A few months ago, Justine and our friend, Bam, invited me to join them in Brunei. I had the same questions as my friends and colleagues had – What’s in Brunei? What are you going to do there? What’s to see in Brunei? Why are you going to Brunei? Oh, and a classic – is that in the Middle East? No guys. That’s Dubai. :|
See, there was not so much written about Brunei. And, when I asked a couple of my friends who’ve lived there, I was told that there was nothing to see in Brunei. Great, I’ve already booked my flights. But, then again, that’s the beauty of traveling, right? To see for yourself what’s on the other side and discover things on your own, with or without the certainty of what’s there to see. :) So, off we went to building our very simple itinerary with budget a couple of months before the scheduled trip and let ourselves be immersed in our lives outside of travel.
Two days before the trip
Some things haven’t been going as planned. Our friend, Bam, couldn’t join us because of a project she took on that exhausted her energies and constrained her time. My passport, which was supposed to be ready for pick up a week before our scheduled departure, wouldn’t be available until hours before our trip. We still don’t have copies of the credit card used to book our hotel. And, we still don’t have our dollars!
Justine and I employed the command-and-conquer strategy. We packed our bags the night before. And, while I worked in the morning of our flight, Justine purchased our dollars and printed all the documents we needed (Thanks, Justine!). And, when everything was set, we went to DFA Aseana to pick my passport up. Yep, with Bam not joining us and my passport not yet in my hands, we weren’t sure if we were going together to Brunei or if she was going on her first solo trip. Haha!
First things first. Where is Brunei Darussalam?
Brunei Darussalam is located on the north coast of the island of Borneo. Yes, it’s part of Southeast Asia and is usually merely a stop-over for most travelers. There are direct flights to Brunei, like the one from Cebu Pacific. But, one can also go to Brunei by land through Malaysia.
How we got to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
After picking my passport up (DFA delivered, yay!), we went straight to the airport. While we knew that we were hours early before we can drop off our bags because we’ve web checked-in, we decided that it would be better to wait there rather than risk being stuck in traffic. Upon arrival, we went to pay for the airport tax (Php 1,260 per pax), then whiled away the time at the airport. When the check-in counters opened, we dropped our bags off and headed to the immigration area. Because Justine booked her flight in January, she still had to pay Php 550 for the terminal fee and I, nada, because I booked mine in March. Woot!
We took the last flight of Cebu Pacific out of Manila (11:40 p.m.) to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam. When we arrived at the Royal Brunei International Airport past 1.00 a.m., we were expecting to see someone from the hotel with Bam’s name on the signage. Of course, there was none.
Off to plan B. We walked around the airport to look for a money changer so we would have Brunei Dollars to pay the airport cab. But, no, contrary to what’s written in other resources, the money changer and even the other shops close before the last flight for the day arrives, so we didn’t have any Brunei Dollars with us! As we were sorta panicking, we went down the arrival area again and we finally saw the lady driver sent by our hotel. Phew!
It took us around 15 minutes to get to our hotel from the airport. Since we arrived after 11.00 p.m., we had to pay 10 BND (approximately 350 PHP) for the transfer (if it was before 11.00 p.m., the transfers would have been a freebie from the hotel). It was still a good deal, considering that 1) they let us pay the day after and once we’ve changed some of our USDs to BNDs and 2) it still came out cheaper compared to if we had hired a taxi from the airport. All’s good!
Where we stayed in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
There are a number of accommodation options in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, and while it was not difficult to find something that would meet our minimum needs – clean bathroom with good supply of running water, internet connection, air-conditioned room, and near the places we want to visit – most are beyond the budget we have set.
In the end, though, we opted for Badi’ah Hotel, a three-star hotel owned by a relative of the Sultan of Brunei, mainly because of its proximity to the main places that we would like to see. The price (approximately Php 1,200 per person per night, booked through Agoda.com) was not bad, too, considering that it has a pool, where we could stay at in case we would run out of places to visit. Yes, we were prepared. Haha! Their staff could also speak English quite well, which was a good thing as neither Justine nor I could speak Malay. But, what I love most about Badi’ah Hotel was its superb customer service, which we could access 24 hours.
What we did in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
Admittedly, the things we did could’ve been packed in just a couple of days. But, well, we had other plans. We really wanted for this trip to be a bit more chill than what we’re used to. Since we’ve both had quite hectic schedules weeks prior, most of our days in Brunei were spent in the hotel, enjoying the comforts of our beds, planning what to do next, and enjoying the peaceful pool area.
There were a few must-sees for us though that we didn’t let pass. The two main mosques, Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, left us in awe because of its majestic architecture. Both are such pretty sights that we had to visit them more than once during our trip. We also visited Kampong Ayer (their famous water village), Tamu Kianggeh (where we had our 1 BND or approximately 35 PHP lunch), Arts & Handicrafts Center (where one could find the
pricey Brunei local products), and were toured by our couchsurfing host to the Empire Hotel and Muara Beach. There are a lot of other places that we could’ve visited, like the Royal Regalia Museum, Brunei History Center, and Brunei Museum. But, we have created for Brunei to be an experience with its people, so we opted to go that way and enjoyed the company of the new friends we met along the way.
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
The largest mosque in Brunei, Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, was built for the 25th anniversary of the current sultan’s reign. It is attractive in the morning and in the evening with its pretty exterior, such that whenever we pass by it, I would always exclaim, “That mosque is really pretty!” I am not kidding.
Adorned with 29 golden domes, in the evening, the entire mosque is lit up, making it look even more majestic.
It was a pity that we didn’t get to see what’s inside of Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. But, we walked around the outer grounds and got to see some of the details of the mosque up close. Nice details, yeah?
We also noticed that Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque’s outer grounds remind you a li’l bit about Morocco. So, pardon the selfie! Haha!
Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien
On Fridays, between 12 noon and 2 in the afternoon, all shops in Brunei are closed for prayer time and, during which, some of our Muslim brothers and sisters visit Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien.
Completed in the 1950s and named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien III, this mosque’s biggest dome is gold-plated and its tower made of marble.
An eye-catcher in the morning and even at night time, being in the vicinity gives you peace and tranquility, which is probably why we’ve visited the outside of it since the first day we’ve been in Brunei.
Another must-do for us was to visit Kampong Ayer, which is also in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam. We hired a guide and boat, referred by our driver, Irwan, to tour around the water village for 15 BND (approximately Php 525) per pax. The tour lasted for about an hour as we went around the village.
Situated in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Kampong Ayer houses roughly 10% of the country’s total population. In the past, its population comprised half of the entire nation, but because of the demands of education, work, and convenience, the number of people living in the village slowly dwindled down to its current number.
The buildings are constructed on stilts above the water of Brunei Bay. And, in order to preserve the heritage of the village, the government has provided facilities for the residents of Kampong Ayer, like its own electricity supply, water pipes, mosques, clinics, schools, and police station.
The government also built foot bridges for the residents, for convenience of the residents of the village. In some areas, boats also use the gaps between the stilts of these bridges to pass through.
I believe that the area is well-preserved, considering that motor boats are also used to clean the garbage off the water, like those blue boats beneath the jetty.
We could see that they were content with what they have. As with the places we visited in Brunei, the people would wave hi or give you that sweet smile. :)
Located on the banks of Kianggeh River, Tamu Kianggeh is one of the markets of Bandar Seri Begawan popular to tourists.
While we didn’t get to witness how vibrant Tamu Kianggeh is (usually in the early morning), I still love it that we had the opportunity to have conversations with some of the sellers, a lot of whom are locals and some are from other countries like Nepal and the Philippines.
Where to eat in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
There are a lot of options, to be honest. You can visit Tamu Kianggeh in the morning for your breakfast, when most of the stalls are open. We didn’t get to do this, though, since we mostly went out in the afternoons and evenings. But, we still got to have one of our lunches there. And, man, it was SUPER affordable! Our nasi katok (rice + fried chicken) only costed 1 BND (approximately 35 PHP). :)
The Gadong Night Market is something worth visiting, too, from what I heard. But, because it was raining in the evenings, we didn’t get to set foot on this part of Brunei. Darn. However, we got to try the food at Aneka Rasa for some Indonesian food, Aminah Arif for Brunei’s ambuyat, and Excapade for some good Japanese food (this one is highly recommended).
Going around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
Perhaps the most convenient, albeit more expensive, way of going around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, is to hire a private car and driver. While there is an option to walk around or take the bus, we were unsure on how to go about using this option. Moreover, the weather when we visited Brunei was a bit bipolar – either it is scorching hot or there’s a heavy downpour. So, to be on the safe side, what we did was coordinate with our hotel and request that they book us a driver paid per hour. We got ours for 20 BND (or 750 PHP) per hour but I learned later on that some charge 35 BND (or 1,225 PHP) per hour, so best to request your hotel to negotiate the price on your behalf. The price is not bad considering that we didn’t have our umbrellas with us and there were gadgets that we needed to protect.
If you are a couchsurfer, you may also want to consider contacting the Couchsurfing community in Brunei and request that you be shown around. On our first night, I sent them a simple message and Robert replied to me the next morning. In the afternoon, Robert and his friend, Hendri, picked us up and brought us to some of the places we planned on visiting for that day and also to others that we weren’t even considering! They even drove us to the airport and waited until it was time for us to go inside the waiting area. :)
Other useful tips
When best to visit Brunei Darussalam
During Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which is the festival at the end of the Muslim fasting month. It is during this time that Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan of Brunei, is open to the public.
Getting to your accommodation of choice
We highly suggest that you arrange the airport transfer prior to arriving at Brunei Darussalam, specially if you are taking a red-eye flight. The money changers at the Royal Brunei International Airport close early and, if you do not have BNDs with you, you might not get to your hotel until morning. Badi’ah Hotel, where we stayed, had complimentary airport transfers before 11.00 p.m. and, if you are arriving after that, it will cost 10 BND (or, approximately 350 PHP), which is reasonable, I would say.
Schedule of mosques and other shops
On Fridays, between 12 noon and 2 in the afternoon, all shops in Brunei are closed for prayer time. So, best to plan your itinerary around these times. For your reference, below also are the schedules of Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien’s visiting hours for non-Muslims inside the mosque.
Please respect the schedule of the mosques. When we were at Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, a couple of visitors from another country went inside the mosque, to the disapproval of the caretakers.
Wear sleeved tops and pants/long skirts. Brunei is a conservative place and, to respect the people of the country, dress appropriately.
Is it worth the visit?
For a few days, yes, I would have to say that it’s worth a visit. If you’re on a long-term travel and you are looking for some peace and quiet, Brunei can be a good place for some break in the exciting world of traveling.
Brunei Darussalam can be an affordable country, too, if you make it to be. For a semi-luxurious (in our standards, haha) vacation, we spent less than 100 BND per day, including airport transfers, accommodations, food, tours, etc. And, I would say that we could’ve lowered this down if we had chosen a cheaper accommodation or commuted around Bandar Seri Begawan.
But, we didn’t have any regrets. We met some cool dudes from the Couchsurfing community, met a lot of Pinoys working there, and locals who were always ready to give us their sweet smiles. It reminded me of how nice it is to visit other countries and experience first-hand their unique characteristics. And, as I’ve been itching to go on a trip for months, this was a good way to get my groove back for out-of-the-country travels. Next stop, Thailand!
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Thank you! And, in whatever space you’re in now, I hope that you get something from reading my articles.