Tiny oil rich Brunei, the only country that resides only on Borneo, is somewhere I never thought I would visit. However when we found out it was a simple ferry ride away we thought why not go and check it out? Thus yesterday we boarded a rather fast and loud ferry at the port in Kota Kinabula (capital of Malaysia’s Borneo state of Sabah) for a three hour journey to the Malaysian Island of Labuan, and from there changed to another ferry for the hour trip to Brunei.
We arrived at the port of Serasa about 25km north of Brunei’s main town of Bandar Seri Begawan (B.S.B). We picked up some subtle differences to Malaysia straightaway – things were well organised, the streets were very clean, and there was a stronger emphasis on religion (Islam). However it was still clearly Asia as the bus that took us from the port to the city took forever stopping at every little settlement on the way and we were soon crammed in like sardines!
A few people had told us that Brunei is boring, alcohol is prohibited here so the main entertainment is eating and shopping, but whilst it’s no Dubai we found that we quite liked it. The people were especially welcoming and friendly, patriotically pleased that we had visited their country and interested to hear where we were from. We also got to stay in a reasonably decent hotel as there are no hostels here, whilst a bit more than our normal budget a refreshing change!
We discovered the friendliness of the Bruneians when we tried to take a bus to some of the sights, instead a friendly guy, Haji, offered to give us a tour of the city – initially I was sceptical but he was a genuinely nice guy! Firstly we visited the fantastic Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. A spectacle of golden domes, shiny chandeliers, and landscaped gardens with gushing fountains built in 1992.
Later we went to the Gadong night market where we sampled some cheap local eats including a kind of warm sushi wrapped in banana leafs and beef and cucumber kebab – really nice.
The mix of colours and smells was great and we enjoyed browsing through the stalls and taking it all in.
On the way back to town we made a quick photo stop (it’s only open to visitors for three days a year immediately after Ramadan) at the enormous royal palace – Istana Nurul Iman – home to Brunei’s wealthy sultan. We were told that with 1788 rooms , including 257 bathrooms, it is the largest residential palace in the world.
This morning we had a walk through the quiet streets of the city and visited Kampung Ayer, which is the biggest water village in the world with 28’000 inhabitants. Quite a contrast to the organised streets of the city across the river it’s a jumble of wooden huts on stilts sitting above the water along the banks of the Sungai River. Firstly we took a water taxi tour around the village with a friendly tour guide who had us zipping between and sometimes under the houses!
With schools, restaurants, and even a petrol station all built above the water it is an impressive and interesting sight. We had a quick walk around a section of the village with a viewing tower that gave us a panoramic view over Kampang Ayer. Unfortunately a heavy thunderstorm kicked in and we retreated back to the city before we got to drenched.
This afternoon we took a bus south, crossing Brunei through swathes of jungle, back into Malaysia where we disembarked in the town of Miri in the state of Sarawak. There ended our 24 hours in Brunei, the self proclaimed Green Heart of Borneo, an interesting and rewarding experience – it’s nice when you go somewhere and it turns out to be better than you had anticipated!
This evening we took a short flight to the city of Kuching, at the southern end of Malaysian Borneo, from where we hope to get back into the jungle and see some of Borneo’s wildlife again.
There are a few photos from Brunei here.