sultanate of simple surprises

Superman on a hired speed boat in Kampong Ayer. Brunei is more fun than belies its staid image as a oil rich conservative kingdom.

I won’t lie about Brunei.

It is absolutely a place worth going for a break. Many people get it wrong that there is nothing to see in Brunei. The truth is there is more to Negara Brunei Darussalam than its oil, king and islam.

For a country slightly less than twice the size of Luxembourg with a population of just over 400,000 there are surprisingly interesting things to see and enjoyable experiences to be had in Brunei.

It need not be a boring place at all but visiting the Sultanate of Brunei is a bit like going on a spiritual retreat. You’ve got to let go of all expectations, judgment and even your fear to gain amazing insights. You need to quiet down your mind and abandon your ego and all you think you might know about global travel before this lightly-touristed kingdom and its wondrously kind inhabitants open up their generous hearts to you.

Red hat and furry pet drawing a Sunday crowd
Music and memorabilia at a flea market on Jalan Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, the city’s main street named after the king’s father who abdicated on 5 October 1967 in favour of his eldest son.
Brunei is a great place for raising a family. Here in the 4th richest country in the world by GDP per capita, citizens get free healthcare, tertiary education and subsidised housing
Nasi Katok- the local take on the Malay staple of fragrant steamed rice, chilli shrimp paste, eggs, tempeh and crispy fried chicken
Ambling along the stilted timber walkways of Kampong Ayer on a hot afternoon with the sounds of lapping water and distant sputter of boat engines brings to mind the country’s name Darussalam – Arabic for “Land of Peace”
The kindest fruit seller in the world. Returning each morning to buy fruits from this nice woman in Kianggeh Market she gave me a free bunch of bananas and two unidentified green mango-looking fruits to bring back home with me
Brunei’s interesting water city made up of a few dozens interconnected stilted villages has been around for nearly a thousand years. It continues to define the country’s character as an ancient Malay maritime kingdom right up to this day
Where once half of Brunei’s population lived, today less than 14,000 people still call Kampong Ayer home.

The most unique and under-appreciated attraction in Brunei has got to be its calm, quiet and quirky capital Bandar Seri Begawan (called Brunei Town before 1970) which is home to the largest above-the-water city built with wood in the world.

Over preceding centuries people from near and far had come to know Brunei as a powerful Malay kingdom. Even the name of the island of Borneo came from Brunei.

The earliest detailed description of Brunei was given by an Italian explorer who travelled in Magellan’s ship on the first voyage around the world. His name was Antonio Pigafetta. He was from Venice, a famous city also built on top of the sea.

Pigafetta wrote this in his journal in 1521:

“This city is entirely built on foundations in the salt water, except the houses of the king and some of the princes: it contains twenty-five thousand fires or families.The houses are all of wood, placed on great piles to raise them high up. When the tide rises the women go in boats through the city selling provisions and necessaries. In front of the king’s house there is a wall made of great bricks, with barbicans like forts, upon which were fifty-six bombards of metal, and six of iron. They fired many shots from them during the two days that we passed in the city.

The king to whom we presented ourselves is a Moor, and is named Raja Siripada: he is about forty years of age, and is rather corpulent. No one serves him except ladies who are the daughters of the chiefs. No one speaks to him except by means of the blow-pipe as has been described above. He has ten scribes, who write down his affairs on thin bark of trees, and are called chiritoles. He never goes out of his house except to go hunting.”


Omar, 45 has been living all his life in Kampong Ayer. He is worried that with the Government’s plan to demolish stage by stage the water settlement his livelihood, heritage and memories will be lost forever.


Unlike other cities built with oil money such as Qatar, Baku and Astana with their crass consumerism and future-pretending architecture, Bandar Seri Begawan surprises many new visitors with its shabby low-rise, down-to-earth and retro seventies appearance, attitude and ambience.

The city lies along the waters of the Brunei River which spouts from its mouth into a sheltered inlet that opens out to the South China Sea. With about 200,000 people living in its urban precinct and the nearby district of Muara, Bandar Seri Begawan passes off easily as a large town in neighbouring Malaysia except here the streets are free from rubbish, the trees are taller and cars reliably stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings.

Eating and getting around is quite easy and cheap. Mini buses ply between stops around the city on 20 to 30 minutes interval charging a normal fare of B$1.00 each trip including the route that stops at the international airport 6.5 km from downtown Bandar.

For these reasons and more I like Brunei.

After decades of free spending and easy money from oil, the country’s economy is now not in such a good shape. Income has risen this year with better oil prices but high expenses and spending on its largely unproductive citizens bears Brunei down


Joining his friends for futsal, Kampong Ayer
A young stall assistant catching an afternoon nap in the lazy heat


This Kampong Ayer resident and retired school teacher laments that the Government is not doing enough to promote tourism
Chinese make up about 10% of Brunei’s population. Despite being born in Brunei or having  parents or family who have been residing there for generations, about 85% are still not given citizenship. Bruneian Chinese as non-citizens cannot get passport. They must travel overseas with a confusing document called an “International Certificate of Identity” and apply each time for a visa to visit West Malaysia but not Singapore which allow them entry  without visa.


Proclaimed by the present Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on the day of independence from British rule on 1 January 1984, the ideology of  Melayu Islam Beraja or Islamic Malay Kingliness permeates all aspects of Brunei life


Despite complaints about limited freedom and lifestyle choices, Brunei is often praised as a great place for spending quality time with your loved ones
Brunei has a growing unemployment problem. In 2017 the number of people without work stands at 7.1%


All photographs and text copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2018