I take no responsibility if something happens on your trip that is not covered by World Nomads.
As we entered Brunei the landscape changed vastly around us. No longer were we surrounded by deforested land and a never-ending sea of palm oil trees. Instead, everywhere we looked was extra dense in vibrant thriving plant life. Brunei has committed to conserving its virgin forests and has a strict set of sustainable practices that forbids cutting down trees and keeping animals captive animals. The tiny country (2,226 sq mi) is appropriately known as the green gem of Borneo. 70% of land area is the forest with 55% being formally protected areas such as National Parks and conservation forests.
What better setting could we ask for to wander off on the road less traveled? We were invited to explore the many natural wonders of Brunei by the local responsible tour operator, Borneo Guide. The social enterprise has been taking guests on nature-based excursions around the island for nearly a decade. They’re committed to social and environmental sustainability–they employ locals and support endangered communities. All of their tours have a minimal impact on wildlife and are based on the discovery of Brunei’s great outdoors.
We headed off for a three-day adventure to experience Brunei’s remote equatorial rainforest, learn about tribal culture, and spot unique flora and fauna. Over half of all known plant and animal species in the world can be found in Borneo! To learn more about Bornean wildlife see my post from the Kinabatangan River and Kuching. Read on to find out about the hidden gems that amazed us in Brunei.
First up on our itinerary with Borneo Guide was a visit to Brunei’s largest riverine island–Pulau Berambang. The remote island is a 10-minute ride from the boat jetty in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). We sped across the Brunei river in a wooden taxi and within minutes we arrived at Berambang Island. The very first thing I saw was a pile of cars hanging off of the hillside, partially submerged in the river below. Astonished at such waste I asked our local guide, Brian, what had happened? He shrugged and told us that it is cheaper to dump a car and get a new one rather than fixing an old one. There are no police on the island so very few regulators even though Berambang has been a protected sanctuary since 1978 through the Wild Life Protection Act which is meant to conserve the island’s mangrove forests. Fortunately, the rest of the island was incredibly green and relatively litter free likely due to a lack of many inhabitants. It is estimated that only 400 people live here.
After walking down a paved road and mingling with some local villagers we entered the jungle to begin our 230-foot trek up to the Bujang Pahang hill. There are many legends about the hill, one explains the tilted Bukit Batu Bertingkat (Layered Rock Hill) was placed by giants. Another local folk story involves a savior princess who magically kept the local well full of water always. Today, water flows along the path down a makeshift aqueduct of hollow bamboo stems. After being reassured that the water was clean we happily paused to wash our sweaty faces and enjoy the cool refreshing water.
Throughout the trek, Brian, informed us about local plants and their medicinal uses. He even made me the wooden bracelet seen above from a tree branch! Later we passed by an abandoned coal mine, the Berambang Colliery, but didn’t enter as it could obviously be very dangerous. Coal mining was a major source of revenue for Brunei back in the early 1900s and Berambang was one of the best places to mine for the black gold. Rather than risk our necks in the old coal mine we climbed up an old cave and came across a sneaky chameleon that would change shades every time we caught a glimpse of him.
After a steep climb up the sandstone pinnacle, we reached the bird’s-eye viewpoint. We were perched so high above the surrounding forest that we were able to see all the way to Malaysian Borneo past the river that serves as a boundary for the countries. The panorama also boasted endless views of the Brunei Bay and Kampong Ayer. Our first sojourn on Brunei’s road less traveled didn’t disappoint. After our morning 5 mile trek in Pulau Berambang we were off to our next destination.
TASEK MERIMBUN HERITAGE PARK
We drove about 44 miles from BSB through stunning surrounding and arrived just in time to watch the sunset at Tasek Merimbun. The swamp forest is the only ASEAN heritage park in Brunei. We braved our way across the broken wood bridge (not recommended) to the island which is nicknamed crocodile isle. The crocodiles in Borneo are believed to be the worlds longest and largest! Beyond crocodiles, a vast amount of other spectacular animal life lives in the surrounding area including some of the animal kingdom’s most elusive creatures such as the red-leaf monkey, white-collard fruit bat, and Sunda clouded leopard. There are even more species of wild cats in Borneo!
In the 80’s archeologist uncovered ancient artifacts here from local tribes. One of their most fascinating discoveries was evidence of Dusun burial jars on crocodile island. To get to crocodile island you must cross the wood bridge from the lakeshore bed. Sadly, it has been under construction for the last four years. Step by step the area is progressing towards becoming equipped for tourists. An exhibition explaining local culture, animal, and plant life as well as a butterfly garden is free to visit and incredibly fascinating. As of now no accommodation options were ever erected. Borneo Guide is working to change this but for the time being if we wanted to experience this unique park then we were going to have to camp out.
We placed our tent in an open-air wooden structure and set out to greet our not-so-friendly neighbors, crocodiles! With flashlights in hand, we slowly braved our way down to the water’s edge to peer for their beady eyes. After we made sure we didn’t have any crocs too close by we got brave and streamed our flashlights across the wide lake. Within seconds we had spotted five pairs of eyes looking back at us. Crocodiles eyes shine at night when the light hits their retina. It’s a very eerie experience and needless to say I had trouble falling asleep knowing only a few steps separated me from these beasts! Ultimately a tropical rainstorm surged through and wooed me to sleep with the sounds of nature and cool crisp air ventilating our tent for two.
We rose with the sun and headed out to explore the surrounding lake area which is made up of two depressions that are 250 and 370 acres big, the second being the largest lake in Brunei. A local villager agreed to take us out on his boat for a morning ride. A little bit spooked about crocodiles I avoided the edge of the vessel as I peered out over the magical lake. The morning sun projected reflections onto the mirror-like water of the lush forest creating a fantastic optical illusion. The lake is famous locally for an odd phenomenom–it appears that the water is black which is likely due to an abundance of leaves in the water. There is a tall tale about an island-size turtle who abandons the lake villagers but you’ll have to visit Brunei yourself to hear the story! As the morning progressed the lake came to life as flocks of kingfishers, hornbills, and eagles flew by and lotus flowers began to open signaling the start of the day.
ULU TEMBURONG NATIONAL PARK
We made our way back to BSB and hopped on a speedboat to Temburong. The ride was absolutely wild as we splashed around hairpin turns through the mangroves and tried to keep our eyes peeled to spot wildlife. We were off to visit the Ulu Temburong National Park and its incredible canopy walk. To reach the scenic walkway we boarded a Temuai, a traditional wooden longboat, and headed out on the Temburong River. We were treated to just how marvelous and mysterious the Brunei jungle is as we listened to exotic animals calls and soared through pools of splashing currents.
Tucked inside the park up a steep set of 1,000+ stairs is a 50m-high steel structure with narrow stairs and partially open-air caging. At one point we decided to rest about halfway up when all of the sudden an auburn furry creature appeared in front of us. She was a wild gibbon holding her baby to her chest and hanging from a tree staring directly at us. It was such a surreal moment, us inside a cage, and this fantastic animal out in the wild. Within a few seconds, she’d moved on along the treetops. It’s very rare to see Bornean gibbons, and we feel very fortunate to have had this experience.
As we reached the summit high along the treetops we were amazed by our surroundings. Everywhere we looked was untouched dense green jungle. From this picture perfect vantage we seriously felt like we were on top of the world. The sun was fierce and we’d worked up a sweat so we made our way to a nearby waterfall and swimming pool to cool off. Ulu Temburong was the first National Park in Brunei–this nature preserve has been protected since 1991. The majority of the wilderness in the park is strictly restricted and only scientists are allowed to enter. Brunei’s efforts towards conservation are paying off, everywhere we went with Borneo Guide was pristine.
SUMBILING ECO VILLAGE
We made our way back along the Temburong River to Sumbiling Eco Village (SEV) which is owned by Borneo Guide. SEV was Brunei’s first eco and community-based tourism destination. We were invited to sleep in glamping tents and had a memorable jungle experience. Eco-friendly repurposed wood huts are also available for those who prefer a more secure sleep setting. Pythons sometimes wander through the village! The simple accommodation isn’t lacking charm–from friendly local villagers who staff and maintain the grounds to the beautiful natural environment the ambiance here is extremely soothing.
ESV is ever evolving and adapting new sustainability practices and is well on their way to be completely solar-powered by 2020. Other eco aspects include a reduce-and-recycle program that minimizes waste and primarily sourcing food from the land. Additional responsibility practices adhered to by SEV can be read here. And in case you were wondering, there aren’t any crocodiles here–we even went swimming in the Temburong River right outside our tent.
Sumbiling Eco Village can be booked on Hostelz.com.
Borneo Guide created Sumbiling Eco Village in 2009 to aid a local Iban tribe that was already living on the grounds situated on the Temburong river banks. The Iban people are not accepted as an official ethnic group of Brunei as they were originally from Malaysian Borneo. Because of this, they are denied many civilian rights and job opportunities which has endangered their livelihood as a community. Borneo Guide wanted to create a safe space where Iban people can share their unique cultural heritage with curious guests and earn a living. SEV is preserving the at-risk Iban traditions by showing younger generations in the indigenous tribe that community-based tourism can be a career opportunity for financial stability without sacrificing their heritage. The aim of SEV is to achieve sustainability by preserving and maintaining the environment and utilizing existing resources.
Our initial curiosity with the Iban tribe was their bloody history of headhunting and unique textile traditions. While we were at Sumbiling Eco Village we learned so much about this fascinating group of people who live simply in harmony with nature. Our hosts were eager to tell us about their cultural traditions, mysticism beliefs, and show us their way of life. Next to SEV are traditional Iban longhouses where the majority of the locals live. One evening we were beckoned inside where we met Nenek, the matriarch of the village at 104 years old. If you met Nenek you’d likely think she was about 60. When we entered her home she was squatting on the ground, smoking a cigarette, and bouncing along to a JLO song. She waved us inside and bolted to standing upright without any assistance. Nenek’s daughter, who is actually in her 60s, was dancing around as she pulled out some of her mother’s weaving to show us. The intricate designs depicted rainforest flora and fauna. Weavers are held to the same stigma as headhunters and are deeply respected in Iban communities.
With Brian’s help translating we were able to as Nenek about some of the incredible thing’s she’s witnessed over her century-long existence. She told us about how her Iban tribe was filled with skillful hunters that are fierce warriors who knew every inch of the jungle. We learned that the Iban tradition of headhunting is stemmed in revenge. Warriors would seek out their enemy and behead them and bring the trophy home to display in their longhouse. The enemies head was thought to bring blessings and luck to the family and also served as a warning to others not to threaten the warrior’s family. The last time she remembers seeing a new human head hanging in an Iban longhouse was sometime in the late 1920’s. That is until the Japanese takeover of British Borneo during WWII. During the war, Nenek fled from her native Sarawak in Malaysia into the Brunei jungle with 100 other Iban women. During the occupation, British officials temporarily raised the ban on headhunting and encouraged Iban tribesmen to head hunt as many Japanese soldiers as possible. The Iban tribe believes the land where they live today is haunted as so many Japanese died here at the hands of headhunters during the occupation.
As Nenek reminisced about lifetimes long past she went to retrieve a handbag where she stows her prized talismans. We felt so honored that she wanted to share these with us. She slipped two boar tusks that were decorated with colorful strings over her muscular arms and made hunting motions. Brian explained to us that she hunted the boar who gave her the tusks and wore them whenever she hunted-for animals or otherwise-for protection and luck. She then showed us a palm-sized smooth stone which she explained came from the trunk of a tree. Brian was astonished that she was showing us these deeply personal mementos, he himself had never seen them. When he teased her about this she very seriously told him that she can only show these items to someone once or else it would be very bad luck for the viewer. Nenek’s secret to a long life? Staying active. It’s also believed that she killed her husband after an argument they had in the forest when she returned to the longhouse without him and seemed unphased that he was missing.
Editor’s note: The villagers, besides Apai, did not want to be photographed and we wanted to respect their privacy.
We had the chance to go for jungle walks into the untamed forest surrounding SEV at dawn, midday, and at night. Each time more and more of Mother Nature’s incredible beauty was unveiled to us. Our sunrise trek up to a nearby vantage point brought us above the clouds as the sun spread warmth across the valley below us and distilled the morning fog hovering between the mountains.
Every Iban tribe member carries a machete with them, typically at all times, but without question when they enter the jungle. In doing so they believe they’re sending the spirits that lurk in the jungle a message that they’re prepared to defend themselves. Superstitions rooted in nature run deep in the cultural beliefs of the Iban tribe. Each time we entered the jungle we were asked to rub a particular fern onto our skin to ward off evil spirits. It also acts as an insect repellent so I happily obliged.
On our afternoon trek, we were joined by Apai, the local longhouse leader. Apai is a true force of nature, significantly shorter than I am but pure strength and wisdom. In fact, he is the village shaman and was able to tell us enchanting stories about each and every plant and animal we came across during our voyage. Because of Apai’s knowledge of the jungle, he was recruited to defend Brunei during the 1960’s struggle with neighboring Indonesia. Iban people were never allowed to join military forces but he quickly was given a leadership role due to his invaluable understanding of the rainforest.
We set out to gather food in the forest with Apai. Foraging with Iban tribesmen is an experience we will never forget! They seem to float over the land as we trip on tree stumps and fall in the mud. There is nothing they can’t conquer with their machetes. We came across poisonous frogs that can kill you with their venom. Iban people use them to add poison to arrows made from a tree bark that is also deadly. It seemed as if the entire jungle was poisonous! Then we stopped at this blonde tree and were told to rub pieces of the bark on our skin as it has anti-aging properties. I’m all for natural remedies and rubbed my face thoroughly. We were looking for mushrooms, but the type with the wide head, not the small head. Apai tells us that the small mushrooms are deadly. We ask him how he knows this and he tells us that his brother ate them, and died. Later, we ate the wild mushrooms we had gathered with Apai and made a little wish that we had gathered the correct ones. The mushrooms were my favorite dish at SEV, along with sauteed midin jungle ferns and daun ubi tumbuk–casava leaves prepared with coconut milk, spices, and anchovies.
In the evening we were joined by another Iban tribal villager who led us on a walk through the jungle. His excitement was contagious with each new leaf or creature we came across. It was as if he hadn’t grown up seeing these things on a daily basis. We learned that you can detect the gender of a stick insect based on the pattern on their backs, only females wear a heart. As it got dark out we came across mushrooms that were glowing the dark! There was also a spider nearby the was glowing the same spooky green shade. At one point we can across a bunch of wild ginger flowers and our guide squeezed them with joy and made us smell the sweet juice.
Brunei is an incredibly underrated travel destination that I firmly believe is worth visiting and will become more popular in coming years. As travelers, it is our duty to help preserve the environmental and cultural gems that this small country has to offer. I urge you to pursue experiences that are educational, have minimal impact, and are based on cultural exchange. Borneo Guide will happily answer any questions you may have about visiting the kingdom or jungle and can help arrange unforgettable trips.
Thank you, Borneo Guide, for partially hosting our adventure in Brunei. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links, please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.