After our jungle adventure at Mulu National Park we were heading back to civilization. Our path went via Miri to Brunei, where we spent a full day of sightseeing before moving on to Bali.
The Journey from Mulu to Brunei
As Mulu can only be reached by plane or a combination of boat / car, we chose the first option to get to Miri, a coastal town in the north of Borneo. The jungle airport at Mulu is really small and things are quite relaxed here. From Check-In to entering the plane it is about 200 m on foot. And international rules like taking along a bottle of water do not seem to count here, it was no problem to get my 1.5l bottle of water through security check. Once we were boarding, we walked directly from the gate to the plane. The flight itself was beautiful as the propeller aircraft flew only at about 1500m, so the rainforest with its meandering rivers and closer towards Miri also the palm tree plantations could be seen from a quite a close distance. After only 30 minutes we already reached Miri, from where we took a 4 hour bus ride across the border to Bander Seri Begawan, the capital of the sultanate of Brunei.
If someone had mentioned Brunei to me half a year ago, I could not even have guessed on which continent it is located, not to mention anything about its history. Time to change that.
Brunei is one of the richest countries on our planet due to their oil reserves and Brunei today is what is left from a much larger sultanate that existed between the 16th and 19th century. Being a Monarchy, most of the money from the oil reserves goes to the royal family and in the public infrastructure such as huge mosques and the excellent roads. Apart from that, the common people receive only very little in return.
Having visited a few Muslim countries this year, Brunei is one of the stricter ones. The laws and in general the life of the citizens are influenced by the Sharia, however for tourists and non-Muslims the rules are a bit more relaxed and it is for instance allowed to take small amounts of alcohol in the country.
Brunei’s Old Town
Being located at a river, the old town of Brunei is a village built on stilts named Kampong Ayer. Up to 30’000 people live in wooden housed above the water, and the houses are connected by boardwalks and small bridges. They also have an own fire department equipped with boats as there are no roads leading into that village.
Meeting his Majesty
While visiting Kampong Ayer our local guide got suddenly very excited because he saw that the car of the sultan is parked in front of a mosque which meant he is visiting the mosque for the Friday prayers. He told us to come back to the mosque in 25 minutes when the prayers were over, and indeed, there he was, a 75-year old guy (who looks like he’s only 50) walking out of the mosque between dozens of local spectators, shaking hands, smiling. Then he entered his car on the driver’s seat and drove away, accompanied by some cars from the royal family and the police. And yes, he was driving himself, which I can understand. Who would not want to drive a luxurious Brabus 700 with 700 horsepower by himself?
By the way there were no security guards, and he literally passed around 50 cm in front of me. It is nice when as a monarch, you can still walk around in your city without armed bodyguards and without being afraid of your own people. I wonder in how many Western countries this would be possible.
Town Center of Brunei
Just across the river from Kampong Ayer lies the modern town center. There are some small shopping malls, nice mosques and other modern buildings. But the center is really small and can easily be explored on foot in one day.
The place to go for authentic local food (as compared to KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. that exist as well in Brunei) is the night market. There are dozens of food stalls selling freshly cooked local dishes, fruit, and beverages. The right place to eat something after a long day of sightseeing.
Public Transport in Brunei
As it affected our day a lot, I want to say a few words about the public transport or its lack of it. When we arrived at around 20:00 in Brunei city, there was no single taxi available as I was told they only work during the day. As our hotel was located 7 km away from the center, and because we did not have any internet or telephones available, this was unfortunate. Luckily there was some local guy who offered us transport to the hotel for a not so cheap rate, but it was the only alternative to walking in the tropical heat.
In general, public transport in Brunei is bad, and even getting a taxi can take quite a while. Taxis are also not so cheap, and platforms like Uber do not exist in Brunei. Since May 2017 however, there is a local startup trying to clone Uber for Brunei. The app is called Dart and the one time I used it, it actually worked fine. So far it only works for licensed taxis and hence does not allow for cheap transports, but the plan is to extend it also to private drivers (that have the correct driver’s license).
The alternative is to find your own driver for a day, but that’s usually not so easy. On our sightseeing day, it was our guide who organized a driver, which saved us a lot of money and time as compared to taxi rides.
Around 20 km north of Bandar Seri Begawan there is a luxurious beach resort named The Empire. One night here costs from USD 250 upwards. Given the location directly at the seaside and the gigantic swimming pools not such a bad deal. I however let the pictures speak for themselves.