Located on the island of Borneo, this tiny sultanate is home to less than half a million people, with most of the land covered in protected rainforest. Despite its tiny size, it is also extremely wealthy thanks to its oil reserves – in fact the dome of the country’s iconic Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is plated in gold. This makes for a strange blend of opulence and pristine jungle and beaches rolled into one pint sized package!
The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan can be a bit of a shock on your first visit – the city has been completely transformed from a small fishing village into something out of a Disney film by oil wealth, and is home to the Brunei Mosque and Istana Nurul Iman – the largest government building in the world. There’s some fantastic shopping to be had, and the Brunei Museum is well worth a visit.
What you need to know before you go:
Brunei is a devoutly Muslim country, so you won’t be able to drink any alcohol – but hey, maybe your liver deserves a holiday too! Gambling is also illegal, so if like me you’re a diehard casino games fan – get your fix before you go. The country is deeply conservative, so try to keep your dress respectful.
Take in the jungle on a river cruise:
Cruising the Brunei River is a fantastic opportunity to take in the beauty of the rainforest without having to tackle dense overgrowth! Keep your eyes open for kingfishers, egrets and herons along the bank, and the strange and endangered proboscis monkey – who knows? You might even spot the extremely rare clouded leopard!
Kampong Ayer – or the Water Village – is a fascinating sight. The largest water village in the world, this prehistoric site is built on stilts above the Brunei River, and is appropriately nicknamed the ‘Venice of the East’. Guided tours are available, and taking a trip on a river taxi to soak in the strange contrast of this ancient place after the overt opulence of the capital is an unforgettable experience. Make sure to swing past the Cultural and Tourism museum to learn more about the enchanting history of the water village.
Where to stay:
Pekan Tutong, or Tutong Town as it’s also affectionately known – is home to several good guesthouses, but its major attraction is the beautiful golden stretch of sand which lines the city at Seri Kenangan. Running along the Tutong River on the edge of the South China Sea, the beach is flanked by seafood restaurants and beach bars to provide all day entertainment. If you love sun and sand, then this is definitely the place to stay in Brunei.
If you’re looking for some more opulent lodgings – the Empire Hotel and Country Club is a lavish beachfront hotel and golf resort which provides every luxury you can think of. Even if you don’t stay here, it may be worth a visit to some of the exquisite islands – although be prepared for some hefty price tags!
With all these attractions, Brunei is also a place of stark contrasts and contradictions. Rich in culture and natural beauty – it is governed by strict Islamic law, and many of the customs seem strange and restrictive to us. It’s a reminder not to take for granted the rights to which we are so accustomed – like women being able to wear whatever clothing they like and being able to criticize and even ridicule our leaders. Beautiful Brunei is worth visiting if only to expand your horizons and remind yourself how different your life might have been if you were born elsewhere!