While I enjoyed the natural surroundings of Ulu Temburong, touring Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, was definitely where I learned the most about Brunei. While some people may find it boring because it lacks alcohol or sex tourism, I found it refreshing and a unique South East Asian experience. Here are five things I learned while traveling there.
So many people focus on the fact that there is sharia law in Brunei and don’t take a trip as a result. Even though there is technically sharia law there, famous for punishments such as stoning, I didn’t personally see anything demonstrating that this type of law was in effect. In fact, I found proof of religious freedom. For one, there were places of worship in Brunei other than mosques. Just driving through the main strip of town churches and buddhist temples could be found. And I spoke with some of the residents there who are proudly catholic or buddhist. With sharia law you are not allowed to drink. However foreigners are allowed to bring in alcohol with them. There is also a rumored hotel that sells liquor, though I didn’t find it. To be fair though, I didn’t look for it either.
So despite criticism, there did seem to be some religious freedom. For those marrying into a different religion the government pays citizens to convert to Islam. In fact, the person converting gets $200 per month for life to convert to Islam. Yes, that’s right! For life. I found that to be pretty interesting. Arguably the person would have done it anyway to be with their spouse, but I’m sure this added bonus doesn’t hurt.
A Unique National Food
For many of the destinations I travel to in South East Asia, as a vegetarian I can’t try the national food or popular dishes even if I wanted to. Not in Brunei. Their national food, ambuyat is plant based. It comes from the sago palm and it is similar to tapioca. I’ve got to be honest and say that I didn’t find out about it until right before leaving so I didn’t get to try it. But I was definitely intrigued. Brunei is also a great place to try some of the more famous food of South East Asia such as durian, or the more obscure foods, for example, wild fern which was actually delicious.
Largest Water Village in the World
Brunei is home to the largest water village in the world. These Malay style homes called kampong houses, sit on stilts in the capital’s bay. Though the population has declined in recent years, 39,000 people still live there. The houses are passed down from generation to generation and can be quite spacious. I visited one for tea and it was indeed a full house with kitchen, living room, dining room, bedrooms and even a front porch to people watch from. They surprisingly had pets such as cats and ducks roaming around and cable dishes galore. If you’re looking for a unique Air BnB stay, try one of the kampong ayer houses located on the water. Be careful though. Not all of the houses are equipped with full plumbing.
Good Luck Catching a Taxi
One thing I noticed right away when wandering around Brunei is that there were no buses or public transportation to be seen. In fact, I didn’t even really notice any taxis. So during my tour of the city I learned that there are actually only 19 taxis in the city with licenses. This number astounded me, but what I found more astonishing is that there are actually 1 million cars on the road, and that’s considering that the total population of Brunei is around 429,000 people. That’s more than two cars per person. My guide even told me that those living in the water villages actually have cars that they own, parked ashore.
Standard of Living
While there are many 3rd world countries in South East Asia, Brunei is not one of them. Its quality of life as a country in South East Asia is said to be second to only Singapore. Brunei is also one of the few countries with zero national debt. Perhaps the United States with its $19 trillion dollars in national debt should be taking notes from Brunei.
I’m very interested to see how Brunei changes in the upcoming years, both with its tourism and with its changes to the law. And I must say it was so unlike many of the other places I’ve been within Asia. If you are looking for a unique travel experience, I highly recommend it!