When one steps first outside the airport in Brunei Darussalam, two things hit you in the face. There's the humidity of course, which immediately wraps around your skin like cling film, and then there is the large tourism signs which proudly boast that you have arrived in The Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures.
Prior to visiting Brunei, you'll probably experience a conversation like this:
"I'm going on holiday to Brunei!" "Where? You mean Bahrain, or Bhutan?" "No Brunei, its a small country on the island of Borneo" For a handful of people, the island of Borneo will be enough of a geographic reference to feign knowledge of Brunei. But for most, eyes have glazed over, interest is lost, you're talking a foreign language. Therefore you may be correct to wonder which "unexpected treasures" await in this so called "Kingdom" that you have probably never heard of.
I have a nostalgic familiarity for this tiny oil rich, jungle dense, Muslim nation, with a population of just over 400,000. Brunei is a monarchy, ruled by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah who was once the richest man in the world, and is still worth an estimated $20billion. The expatriate community is small, comprised mainly of oil workers, teachers and pilots. Which is how we ended up living in Bandar Seri Begawan, the sleepy capital of the Kingdom. I still have family in Brunei, and I recently went back for a holiday and we had an excellent time - so I wanted to share five top tips for enjoying a week there.
1. The Ulu Temburong National Park
A spectacular swathe of lush, virgin rain-forest covers the northeast of Brunei, which spills across the border into Malaysia, covering 550 wild and unexplored square kilometres. The Park can be easily accessed in a day trip from Bandar, which requires a one hour boat journey to the town of Bangor, and then a minibus transfer to the park entrance itself. The canopy walk takes you to 50m above the treetops, and its easy to feel like you are the only person in the world looking out across the green carpet beneath you. The trip back includes a stop at the "fish spa" waterfall where you can refresh and get the dead skin nibbled off your feet by little critters who live in the water. Lunch awaits in a wooden refuge which perches on the river banks.
2. Kampong Ayer Water Village
Dubbed the “Venice of the East” the Kampong Ayer is a sprawl of wooden houses on stilts, and a labyrinth of wooden walkways which wind between “villages” sitting about 3 metres above the Brunei River. To take a tour of the village, catch a long boat from the main steps in Bandar. The boats can take you further up the river to see the Sultan’s palace - Istana Nural Iman - as well as the famous long nosed proboscis monkeys. Kunyit 7 is a great option for an overnight stay over the water, and a chance to experience local hospitality.
3. Jerudong Park & Gadong Night Markets
While in Brunei you can’t pass up a trip to the largest and most expensive amusement park in South East Asia. Built by the Sultans wife for $1b, the park contains rollercoasters, bumper cars, log flumes an more. Its virtually free to enter and the best part is you’ll likely have it to yourself. Start or end the evening with some street food at the sprawling Gadong Night markets enroute.
4. Bukit Shahbander
Perhaps an unlikely holiday activity, but for those who love working up a bit of a sweat and getting a great view of the ocean, then this intrepid 5 hill workout is for you! Bukit Shahbandar is a forest recreation park located close to the city centre, but on the coast with a great view out over the Bay of Brunei. You follow the wooden signs with maps and keep your eyes peeled for the 'Pondoks' or wooden huts at the top of each hill to celebrate each sweaty summit. You'll cross through little rivers, waterfalls, through a forest walk and slip and slide your way down the muddy slopes if its been raining, but the experience is exhilarating and the ice cold coconuts waiting at the end in the car park are reason enough to forge ahead.
5. Water sports and scuba diving
Head to Serasa an area which lies along the coast on the northeastern tip of the Brunei, which is only about a 45 minute drive from Bandar. Here you can find local companies that run diving to a series of wrecks, waterskiing and boat tips to the islands off the coast. On Sunday there is a sprawl of local markets and street food which you can enjoy on the beach.
Where to stay: The Empire Hotel and Country Club an opulent 6 star treat place which you can get for a bargain because its never full.
Brunei is a dry country, but foreigners can bring in a quota of alcohol when you enter.
Have a little more time? Further afield:
Mulu Caves: one of the largest cave systems in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site, virtually on the doorstep of Brunei, about a 3 hour drive or a short flight over the border into Malaysian Borneo. It’s younger sister cave system, Niah Caves, is also worth a visit.
Mount Kinabalu: Climbing the highest mountain in South East Asia to watch the sunrise is breathtaking. Flights leave from Brunei to KK twice daily and only take 20 minutes.
Borneo Headhunters trail: a five day hiking trail from Barrio, following in the footsteps of local tribesmen whose claim to manhood was how many heads they could bring home of their enemies.
A local guide on the look out for monkeys enroute to the Temburong National Park.
A boat winds its way up the Brunei River through the Kampong Ayer.
Omar Saifuddin Mosque in central Bandar Seri Begawan.
A pink sunset over the jungle at Kota Batu.