I had been obsessing about snapping some photos of Brunei’s most famous denizens, the Proboscis monkeys. Besides the fact that I’m fascinated by one of the weirdest creatures on the planet, I could hardly wait to visit the Royal Kingdom of Brunei to tag my 172nd country.
There’s always been something mysterious to me about this little monarchy sandwiched together with parts of Malaysia and Indonesia on the island of Borneo. You can fly to Brunei for less than $35 one way from Kuala Lumpur and there’s no visa necessary for U.S. citizens. Plus, let’s not forget they have Proboscis monkeys.
Brunei is divided into two parts by a sliver of Malaysia’s Sarawak region, but the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and the international airport are in the larger western portion of the country. The Temburong region to the east is much more remote and is largely inaccessible except by boat. The southern half is a protected area known as Ulu Temburong National Park and is one of the biggest draws of the country. If you come to Brunei, you’ll more than likely be spending your time in BSB or the National Park, so a couple of days is enough to see the main sights.
Most of the capital city’s action seems to be centered near the riverfront. The muddy brown channel snakes through the city and the jungle and allows the speedboats to access Malaysia and the Temburong region. The most distinct feature of the Brunei river are the stilted houses along the shore that look like they would be better suited in a Louisiana swamp.
These water villages are made up of hundreds of wooden buildings and shacks connected together by piers, jetties and wooden bridges. This area has been nicknamed the "Venice of the East;" it’s unique, but comparing it to Venice might be a bit of a stretch.
For $1 Brunei, you can take a one-minute ride to the other side of the river to wander through the labyrinth of wooden buildings and bridges. It’s pretty quiet, but you can find small shops, restaurants, schools and even a police station, all built above water. If you’d rather see the town from below, you can hire a speedboat to ferry you through the channels and up the river to see the monkeys.
The Proboscis monkeys look more like Alice the Goon from Popeye than monkeys, and the adult males get quite large. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that you can see them in the trees, but it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to get that National Geographic photo you had your heart set on. The one hour trip up the river costs about $30 Brunei and includes a quick tour through a water town as well as potentially spotting some crocodiles, snakes and tropical birds along the way.
Once back on land, there are a couple of amazing mosques you can visit. The Sultan Omar Saifuddin Mosque looks like something conjured from Arabian Nights. It’s a striking design—marble minarets and a gold-covered dome rise above the other downtown buildings and can literally be seen from almost anywhere in town.
The mosque is built in the center of an artificial lagoon with both a marble 16th century barge replica and bridges connecting everything together. The surrounding park comes alive in the evening with vendors selling food and drink. You can rent a four-wheel scooter and drive it on the pathways and the boardwalk to get some great views of the lighted mosque and gardens.
The other famous mosque is called the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and can be visited in about half an hour. You’ll be equipped with a locker to stow your shoes and belongings and provided a black unisex robe to wander around in. The building is beautiful, but taking photos or video inside is prohibited. Getting there, and to further attractions around town, is best arranged by shuttle from your hotel. Buses are confusing and taxis are rare, but most attractions are walkable or can be reached by boat or hotel minibus.
The Royal Regalia Museum is a collection of gifts that have been given to the sultan as well as photos and replicas of his majesty’s throne and parade vehicle. The building has two floors of exhibitions and can be seen in about an hour. For some unknown reason, no video or photos are allowed there either.
The most interesting thing to do in Brunei is a visit to Ulu Temburong. The trip needs to be arranged with a tour company since you’re not allowed to visit the national park on your own. It’s the kind of trek where the adventure of getting there might outweigh the actual attraction. You catch a water ferry at the jetty around 7:30 a.m. and take an hour ride through twisted tributaries that cross through Sarawak, Malaysia until you reach Bangar. From there, you’re escorted by minibus south to where the road ends.
After a snack at a river lodge and a short orientation, you’re transported upstream on a longboat until you reach Ulu Temburong. The area is protected and it’s full of wildlife. Since it’s a thick jungle, it’s hard to see many of the animals that inhabit the area, but there are many butterflies and birds on hand and you might be lucky enough to see the famous rhinoceros hornbill. Once you’ve checked into the park, your boat is docked and you take a muddy hike up the mountain and get your morning workout by climbing a lot of stairs. Eventually after you’ve reached the peak (and the end of the path), you climb up a metal tower staircase to the top of the forest canopy. The view is breathtaking.
You’re unlikely to see any animals except the shaking of trees by swinging monkeys and some circling birds, but the sound of the jungle inhabitants is almost deafening. There are several levels, viewpoints and bridges on the canopy walk, but the climb is well worth it.
After you’ve reached the end, you climb down the staircase and make your way down the mountain back to your boat. Most tour guides will take you to one of two local waterfalls for a swim. Cooling off in the clear cascading waters is a fantastic way to end your hike and might be the best part of the tour. One of the swimming holes has small fish that are reputed to nibble away dead skin from your feet, but whether they’re helping or just trying to eat you is the subject of debate. Once you arrive back to the lodge, you’re given lunch and then driven back to the ferry that takes you back to BSB. The tour gets you back to town around 5 p.m., so there’s still time to take a speedboat taxi to the water village or do some shopping on the boardwalk.
Brunei is a Muslim country and no alcohol can be sold or served. However, for the less strict, you can cross the Malaysian border by boat to drink a cold one, or bring two bottles duty-free for personal use on an international flight. To compensate for its teetotaling, many restaurants offer amazing juice drinks that taste and look so great, you might not even mind being sober for a few days. Some travelers stop in Brunei as they’re traveling through the rest of Borneo, but it’s also an interesting and inexpensive option if you’re globe trotting through Southeast Asia and have a few extra days.