Travel Journal: How Brunei Stole My Heart (also read as Brunei Made Me Cheesy)

An afternoon in Masjid Jame'Asr (c) Atypical Traveler

Here I am sitting on a bench in Bandar Seri Begawan airport, fingers frantically moving up and down the keyboard in a race against TelBru's one hour countdown of free internet as I hereby admit to myself that, "yes, I fell in love with Brunei".

I almost only fall in love with food and I have all the symptoms down pat (e.g. thinking about it all day, looking forward to try it again, daydreaming for hours on end, etc.) so I never thought I'd eventually feel all this tell-tale signs towards a place

When people say there's nothing much to do in Brunei, I can simply half-agree. Objectively speaking, there really is nothing much to do if you are a tourist who yearns for an exciting adventure. But then again, Brunei (if as a food) can only be classified as an "acquired taste". It does not have the exotic, spicy seduction of Thailand, the chill and smooth flavor of Cambodia, or the crazy, burst-in-your-mouth tanginess of Indonesia. Instead, Brunei is that homely toasted roti with half-boiled egg on the side you eat every morning... plain and unpretentious. Until it throws in a stick of ayam tongkeng for you to feast on and you find yourself sobbing for more.

Many of Brunei's tourist spots featured on their dole-out maps were scattered in Bandar (this is what they call the town center): there's the Sultan Omar mosque, Yayasan Shopping Complex, Kampung Ayer (water village), Chinese temple, Royal Regalia Museum, and the many cute buildings promoted towards tourists. An hour or two would be enough to tour Bandar. There are also other tourist attractions outside Bandar like the Istana Sultan (a.k.a. The Palace) which nobody is allowed to get into unless during its 'open house' for the month of Ramadhan, Jerudong Park, Gadong, and Masjid Jame'Asri. Most of the names mentioned above are architectural aesthetics most enjoyable to those who tour places for the sole purpose of taking photos (read as: selfies). 

However, it is not on these handful of tourist spots that one should judge the country. Like that nostalgic roti, Brunei is not something to be “tried”, it is something to be experienced. And very much like the how the subtle sweetness of saus madu (honey sauce) blends well with the spice-dipped ayam, Brunei will ease its way into your comfort space without you noticing and leave so suddenly with your heart in its hand before you realize what had happened.

Brunei is best experienced as a local, or in our case, like a local. Never have I set foot on a place where its weaknesses could also be described as its strengths. With this, I am referring to the inaccuracy of available city maps, costlier-than-thou taxi rates, and depressing practice of bus routes ending after 6PM. All of which giving you a chance to experience the feeling of getting “lost” in the city, quite literally, and have yourself surprised at the pleasant wonders it offers (like seeing the breathtaking grandeur of Sultan Omar Saiffuden Mosque at night).

Here are some notes though in case you’ll find yourself at this beautiful country’s doorstep someday.
1. Don't go to BSB on a Friday. It's a ghost town. Streets are deserted, most of the shops are closed, and the desolate cityscape is reminiscent of a freshly-vacated town. Or maybe you should. It's so deserted you can take numerous selfies in the middle of the national highway and still have some time to upload them on your social media account (if you're using data, that is). 

2. Be aware of  Brunei's fast but usually inaccessible wifi. There are only a limited number of public wifi hotspots available, most of which are powered by TelBru. TelBru is cute and all but it only offers thirty minutes of free internet every twenty four hours. Huhu. If you wish to use the wifi for a long period of time, I suggest hanging out in coffee shops.

3. Feel free to cross the street anytime. You can even cross the national highway if you dare. This is because Bruneian drivers are probably the most respectful and disciplined drivers to ever drive in this planet. If they see you about to cross the street, they would immediately stop even though they are at least ten meters away from you. 

4. Walk around. Aside from its impeccable traffic discipline, Brunei also has a very low crime rate. You can walk around without constantly worrying about getting mugged or such. Trust me, I walked for an hour from Yayasan to Badiah Hotel (almost 3.2km) at nine in the evening with my huge backpack in tow. I was exhausted but I'm still alive. :D

5. Take the opportunity to ask locals in Bandar for directions before setting off. Bandar is basically kilometer zero and this where you'll find the most number of locals. Ask them anything you'll need to ask. Once you've started your trek, you'll realize how rare it is to find other locals on the street. This is primarily because almost everyone in Brunei owns a car. Hence, your chances of spotting locals at random points on the road to ask for directions is close to nil.

6. Public transportation can be a challenge. This is actually one of the primary reasons why I encourage you to walk. Haha. Bus routes end at 6PM. Taxicabs are also quite costly (drivers usually charge 10-15BND for a five-minute trip). But then again, if you have money to spare (or if there are two or more of you who can share the cab), feel free to hail one near the bus terminal. The bus terminal is that old, sad looking building smacked right in the middle of Bandar. You might need to study the bus route map for a while though.

7. Hotel accommodation and lodging are rather expensive in BSB especially if you are travelling solo. Nonetheless, there are available cheap lodges such as the Joy Downtown Rest Station (which is quite true to its "rest station" name) across the Waterfront and the Pusat Belia Youth Hostel near Kianggeh district. Both places offer accommodation less than 25BND.

8. If you are travelling on a limited time, say one to three days, I suggest taking a tour of BSB and its nearby towns via car. There are a number of merry locals who overcome boredom by offering visitors a tour of their country. In my case, I met Zainuden (a.k.a. Bapa Den), a retired military officer who spends his days sidelining as a tour guide. Bapa Den charges 100BND for a whole-day tour of Brunei's tourist attractions. It's a good deal, if you ask me, considering that Bapa Den is also a good story-teller filling me with tales about each Bruneian landmark (and even not-so-known narratives of Brunei royalty and society). You can reach him through this number: +673 721 7902. Preferably via WhatsApp.

9. Experience Brunei street food. And you'll find them all in Pasar Malam Gadong (Gadong Night Market). The earlier stalls start pitching their tents as early as 5PM. Unlike other night markets in Malaysia or Indonesia, Gadong does not have tables and chairs set up for customers. You eat your food street-style (standing up!) or you can simply ask for a take-out and eat them at your hotel. I personally prefer eating the food right after buying them. It was fun moving from one stall to another and tasting the different foods they have to offer. Most of the goods are sold at 1BND. The most expensive I found was 7BND. Not bad. I suggest going to this place with someone you can share a cab with on your way back to the hotel considering that bus routes stop at 6PM.

10. Do not hesitate to ask the price of a food before buying them. Especially if you're eating on street-side restaurants (Restoran Tamu) with menus that refuse to disclose the prices. Brunei is rich in oil and it is for this reason why gas is incredibly cheap (20-30 cents!). However, all you can save on gas, you're going to spend for food. So do not be deceived by their seemingly budget-friendly facade and ask!

Brunei is a charmer and it charms you without you knowing. I was only able to stay in BSB for forty eight hours and yet I fell in love with it. I look forward to the day I'll be able to experience its quiet air, clean streets, heavenly ayam tongkeng, and beautiful people (e.g. cute boys/girls) once again.

But really, the ayam tongkeng... oh, the ayam tongkeng. /bawls



  1. Told u they didn't work on friday bcoz that was the day they flood miri.hahaha.and the ayam tongkeng.should i buy u a dozen of it?

    1. Yes, please. Haha! Ayam Tongkeng is life!



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