So you are planning on backpacking Brunei, the small kingdom with more than 600 years of history on the island of Borneo, East of the Malay peninsula and Singapore, and Southwest of the Philippines?
Let’s adjust our expectations, shall we: Brunei-Darussalam is not the kind of cheap budget travel destination you might be used to from other Southeast Asia backpacking staples such as Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand. While it is possible to find low-price food in the markets and there are a number of things you can do for free, there is practically no decent backpacker accommodation, the public transport infrastructure is very weak, and exploring the country’s main attraction – the pristine jungles which helped the country establish itself as “The Green Heart of Borneo” – is only possible via expensive tours.
However, since Brunei is one of the World’s smallest countries (#165 between Palestine and Trinidad and Tobago) and a large percentage of the land is either water or undeveloped forest, your Brunei itinerary doesn’t have to be longer than a week – and that’s only if you want to go all across the country. With less time/money, it is possible to do the main sights (including a day in Ulu Temburong National Park) in 2 or 3 days. Hop over from Miri in Malaysian Borneo or catch a flight from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
Brunei-Darussalam basics and what to wear in Brunei
The Sultanate of Brunei-Darussalam is a mini-state on the North-Western coast of Borneo island. The country has four regions: Belait, Tutong, and Brunei-Muara in the West and Temburong, an enclave in the East, which can only be reached from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) by boat or by crossing through Malaysia. Of the country’s about 410,000 people, about 15,000 live in Temburong.
The origin of the name Brunei is the same as that of the island the kingdom calls home, Borneo: the Sanskrit word “varun” meaning “seafarer.” The “Darussalam” is an add-on to the official name that is often dropped. This Arab word translates to “Abode of peace” and is a nod to the strong Muslim community in the country.
Brunei’s main source of income is oil and natural gas. With oil/gas reserves dwindling, Brunei seeks to reinvent itself as an eco-tourism and (banking) services destination. In contrast to the wealthy Emirates in the Middle East, you won’t find a lot of impressive architecture or blatant displays of glitzy luxury here. Yes, the Royal Palaces are humongous, and the two main mosques in the country are laden with gold, and you might even once in a while see a luxury sports car roar through the streets of the capital. But a large percentage of the land is undeveloped forest, only accessible by boat, and even the capital has a distinctly small-town charm.
The official language in Brunei is Malay Bahasa (which is very similar to the Indonesian Bahasa language). However, given that the British exerted extensive control over the country until its independence in 1984, English is widely spoken.
Brunei is a Muslim country. Sharia law prohibits the sale of alcohol. However, unless you are a Muslim yourself, you are allowed to import limited quantities.
There are also sizable Buddhist (mainly Chinese) and Christian communities and many of the Iban people in the rainforest areas still adhere to their traditional animist faiths.
I would advise any traveler to dress in a respectful manner considering the culture of the country you are visiting and thus, in Brunei, cover your knees and shoulders (that’s for gals and guys) but if you choose to wear short shorts and spaghetti tops you are unlikely to run into trouble. Mosques provide all female visitors with scarves and long coats.
While Brunei has a long way to go in terms of women’s rights, especially after the adoption of sharia law in 2014, I was surprised by how many women do hold male-dominated tourism jobs such as taxi driver or tour guide.
Brunei Visa for Tourists
Brunei Darussalam offers a generous visa exemption policy for a 14- to 90-day tourist stay in the Sultanate to many passport holders.
Among the countries with a Brunei Visa Waiver Arrangement are:
- 90 days visa-free: European Union countries (such as Germany, France,…), USA
- 30 days visa-free: Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey
- 14 days visa-free: Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Russia
Visa on arrival (around Brunei-$20, single-entry) is available to citizens from other countries, such as Australia and China.
Cheap Flights to Brunei
The cheapest Brunei flights are offered by AirAsia and come out of Kuala Lumpur. We paid about US-$140 for the return flight (without checked baggage or other extras). But if you keep an eye out for them you will find offers for as low as US-$50 return.
Brunei International Airport in Bandar Seri Begawan is the home base for Brunei Royal Airlines. Brunei’s state airline flies to several Asian destinations, including to Northern Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, as well as London, UK, and Melbourne, Australia.
Singapore Airlines connects Singapore to Brunei and Malaysia Airlines offers another connection to Kuala Lumpur on the Malay Peninsula.
Arrival in Brunei
Despite the small size of the country and the international airport, it’ll still take you 30 to 45 minutes to clear immigration. Most of the signage is in English. So you’ll know where to queue for a visa if you need it, or to simply get your stamp.
In the arrivals hall (which is just upstairs from the departure hall), you’ll find a few shops, a coffee shop, a post office, and telecommunications companies selling SIM cards, so you can stay connected during your Brunei visit.
The airport is about 20 minutes by car from downtown Bandar Seri Begawan.
ATMs and money changers
Local Baiduri Bank and global Standard Chartered Bank have ATMs in the airport departures hall where you can stock up on the local currency, Brunei Dollar.
Also in the departures hall, is a money changer if you prefer to travel with and change cash.
In downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, ATMs are easy to find. Credit cards are accepted in hotels and tour agencies but they often charge a 3% fee on top of the bill. I know of only two money changers downtown, both are near the waterfront.
BTW, if you have Singapore Dollars, you can use those as well as the two currencies are coupled.
At the time of writing, 1 Brunei Dollar equaled about 75 US-cents.
Best SIM for Brunei
The telecom companies DST and Progresif both have shops in the Brunei airport arrivals hall (as well as downtown and in Gadong). They both sell so-called “Tourist SIMs” which give you free SIM cards if you buy credit/data packages.
I opted for the newer provider, Progresif. The SIM plus 1 GB data, valid 30 days, cost me Brunei-$10 and offered 4G coverage in the capital along with 3G in Ulu Temburong.
How to get from Brunei airport to downtown Bandar Seri Begawan
There are four ways to go from Brunei airport to downtown Bandar Seri Begawan:
- Have the hotel send a car to pick you up
- Get a cab from the taxi stand
- Call a cab with the Dart app
- Take the bus
Brunei airport bus
I had high hopes for this option. Taking the bus from the airport (#23 or #24) not only promised to be easy but also super cheap (see below). However, it wasn’t easy. Not only did barely anyone at the airport know where exactly we would find the bus stop when we finally found it we waited 20 minutes seeing buses drive past but got no sense of whether any bus would ever stop. So we went for the next-cheapest option.
The Dart app
Dart is supposed to be Brunei’s Uber/Grab/taxi call app. You can download it from the Apple and Android app stores and need a local phone number (see tips on buying a SIM card at Brunei airport above) to sign up. But we found it cumbersome to use and were not once in four days able to call a taxi via the app. It was interesting, though, to see the app prices and then be always charged at least 50% more than displayed.
Taking a taxi from Brunei airport
We ended up going back to the taxi stand outside the arrivals door. The taxis waiting in line looked deserted but the moment we approached a cab further back in the line the driver from the front came up and scolded us that this was her business.
She quoted us Brunei-$ 25 (ca. US-$20) flat for the less-than-10 km journey to our Gadong hotel, the GinaSuite Kompleks 27. We insisted on the meter and ended up paying Brunei-$14. Despite this, we were psyched to have a female cab driver in uber-Muslim Brunei and four days later hired her to take us back to the airport – for Brunei-$14 flat.
Where to stay in Brunei
Brunei is not made for budget travel.
Thus, hostels are rare. Decent rooms in Brunei hotels and guest houses will cost you about US-$35 and more per night. While I’m usually a big fan of Booking.com, I recommend using Agoda in Brunei as there are frequent discounts available. Therefore, the following hotels/guesthouses are linked to their Agoda listings (if available); you prefer to stick to Booking: click here for their Brunei listings.
The Youth Center in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan is the recommended Brunei hostel. However, at time of writing, it had been under renovation for a year and didn’t look like it would reopen any time soon.
The name of the City Backpackers is a bit misleading as there are no dorms and the simple rooms cost $22 and upwards.
The cheapest rooms for rent in Bandar Seri Begawan are available at the Joy Rest House. $11 will buy you what one reviewer described as “a cubicle” lacking in cleanliness.
The well-received Villa Dadap is another low-price option (starting at $19/night for a bed in the dorm). It’s a bit far away from downtown BSB. But buses to BSB Bus Terminal and the beach in Jerudong pass regularly along the main road.
Since it’s a tiny country and you might end up using taxis or a rental car more often than not (see below for info on the country’s public transport) it probably doesn’t matter too much where you are. The capital Bandar Seri Begawan has the largest selection of hotels and guesthouses bookable online.
We stayed at the GinaSuite Kompleks 27 in Gadong. While not downtown, this Brunei hotel with modern rooms is in easy walking distance to a good selection of restaurants, not far from a bus stop to get to the center/waterfront (line #1), and about 20 minutes on foot from the Gadong Night Market and a couple of big malls.
Also in Gadong and frequently available with nice discounts on Agoda, is the Traders Inn Brunei.
Other options in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan in easy walking distance to the downtown sights, the BSB central bus station, the water village Kampong Ayer, the ferry to Temburong (Bangar) are, for example, The Brunei Hotel, LeGallery Suites Hotel, the Badiah Hotel, and Jubilee Hotel.
Are you looking for the unique experience of sleeping in the water village, Kampong Ayer? Look no further than Kunyit 7 Lodge, which you can book on Agoda and Booking.com, or, if you prefer AirBnB, you’ll find the guesthouse listed as user Kem’s rooms.
Talk about Jerudong: the notorious Empire Hotel and Country Club – built as a pleasure palace by the finance minister and turned into a hotel after the Sultan found out – goes for a cool US$200/night.
For accommodation options in Temburong (in Bangar and beyond), read my extensive blog post about Ulu Temburong National Park, which includes a list of available accommodation/tour operators.
How to travel around Brunei
Brunei bus service
It ain’t easy using the bus in Brunei. The bus stops are hard to find (look out for covered benches by the main roads and black-and-white poles), the bus schedule is erratic, and changes are frequent. Also, even though the official schedule says buses run from 6 am to 8 pm, I never saw any buses after dark (6:30 pm) and once, when we visited The Empire Hotel, there were no more buses after 3 pm.
However, if you bring some time and patience, you can travel for as little as one Brunei Dollar and you’ll usually find a seat on the buses as anybody in Brunei who can afford it either gets their own car/scooter or uses taxis.
If you pop by the Borneo Guide office (near BSB Terminal bus station) to book your visit to Ulu Temburong, make sure to ask for a current map. Unfortunately, my map copy got wet and is in no condition to be photographed.
Brunei taxi service
Even taxis aren’t straightforward in Brunei.
During the day, you can find taxis at tourist spots such as the airport, the Royal Regalia Museum or the waterfront. However, it’s easier to have a number to call or to let your hotel call you a cab.
After dark, the difficulty level increases, and even your hotel may have a hard time to get you a driver to take you to dinner or back home after a stroll on the night market.
Plan ahead and order the car during the afternoon, get details for a driver (or several drivers) to call when you need them.
Or try to hitchhike. But beware that hitchhiking isn’t a thing in Brunei. Few cars will stop and of those most will expect payment. So make sure you talk about expectations of money before you hop in.
Unless you know the metered price, you should ask the driver to turn on the meter. Note that while distances are relatively cheap extra fees apply: for calling a cab rather than hailing it (Brunei-$3), for driving in the dark, for leaving the district,… There will be a pamphlet in your taxi listing the extras.
Renting a scooter/bike/car in Brunei
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate a scooter or bike rental in Bandar Seri Begawan. Even though much of the coastal area is flat, riding bikes is simply not a thing in the country. More than once did we turn heads when we were the only ones going for a walk in the sun.
However, most hotels offer both, cars with driver service and car rental so you can drive yourself. Daily prices start at US-$40.
If you are coming from Malaysia Borneo for a short stint in Brunei, I recommend looking into renting a scooter in Malaysia. Gas is cheap in Brunei and having your own ride will make exploring the country a lot easier.
The speedboat ferry from Bandar Seri Begawan to Temburong (Bangar town is the only stop) leaves slightly outside the downtown area near Sungai Kebun bridge. The one-way ticket costs Brunei-$7. Boats leave several times throughout the day. Tickets are available at the small terminal only.
From Serasa on the Northeastern tip of Muara, you can take the ferry to Labuan, a Malaysian island off the Borneo coast. Boats leave twice a day (in the morning and at noon). Tickets are available for pre-order via the Labuan Island website or on Malaysian ticketing platform easybook.