Things to do in Brunei
by Josien - 18 May, 2020
What are the most popular things to do in Brunei, one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia? The Islamic sultanate on the island of Borneo achieved its abundant prosperity through the discovery of oil, which benefited especially Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. He is one of the richest people in the world, with an estimated wealth of $ 20 billion. This wealth shines when you list the tourist sights, with a golden palace and lavish mosques that exude luxury and grandeur.
But Brunei also has some interesting museums and virgin rainforests where you are far away from the splendor of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. For a bit of local flair, visit markets and the world’s largest village on stilts. Are you visiting this wealthy sultanate? Here are the 10 best things to do in Brunei.
ROYAL REGALIA MUSEUM
At the Royal Regalia Museum you get a fascinating insight into the luxurious lifestyle and bling bling of the sultan. The museum shows the life and achievements of the monarch. From his education and upbringing to his marriage and the role of head of state. Most fascinating are the many objects, including a replica of his throne, jewelry, crowns, and the gifts that he received from other royals.
Expect an abundance of shiny objects with lots of gold, silver, ivory, crystal, and gems. You will see the gigantic carriage used by the sultan during his silver jubilee in 1992 and his numerous military awards. The Royal Regalia Museum is located in the center of the capital and the entrance is free.
OMAR ALI SAIFUDDIEN MOSQUE
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is the Royal Mosque of the Islamic Sultanate of Brunei and also the most famous. The building is located in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan and is the landmark of the capital and the whole country. The mosque is one of the most beautiful and impressive in Pacific Asia and is one of Brunei’s biggest tourist attractions.
Named after Omar Ali Saifuddien III, the 28th Sultan of Brunei, the mosque represents the symbol of the Islamic religion there. Strongly defining the skyline of Bandar Seri Begawan and a symbol of Islamic architecture, the building was completed in 1958 and cost $ 5 million. The building is designed by an Italian architect, who incorporated Italian styles in addition to Islamic styles.
The building is built in an artificial lake near the bank of the Brunei River and is surrounded by the water of Kampong Ayer, which makes this location extra instagrammable. The mosque has marble minarets and golden domes and contains courtyards and gardens with fountains. An abundance of trees and flower gardens should characterize the sky as presented in Islam. Also, no expense has been spared for the decor either. Inside you’ll find crystal chandeliers from England, granite from China and ornate carpets from Saudi Arabia.
A curved bridge connects the mosque to the Kampong Ayer. Another marble bridge leads to a stone structure in the form of a 16th-century ship in the water, which was used for state ceremonies in the past.
The central main dome is completely covered with 24-carat gold leaf. The main minaret, with a height of 52 meters, is the highest point of the mosque and built in Renaissance style, something that is rare in mosques. The minaret contains an elevator, which tourists who want to have a look over the city can use. The interior of the mosque is for prayer only and, unfortunately, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the place of worship.
Brunei has the largest water village in the world; Kampong Ayer. Here you can learn about the traditions and customs of the local people who live in simple wooden houses on stilts above the water. It is a tradition for these people to live above the water and they don’t want to move to the mainland. Even despite the fact that they get this offered regularly and the living conditions on land are better.
The water village has its own mosques, schools, and police station. These houses have more modern facilities than the simple house on the outside suggests. When visiting the water village, I recommend making “Ambuyat” together with the friendly locals. It’s a local delicacy sourced from the Sago palm tree. You eat the “Ambuyat” in combination with various local side dishes in which you can dip. During lunch, you can eat this traditional delicacy.
BOAT RIDE ON THE RIVER AND MEETING THE PROBOSCIS MONKEY
Chances are that during your stay in Brunei you will take a trip on the Brunei River. That’s one of the classics. After all, you get a magnificent view of the palace from the water. Ask your captain to continue to the mangroves a little further on to see the proboscis monkey. Even if you have no interest in the monkeys, the mangroves are a beautiful lush area to escape the city life for a moment.
The proboscis monkey is only found on Borneo but is threatened with extinction due to deforestation. And as the habitat narrows, the proboscis monkey population also decreases. Estimations are that it will be half the size in 10 years. And in 20 years the proboscis monkey may be completely extinct.
JAME’ASR HASSANAL BOLKIAH MOSQUE:
The Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest mosque in Brunei and built for the 25th anniversary of the Sultan. This mosque is also known as the Kiarong mosque.
When you think of Brunei, you may think of the Borneo jungle rather than beaches. However, there are some beaches that attract a lot of people and are quite worthwhile. These are four of Brunei’s most beautiful beaches.
You will find Muara Beach at 27km from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. It is a popular beach for a day trip from the capital. It attracts many locals, especially families with children. And plenty of facilities are provided: picnic areas, playgrounds, restrooms, locker rooms, restaurants, food stands, and so on.
You can find Serasa Beach near Muara Beach. The beach mainly attracts water sports enthusiasts. You can enjoy windsurfing, kayaking, water skiing, jet skiing, and sailing. When the Southeast Asian Games were held in Brunei in 1999, Serasa Beach was where the water sports competitions were organized.
If you hear the nickname of Meragang Beach, you might consider to look for other places. However, contrary to what the nickname “Crocodile Beach” suggests, there are no crocodiles here. So you can fall asleep on the beach with peace of mind without fear of an unexpected attack by a crocodile. It is a lot quieter on the beach of Meragang than on the other beaches. The beach is located near Muara Beach.
Seri Kenangan Beach
Pantai Seri Kenangan is a beautiful beach an hour’s drive from the capital. There are also many facilities here, from changing cubicles to public barbecues. What makes this beach really special is a strip where you can see the sea on one side and the Tutong river on the other.
THE EMPIRE HOTEL:
The Empire Hotel & Country Club started as an ambitious project by the sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri. He really just wanted to build a palace that could also serve as accommodation for his guests. Many internationally renowned designers were hired for the design of this “guesthouse”. And it got big. Really big. So big that there is a separate exit to this hotel on the highway. There are more than 500 rooms and the entire resort covers about 6 km², which accounts for 0.1% of the entire country. It was built in 6 years. Upon completion of the building, the cost of this “guesthouse” had risen to more than $ 1 billion. And the Sultan was not happy with that. He fired his brother – who was Minister of Finance back then – and decided to turn this palace into a hotel. The Empire Hotel & Country Club opened its doors in 2000.
What should a night at the Empire Hotel cost? Prices start around €200/$220 for a double room, which is not expensive at all for such a hotel. But if you want a little more than the standard room, the prices can easily rise to above €800/$880 per night for, for example, a double villa. Not exactly for the budget-conscious backpacker. Oh yes, do you really want to act decadent? Then book the presidential suite. Locals say it costs more than €10,000/$11,000 per night. But for that price, you get your own pool. And free Wi-Fi. A bargain, right?
JERUDONG PARK PLAYGROUND:
It’s not that new anymore, but once Jerudong Park was one of the largest and most luxurious amusement parks in Asia. Nevertheless, it is still one of the most popular sights if you are going on holiday in Brunei with children. Opened in 1994, Jerudong Park is built for a whopping $ 1 billion, making it Asia’s most expensive amusement park. Admission was completely free and famous international pop stars performed, including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
Due to a lack of investments and falling visitor numbers, the park fell into disrepair and many attractions got closed. Jerudong Park is now only a fraction of what it once was. It now rearranges as a family park with playgrounds, fountains, performances, and picnicking gardens.
Of all Brunei’s nature reserves, Ulu Temburong National Park is the crown jewel, a pristine green rainforest where you can hike and spot monkeys and birds. This area opened in 1991, making it Brunei’s first national park. Fortunately, it is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, unlike the rest of Borneo, where many logging and palm oil plantations destroy nature.
Ulu Temburong National Park is located in the eastern part of Brunei. You can get there from BSB by speedboat, an amazing boat ride you will never forget. Bangar is the main city in this region and from there you go (by flatboat) to a “canopy walk” where you can see the jungle from a completely different and special perspective.
Absolutely recommended when in Brunei!
GADONG NIGHT MARKET
There are not many things to do in Brunei in the evenings, but the Gadong Night Market is an exception. The stalls are open from four in the afternoon and the air fills with the smell of freshly prepared food. You will find local dishes such as grilled chicken and fish here.
With a visit to the food market, you can get a taste of the Brunei culture and taste the regional cuisine. For example, try nasi katok (steamed rice with fried chicken and a spicy sauce). You can walk through the alleys and watch the food being prepared in front of you by friendly vendors. This is a fun attraction for the evening, but don’t expect it to be until midnight. The market is officially known as Pasar Pelbagai Barangan Gadong.
BRUNEI NATIONAL MUSEUM
The Brunei National Museum is the place to be if you want to discover more about the history, nature, and culture of the sultanate. You will see a rich collection of objects, artifacts, and archaeological finds, from the 9th century to the rise of the oil industry in the 20th century. Highlights include ancient ceramics and blown glass from the Middle East, gold jewelry, and ceremonial cannons used in the country.
Opened in 1965, it is Brunei’s largest museum. The National Museum is located in Kota Batu, 4½ kilometers east of the center of Bandar Seri Begawan on the coastal road. Built on top of a hill, it offers a scenic view of the Brunei River. You must wait until the end of 2020 for a visit. The museum closed a few years ago because termites had affected part of the collection.
PARTY CRASHING AT THE ISTANA NURUL IMAN PALACE
Every year at the end of Ramadan, you can visit the Sultan of Brunei at his residence, the Istana Nurul Iman Palace. The palace is not open to visitors for the rest of the year. The sultan personally receives all his subjects: he shakes hands with everyone. Or rather, he shakes hands with all men. Women can shake his wife’s hand. In any case, the sultan is very generous, hospitable and friendly and there is plenty of food for everyone. Reasons to have a party crash with the sultan: you can see the inside of the palace, you can meet him in person and you can eat your food for free. What else do you want?