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Off the Beaten Path- Discover Brunei

Going to places that are far off the beaten path tends to be my favorite type of trip and Brunei was absolutely one of those destinations. Sharing the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia in the middle of the South China Sea is one of Southeast Asia’s smallest countries with a population of fewer than 500,000 people. With one of the longest reigning and absolute monarchs in the world, this Sultanate is steeped in history and culture.

Due to Brunei’s small size, it often gets overlooked as a destination which is surprising because there are plenty of adventures to be had both around the main city of Bandar Seri Begawan and in the surrounding pristine forests. The country’s oil wealth has also done wonders in the government’s successful implementation forest protection policy, preventing much of the deforestation that occurs in surrounding countries. Despite the country being one of the wealthiest in the region, prices remain affordable to stay and travel within Brunei.

On a quick four-day visit, I explored many of the highlights and experienced the incredibly warm hospitality while exploring with Freme Travel. Whether you can visit for a quick two-day trip or have the chance to spend more time getting acquainted with the country, I would definitely recommend checking out Freme's travel services as they absolutely made my visit an amazing experience!

Here is a full list of the top adventures, sites, and foods to have on your visit to this Borneo destination-

Visit the Pristine National Park in Ulu Temburong

Leaving the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and crossing Southeast Asia’s longest bridge that stretches 19 miles (30km) across the harbor, you arrive in the district of Temburong. The Freme Rainforest Lodge is situated in the heart of the region and is a center for adventure sports and trips throughout the district. One of the most popular offerings is their day trip to visit the canopy walk. The canopy walk starts with an upstream journey by long boat across the shallow waters before beginning the hike up 1,000 stairs (which is thankfully actually slightly less). At the top is a canopy tower and bridge that offers an impressive 360 view of the sea of trees stretching out in all directions.

After enjoying the rainforest views, it is back to the river and off to trek out to the waterfalls. Several falls are sprinkled throughout the area and provide a perfect place to take a dip and cool off from the morning hike.

Back at the lodge, it is time to relax and enjoy a full spread of the local cuisine. Sample a wide variety of beef, chicken, fish, prawns, locally grown ferns, salted eggs and so much more. Definitely don’t miss the bamboo chicken though which is made by filing bamboo stalks with chicken, veggies, seasoning, and water before cooking it over an open fire. There are also numerous activities around the lodge to enjoy from the swinging bridge and zipline to the climbing wall and rafting.

Shipwreck Diving

Known for the numerous shipwrecks that dot the coastline, the diving scene in Brunei is popular for locals and tourists alike. The clear temperate waters provide ideal conditions for diving the wrecks that are sprinkled throughout the year or plan a visit to align with one a high season for whale sharks, rays, or other sea life. I did an overnight stay and a three-dive day trip with Oceanic Quest visiting the Decommissioned Oil Rig, Dolphin 88 Wreck, and the Abana Reef. There was an abundance of fish and corals at the reef, but getting to explore the wreck was definitely my favorite! With over 30 dive sites in the area, this is definitely worth adding to a diving list.

Mangrove River Safari

See some of the famous but shy Proboscis Monkeys jumping between trees on the mangrove-lined rivers leaving from the waterfront. The Proboscis Monkeys are local to Brunei and known for their massive noses!

Also, keep your eyes open to spot one of the crocodiles swimming or sun-bathing along the riverbank. Returning to the waterfront, the river cruises also provide excellent views of Kampong Ayer and the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.

Firefly Night Cruise

This was an experience I didn’t know I needed to have until I did it, but it was one of the most magical parts of the trip. An hour after the sunset, a small wooden boat picked two of us up from the main waterfront to head away from the city lights and towards the dark mangrove-lined river. About 30 minutes later, the small beam on the boat was the only source of light that the boat driver used as he flashed it across the water to guide us upstream. Somehow he miraculously spotted flickering lights on a river bend ahead. He slowed the engine and turned off the flashlight completely allowing us to slowly drifted into the edge of the mangroves and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, the hundreds of lightning bugs dotting the trees turned the darkness into a glittery show. In absolute silence, we watched the natural show under the dark starry night. If there is one thing you do with an evening in Brunei-a firefly night cruise should absolutely be it!

Meet the Royalty

Although much trickier to schedule than the other activities on this list, it is absolutely possible to meet the Royal Family at one of the many events they host through connections you make or at a local event. The end of July is one of the best chances with both the Sultan’s birthday and the New Year falling within weeks of each other causing a massive double celebration. Through friends I made with Freme Travel, I had the unique opportunity to actually attend a Royal Function and see several of the Royal Family from two tables away while enjoying a beautifully catered dinner. It was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip, but apparently, it is not uncommon for visitors to get a glimpse or even a selfie with the Royalty!

Walk the Venice of the East- Kampong Ayer

One of the most historic parts of the city is Kampong Ayer which is aptly named the Venice of the East. This floating city is built on monsoon-proof stilts and has been around nearly as long as the country has. The oldest parts of this city are constructed from wood and as they eventually decay and disintegrate, the lots are sold and new houses are built. As early as the 15th century, this floating city was captured in western records as an important district in the area with over 25,000 families and the enormous palace of the Sultan. While there are newer additions to the city closer to the mouth of the river, the historic area is only a few minutes by water taxi away from the main city and is easy to explore by the wooden walkways connecting the maze of buildings.

Explore the Bandar Seri Begawan Waterfront

Undoubtedly one of the most iconic landmarks in the capital is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. While it is often forbidden for guests to go inside the Mosque, it is absolutely worth walking around the outside. As you explore the city and the waterfront, there are many beautiful viewpoints to enjoy the Mosque including a massive frame directly in front of it or from the city park. From the waterfront, it is easy to catch a water taxi over to Kampong Ayer ($1 per person) or to organize any river tour from a local boat. The museums in the city are free, so be sure to add some time to learn more about the history of the country and the culture at the Royal museum, Regalia Museum, or the Maritime Museum. Another free and interesting spot to check out is the Big Wall Street Art. The massive building was painted by a collection of graffiti and street artists and depicts the iconic parts of the city. Directly in front of the wall, you can't miss the ‘7 Padians’ floor mural which illustrates the ethnic groups of Brunei, each distinguished by distinctive symbols of their culture.

Enjoy Meragang Beach and look for the Secret Cave

On the northern side of the country lies the beautiful Meragang Beach. The beach stretches the coastline which is dotted with jagged rock formations including the popular ‘secret cave.’ Despite the soft sands and warm waters, the beach is barely spotted with other people making it a perfect sunny escape to relax.

Catch a Brunei Sunset

While this seems to be an obvious natural attraction in any country, the sunsets in Brunei are notoriously brilliantly colored. The northern side of the country has the clearest views of the sunset, but it is easy to enjoy the golden hour and the sunset from anywhere!

Gadong Night Market

Similar to many other Southeast Asian countries, the night market in Brunei is filled with savory meats being cooked over open fires, delicious scents wafting through the air, and a decent amount of chaotic noise with the hustle and bustle. Although many of the stalls were temporarily vacated during my visit due to the massive street markets accompanying the holiday festivities, the Gadong Night Market was still a popular place to find cheap and tasty bites to eat.

Visit The Empire

The Empire hotel sits on the edge of town and boasts not only a grand luxurious hotel and connecting swimming pools so big that they offer kayaks and SUPs, but they also have one of the best views to catch the famous sunset. The impressive hotel was a massive undertaking by the government and clearly, no expense was spared in the attention to detail paid to each aspect of the hotel!

Sample the Local Cuisine

No trip to a new destination is complete without trying the local cuisine and Brunei offers a wide selection of foods to try! While many of the staples are similar to the nearby countries with rice, chicken, and fish, Brunei adds its own twist to most dishes. Many dishes are still harvested from local sources and follow traditional recipes like the local favorite ambuyat. The ambuyat is a clear thick gooey dish that comes from fibers harvested from the interior of the sago palm and is often described as having a glue-like consistency. It is eaten with a connected set of chopsticks that are used to twirl a gob of ambuyat on and then dipped in a sauce to provide most of the flavor.

The bamboo chicken and patsi fern dish were both very tasty, but the burbur kacang hijau, a sweet porridge made from coconut milk, sugar, and mung beans was definitely my favorite!

Useful Information

-Outlets- Brunei uses the same outlet as Malaysia, a plug type G, which has three rectangular pins in a triangle.

-Currency-Brunei Dollar (B$)

-Visas- no visas are required for US citizens staying under 30 days

-As a Muslim country there are a few additional aspects to be aware of: it is expected to dress much more modestly- especially if you are hoping to enter a mosque, Brunei is a dry country so do not expect to drink or find much of a nightlife scene, on Friday’s everything shuts down from 12-2 pm so plan accordingly.


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