Tiny, hidden, curious, and bewildering Brunei.
Honestly, when I thought of visiting this country I was just sitting bored in Singapore and looking for cheap flights for a 3-4 days getaway. Brunei popped up on Skyscanner and after short research and discovering I didn’t need a visa for entering the country, I was on my way.
I definitely wasn’t expecting what I found.
Extreme safety, welcoming locals, unusual culture, stunning and unexpected views but most of all: No Tourists!
One day I found myself walking alone through the capital city (and only city!) of Bandar Seri Begawan and I perhaps crossed with 5 tourists during my whole day.
The absence of visitors is an attraction of its own and it does truly make you feel alone.
In addition to that, I noticed how the scorching tropical heat and high humidity dissuades also locals from hitting the streets for anything but necessary.
It is therefore not uncommon while walking in Brunei, to reach one of the main tourist attractions and find out is the only one there.
The cool is that you won’t have anybody randomly bombing into your photos. The other side of the coin is that you better get that sweet auto-shoot ready because you may also not meet anybody taking a photo for you! ;).
Hereafter, is a list I compiled with my favorite Top 5 Must-See Hotspots of Brunei which I am sure will make you want to reconsider the position of Brunei on your travel bucket-list.
Know, that most attractions are within walking distance from one another, making it easier to visit everything in just 2-3 days.
1. The Canopy Walk – Ulu Temburong National Park
Uncontaminated, horizon-reaching, breathing tropical rainforest.
Temburong is an exclave region of Brunei, until today reachable only by taxi-boat or by crossing four immigration points between Brunei and Malaysia (which for locals consisted of 8 passport stamps for a simple day-trip).
In March 2020, just on the day before the Covid-19 pandemic alarm, the longest bridge in South-East Asia has been inaugurated (the Temburong bridge) and now citizens can travel by land from mainland Brunei to the Temburong region without the hassle of passport controls.
What’s so cool about this region is the presence of the Ulu Temburong National Park, the “Emerald Gem” of Brunei.
As a nation-sponsored natural conservation site where no tree has been cut in the past 30 years, Ulu Temburong boasts an entirely virgin rainforest and is a triumph of biodiversity, flora, and fauna. Only 1% of the park is open to tourists and luckily for us, the canopy walk it’s included in the accessible area (opened in 1995).
In fact, due to its rich and diverse natural patrimony (only of butterflies, the park counts over 400 different species), in the past century, Ulu Temburong drew the attention of countless biologists that came to the region to study the natural ecosystem and its numerous inhabitants.
For enabling scientists to observe the development of life at different heights (trees are considered by locals the “Skyscrapers of Brunei”, not having Brunei a single one), a 50m-tall metal structure, consisting of 8 ramps of stairs and 3 towers, has been built on top of one of the highest hills.
Once the studies finished, the locals that always dreamt and wondered about how should have been the view from up there, asked whether they could keep the metal frame for sightseeing purposes. Since then the researchers’ metal frame became one of Brunei’s main attraction known as the “Canopy Walk”.
How can you get to the canopy walk?
The best (and only) way to get to the canopy road is to join a guided tour from the capital. As there are no public transports or roads in Temburong, doing it on your own is almost impossible.
I am not a fan of guided tours myself as I prefer reading things on my own, but here I had to give in as I haven’t found any other possibility to get there.
I booked the tour from the hostel I was staying in (better doing it two days in advance). The whole day-trip from the door to my hostel and back cost me 150-Brunei Dollars (~90 Euro); a bit pricey overall but worth every cent (considering all other attractions on this list are free of charge too!).
After seeing it with my own eyes, I am confident to say that ff you came all your way to Brunei, you definitely don’t want to miss out on this unbelievable day-trip!
The trip I booked included a taxi from and to my hostel, a 40-min boat trip goes and back to Temburong, a bus ride to Temburong river, a small but tasty lunch in an eco-cottage, a canoe-taxi to navigate 40-minutes up and downstream the river, and a guide for the whole journey. We were 8 people in total, a small group of travellers that made it easy to socialize.
If you are asking that yourself… yes, it is a very long way to reach the canopy.
And it’s not finished here!
After taxi, boat, bus, and a bumpy canoe ride scratching the river’s bottom (the canoe is quiet long but deep only a couple dozen centimeters, sometimes the water level is even lower than that and the canoe driver needs to push the boat upstream with a long wooden stick) it also takes a strenuous and sweaty 45mins uphill walk.
746 steps withstanding the tropical rainforest’s humidity is what it takes to conquer the stairs until the top of the hill. Being the youngest, I was also the first in my group to reach the top. I believe I didn’t have one millimeter of my body dry! The heat is scorching and breathing gets heavier and heavier with every step.
About 200 steps more are instead what it takes to conquer the metal stairs to the canopy road. The stairs are steep, half-open (you can see the bottom between the steps, check the photos below), and not may be hard to walk if you’re scared of heights (one Russian woman of my group took half an hour, screaming half of the way through xD).
The view from the top is of outrageous beauty. If your heart didn’t faint on the way, the magnificence of the pristine green forest below will put it to test once more.
What hit me most about this place, in addition to the 360° horizon skyline where the sapphire-blue sky meets the eye-hurting emerald of the tree leaves, was the sound. There was no silence.
From up there, I was feeling the forest underneath buzzing, chirping, breathing, and living! The rainforest is alive and you are loud!
After enjoying the view for half an hour, I walked the last bridge and climbed my way down, and waited for my group (only one person-per-bridge and 2 person-per-platform are allowed at any given time on the walk – so even with few people it may take a little while). It’s a refreshing feeling returning under the tree shades.
Up there is extremely sunny and the metal frame gets hot as hell! If you’re planning a trip to the canopy, I would recommend getting there as early as possible and also be careful of not forgetting your sunglasses (as I stupidly did xD I couldn’t keep my eyes open wide for more than 2 seconds).
Overall, the Ulu Temburong National park has been my favorite highlight of my short Brunei getaway, so be sure to check it out if you’ll happen to travel to the sultanate, it’s totally worth it! 😉
Ulu Temburong – Minigallery
2. The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
located in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan, completed in 1958 and named after the Sultan that started its construction, the “Omar Ali Saiffudien Mosque” is a place of worship for the Muslim community and one of the most iconic tourist attractions of the country.
Made in massive white marble and finished with golden domes, this mosque stands tall in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan and it’s a sight impossible to pass unobserved.
I have been walking around this mosque early in the morning (around 9 am) on my first day in Brunei and I found myself being the only person around. At first, I thought the place was closed!
I decided to take a stroll through the magnificent gardens enshrining the mosque and then reached the main entrance. Some men greeted me and offered me to enter and seeing the inside of the building and I accepted (admission is free, just need to take off the shoes and don’t show too many parts of the body).
If you’re not familiar with mosques (I wasn’t too!), just don’t expect to find the inside similar to churches. In fact, the inside is composed of only a jumbo carpet reaching from side to side (see photo below), which when I was there was being hoovered (see photo below ;).
Leaving the mosque, something at the entrance got my attention: I found a quiet funny cartel forbidding people to play Pokemon Go within the mosque’s perimeter.
I could not stop wonder what could have happened to require such a sign and also which epic Pokemon creature was probably hiding within those sacred walls. I will never find out.
Once out from the mosque, the road leads to an interesting walkable bridge and another elegant park on the river from which is possible to admire the reflection in the water of the Omar Ali Saiffudien Mosque (best at sunset!).
Also here empty of people. I wonder if the facilities in the parks are ever used at all. Overall, visiting the mosque has been an extremely relaxing visit. It is enjoyable, for a change, not having nobody around; it makes the whole experience feel way more holy and contemplative.
Just a few minutes away, the bridge crossing the river leads me to our next hotspot: Kampong Ayer.
3. Kampong Ayer – World’s Largest Stilt Village
Kampong Ayer is the World’s Largest Settlement on Stilts as it’s called home by over 30.000 people. You’ll notice this place south of the OAS Mosque and it’s easy to reach just by crossing a couple of wooden bridges over the Brunei River (also moto-taxis are an option but I would suggest going by feet to gradually discover the place).
The houses are nothing like I have ever seen before. In Kampong Ayer, time seems to have stopped in the past; in a time where the petrodollars still didn’t twist the life and economy of Brunei. Residence of weavers, boat-builders, and creative artisans; some houses seem to be held up by miracles.
Part of the village is definitely decadent, with sun-bleached colors, water-soaked wood, disrepair walkways, and an intertidal mud filled with trash.
All bridges and paths on stilts are lacking handrails or barriers, so you’re better to keep focused on your steps out there. Some are weirdly wobbling while others’ wooden planks are clearly rotten or totally missing. When wet, everything becomes even more dangerous.
I have to admit that at first, I felt honestly uneasy walking through this village (also being the only tourist around), but it got better as I kept walking. The life in the old village reminded me quite a bit of life in South American’s favelas. Inside here, there are not only houses but also schools, churches, and even a police station!
On another side of the stilt village though, reside also wealthier citizens and the quality of residences becomes pretty close to that of a normal house, just on stilts!
In 2016, a fire broke out in Kampong Ayer leaving 100 people homeless. Since then, the government is trying to modernize the village and raising both the safety and life-quality of the place (using concrete-plinths alongside the wooden stilts and extending the utility coverage to the whole area).
All in all, Kampong Ayer is a settlement definitely out-of-the-ordinary, and although its title of “Venice of the East” seems quite pretentious, it is definitely something to see with your own eyes to believe.
4.The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Another overwhelmingly jaw-dropping architectonic marvel, another totally deserted place.
The Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque (also called Jame Mosque) is one of the jewel of the currently reigning sultan: built for its 25th year of reign and inaugurated in 1994 and was named after him.
At about 2,5kilometers walk from the OAF Mosque built by its father, the Jame Mosque is a massive sight adorned with 29 golden domes (as the current sultan is the 29th sultan of Brunei). As a matter of fact, it scores amongst the largest Islamic buildings in South-East Asia.
Walking here from the main city was a bit complicated as not all roads had pedestrian walks and sometimes I just had to dive in the city traffic or walk in the forest alongside the road; but nothing too bad that can’t be done.
The exterior of the mosque are as lavish as they could be: splurging water garden, walls adorned with geometrical islamic patterns; colorful mosaics and gems. The parking lot is huge, but when I was there no single soul was in sight.
The interior is as luxurious and extravagant as the outside, entering for a visit is free of charge and possible out of Islamic praying times; taking photos inside is forbidden, but they haven’t say nothing about Pokemon Go this time 😉
And here we come to the most famous museum of Brunei and one of the most iconic symbols of the Sultan’s astronomical and extravagant wealth.
The Royal Regalia Museum, opened in 1992 by the current Sultan himself, is a vast collection of discarded presents the sultan received from kings, presidents, ministers, and heads of states from all over the world through the years. The idea of the museum is to celebrate the popularity, influence, and wealth of the current Sultan of Brunei.
That’s not all though. Part of the museum is also a commemoration and homage to the life of the Sultan, leading the visitor through his life and milestones (birth, infancy, marriage, silver and golden jubilees, the prorogation of the Sharia law in 2014, etc.).
This museum overall left me speechless. If you look around, for sure you will find at least one (but likely more!) present coming from your country or a photo of the sultan shaking hands with one of your countries’ heads of state. The cult of the person is incredible and cured in the slightest details.
It comes naturally to ask yourself how damn rich the sultan can be and what he might possess within his palace’s walls if statues and rings gifted by Queen Elizabeth II in person are bound to be displayed in a common museum.
The entrance is free of charge. Photos are prohibited in the whole museum except for the main hall.
Did you like my article and found it useful? Do you know any other curiousity about Brunei?
Leave a comment below to get in touch! 🙂
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