Let’s start with some facts first. Or least what I am told. Brunei Darussalam means Abode of Peace. For the uninitiated, the country is situated on the Borneo island, which is to the north of Indonesia archipelego and shares borders with Kalimantan state and separately, with Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. To its north-east lies Philippines. OK – now onto the trip.
Here is the Brunei gallery !
With two kids in the kitty (so to say!), and given that the first trip to Thailand, Chiang Mai was awesome, there was enough confidence to start planning the second one and that a short trip was very much already possible with 30mth and 5mth youngies. We have covered most of Asia by now and while covering a new destination was not totally a criteria, it was an incentive, if it happens.
As of date, we have not done Japan (yep! not yet!), Myanmar, Laos, Mongolia, Bhutan, Brunei and Nepal. Japan is reserved for the autumn period while others are not the easiest to do with really young kids, we felt. Myanmar was still relatively easy since we have family experience there but that does not still make a complete cut. Fiji is another place we have not explored yet but given that the flight is not the shortest, we passed it. Plus we don’t really count it as “Asian” destination – probably clubbing it with Ocenia makes more sense.
Brunei seemed doable overall. Short flights for us and for our travel companions from Singapore. Not a whole lot to do which means a perfect relaxing trip with kids. Weather seemingly not the most supportive since it was supposed to be warm and humid but then that was going to be the case with most of other Asian destinations as well. Plus it fitted the bill of visiting another country who’s stories were only heard of in childhood, w.r.t. that very question of who is richest person on earth and the answer we used to learn was “Sultan of Brunei” and that oil income was his main source.
So Brunei it is! Off we go!
First things first, the logistics. Quick research told us that Bandar Seri Begawan was the main city to see (obviouly) but that there is no real second big city to explore for now, so that logistics even easier. Even in BSB, the areas to explore are pretty tightly packed around the main Omar Ali mosque and the Sultan’s Palace so that narrowed down the preferred hotels’ list even more.
Eventually, we went with Radisson Hotel, while The Brunei Hotel was a close second choice. Location wise, both are excellent but we would give Brunel Hotel a bit advantage here, now that we have been to the place. In terms of service, while we cannot comment on Brunei hotel, we thought Radisson was up there. Food, service, rooms etc, all upto the expectations we would have from a Radisson brand. Let’s just say we went for the safety of the brand and the minimum quality we expect out of it and got all of that.
Now in terms of flights – there are not a whole lot of airlines to choose from, for the HKG to BSB journey. That gave us the great obvious opportunity to try a new airlines- Royal Brunei Airlines! And we loved it. A quick read told us that the air safety record is impeccable and adding to comfort was that Singapore Airlines helped with the maintenence. The actual experience was just as good – food, crew, interiors, all were great. Staff was almost all local Bruneian while I think I saw the pilots to be expats. Aircrafts were not off the shelf new though, but seemed well maintained.
While those practising Islamic culture are quite strict in following the traditions, locals are very tolerant for non-Muslims and non-locals if they are not aware of the rules. General attire throughout the country was relaxed for tourists, we did not have those corner eye looks, as of 2017 when we visited. Inside the mosques, wearing veil and full sleeves top and pants are required for women and they provide the same there (men can go with shorts). However, the practical and tolerant nature comes from the practice that when we entered from another gate which didn’t have the veil available and we had to go to the other gate, since it was hot outside, they allowed us to go to the other gate from inside the mosque since it was covered and air-conditioned. Yet another great gesture to practice but have practicality in faith.
Airport first impressions – Clean, not busy, modern and polite staff. The immigration line was almost non-existant although there was a reasonable queue for the transit line – not surprising as many use BSB as transit route for Malaysian destinations. Mobile sims, ATMs etc easily available. Metered taxis with polite and honest drivers were great additions to the experience. Something that cannot be taken as a given in many places but guess there is a lot common between Brunei and Singapore.
Which brings me to the next broad impression – the city itself!
The city was amazingly clean, had a very “Singapore – like” modern look, but not as busy at all. The infra seemed all very recent and well maintained and it was very nice to experience that despite the usual bias associated with religious countries, the place was not too conservative for tourists at all. Locals were very warm, welcoming and language was never an issue – English was widely, commonly and fluently spoken but almost all.
Another thing we noticed was that women dominated the service industry. From the airport staff to phone shops to restaurants and even if we look at many cars that whizzed past us, women were taking the lead in such varied avenues. It was a delight to see the equal opportunity factor being so high here. Another wonderful factor in Brunei that can make it a great city in the making, something they are targeting by 2035 – to make Brunei a world class country with BSB a modern city!
Totally my personal thought – I believe Dubai like model may be tried here with locals continuing to get benefits while city is open enough with incentives for expat working population to come and be a catalyst to the economy as it tries to diversify from oil based earnings.
One more thing! Renting a car to see the city / nearby places is a recommended option especially given the weather in the day. The process is smooth and easy, very professional service and if we consider the benefits vs. the price, I think it is totally worth it.
We managed to hire a nice van for us 8 people from the hotel itself, price was S$140 per day (2017 price) while that of the sedan was S$90 per day. Fuel is really cheap – half tank of the van (must be about 25L), was only S$15 to refill to full. And these charges included the cleaning charges despite that our car was in quite a dusty / muddy shape post the trip due to our beach + rainy day where we got wet as well!
OK, now to the attractions:-
Of all the places that we researched and read on, we shortlisted the following:-
- Omar Ali Mosque – One of the more famous mosques in the city, due to its central location, signature pic in most travel and seeing it we understand why that’s the case. (link to my morning pic here)
- Sultan’s Palace – Don’t think we can go inside but something that seems like worth a visit even if for the pics. We just drove past the palace enroute our drive to the Penendang Beach.
- Jame Akr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque – THE GRANDEST of them all. A beautiful mosque that is worth a visit. The views especially around the blue and golden hours of sunrise and sunset respectively are totally worth it. Highly recommended.
- Kampong Ayer – World’s largest water village, initially on bamboo sticks and now on proper foundations. Is full fledged mini-city complete with schools, fire stations, police stations and the houses have access to proper clean water, electricity, etc and each house has their own boat as well. Wow!
- Gadong market – Famous night market in the city and mosque nearby. Also, a place which has several cafes in the vicinity and hence seemed like a nice place to hang out.
- Jerudong Park Playground – Bit far by city standards but still only 25-30min drive, great area for kids to play and spend the day but city can get very hot
- Ulu Ulu Nature Park – we didn’t go here eventually since it is quite far and nature park is not the first choice place when with toddlers and infants.
For the places that we saw, the Brunei portfolio has the pics as in the link here.
And here are the places we went to, most of them totally worth it.