Brunei: A Hidden Gem

While I was visiting Borneo this summer, I stumbled upon Brunei Darussalam – a tiny country that I’d never heard of before. After doing some research, I became super excited about this place. I learned that the whole country only has around 400 000 people and about 40 taxis (total!) I wanted to visit its beautiful mosques, learn more about the sultan and the Brunei royal family, and visit the rainforest – the Brunei rainforest covering 70% of the country, with 90% of it being protected. This makes it the largest area of protected rainforest in Borneo.

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I did have my reservations about visiting this country, since I didn’t know anyone who had been there before. The fact that this would be the first place I visited that followed Sharia law was a bit daunting to me. Although I’d visited Indonesia and Malaysia before (both Muslim majority countries), I’d never been anywhere as conservative as Brunei. Would I have to dress super modestly? Would I be stared at constantly as a single Western girl not wearing a hijab? Would I be able to get around without having a car? Would people speak English? Although these were all very valid concerns, I ended up having a wonderful time.

Attractions

Brunei is an oil country that used to be colonized by the British and has a royal family who live in an extravagant palace. Although I had arrived only a few weeks after the sultan’s lavish birthday celebration, the decorations were still up and the joyful vibes were still there. I was staying in the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, and had no clue what to see (and knew I would be limited getting around without a car), so I booked a tour through Borneo Guide, called “Brunei Essential Full Day & Water Village.” Because Brunei is not an emerging tourism destination, they have very few tour companies, so tours are quite expensive, especially if you’re a solo traveler. Borneo Guide was the only place that would allow me to book a tour as a single person. I splurged, however, and was happy that I did.

It ended up being JUST me on the tour. My tour guide, who doesn’t normally work for the company, was called in specifically to give me the tour.  A newly graduated university student, specializing in eco-tourism, we were similar in age and had a lot to talk about. She took me to all the major attractions, and didn’t linger at the places I found quite boring. Here are some of the highlights:

Jame Asr’ Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Water Village

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Inside the Regalia Museum

The Empire Hotel

Food

Brunei does not having a thriving vegan scene. It’s a small country and quite meat-heavy, even if it’s halal. There are very few restaurant entries on Happy Cow, but I still managed to find some delicious meals.

Local Delicacies

Because I visited the morning market and Gadong Night Market with a local, I was able to find out what exactly was vegan and what wasn’t. I ended up trying tons of delicious snacks – from curry potato spring rolls, sweet corn, fresh juice, and local sweets. My favourite was kuih pancit, a mochi-like chewy rice ball filled with coconut syrup and topped with shredded coconut. The markets are quite spacious, clean, and easy to navigate, since the Sultan recently housed all the street vendors in state-of-the-art buildings in less than a month. You can also find all the amazing fresh south Asian fruits such as jackfruit, durian, and mangoes.

In the water village, I had a chance to try wajid, which is a traditional snack made with steamed glutinous rice cooked in palm sugar and coconut milk, and wrapped in pandan leaves. It looks like poop, but it definitely doesn’t taste like it!

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Wajid

Restaurants

Since I was staying a little bit out of the city, I visited a restaurant called The Energy Kitchen quite often. It’s attached to the most famous gym in the country, Fitness Zone, where apparently members of the royal family work out. The menu had labelled vegan and vegetarian items, but the labeling system was quite messed up and often incorrect, and staff didn’t really understand what “vegan” was. However, this place had so much potential and so many menu items that could easily be veganized. I enjoyed the Veggie Burger, Fresh Spring Rolls, Fattoush Salad, and the fresh juices.

It’s also easy to find Indian restaurants with plenty of veg options, for super cheap. I enjoyed delicious fresh-made roti and okra stew for a few dollars. If I had more time, I would for sure frequent more of them and try all the other options.

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Environment

After spending time in Sabah, its rainforest pales in comparison to the one in Brunei. Let’s hope that Brunei doesn’t cut it down like the rest of Borneo, once its oil reserves dry up.

My goal when I came to Borneo was to see proboscis monkeys, preferably in the wild. I had always loved these creatures because of their huge bellies and long noses (they remind me of myself in monkey form!) I refused to pay a ridiculous amount of money to see proboscis monkeys in a fake “sanctuary” in Sabah, so I was ecstatic to finally see them in the wild in Brunei, only a short boat ride away from the city in the mangroves. Although I wasn’t super close, I enjoyed watching the families of monkeys call and chase each other in the trees.

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The rainforest excursion I did in Ulu Temburong National Park was amazing. It involved a beautiful 30 minute boat ride through croc-infested waters along the Temburong river and a trek through mostly untouched rainforest, under the guidance of our super knowledgeable guide. We met at the impressive Sumbiling Eco Village, Brunei’s first eco-tourism destination. Here we learned about how they practice sustainability and use recycled materials to build their eco-lodges. We enjoyed pre-excursion vegan snacks (fried sweet potato) before setting off. Throughout the journey, we learned about Brunei’s indigenous people, who for hundreds of years were literal “head hunters” and would go into the Forest to decapitate each other!

Although we didn’t see any monkeys, we saw plenty of lizards and butterflies in the rainforest. Our guide told us a lot about the plants, trees, and history of the forest. I never considered myself as someone interested in this type of thing, but I was clinging onto his every word (or maybe it was because I was sweating and practically dying from the long walk up!) Although there was a path, it really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, which was wonderful.

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In the middle of the rainforest lies a series of wobbly towers originally utilized by scientists as an “observation platform,” which has now become a mini tourist attraction of sorts. For someone who is scared of heights, let’s just say that this was a huge obstacle for me to overcome (literally!) It took a good 10 minutes to climb up these things, with protective fencing only being offered a few levels up. These towers were never designed for large groups of people  — or tall people, for that matter – so only 5 people at a time were allowed to be on a tower, and only 2 people to cross the bridge. As each gust of wind blew, you could feel the towers shaking back and forth. The “fence” around the top of the tower only went up to my belly button, so I definitely felt like I could die at any moment, which added to the adventure I guess!

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Dying!

On the way back, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall and experienced a “natural fish spa,” where fish in the small pool of water would eat dead skin off your feet! Although I’ve never been interested or supported this type of thing that I’ve seen in shopping malls in Asia (definitely not a vegan activity!), I didn’t particularly enjoy this sensation, even in the middle of the rainforest. Before we made the journey back to the city, we stopped for a delicious meal at the eco-village.

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“Natural Fish Spa” — you can see me hiding from where all the fish were congregated

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Vegan lunch at Sumbiling Eco-Village

Culture

I guess my pre-conceived ideas about Brunei were that it was going to be similar to life in Saudi Arabia. Imagine my surprise when I first landed and a woman led me to her taxi. I almost blurted out, “What?! Women can drive here?” Boy, all my pre-conceived ideas were wrong.

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Brunei, although under Sharia law, is only under the first phase of the law, and has delayed proceeding to the next level for several years. The law was originally implemented to make Brunei an Islamic banking center in South-East Asia, but it received a lot of backlash from China and North America. So, I guess you could say it’s caught in a conservative limbo.

I learned what life is like for locals. Many people love living in Brunei – although some find the pace of living a bit slow, the locals enjoyed explaining their country’s culture and history to me. Nobody ever laughed at any of my naïve questions (e.g. Do people who break the law get stoned in the streets or have their limbs amputated? What’s life like for LGBT people? Can you buy alcohol here?) and I got honest answers. And the answer is no – people don’t get stoned in the streets or their limbs cut off (final phase of Sharia Law). Homosexuality is illegal, but LGBT people aren’t persecuted, forced to come out of the closet, or are publically humiliated like in some other societies. And no you can’t buy alcohol in Brunei, but I did learn about some of the “secret” places where the privileged members of society can drink and smoke.

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Brunei was clean. I didn’t see any homeless people. The citizens love and respect the sultan and the royal family. But most interestingly, they appreciate tourists. Since it’s not a tourism hot spot, they rarely get visitors, so I definitely found all eyes on me whilst in public. Most people could speak English fluently since it’s taught in schools, and the country itself is extremely safe with such a low crime rate. Although most of the punishments for breaking laws aren’t enforced, the threat is always there, so people are deterred from breaking them.

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The Sultan gets his own escalator to enter into the mosque. Everyone else has to take the stairs!

I took Royal Brunei Airlines to fly back in Hong Kong, and thought it was interesting that they say a prayer before departing. The prayer is displayed across all the TV screens, with English translation, basically asking Allah for a safe journey. It reminded me of my own religious parents who would often pray to God before leaving the house for “angel’s protection” for a safe journey.

Afterthoughts

Would I purposely want to live in a place like Brunei? Probably not. I wouldn’t feel at peace in a place where being gay is illegal. But I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Brunei. The people were lovely. The natural landscapes were beautiful. It was great being in a country in South-East Asia that wasn’t crowded with tourists, full of party goers, or had environmental devastation. The slow pace of living was refreshing and I felt very welcomed. Even when I first landed and went through the immigration counter (I was the only person in the foreign passport line!), the customs agent smiled and told me I should stay longer next time. And I think I definitely will.

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