The tiny Islamic Sultanate of Brunei is situated on the north-western coast of Borneo. The region is surrounded by the winding borders of Sarawak and at one point is even split in two by the Limbang territory. Neither an ubermodern nation nor an overly Muslim stronghold, the oil-rich emirate is a subtle blend of the two. Home to over 260,000 inhabitants – of whom Malays make up 70% while the rest are Chinese, Indian, indigenous tribes and expatriates – Brunei is a lushly thriving region. Benefiting from a quality of life almost beyond compare in Southeast Asia, Brunei’s residents are a contented lot – education and healthcare are free, houses and cars are subsidized and income tax is more or less unheard of.
Brunei’s rich natural resources mean that the country’s never had to court tourists. Budget accommodation options are pretty thin on the ground and most hotels are in the mid-range to upscale price brackets. Journeys to visit the indigenous tribes will result in cheaper lodgings but considering their relative inaccessibility, you’re not likely to stay for long.
Brunei is generally visited as a stepping stone to either Sabah or Sarawak. The Islamic emirate is rich in oil resources and its tourism sector has never fully developed, thus the nation lacks tourist-friendly facilities. On the whole, primary and secondary rainforests dominate the area’s landscape and Brunei is pretty much off the beaten track.
Regardless of where you’re travelling from, Bandar Seri Begawan’s plush Brunei International Airport will undoubtedly be your first port of call. Air services into Brunei are either with Royal Brunei Airlines or Malaysian Airlines Systems (MAS). Royal Brunei flies to 20 major cities throughout Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Europe.
The country’s national carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines operates a variety of routes from main destinations like London Heathrow, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to the capital. However if you’re having to watch your budget carefully, you can pick up the cheapest possible fare to KL or Singapore and fly on from there with Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines or MAS.
From Kuala Lumpur, there are numerous daily Royal Brunei flights to Bandar Seri Begawan but fares for MAS flights are substantially cheaper. MAS flights also compare well from either Kota Kinabalu or Kuching. Royal Brunei also has flights from Hong Kong and Jakarta. Singapore Airlines operates a once-daily flight from Singapore’s Changi Airport and Philippine Airlines serves Manila while Bangkok has flights with Thai Airways.
It’s possible to get to Brunei via boat – in fact boat services between Sabah and Sarawak to Brunei is more convenient than overland travel. There are daily services that depart from both Lawas and Limbang in northern Sarawak; also there’s a boat route that runs from Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan and on towards Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei.
Overland transport to Brunei is limited to bus services. In the past few years, Brunei’s seen an increase in express bus services that link Bandar Seri Begawan with Miri in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. From Miri there are also several bus routes that travel to Kuala Belait in Brunei’s far western corner. Alternatively, there’s a bus service that passes through Lawas – from here you can take a taxi ride into Temburong District and then take a short boat trip into Bandar Seri Begawan.
Getting around Brunei
Most boats operate from the Muara Ferry Terminal, in Muara, approximately 25km northeast of the city and ply routes to Sarawak’s Limbang and Lawas, Sabah’s Pulau Labuan and Kota Kinabalu. In point of fact, besides short hops across the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan’s river taxis and journeys to Temburong (which is isolated from the rest of Brunei by the Limbang area of Sarawak) you’re not likely to use boats to get around this Southeast Asian Islamic emirate.
Brunei’s got a generous ratio of cars to citizens so its public bus transportation network is pretty inadequate; nevertheless the available buses are dependable although they only operate around the Bandar Seri Begawan area.
Overland transportation in Brunei is undependable – taxis are generally pricey and there’s no centralised taxi service number. In point of fact car rentals are much more economical and the easier option when exploring Brunei plus petrol is cheap. Almost all car rental operators are located in Bandar Seri Begawan or at the airport. South of the chief coastal roads, bus services are almost nonexistent plus taxis are expensive especially if you want to cover ground outside the city centre
Good to Know
Brunei’s climate is similar to neighbouring Sabah and Sarawak’s hot and humid weather. Lying 440km north of the Equator, Brunei’s average temperatures stay within the high 20s throughout the year. The region’s tropical weather means that even if you visit outside the official wet season from November to February, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll see some rain.
Internet, Time & Phone Calls
Brunei is eight hours ahead of GMT, 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time and two hours behind Sydney. Post offices in Brunei are open Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 07:45 – 16:30. The exterior telephone code for Bandar Seri Begawan area is +02.
Coin and card-operated public telephone booths are ubiquitous throughout the region – a local call will typically cost you 10c. You can purchase telephone cards from Telekom branches, post offices and some stores – these cards rise in value from $10 and up. The pre-paid Hallo Kad is a good option for local and international calls and can be used at almost any phone in the country. International (IDD) calls can be made through hotels, from card phones in shopping centres, booths at the Telekom office in the capital and other public places.
Brunei has two mobile service providers - GSM 900 and 3G 2100 and as long as your cell phone has international roaming capabilities, it will lock onto one of these networks. Alternatively, the cheaper way to make calls with your mobile phone is to buy a pre-paid SIM card.
Brunei’s national lingo is Bahasa Malaysia, which means, simply, Malay language. The situation is complicated by the presence of more than few other racial groups in the country. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Tamil all form significant minority languages; in practice, you’ll be able to get by with English in all but the most remote areas. English remains the most prevalent means of communication between the different races and it’s the lingua franca of business in the region.
Money & Taxes
Brunei was once the proudest empire in Borneo with its sultans receiving accolades from regions as distant as Manila. Yet by the end of the 19th century the emirate was crumbling as European forces chipped away at its territory and absorbed it into their new colonies. Eventually the Sultanate was whittled down to 5765sqkm, a tiny portion of its erstwhile size. Then came the discovery of oil in the town of Seria in 1903 and the tiny Islamic Sultanate experienced a dramatic turnaround. To date, Brunei’s lucrative resources have resulted in its becoming one of Southeast Asia’s richest nations.
Brunei’s legal tender is the Brunei Dollar (BND) – each unit of currency is broken down into 100 cents and you’ll see it written as B$, or simply $. Denominations come in B$1, B$5, B$10, B$50, B$100, B$500, B$1000 and B$10,000; coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents.
Travellers are encouraged to use traveller’s cheques as this is the safest and most convenient way of carrying around money. They can be cashed at most Brunei banks, licensed moneychangers and some hotels, upon presentation of a passport – some shops even accept these cheques as cash.
Brunei’s banks’ opening hours are pretty standard – Monday to Friday 09:00 – 15:00 and Saturday 09:00 – 11:00. Most of these establishments charge a few dollars transaction fee for cashing travellers’ cheques. On the other hand, major credit cards are another safe, reliable, widely accepted and easy method to carry out transactions – American Express, MasterCard and Visa can be used at most upscale hotels, restaurants and shops in Brunei.
Malaysians, Singaporeans and British citizens do not need visas to enter Brunei as long as their visits are less than 30 days. US citizens can stay for up to three months without a visa while Belgian, Canadian, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish and Swiss citizens can stay for fourteen days without a visa. Other nationalities require visas, which can be obtained at local Brunei diplomatic missions – visas are usually valid for two weeks, but they’re renewable in Brunei. Officials may request to see an onward ticket, or verification of adequate funds to cover your stay, when you arrive.
Customs, Local Culture & Food Etiquette
- One of the most important things to remember when travelling to Brunei is that the possession of hard or soft drugs carries a hefty prison sentence. This is no idle threat – drug trafficking carries a punishment of the death penalty. If you are caught smuggling drugs into or out of Brunei, the best case scenario sees you spending a long stretch in prison. However at worst, you could be hanged; the simple course of the matter is, obviously, not to have anything to do with drugs while you’re in the country. Plus you should never agree to carry anything through customs for a third party.
- Don’t try hitchhiking through Brunei – the country is relatively safe, but hitchhiking is never a good option, plus internal transportation costs in the region tend to be fairly low.
- When entering a Bruneian home, it’s always a good idea to take off your shoes as a sign of respect.
- One of the best reasons to visit Brunei is the food – the cuisine is inspired by the heritage of its three main communities (Malays, Chinese and Indians).
- Officially a dry state, drinking alcohol in Brunei is prohibited for Muslims.
- When eating, avoid using your left hand as it is considered unclean in Islamic culture.
- Visitors may bring up to 25o grams of tobacco and 60ml of perfume into Brunei. Non-Muslims over the age of 17 are allowed to bring in two quarts of liquor and 12 cans of beer for private consumption – any alcohol brought into the Islamic emirate must be declared upon arrival.
- Brunei’s population of 260,000 is heavily dominated by Malays, with minorities of Chinese, Indians and indigenous peoples.
- Brunei’s sultan is the supreme ruler and his powers verge on the autocratic.
- Chinese Bruneians are not automatically classed as citizens and locals say that they suffer a fair amount of discrimination at the hands of the majority Malays.
- In most respects, Brunei’s not a particularly strict Muslim nation, but there are certain rules of convention that must be followed; arguing, cuddling in public, kissing, pointing or raising one’s voice in public are all frowned upon.