Population: 374,000 (UN, 2005)
Capital: Bandar Seri Begawan
Area: 5,765 sq km (2,226 sq miles)
Major languages: Malay, English, Chinese
Major religions: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity
Life expectancy: 74 years (men), 79 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Bruneian dollar = 100 cents
Brunei Darussalam is an independent sultanate country quite tiny but never lackluster or insignificant. Tinsel town with a right, Brunei has long been Asia’s best kept secret that revels in “golden” culture, heritage, and economy. A great too many impresses on one of the smallest, but richest countries in the world as a nation of elites, royalties, and business moguls with money to last 5 lifetimes, but it is also a state of people with thick traditions and impoverished lifestyles. Perhaps Brunei’s gilded gates are an open invitation for the world to look in, and truth is, there is not enough to summarize this charming little country but to say that it is a kingdom of unexpected treasures and early 13th century civilization is spot on.
A good way to acquaint oneself with Brunei to calm qualms is to know what it’s not. It is not an Islamist extremist nation, nor is it a kingdom of royalty and peasants, with what the media’s representation of excesses and lavish parties. Unfortunate but true, the tiny sultanate stands beneath the shadows of the rich lists and excessive wasteful lifestyles. Ill-gotten wealth and plunder are issues that plague the nation with the same family in rule for 6 centuries, the longest unbroken dynasty in the world. But Brunei does have a well-to-do financial system to boast which looks as good as economy reports of “Not Applicable (NA)” on population below poverty line. It seems quite paradoxical however that alcohol is banned in Brunei, while the Prince Azim drinks himself mad.
Brunei (4 30 N, 114 40 E) is the second to the smallest country in Southeast Asia next to Singapore with but an area of 5,765 km² that borders the South China Sea and Malaysia. The country’s terrain is generally flat coastal plains with land elevations rising to mountainous to the east, Bukit Pagon with the highest peak in Brunei 1,850metres above sea level. It prides of the most intact virgin rainforests in all of Borneo, 70% of Brunei to be exact. The reason- its profuse abundance in oil has found no necessity for exploring and exploit the forests for other natural resources. Brunei actually is a country of 2 slivers of separated territories less than an hour’s trip by boat.
Brunei just has it lucky with a sub-tropical climate as it rarely experiences natural catastrophes such as typhoons, earthquakes or flooding. Brunei is hot, humid and wet with average temperatures of 28°C that can go up to 33°C in January, supposedly the coldest month for most SEA countries. Most environmental issues they contend with are by-products that travel a long way from Indonesia, such as haze. Travel to any part of Brunei is best with a head start very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But the traveler’s best choice and introduction to Brunei is after the Ramadan, when the palace throws open its gates for more than 100,000 people for a feast and meet-and-greet with the Sultan, and possibly sneak in a handshake, except for women who can only meet Her Majesty.
The nation of Brunei is an officially Islamic State as is inscribed in their constitution. However, with an open-minded attitude for tourists and explorers, the 388,190 Bruneians impose no danger on travelers wherever the origin or whatever the faith, attesting to its reputation as an “abode of peace” not only of opulence. Therefore, Buddhism (13%) and Christianity (10%) etc. are embraced and practiced freely. Islam to Brunei is not just a religion, but an ideology that guides all aspects of the people’s lives especially governance with the 3 M’s code called “Malay Muslim Monarchy”- the best way to describe their government. Malay of course because of their bias towards the culture as Brunei with its location and considering all else is an enclave of Malaysia. MALAY, as well is the official language. ENGLISH is rather common and used by the general populace, and CHINESE dialects like Fukien and Teochew are also widely spoken by ethnic Chinese communities.
Travel amongst Brunei territory is to a degree difficult especially when travelling via land. From BSB to Bangar, road travel comes with the inconvenience of passing through two immigration points, Malaysia upon exit from either BSB or Bangar, and Brunei immigration, upon entry as well. That’s only one of the three major challenges to behold in Brunei, the other being a few budget options in Brunei, true to its opulence, at least for BSB. The last, of which is-have I mentioned there was no booze?
Brunei effortlessly presents a country like no other starting off with BSB which is not your typically fast-paced, overtly modernized city, and carefully balancing lush greens with an efficient and uncongested building layout. Comes with a price though for it is the City of the Abdicated Sultan, as Bandar Seri Begawan directly translates, where the traveler will find the same imperial luxuries of golden architectures. Ever encountered a 6- Michelin star hotel? The preponderance of what a land of early civilizations offers are stunning architecture of edifices and temples that honor its legacy and religion such as the Royal Regalia Museum and Brunei Museum, where the traveler will find the most incredible treasures of Brunei’s rich history, “rich” in the full sense of the word. What about the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque or that of His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s? At night, the Jerudong Park Gardens offers the public a spectacle fit for palace guests with its dancing fountains and dazzling design by Prince Jeffri. Far from the glitz and gild, the world’s largest water village, kampong ayer will render a century’s old experience or a proboscis monkey tour, one of a kind species of large-nosed monkeys, with a newfound appreciation for beauty amidst simplicity. And yes, there’s kayaking, windsurfing, and scuba diving.
Temburong District is endowed with two unprecedented nature parks, the Ulu Temburong National Park for B$5 or USD$3.5 and the Peradayan Forest Reserve at no admission charge, both of which are breathtaking and brilliant escapes with the most pristine virgin rainforests. Bangar, the district capital is less glamorous but equally beautiful and has more in store for the budget traveler at $4 by boat from BSB, not to discredit BSB that’s for sure. All these concerns of visa and expenses are sure to come to pass by looking at and appreciating Brunei for its culture, people, and food, need I say?
Bruneian cuisine is a blank page to most outsiders looking in, or perhaps a misconception of Malay food without character, but the traveler has yet to find out that Bruneian cuisine has evolved to a fusion of Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arab and European flavors that is akin to the sultanate country alone. Chinese food is ubiquitous, as is everywhere else. Rice is ever present while pork is avoided, due to the Islamic religion. A few of the national specialties are Daging Masak Lada Hitam or spicy beef with potato and beans, Serondeng Pandag, garlic-fried chicken in pandan leaves, Udang Sambal Serai Bersantan, which is a seafood dish with prawns, coconut milk and chilli, and Nasi Katok spicy curry beef/chicken, all these served with rice. For a true Bruneian flavor, try the ambuyat, a sticky surprise. Then, shove it all down with refreshing coconut juice, fruit juice, coffee, tea, or just water. And as a country of two phases, BSB and Bangar, the traveler feels double the melancholy and broken-heartedness upon leaving Brunei, as s/he technically leaves twice.
Note: Foreigners are allowed to carry alcohol with strict limits of 12 cans of beer and 2 other spirits.