BRUNEI: LESS OF A LAYOVER AND MORE ABOUT MONKEY-WATCHING.

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Wondering why Brunei? Well, have you heard of Proboscis monkeys?!  A picture of that nose and the potential opportunity to see one in the Borneo jungle… The challenge was on!  We booked flights between the Philippines and Vietnam, to include a stopover in Brunei.  And we found that with two days, you can be sure to see the best of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Here are our favourite six things about visiting Brunei, plus one challenge, and a few things to know before you go…

ABOUT BRUNEI, QUICKLY

Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Population: 428,962 (2018)
Official language: Malay
Currency: Brunei dollar (BND)
Religion: 78.8% Sunni Islam, 8.7% Christian, 7.8% Buddhist, 4.7% Other.

The huge pathways along the river bank heading in to town.

1. KAMPONG AYER

The incredible stilt village of Kampong Ayer was our first outing in Brunei. The ‘village’ is actually a historical settlement of 42 contiguous stilt villages built along the banks of the Sungai Brunei, and home to over 30,000 people.

The houses are all built on stilts, extending out over the water, with each village cluster including schools, fire and police stations.

Locals on the boardwalks at Kampong Ayer.
View of Kampong Ayer from the museum tower.

It is easy to find a water taxi long boat on the riverside to explore Kampong Ayer. Boat drivers hang about near the small jetties and will approach you as soon as you head anywhere near(!) the river banks.

We ended up finding a driver who took us out two days in a row. The first day to Kampong Ayer, and he met us again on the second day for a two hour outing to the jungle to find proboscis monkeys.

2. OMAR ALI SAIFUDDIN MOSQUE

The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is often considered one of the most beautiful mosque in South East Asia, renowned for its glittering gold domes and iconic modern Islamic architecture style. The gold minaret tower is the tallest structure in all of Bandar Seri Begawan meaning it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

A bit too late to go inside on a Friday morning.

However, everything closes in Brunei on Friday between 12:00-2:00pm for religious time and prayer.  Note: Don’t forget this when planning your stopover in Brunei as the mosque closes to non-Muslims during this time.

Washing at the ablution block.

BUT, before it closed, and after much sign language and ushering, the boys had a chance to join and copy the other men washing at the ablution block as part of the ritual before entering the mosque for prayer (and appreciating the secondary chance to cool down while doing so!).

3. PROBOSCIS MONKEYS

It’s the best day of my life!” We asked Oscar if he was pleased we found some of the monkeys we had built up as such a planned highlight for our stopover in Brunei; and that was his response. We weren’t sure if we would see the monkeys on our trip, as we heard from our hotel on arriving that there haven’t been so many sightings lately.

Heading upriver to the jungle.

We saw two! I haven’t got any photo evidence, as truthfully they were quite far away and we were enjoying the moment (as you do, monkey-spotting in Brunei). But they are cool looking things! Proboscis monkeys are renowned for their huge noses. We saw two, hiding right up in the treetops… And I think that made the day for all of us!

4. BRUNEI’S LOCATION

For travellers, Brunei has a fantastic location for accessibility in South East Asia. As soon as we searched flight routes we saw layovers between the Philippines and Vietnam, stopping in Bandar Seri Begawan. It didn’t alter the cost of our flights to extend that to a stopover (as opposed to a layover). In my opinion that makes it a great reason to add Brunei to the travel list!

5. A TOURIST-LESS DESTINATION

A huge drawcard of Brunei for us, was confidence in the lack of tourists we would find there. And that certainly proved true. Brunei doesn’t have the allure of other South East Asian travel destinations, but as an upside to that it has a refreshing lack of tourists.

We found people of Brunei to be welcoming (aside from being chased out of the mosque for Friday prayer time) and very friendly. Attractions aren’t crowded, and their isn’t the stress of negotiating transport and fares with locals who are used to unsuspecting tourists.

Having a turn with our friendly water taxi driver.

6. BRUNEI FEELS CLEAN AND SAFE

The vibe of Brunei is peaceful and safe. We felt comfortable walking around Brunei with the kids and were impressed by the cleanliness of Bandar Seri Begawan.

The beautifully clean centre of town surrounding the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.

ONE CHALLENGE IN BRUNEI

Everything closes in Brunei on Friday from 12:00-2:00pm, with a lot of shops shut for the rest of the afternoon. Well, we forgot!

Picture us at 11:50am on Friday; swelteringly hot, having just walked the 40 minutes into the centre of town to see the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque… We hadn’t realised it was just about to close. We had run out of drinking water and were suddenly alerted to the fact that in 10 minutes time, every single shop would be shut for the next two hours, and no taxi’s would be running…

I ran!
(As fast as I could in the 35°C sun…).

The kids were both bright red and looked near collapsing due to overheating after our walk into town. I knew we needed to find something to drink, but for the life of me I couldn’t recognise any convenience stores… The only shop I could recognise within a 200m radius was KFC!

I don’t think I have ever been so grateful to see KFC in my life.

We spend our travels refusing plastic straws and bottled water, but in the hour following that dramatic learning curve, drinking cold water and KFC orange juice on the steps outside tasted like the best thing out.


GETTING AROUND

It’s easy to arrange an airport pickup with your hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan. Getting around the city of Bandar Seri Begawan in the day time is easy as well. We walked into town each time. Brunei has an Uber/Grab-like system called ‘Dart’ which looks easy to use. However, due to the small size of Brunei there aren’t a huge number of taxis or Dart cabs and they therefore require booking with a more notice than usual.  We found it easiest to walk.

And obviously for Kampong Ayer, you need a water taxi!

Getting around by water taxi.

WHERE WE STAYED

Le Gallery Suites Hotel is a fantastic location to explore Bandar Seri Begawan from. Three nights accommodation in a family room cost $298 NZD ($196 USD) with breakfast vouchers included for the restaurant next door, My Town Eating House. Breakfast is amazing! We looked forward to it each morning. Moreover, the hotel is on the same street as a small convenience shop, friendly laundrette and a gorgeous bakery selling all kinds of treats.  I would recommend staying here for your visit or stopover in Brunei.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Brunei is small nation, and we often don’t hear a lot about it as a country; good or bad. However, if you are visiting Brunei it is important to know before you go that as an Islamic sultanate, Brunei is governed under strict Sharia law. Essentially, this means that it has strict rules in line with its deeply-held reverence for religion. There are laws and restrictions regarding homosexuality, unmarried couples sharing a hotel room, defamation of the Sultan, and/or overstaying your visa. The sale of alcohol is also banned within the country.

Travellers to Brunei are expected to follow the rules as well, with few exceptions.

The stunning Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.

Brunei is a fascinating country, rich in culture and natural beauty. And unsurprisingly, size-wise the highlights of Brunei can be visited in two days.

So what do you think? Are you curious to visit Brunei?

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