Brunei Travel Guide JAN 2020–I knew nothing about Brunei. I became that traveler you don’t want to travel with: willfully ignorant of the place she was about to travel to. I have to admit it is founded on the condescending “surprise me! Or yes-woman” which turns out great later on yet an immigration disaster at the onset.
You see, based on hearsays, Brunei is rich. Its oil reservoir funds and feeds the entire country. So I assumed this wealth translates to sophisticated airport facilities and amenities like decent WiFi. Yet, I stood before an immigration officer, trying my best to download my forward ticket, (and phones are not supposed to be allowed during the immigration process!)
My alter-ego just kept on saying stupid, stupid, stupid! After years of traveling, and there I was without my forward ticket and accommodation address ready. But to be fair to myself, I did book everything in advance, but I just forgot to download them all.
The immigration officer, nice as she was, asked me to sidestep so I could access everything online without stalling the process for everyone. Perhaps at the back of her head, this Filipina sounded and sounded suspicious.
It would have taken a minute to download everything, but the airport WiFi that links to a certain website has a UX design from the 19th century. It is filled with POST YOUR AD HERE. So yes, at that very moment, I learned my first lesson: a country with a lot of in-demand oil does not necessarily mean it has all the amenities a modern traveler needs.
But I did make it through the immigration all right, after dubious answers to her questions like “how are you going to exit Brunei” upon seeing my forward ticket: Kota Kinabalu-Kuala Lumpur-Hanoi.
Stupid ass as I am, I answer, I think there is a bus or a boat to Kota Kinabalu. Well done, researcher.
I knew nothing about Brunei. Someone from work said the country’s prince is a handsome athlete. The country imports 80% of its food, the boyfriend said, who did read about the country upon knowing I’m traveling there alone. But, boy, Brunei did surprise me.
It is a kingdom of unexpected silence, a rephrase of their tourism tagline: a kingdom of unexpected treasures. On my way to my hostel in a hefty BND$25 ($19) 15-minute taxi ride past midnight, I only spotted another car on the road.
“There are only half a million population in the country,” my nice driver educated this bewildered traveler. He did not forget to point out how ballooned the Philippines’ population is.
There are no skyscrapers. For a small country, it simply makes sense to build infrastructure vertically because land scarcity is a problem many countries face. But not Brunei. This Islamic country has an odd rule that even other Islamic countries don’t practice: no building should be taller than the gold-domed mosque. So buildings sprawl and crawl in the city with their names both written in Roman and Arabic.
I also learned partying is not allowed in the country; so no wonder, I could not see those elephant-pants humans around. The entire three nights I stayed in the city, I only saw one shirtless guy in the park in front of the mosque smoking, lying on the ground in his drunken stupor. Alcohol and party land is in Miri—the border to Malaysia. I’ve heard that’s where locals go when they desire the short-lived mirth that comes along with alcohol.
But the yes-woman travel mantra did work the following day. I met Mariko, a Japanese woman traveling solo, in the hostel kitchen. She lives in Saigon! She writes! All the telltale signs of a travel buddy are here. And here comes her story: Mariko was approached by a local— a coin and stamp collector who is somewhat socially awkward but generally nice—the day before. He asked if she wanted to see some parts of the country with him. She said yes. And not wanting to be alone with a stranger yet could not pass such rare opportunity, she invited me. Naturally, I said yes. Free transportation in an expensive country without a proper public transportation? Who am I to say no. So the first full day in Brunei was seen through the eyes of a local who tried his very best to impress his crush: we drove to Tutong, had nasi lemak (chicken rice, Borneo’s version has green herb-based sauce) by the river because his favorite Chinese restaurant was closed for the Chinese New Year, tried tapay, a local fermented rice delicacy wrapped in a nipa leaf (like sake and nato had a baby, I joked to Mariko), the local showed a part of his massive collection (and by that, I am not exaggerating) over coffee, chilled on the beach and watched handsome Muslim men in their tunic, and dropped by at the Empire: purportedly one of the two 7-star hotels in the world. The property, used to be solely owned by some prince, was obscenely huge and sprawling! I find it odd that the security is pretty lax, unlike those exclusive 5-star hotels. So locals come here and enjoy the scenery. It feels like a glorified park with crocodiles lurking somewhere under those villas.
And we had dinner at Jerudong at his favorite chicken wings joint. Brunei’s honeyed chicken wings and chicken butts are legit. Juicy. Moist. I picked them clean to the bone. They were that good. We capped the night with a walk around Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, a mere 5-minute walk from our hostel.
And while I enjoyed my time with Mariko and her admirer, I wanted to experience Brunei through my novice eyes. So the following day, I set on my own adventure, like looking for a café with a decent WiFi, which I found at 2 in the afternoon after a tasty noodle lunch paired with tea Tarik India, tea thickened and sweetened by milk. Priorities. J
Trying to be consistent with my pursuit of reading local writers wherever I am, I started looking for a bookshop that sells local writers. Based on my research the night before (yes, finally did some readings), Brunei has a very small community of local writers writing in English.
I’m so bad at direction that knowing that the local bus terminal is a mere 30 second walk from the hostel was a eureka moment that merited a prance. Oh, the banter between a local passenger, the bus driver, a woman ticket operator, and me reminded me why I fell in love with traveling. It was that very moment too that I find Brunei endearing.
I made it to Gadong Night Market and two bookshops. Booker International unfortunately was closed for the holidays. Best Eastern at Gadong Mall has a great selection of foreign novels but greatly lacks of local contemporaries. I did manage to grab a local book filled with information on toponyms in Brunei but it is badly written, to be honest.
After a quick tour around the night market and a quick grilled fish dinner, I waited for the same bus by the market. I spent the dying daylight by the river, facing Kampong Ayer with the purchased book in hand.
In my diary, I hastily wrote: Chants from different mosques gathered in the air and mingled with the cacophony of the perching glossy starlings and motorized boats. This moment stayed. This moment stayed on.