Exploring BRUNEI: The Land of Unexpected Treasures

JUMPING HIGH IN BRUNEI!
JUMPING HIGH IN BRUNEI! Find out in this blog why you should seriously consider visiting this underrated country in Southeast Asia!

Tell me one thing that comes to your mind upon hearing the country of Brunei. Mosques? Oil? Royalty? If you answered one or more of these three, then somehow you already know Brunei because these are three things it is usually associated with.

Brunei is predominantly a Muslim country, and naturally, mosques are built all throughout its land. As of May 2017, there are 118 mosques in Brunei. Its two most famous mosques are Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkian Mosque, known for their superb architecture and sweeping exterior.

ISLAM COUNTRY.
ISLAMIC COUNTRY. You will find out in this blog that two-thirds of Brunei’s population are Muslims. But did you know that Islam is one of the biggest religions in the world? Currently, Islam comprises one-fourth of the world’s total population!

Is it a wonder why Brunei is such a rich a country despite its small area? Well, they’re gifted with rich oil resources! In fact, it is the 4th largest producer of oil in Southeast Asia. Did you know, too, that its crude oil and natural gas production account for about 90% of the country’s gross domestic product? I bet you didn’t!

Brunei is ruled by its king, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. His family has been in power for more than six centuries, despite Brunei being a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984.

THE SULTAN
THE SULTAN AND THE THREE PRINCES. We were blessed to see up close the royal family during our trip to Brunei. I never would have thought we would be able to do so, but we did!

But there’s more to Brunei than we know. In this blog, let’s explore why it is such a great travel destination! Plus, let me answer some frequently asked questions by tourists and travelers who are thinking of going here!

BRUNEI

Map of Brunei
MAP OF BRUNEI. This is the map of Brunei showing its capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, as well as some its towns and districts. A little map is also provided showing its location in the Southeast Asia region. Picture courtesy of Brittanica Encyclopedia (kids.brittanica.com).

Brunei is a small Southeast Asian country located in the north coast of the island of Borneo. Having a land area of 5,765 sq km, it is the second smallest country in the region. It has two (unconnected) parts, the larger western part (consisting of Belait, Tutong and Brunei-Muara districts) and the mountainous eastern part (consisting of Temburong district). The country only has a population of nearly half a million, and about two-thirds (2/3) identify as Muslims. Others practice Buddhism, Christianity and indigenous religions. The official language of Brunei is Standard Malay, though the more socially dominant language is Brunei Malay. English is also widely spoken, as it is taught from primary to tertiary education. Other languages in the country include Chinese and of course, Arabic, which is the religious language of the Muslims.

Now, let me share with you the places worth-visiting here in Brunei. I’m telling you, this country has a lot of unexpected treasures, and here are some of them!

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

BEAUTIFUL MOSQUE
BEAUTIFUL MOSQUE. Did you know that Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is the actual inspiration for our own Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque? See pictures of both mosques hand-in-hand and look at their similarities!

Let me start with the most regarded mosque in Brunei: the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque! Built from 1954 to 1958, this religious structure is a place of worship for many Muslim communities in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. Its styles reflect that of Mughal architecture as characterized by large bulbous domes, slender minarets, massive halls and delicate ornamentation, as well as Italian architecture.

The mosque is built in an artificial lagoon on the banks of the Brunei River. It is surrounded by beautiful floral gardens.

SOMEWHERE MAGNIFICENT.
SOMEWHERE MAGNIFICENT. Stepping again in the vicinity of Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque gave me a surreal feeling. When my parents and I first visited the country in 2015, I never thought I’d be back after a couple of years. But come 2019, I was awed again by its grandeur and opulence, two apt descriptions for this one-of-a-kind mosque!

Meanwhile, located near the mosque is a structure that attracts tourists as well. It is a stone replica of Sultan Bolkiah Mahligai Barge from the 16th century. Built in 1967, this barge is constructed to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of Nuzul Al-Quran, the revelation of Islam’s holy book to the prophet Muhammad.

Kampong Ayer (or the “Water Village”)

KAMPONG AYER CULTURAL AND TOURISM CENTER
KAMPONG AYER CULTURAL AND TOURISM CENTER. Before proceeding to visit the village, we spent some time here learning about the history of the water village.

Kampong Ayer is a housing area in Brunei’s capital. All of the houses in this village were constructed on stilts above the Brunei River. Being home to a tenth of the country’s population, it’s one of Brunei’s most popular attractions.

MODERN WATER VILLAGE.
MODERN WATER VILLAGE. While a significant part of Kampong Ayer shows houses connected on stilts, some parts have concrete roads such as this in the picture. A Bruneian man riding his bike smiles as he was passing through.

The Billionth Barrel Monument

SUCH AN IMPRESSIVE FEAT
SUCH AN IMPRESSIVE FEAT. It’s really amazing to think that Brunei has already produced more than a billion barrels of oil. Imagine that, A BILLION! Equally impressive is this monument they have built in honor of that impressive feat!

As mentioned earlier, the country of Brunei is the 4th largest producer of oil in Southeast Asia. And in 1991, the country has celebrated the production of its billionth barrel of oil by building this monument along the beach of Seria, a town in the northeast part of the country. Seria is credited to be the birthplace of the country’s petroleum industry, as oil was struck here in 1929.

HOW TO GET A SHOT LIKE THIS IN THE MONUMENT: Nope, not edit other people visiting but just wait for them to leave! Haha.

The impressive structure has three arches that join at the top, and these are said to symbolize the flow of oil from beneath the ground up to the surface of the earth. These arches are formed from six curved pillars that represent the six decades since Brunei started its oil exploration. The national emblem of the country sits atop the structure, and this symbolizes the prosperity of Brunei and its people. The amber-colored panels are erected on both sides of the monument, giving a more elegant atmosphere.

Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien

SULTAN'S BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
SULTAN’S BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION. Bruneians prepared a colorful and lively presentation for the birthday of the Sultan, who was watching nearby along with his princes.

Located at the center of Bandar Seri Begawan, Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar Ali Saifuddien is the site where Brunei was proclaimed as an independent country (again) on the 1st of January, 1984.

HERE COMES THE SULTAN!
HERE COMES THE SULTAN! After the 15-minute special presentation done by hundreds of Bruneian participants, the Sultan and his princes began to meet and greet the visitors! He could be seen shaking hands and taking selfies with the people!

This historical site is now a popular place where annual festivities are celebrated such as the National Day of Brunei on February and the Sultan’s birthday during the month of July. In fact, we were blessed to see and greet the sultan and the three prices during our travel here this past July 2019!

SELFIE WITH PRINCE MASTEEN!
SELFIE WITH PRINCE MATEEN! Our local friends in Brunei said it’s a rare chance to meet or even take a picture with the royal family. I’m just glad I was able to while we were there!

Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkian Mosque

THE MAJESTIC JAME' ASR HASSANIL BOLKIAH MOSQUE!
THE MAJESTIC JAME’ ASR HASSANIL BOLKIAH MOSQUE! Such a splendidly beautiful mosque! Just look at those golden domes!

The largest mosque in the country of Brunei is none other than the beautiful Jame ‘Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque. Located in Kampong Kiarong and constructed from 1988 to 1994, this mosque was built to celebrate the monarchy’s silver jubilee rule.

This architectural masterpiece is said to follow the structural plan of traditional Turkish mosques. Imposing with two huge golden-tinged domes with twenty-seven smaller yet still grand ones, the mosque is surrounded by four terrazzo-tiled minarets. Supplemented with lush gardens, blue fountains and pools in its courtyard, this mosque is indeed huge!

SUCH BEAUTIFUL DESIGNS.
SUCH BEAUTIFUL DESIGNS. This picture shows the private escalator the sultan uses when he goes in this mosque. Also seen are the stairs used by the public!

While the mosque’s exterior is admirable, its beautiful interior is equally remarkable! The white entrance hall includes a carpeted marble staircase with golden chandelier on its ceiling. Another entrance hall includes the sultan’s own escalator area, with beautiful marble staircases and slender pillars. Stained glass can be seen on some parts of the mosque, giving a beautiful effect as the light pours in. Taking pictures inside the prayer halls is prohibited, but I can say it is a work of art! It is huge, which is said to accommodate about 4,500 worshippers. The room is exquisitely decorated with chandeliers, minarets and stained glass windows. I felt a sense of unequaled peace when I set foot in this room, something so unique that I only experienced in our whole trip in Brunei.

Brunei River

ON TO THE BRUNEI RIVER.
ON TO THE BRUNEI RIVER. Home to the water villages since the ancient times, the Brunei River remains to be an important part of this country. It serves as a major thoroughfare for boats and ships going in and out of the country’s capital.

Brunei River is the major water form in the country of Brunei. Bandar Seri Begawan, its capital, stands on its banks. It is also where Kampong Ayer is located.

FULL OF MANGROVES.
FULL OF MANGROVES. The Brunei River is a place where thousands, if not millions, of mangroves thrive. You know how important mangroves are, right?

Ulu Temburong National Park

ULU TEMBURONG NATIONAL PARK!
THE BEAUTY THAT IS ULU TEMBURONG NATIONAL PARK! Here’s a drone shot captured by my friend, Jaz, in the national park of Temburong. Seen here are hundreds of hardwood found in the forest, and the Temburong River on the top part.

Touted as the Green Jewel of Brunei, Ulu Temburong National Park is a big lowland rainforest in the eastern district of Temburong. Established as a national park in 1991, Ulu Temburong National Park is home to Temburong’s 500-sq-km rainforest, a place that abounds with various species of fauna (including rare fire ants and butterflies) and flora (including hardwood, palms, ferns and mosses).

GREAT ADVENTURE IN TEMBURONG!
GREAT ADVENTURE IN TEMBURONG! Going here in Ulu Temburong National Park was the thing I was most looking forward to before going back to Brunei. Amidst the noise of the monkeys and insects during one early morning, we climbed our way to this 43-meter high canopy walk, where we had a spectacular panoramic view of Brunei’s verdant forest!

The best part of the national park for me is its 43-meter canopy walkway, the high metal scaffolding where the best panoramic views of the whole Temburong rainforest can be seen! We went here during sunrise, and by doing so, we were able to listen to nature: the sounds of hornbills and Bornean gibbons. I can honestly say going in this national park was the best experience I’ve had in Brunei!

TEAM BRUNEI!
TEAM BRUNEI! Here are the six of us who were invited in Brunei to explore and feature its amazingly beautiful wonders! The first three on top (from right to left) are: Anton, Jaz and Dan. At the bottom part (from right to left) are Jay, Mico and yours truly! We are standing on the lower part of the canopy here.

Remember, guys, the Ulu Temburong National Park shows a side of Brunei not often known, seen and experienced by travelers and tourists visiting the country. Exploring this place should be regarded as a must when in Brunei!

RIVER TUBING
RIVER TUBING! One of the activities you can enjoy doing while in Ulu Temburong National Park is river tubing, where you are required to lie on tubes while the river water takes you downstream!

These are just some of the places you can explore in Brunei, guys! I’m telling you, there’s a lot more you can discover! Now, let’s find out what are the frequently asked questions when traveling here.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS WHEN TRAVELING TO BRUNEI:

1. Do I need a visa to go to Brunei?

NO. As part of ASEAN (or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Brunei does not require travel visa from its fellow Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines.

2. How do I go to Brunei?

There are two airlines that fly directly from Manila to Brunei: Cebu Pacific and Royal Brunei. Currently, they fly to Brunei only at night. If you’re coming from a province in the Philippines, you have to go first to Manila before heading to Brunei.

Meanwhile, other airlines (e.g. AirAsia) have flights to Brunei though they layover first to Kuala Lumpur.

3. Since Brunei is a predominantly Muslim country, should I be on my best behavior when traveling here?

Whether you’re going to a Muslim country or not, it’s always best to be on your best behavior! Of course, some countries are much stricter than others but this doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of respect and good behavior. Brunei has sharia law, which isn’t supposed to scare people away, but to remind them to abide by the rules.

4. How to dress appropriately in Brunei?

You would most likely think that you should dress as a Muslim when you go here in Brunei. That shouldn’t be the case! It is just necessary to wear appropriate clothing. Choose conservative clothes over those that are not. This means if you’re a guy, it’s okay to wear shirt and pants and avoid sando and short shorts. If you’re a lady, it’s okay to wear dress or casual clothes (depending on where you’re going), and avoid crop tops and short shorts. In general, avoid exposing excessive skin when you dress up. When going to mosques, don’t wear shorts. They’re going to give you a garment to wear over your clothes before going in.

5. How to go around Brunei?

There are buses in Brunei, though they’re not as common as taxis. Almost anyone in Brunei has a car that they use when going around. For travelers, it’s best to stay in the city center as some of the travel destinations here are walkable. If you’re in a group that wants to enjoy places far from the city, it is best to avail travel tours. You can also take the taxi, of course, but it would be more expensive. Download the taxi app called Dart to let a taxi pick you up and head you out to your travel destination of choice.

BRUNEI'S 6-star hotel!
BRUNEI’S 6-STAR HOTEL! The Empire Hotel and Country Club, promoted as a 6-star hotel by the locals, consists not only of well-decorated rooms and palatial lobbies, but also of enormous golf courses and pools, restaurants and cineplexes, and a wide stretch of beach with its creamy, fine sand!

6. Where can I stay in Brunei?

There’s actually a lot of hotels in Brunei, and they are not as expensive as you may think. I remember when I first visited this country with my parents, we were placed in the suite of the hotel we were staying in with just about P4,000 per night! Distinguished hotels would warrant more, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can avail a very decent room at a cheaper cost.

7. What can I eat in Brunei?

You can literally eat a lot of food in Brunei! Bruneians are foodies, and you can see them going to restaurants and night markets to eat! Try out the following food when you go here to experience Brunei more!

Nasi Katok – A signature dish of Brunei, nasi katok is said to originate during the old days when people would knock (“katok”) on doors to buy it. Priced only at one Bruneian dollar, this popular dish consists of a deep fried chicken, sambal sauce and rice packed in brown paper.

APAM BALIK.
APAM BALIK. Doesn’t this make you feel hungry? It sure does to me!

Apam Balik – Apam Balik is a popular Southeast Asian dessert made up of turned over pancake filled with crushed peanuts and sweet corn kernels. You can find it in local markets such as Kiangga Market in Bandar Seri Begawan.

ROJAK
ROJAK. This dish has a lot of interesting flavors going in!

Rojak – Rojak is a traditional dish in Brunei, as well as other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Its flavor varies in each country, and in Brunei, it is mostly influenced by Indian cuisine. Literally means “eclectic mix” in the Malay language, rojak is a dish that consists of fried tofu, fritter, cracker, beansprouts, meat and seafood loaded with sweet and tasty brown sauce.

BRUNEI'S NATIONAL DISH!
BRUNEI’S NATIONAL DISH! Ambuyat can be too much to handle when eaten alone. That’s why it’s best shared with family or friends!

Ambuyat – Are you adventurous in food? You would want to try ambuyat! The national dish of Brunei, ambuyat is a white, thick substance dipped in a spicy and sour sauce called cacah and eaten with two-pronged bamboo stick called candas. Cacah is made up of chili, shrimp paste, shallots, lime juice, salt and water. Its variants include cacah binjai (fermented binjai, a fruit similar to mango, is added) and cacah tempoyak (fermented durian is used, yes, durian!).

 ***

Special thanks to Brunei Tourism, Activ8 and Grace Brunei for making our remarkable trip in Brunei very much possible. By the way, guys, you can visit the following websites at the end of the page for more information about traveling here. Thank you, and I hope I have inspired you to go and travel to the land of unexpected treasures!

Brunei Tourism’s website: https://bruneitourism.com/

Brunei Tourism’s official Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/brunei.tourism/

Brunei Tourism’s Facebook account: https://www.facebook.com/BruneiTourismBoard

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