The official Brunei tourism logo sports the slogan “The Green Heart of Borneo.” That pretty much sums up the main draw of the country. As I laid out in my post on backpacking Brunei, it’s never going to be a cool and cheap backpacker destination but while the pristine jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia Borneo fall victim to economic development, Brunei so far resists and has declared more than a third of the country’s lands as forest reserves and National Park. However, tours into these forests come with a steep price tag. That’s why I have compiled this list of free or cheaper things to do in Brunei.
For Brunei photos, scroll through to the end of this post (or us the link in the table of contents).
Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital
When you look at Brunei’s main city you need to remember that it was largely destroyed in World War II by Japanese and Allied Forces fighting over who’d control Southeast Asia. Thus, you’ll be looking for a long time for ancient architecture and traditional buildings. And when you combine this with the fact that people in Brunei aren’t fond of leisurely strolls in the fresh air you’ll understand that downtown BSB is a rather quiet, possibly even boring affair. There is a shopping mall, a couple of official buildings, and the waterfront with a view of Kampong Ayer and the gold-tipped Sungai Kebun bridge in the distance.
The downtown and the waterfront are just a few steps away from the BSB Bus Terminal; any bus you catch within BSB goes via this main bus station. The sights listed below are within easy walking distance of the bus station (unless listed otherwise).
The Royal Regalia Museum
Since the Royal Palace only opens its doors for a few days after Ramadan each year, the Royal Regalia Museum offers a glimpse into the life of the Sultan and what it means to be one of the wealthiest men in the world. The exhibition includes not just royal regalia such as royal carriages and shields used by the royal guards, but also gifts that the Sultan has received from other dignitaries.
Note that the museum closes at 5 pm. We go there at 4:45 pm and had to rush our visit.
National Mosque & Royal Mosque
I wasn’t impressed with Brunei’s architecture. Much of it is uninspired 1980s/1990s concrete architecture adorned with colorful tiles.
However, the two largest mosques in the country stand out.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque – also dubbed the National Mosque – is a crisp white marble building adorned with golden domes, set in a crescent-shaped pool. It was completed in 1958 and the area around it is currently developed into a park where locals like to spend the afternoons and weekends.
The Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque – also dubbed the Royal Mosque – was completed in 1994 and is located in the Gadong neighborhood. The 29 golden domes sit atop a more colorful building with green, gray and blue tiles. The surrounding gardens are decorated with equally ornately tiled seating and fountains.
Visitors are welcome to visit the mosques’ gardens at any time between 8 am and 8 pm. However, visiting the interior of the buildings is only possible during limited hours a few times a week (no photos):
- Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque: open Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30 am to 12 noon, 1.30 to 3 pm & 4.30 to 5.30 pm
- Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque: open Sunday to Wednesday 8 am to 12 noon; 2 to 3 pm & 5 to 6 pm.
- Scarves and abaya cloaks for women are provided.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is in downtown BSB, in walking distance to the bus terminal.
Bus lines #1 and #20 stop right outside Jame Asr Mosque.
Kampong Ayer – Bahasa for “water village” – is the collective name for the stilted villages along the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan. The settlement is most likely older than the Sultanate itself and was first mentioned in Western literature in the 16th century by the Magellan fleet. Despite major shrinkage over the past decades, more than 10,000 people still live in Kampong Ayer, making it the largest water village in the world. To counter the exodus, new housing sections are created with all the amenities of 21th-century life.
The village has its own schools on water, mosques, a police station, and, of course, shops.
To get to Kampong Ayer, catch a water taxi from the BSB waterfront for Brunei-$1 per person, and then try not to get lost in the maze of walkways.
For a quick look from the water include the water village in your mangrove boat tour. I did enjoy the excursion through Kampong as our captain was able to point out small details like the school bus boats that pick up the water village children every morning and the police station – complete with jail – on the water.
BTW: You can also stay in the water village at the highly rated Kunyit 7 Lodge.
A mangrove tour is a perfect way to get a taste of Brunei’s nature reserves in a very short time.
Down at the BSB waterfront, you are bound to be approached by boat owners offering tours on their boats or by touts offering to connect you with a boat owner (usually, at a higher price).
After some haggling, we ended up paying Brunei-$20 for about 1.5h on the water. We went up the Brunei river in search of the elusive proboscis monkey (that’s the one with the potato nose) and maybe crocodiles.
Along the way, we saw the royal jetty, caught a glimpse of the park of the current royal palace, Istana Nurul Imam, and we discovered on a hill above the river the site of the new royal palace.
While the early-afternoon ride along the mangroves was lovely, we saw the proboscis only in the far distance and weren’t able to make out any other fauna while the boat was roaring through the water. I recommend that you opt for a time around sunset as the monkeys are known to move closer to the water at that time and there might even be fireflies illuminating your journey back.
Gadong: Night Market and Malls
For a taste of Brunei, the Gadong Night Market is an absolute must. Here, you’ll find copious amounts of street food at reasonable prices: grilled meats, different noodle dishes, fried vegetables, desserts,… all the staples that you might have encountered in some shape or form in Malaysia are here.
Vendors start setting up at 5 pm but the market gets into full swing only after dark.
Note that while bus lines #1 and #20 stop at the Gadong Night Market, there are no buses after dark (the last bus leaves the BSB Terminal around 6 pm). With taxis difficult to get after dark, make sure you organize pickup before sitting down for dinner.
Gadong is also a neighborhood with plenty of day-time shopping. The night market is right next to the regular produce market and further up the road, you’ll find Brunei’s main shopping street and the country’s largest mall.
Hiking in Tasek Lama Park (with waterfall)
If you can’t afford jungle treks, a hike in Tasek Lama Park is the next best thing. For a quick visit, follow the sports path with outdoor exercise equipment to the waterfall.
If you have more time, follow the numerous paths crisscrossing the forest. Don’t worry too much about getting lost: the roughly 1-by-4 mile forest is surrounded by the city.
Note: The lookout tower is shut, judging by the state of it, because of lack of maintenance.
From downtown BSB, you can either walk to Tasek Lama Park or you catch the bus along Jalan Kiangeh/Jalan Tasek.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club (Jerudong)
Prince Jefri, one of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s brothers, and at the time Brunei’s finance minister had The Empire built in the 1990s as a royal pleasure palace and guesthouse. When the Sultan found out about the lavish development (and the more than US-$1 billion that had disappeared from Brunei’s accounts) he stopped the project. It was subsequently turned into a hotel and golf course and opened in 2000 as a 7-star hotel.
While the buildings with the rooms exude the charm of a middle-class tourist resort and it was next to impossible to get service in the pool restaurant, the splendor shines through:
In the marble-and-gold reception building with the three-story atrium and beautiful murals on the walls.
In the artificial beaches – pick any, you’re bound to find one where you’ll have the fine white sand to yourself.
In the lagoon pool right by the sea.
And in the sheer vastness of the property with several tennis courts, bowling alley, cinema, and, of course, the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course.
To feel like a queen for half a day, throw on your best Insta-worthy outfit, catch bus #57 or #58 from BSB Terminal, have the driver drop you right outside the hotel reception, and sip your US-$5 fizzy mocktail by the pool.
A day pass to swim in the pool (towel included) is Brunei-$25.
IMPORTANT (to make this a budget travel experience): Make sure you agree on a pick-up time with the dispatcher at BSB bus terminal. On paper, buses should run every half hour until six. But when we were there, the last bus ran at 3 pm. Fortunately, the concierges at The Empire are treating each and every guest like they belonged. After calling the BSB Terminal and (unsuccessfully) trying to get us a bus, they ordered a cab for us. Pro tip: With the extra fees (see my Brunei Basics post here) it was significantly cheaper to pay a flat fee than to use the meter (Brunei-$25 vs. Brunei-$32 to our hotel in Gadong).
More things to do in Brunei
Seria is the center of Brunei’s oil/gas production. Catch a bus from BSB (or from Miri in Malaysia Borneo) for a day trip. The Oil & Gas Discovery Centre offers a hands-on exhibition for insights into the petroleum industry and science.