Indonesia & Borneo trip: Part 4 – Brunei (Borneo)

After a great experience in Bali we headed home, via a long stop over on the Borneo island, in the country of Brunei.

On Sunday morning we landed at Brunei airport. We’d spent a couple of hours in the transit area on the flight over, but had a 10 hour layover this time – so we’d booked a guide for the day to show us around one of the richest countries in the world – as there’s only about 50 taxis in the whole country!

We purchased our visa on arrival at the desk for (if I recall correctly) 17 Singapore dollars each – the Singapore currency being exchangeable with Brunei dollars and us not being able to source any Brunei currency before travelling. We then met our guide Violet at arrivals.

She was lovely, and spoke excellent English. It soon transpired that she’d studied at University in our home town of Nottingham and spent several years there and one year working down in Cornwall at a pharmacist, but had decided to return home due to missing her friends in both Nottingham and Brunei and not finding work in the Midlands. Although she had lived most of her life in Brunei and made an excellent tour guide, her parents were from Malaysia, but of Chinese descent.

The day tour of Brunei is pretty standard. It’s quite a small country

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

and there’s only so much for a tourist to see. We started with a trip to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. This huge building was very impressive, with some fascinating architecture. We took off our shoes and donned long robes, and we were able to enter the large prayer room and the wash room. No photos were allowed inside, but we were able to take a few snaps outside and in the inner forum.

Next up was the Royal Regalia museum. We would have preferred the Technology or National museums but one was closed with it
being Sunday and the other closed for renovations. This museum was interesting in a way, but being focussed solely on the Sultan and royal family, didn’t interest us so much. What interested us more was the local market opposite it. We asked Violet if she minded us taking a look and she was happy to take us over and talk with the locals to try and explain what the vast range of bizarre looking fruit and veg on offer were. We’d seen a few interesting fruits in Bali and had tried dragonfruit, the rather smelly but somewhat tasty (if you like creamy onion flavours in your fruit!) “king of fruits“, durian fruit as well as mangosteen. There were some others here we’d not seen. We bought some jackfruit and mangosteen, the “queen of fruits“, and something else I can’t recall the name of! Very enjoyable.

Brunei market - random fruit
Brunei market – random fruit

We then drove out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club. This is an impressive luxury beach side hotel overlooking the South China Sea. We admired the grand architecture and indulged in cakes and coffee before taking a stroll around the grounds and swimming pool and to the beach, Violet telling us many interesting facts about life in Brunei. It being a Muslim country, it is “dry” – no alcohol is sold. However, the border with Malaysia is only an hour or so away, and you are allowed to bring back 12 cans of beer or a bottle of spirit per person, so people would regularly drive to the border to stock up on drinks.

 Empire Hotel and Country Club, Brunei
Empire Hotel and Country Club, Brunei

She told us how there was generally no problems living there as a non-Muslim, although the Sultan was becoming more strict in his followings of the faith in his later years and some Sharia law was being adopted. Previously, during Ramadan and fasting, some restaurants and stalls were allowed to be open for tourists to be able to eat, but this was no longer the case.

Healthcare in the country is excellent; you pay a dollar to visit a doctor, but then have unlimited medicine for a year. Hospital care is free, and if they are unable to provide the required expert care needed in their country, it is paid for in another.

Every family in Brunei has a car – they are heavily subsidised by the Sultan. Houses are also provided for free!

On the drive back Violet pointed out many more interesting sights and buildings, and drove us into the country club. There was a restaurant there she’d been considering taking us to, but after the morning fruits and the lunchtime cakes, we were pretty full, so we drove around the grounds trying to spot the pet elephant that lived there, but we were only able to see a few monkeys.

It was then time for the river cruise to the water village, and then on to the mangroves, to try and see the Dutchman monkeys. These are

River boat ride in Brunei
River boat ride in Brunei

so called for their red noses; in Colonial times, the Borneo Malaysians were reminded of the Dutch by them.

Violet told us that crocodiles also lived in the river but she hadn’t seen one herself – we couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing!

We were taken to the water village, a curious mix of old and new, some dilapidated, buildings perched on legs in the river. We

Brunei water village
Brunei water village

docked and were taken to a typical locals home to try tea and some local cakes – very nice. We thought we’d feel a bit uncomfortable sitting there as tourists in a strangers home, but they had a very large living room area and bought in the cakes and drink and left us to it.

We then resumed our river cruise and after ten minutes or so had left the city and passed the back of the Sultan’s Palace, and started looking for the elusive Dutchman. We spotted many storks along the rivers edge, and saw a few eagles circling above.

We pulled into a side stream and stopped the boat and were able to

Brunei river - hunting for Dutchman monkeys
Brunei river – hunting for Dutchman monkeys

catch a glimpse of the monkeys in the distance swinging among the tree tops; their large red noses visible through the foliage.

After a steady cruise back we were starting to get hungry. Violet had been intending on taking us to another mosque but we asked her to join us for lunch and asked if she could personally recommend somewhere to try local food, but something vegetarian. She struggled to think of anywhere and asked if we liked sushi, which we heartily responded ‘yes‘ to. We enjoyed an excellent meal and then it was time to say our thanks and goodbyes and we returned to the airport.

Brunei International was currently being modernised, so the transit area was a little small and basic, but after the days heat and another 18 hours or so of travel to look forward to, we used the rather dodgy – but (just about) functional showers at the airport to freshen up before our flights.

We now had a 7 hour slog to Dubai, a short wait, and another 7 hours back to the UK.

One thing I mentioned before was that the Royal Brunei Airlines flights looked like better options than the others as there was only one stop.

I hadn’t realised that this is a bit misleading; there is actually a second, in Dubai – for refueling. You have to get off the aircraft (for safety reasons) during this time, but get back on the same one/same seats. On the flight out, there’d been a delay leaving, so we literally got off, went through a very basic security scan, had a long walk, went back through another basic security scan, and got back on again. This time round we had almost two hours off the plane.

We’d considered visiting Dubai previously, but had heard the stories about couples getting into trouble for inappropriate acts – such as kissing in public. You weren’t even supposed to hold hands. In Brunei we’d refrained. In Dubai airport we figured the rules were the same – although I accidentally kissed my girlfriend on the cheek on the escalator automatically – but nobody had seen; phew. Yet I was surprised to see several scantily clad (presumably) Russian lasses in short skirts and high heels walking around the shops amongst the heavily veiled local women.

Slightly bizarre contrast.

We then resumed our flight home.

RBA is a dry airline – no alcohol is served on board. We’d read that if you took on a few miniatures then they wouldn’t mind, but we weren’t bothered – alcohol at high altitude is a bad idea anyway and you always get dehydrated on flights. We made the most of the plentiful in flight food and water/juice/tea/coffee and enjoyed several movies.

The flights out had passed well; we’d slept a little which was fine as we had been happy being tired on arrival as the local time had been time to sleep; on the way back, we needed a good sleep as we’d arrive at a local time of 6am. Of course, we couldn’t get comfortable – not helped by a passenger who sat next to us, who, in all politeness, stank terribly – and the flight was rather exhausting. We then hit morning London rush hour traffic which we had to fight through and it took around 3 hours to get home – just in time to start work!

Fantastic experience though and Bali was a great place to visit. I just wish it were closer!!

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