Surprises Galore in Brunei

Apologies if this post looks a bit strange as I’m currently working through some technical difficulties

Which country in Southeast Asia has the highest GDP per capita?

Believe it or not it isn’t Singapore. It’s actually Brunei, a tiny kingdom hugging the northern coast of Borneo that didn’t gain its independence from Britan until 1984.

Elisa and I started our Borneo adventure in Brunei because, well, wouldn’t it be cool to visit this small country that is largely off the tourist trail. I have been curious about it since I was young, reading about how the Sultan of Brunei was the richest man in the world at several points in the 1990’s.

unbelievable sunset on Brunei River

Given its small size and its high costs (relative to the rest of Southeast Asia), we only stayed for a day but we still managed to fit in quite a lot.We were lucky to have a fantastic guide in Amal, our Couchsurfing host. Picking us up from the airport, she took us into the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan (a.k.a. Bandar) where we met up with Vienna, another Couchsurfer that Amal was hosting.

with Vienna and Amal

Amal, Elisa and Vienna

River Cruise

Together, the four of us took a cruise on the Brunei River passing Kampong Ayer, a large water village once called the Venice of the East. Even better, we took the boat at sunset when the sky was filled with orange, pink and reddish hues along with a thick rainbow that sliced through the clouds. It was one of the most picturesque scenes of my entire trip.

can you believe that rainbow?

the colors on the water were amazing

Then as night slowly began to fall, we were treated to crocodiles on the water and proboscis monkeys in the trees. On our way back to the jetty, we saw the whole city lit, forming a skyline dominated by the golden Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, and even passed the Sultan’s palace, considered the world’s largest.


skyline by night

SOAS Mosque from the river

Night Market

Of course a boat trip like that made us hungry so we headed to the local night market. I’m a big market person, and I especially like the markets in Asia. But for some reason I have felt underwhelmed by the markets I have been to on this trip. This however, exceeded my expectations.

I would say the biggest reason is that it was quite different from the other markets I have visited. First of all, it wasn’t for tourists. This was strictly a local market where I could walk around peacefully without being solicited by every vendor that I passd.

It was also quite calm and clean, two traits I typically don’t associate with markets.

Finally, I just really loved the variety of food they had for sale.

There were snacks like boiled chickpeas, grilled corn, sticky rice stuffed with meat and an assortment of fried treats.

nothing like a bag of chickpeas

Hot meals like kebab, burgers, BBQ and fried chicken.


check out the types of meat they had

All types of grilled fish and meat.

it doesn’t get fresher than this

And a dazzling array of fruits including durian (of course), jackfruit, rambutan, lanzones, bananas, and many more whose names I don’t know.

like a kid in a candy store

enjoying our feast

Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

We finished that night by visiting the largest mosque in Brunei, which just so happened to be right next to the night market. I have visited many mosques in my life and on this trip but this one may be the most beautiful of all, especially at nighttime.

arguably the nicest mosque I have ever visited

I spent the whole time there in awe

Entering the mosque, I was first overwhelmed by its size then by its grandeur. The golden dome at its center is flanked by four golden towers, all magnificent in their own right. Then as you walk through the grounds you see large palm trees, water fountains and impressive marble columns all giving off the sense that this is truly a royal mosque, which of course it is.

The following day, Elisa and I took the public bus from Amal’s house into downtown Bandar where we visited the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque that we had seen by nightfall on the river as well as the Royal Regalia Museum, which the houses the seemingly unending gifts, jewels and riches of the sultan (note: it was the first museum where I had to take my shoes off inside but the shiny and clean marble floors I didn’t mind too much).

SOAS Mosque

Public Transportation Excitement

After a day in Brunei, our plan after some deliberation, was to catch the last ferry that afternoon to take us to the Malaysian island of Labuan. As we were to learn from speaking with several people (there was no information counter at the bus station), the ferry terminal, located on the outskirts of a town called Muara, is about 25km from downtown Bandar. Express buses take you there directly from Bandar but we learned they don’t run in the afternoon. Public buses take you to Muara, from which you can take another bus to the ferry terminal. Or you can just take a taxi.

We decided to try our luck with the public bus (given the good experience we had that morning), giving ourselves ninety minutes for what we had heard would only be a forty-minute trip. And as luck would have it, the local bus was sitting there waiting for us as we got to the bus station.

Unfortunately, it was packed with people. And in what must be the least efficient means of collecting a bus fare I have ever seen, the bus driver went to each person on the bus to collect the fare before the bus even left. The whole process took twenty minutes.

As the clock kept ticking we began to get nervous. Would it be possible for us to still make it on time given how much time had just passed and the number of people on the bus?

My repeated questions to the driver on whether we would make it were willfully ignored with stone faced hostility. Whether he didn’t want to answer me because he didn’t speak English or just didn’t like me I will never know but right as the bus started to leave we decided not to chance it and we got off the bus.

Ironically, the moment we stepped off the bus, we met Danny, who worked for the bus company. He broke down our remaining options: 1) take a taxi, which would get us to the ferry in time, 2) wake up super early the next morning to try the bus again for an early morning ferry (with no guarantee we would be able to catch a bus that early from Amal’s house into Bandar), or 3) take an eight hour bus ride the next morning from Bandar to Kota Kinabalu that would require eight border crossings because of how the borders are laid out between Brunei and Sabah.

With little time to decide we considered our options. #2 seemed like a hassle because of the early time and we were not too keen in trying our luck again on the bus. #3 seemed torturous with all those border crossings. So we went with the taxi. Even when you have time in a trip like this sometimes you just have to suck it up and go with the quicker, more expensive option.

In this case it was the right call as we made it to the ferry terminal just in time for our trip to Labuan and enabled us to enjoy what remained of our Thanksgiving.

Link to Brunei pictures

The Adventure Continues…Up Next: Labuan and Sabah


4 Responses to Surprises Galore in Brunei

  1. stacy says:

    So glad you took the taxi… many less hassles…..Sounds like you really liked this place. The sunset pictures are beautiful….frame worthy! Miss you…..

  2. Tracy Fawdry says:

    My husband and I have just arrived for a two year stay in Brunei, whilst he is working i am at home reading blogs. Yours has given me inspiration to get know our new country, hope to relive your day very soon.

  3. kikatoo says:

    Incredible pictures, Matt! I’m only just catching up post-Sandy, and it looks like your blog has blown up with followers–good going!

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