Earth : Asia : Southeast Asia : Brunei
The Sultanate of Brunei (Full name: Negara Brunei Darussalam)  is a small but - thanks to natural gas and petroleum resources - very rich country located in Southeast Asia. It is surrounded by Malaysia and has two parts physically separated by Malaysia, almost being an enclave. Strategically located on the South China Sea, close to vital sea lanes linking Indian and Pacific Oceans, it has an exclusive economic fishing zone that extends as far as Louisa Reef in the southern Spratly Islands although it makes no public territorial claim to the offshore reefs.
Brunei is a pint-sized and fabulously wealthy oil-rich sultanate with a population of 398,000 as of 2008.
The Sultanate of Brunei's heyday occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries, when its control extended over coastal areas of northwest Borneo and the southern Philippines. Brunei subsequently entered a period of decline brought on by internal strife over royal succession, colonial expansion of European powers, and piracy. In 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate. It was offered to join Malaysia as a state in 1963, but opted out of the Federation due to a disagreement on the amount of its oil income that would have to be given to the central government in Kuala Lumpur. Independence was achieved in 1984. The same family has ruled Brunei for over six centuries.
The Istana Nurul Iman is the world’s largest residential palace in occupation. The 300-acre palace sits on a man made hill with a clear view of Kampong Ayer. Istana Nurul Iman is the residence of the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and the palace is quoted to have an estimated value at US$600 million.
The backbone of Brunei's economy is oil and gas and the Sultan of Brunei is, famously, one of the richest people in the world with an estimated personal wealth of around 40 billion dollars. Per capita GDP is far above most other developing countries, and substantial income from overseas investment supplements income from domestic production. The government provides for all medical services and subsidizes rice and housing.
All sectors of economy are fairly heavily regulated and government policy is an odd mixture of subsidies, protectionism and encouragement of entrepreneurship. Brunei's leaders are attempting to balance the country's steadily increasing integration into the world economy with internal social cohesion. It became a more prominent player in the world by serving as chairman for the 2005 APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum. Plans for the future include upgrading the workforce, reducing unemployment, strengthening the banking and tourist sectors, and, in general, widening the economic base beyond oil and gas.
Brunei is officially an Islamic state, with many large beautiful mosques across the country. Sale of alcohol is banned. Bringing in meat, (other than seafood) which has not been certified "halal", (slaughtered according to Islamic law), is also banned. During the fasting month of Ramadan, many shops and restaurants will be open. However, eating, drinking or smoking in front of people who are fasting is considered rude and asking permission is appropriate.
The bulk of the population is Malay (67%) and there is also a significant Chinese minority of some 15% as well as a number of indigenous peoples, including the Iban and Duson tribes who inhabit the jungle upriver and the Temburong district, (the smaller eastern part detached from the rest of Brunei). There is a large number of foreign workers who work on the oil and gas production or in lower positions such as restaurant staff, field workers and domestic staff. The male to female ratio is 3:2. More than a quarter of the people are short term immigrant workers, most of whom are men.
Geography and climate
Brunei's climate is semi-tropical, and Bandar Seri Begawan's is sub-tropical. The temperature ranges from 14°C to 33°C - January being the hottest month. Rainy season is always mild and humid, followed by a hot and humid dry season. The difference between the two seasons is not that marked, however.
Brunei's topology is of a flat coastal plain rises to mountains in the east, the highest point being Bukit Pagan at 1,850 meters, with some hilly lowlands in the west.
There are no typhoons, earthquakes, severe flooding and other forms of natural disasters to contend with, and the biggest environmental issues is the seasonal haze resulting from forest fires (that is caused by illegal clearing of land) in nearby Indonesia.
Brunei has four districts (Malay: daerah)
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Brunei visa-free as long as they present a passport valid for at least 6 months:
For up to 90 days: United States
Nationals of Israel are not allowed to enter Brunei, though other passports containing Israeli stamps and visas are not a problem for entry.
Citizens of Kuwait can obtain a visa on arrival for 30 days. Citizens of Australia, Bahrain and Qatar can obtain a visa on arrival for 14 days. These citizens can obtain a visa on arrival for B$20 or a 3 day transit Visa for B$5. Immigration officers at Sungei Tujoh between Miri and Kual Belait will not accept payment for a visa on arrival other than in Brunei or Singapore dollars - there is no ATM and cheques are not accepted.
Proof of return or onward travel is required to check in for your flight to Brunei. If you plan to leave by ferry you will need to purchase a cheap flight out of Brunei before you arrive there.
Those who need a visa must apply in advance at a Brunei embassy, where processing can take up to 3 days and costs B$20 for a single entry visa. See Brunei Immigration Department  for the latest details.
If you require a visa to enter Brunei, you might be able to apply for one at a British embassy, high commission or consulate in the country where you legally reside if there is no Bruneian foreign mission. For example, the British embassies in Addis Ababa and Belgrade accept Bruneian visa applications (this list is not exhaustive). British diplomatic posts charge £50 to process a Bruneian visa application and an extra £70 if the authorities in Brunei require the visa application to be referred to them. The authorities in Brunei can also decide to charge an additional fee if they correspond with you directly.
After over-expansion and huge losses in the 1990s, Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) has cut down on its services considerably but still offers a reasonably comprehensive network, with daily flights to London, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Kota Kinabalu. There are also frequent flights to Brisbane, Perth and Auckland. Fares that transit via Brunei are attractively priced and you are guaranteed service with a smile. In addition, Singapore Airlines  flies 5 times a week from Singapore, and Malaysia Airlines  flies from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu (twice a week from both cities). In July 2006, discount, no-frills carrier AirAsia  started flights from Kuala Lumpur, bringing some much-needed competition. AirAsia is the cheapest carrier to serve Brunei from an international Hub, with fares as low as US$35 one-way from Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia flies from 35 destinations in Asia to Kuala Lumpur, where connections to Brunei are available.
Departing by plane from Brunei involves paying a departure tax: B$5 for flights to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu and B$12 to other international destinations.
Getting there/away: A taxi to Bandar Seri Begawan takes 20 minutes and costs around B$25. A covered walk down to the end of the car park further away from the Terminal (turn right from Arrivals) leads to a bus stop for Purple buses to the city centre (B$1).
You can drive into Brunei from Sarawak, Malaysia. There are two entry points for the main part of Brunei, one from Miri at Sungai Tujuh and one from Limbang at Kuala Lurah (Tedungan on the Malaysian side). Both these crossings have drive-through immigration checkpoints at the border but queues can be horribly long, especially during weekends.
It is also possible to drive from the Sarawak towns of Limbang and Lawas to the Temburong district of Brunei. The drive from Limbang requires a ferry ride across the Pandaruan River (RM8 or B$4) which forms the border between Malaysia and Brunei. You can now conduct immigration formalities at Pandaruan (no longer at Limbang Wharf) with the opening of the Malaysian checkpoint in June 2007. Brunei immigration formalities are conducted at Puni, about 600m away from the ferry landing. From Lawas (which is connected by road to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia), a ferry ride across the Trusan River (RM10) is required before you can proceed to the actual border at Labu. Malaysian immigration formalities are done in Trusan (the immigration office, officially known as the Mengkalap immigration checkpoint, is in a shoplot just east of the ferry crossing) about 8km away, and no longer in Lawas. Those for Brunei can be done at the Labu checkpoint at border.
The main ferry terminal in Brunei is the Serasa Ferry Terminal at Muara, where there are several ferries daily to/from Labuan and one daily ferry each to/from Lawas and Sundar, both in Sarawak. With a change of boats in Labuan, you can even make it to/from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in a day. See the Kota Kinabalu to Brunei in a day page.
Please note that the ferry terminal is quite a distance from actual Muara town where the container port is located. The terminal is about 25km from Bandar Seri Begawan. Getting there: There are purple buses (No. 38) linking the ferry terminal with BSB. Or you can just take a tour van / taxi.
Please note that you need to pay a tax ("cukai kepala") to get out of Brunei (currently, B$ 2 per ferry ticket). Enquire the counters/travel agent if you didn't get the tax coupon when purchasing the tickets.
There is one "motorway", from Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital) along the coast. It devolves into dual and then single carriageway but is suitable for all vehicles, right through to Kuala Belait and the toll bridge to Malaysia/Sarawak in the west)
There is also a side road off this, which runs into the jungle towards the settlement of Labi and beyond. Excellent scenery, and a 4-wheel drive may be useful, but the road is now sealed up to the longhouses some distance beyond Labi. Stock up on water at the convenient shop at the junction.
There are only ± 40 taxis in whole Brunei (2009), because the car ownership and usage are high. Since there are around 10 waiting at the airport and 8 in the Belait District there is a little chance of finding a free taxi along the road, especially during morning and afternoon peak hours when they are hired by business men. Needing a taxi might require a phone call. The main taxi stand is direct north of the bus station in the capital with only a few taxis waiting.
None of the taxis has a taxi meter since there is no taxi company nor regulation requiring to have one. Drivers have fixed prices for most trips, although the tariffs may vary between different drivers, or they will give a price for an irregular trip.
By tour vans
Another alternative is hiring a tour van to drive you around Brunei, for example, for a whole day, or several hours. Try asking them from the ferry counters in Muara. Discuss the price first before agreeing to board the van.
Around the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, there is a good-sized network of purple minibuses. Brunei's high rate of private car ownership means very few Bruneians take these buses, which largely cater to foreign workers. The speed of the buses are limited to 50km/h but are actually quite efficient and reliable.
In general, the bus system around the capital radiates from the bus terminal in the central district. There are designated bus stops along each route but passengers are picked up or let off at unofficial locations at the discretion of the driver. The unofficial mode of operation makes easy travel and entice patronage. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain some form of details on bus routes and timetables. Recent experience in mid 2011 prompted a small contribution in the form of pictures of the known bus routes at the time.(The pictures of the bus routes will be posted at a later date). There are 13 routes and the fare is flat B$1.00 which is collected by a conductor. The passenger can advise the driver the location to disembark. Sometimes, the conductor asks the passengers their respective locations to disembark and skips part of the route, to the dismay of passenger who wish to catch the bus. This also implies that there is no strict scheduled time. It is quite normal to wait 30 to 45 minutes for a bus.
There is also an infrequent long-distance bus which runs between BSB and Seria through Tutong.
The official language of Brunei is Malay, but due to its British colonial past, English is widely spoken and understood in urban areas. A little Malay will come in handy in rural areas, as English proficiency is limited there. While all Bruneians are able to speak standard Malay, the local dialect of Malay is almost incomprehensible to other Malay speakers. Solely among the Malay-speaking states, Brunei also officially uses the Arabic script for Malay known as Jawi, although most signs are written both in Jawi and Roman letters. Nevertheless, the Roman alphabet is still the more commonly used script when writing Malay in Brunei.
The ethnic Chinese community in Brunei continues to speak a variety of Chinese dialects, including Hokkien, Teochew and several others.
For things to do in and in the near vicinity of Bandar Seri Begawan, see Bandar Seri Begawan.
There are many eco-tours which typically go to the Temburong district by boat then to a native "longhouse". It is then followed by a powered boat (by the natives) up the river to the Belalong National Park, a reserve in the Borneo rainforest. There is a canopy walk and research centre at the park headquarters.
Jerudong Park was once a decent theme park with a multitude of rides. Sadly, a downward cycle of neglect, declining admission and unaffordable maintenance costs led to the closure and sale of most of the big-ticket rides, including the three rollercoasters. This has given the park a sad "circus left town last week" air about it. Most people who visit only go at night to avoid the heat during the day. Outside the park, but very close, is a small complex of restaurants which is open at night, though only a few of the stalls are still operational. The local papers have reported plans to renovate the park with a new selection of attractions, but as of March 07 it remains to be seen what these attractions will be and when they will be operational.
Brunei offers some great diving. In addition to coral and fish, Brunei is home to several shipwrecks and many species of nudibranch - one of the best places in S.E. Asia for macro photography. Water temperature is generally around 30 degrees and visibility is usually in the 10-30 meter range, although this can be changeable during the monsoon season. As diving here is not overly developed, it means that the sites, and especially the coral reefs, are unspoiled and in pristine condition.
Popular dive sites include the Blue Water Wreck, a 80m trawler that gets her nickname from the blue water around her and is still completely intact. Cement Wreck, a 2,687 ton Japanese freighter that hit a sandbank in 1980 while carrying cement. She has a length of 92m and a 15m beam. Easy to penetrate, the freighter lies upright on the bottom at 30m. Australian Wreck, In 1949 while on a voyage to Manila it struck a mine off Brunei and sank. The wreck lies in 33m of water and is roughly 85m . Experienced divers will enjoy exploring the interior of the wreck. Rig Reef, a decommissioned oil rig. There are 9 structures to be explored, each seeming to be home to one dominant group of fish.
Diving is very reasonable, averaging out to BN$35-45 per dive depending on how many dives you do and whether you bring your own gear.
The local currency is the Brunei Dollar (B$) you might hear Ringgit used to refer to the Dollar but be sure that participants are not talking about the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) which is valued at less than half a B$ .
As of January 2010 $1 BND = 2.421 MYR = 0.449 GBP = 0.512 EUR = 0.705 USD
The Brunei Dollar is tied to the Singapore Dollar at a 1:1 rate. By law both currencies can be used interchangeably, so if you're coming in from Singapore, there's no reason to change money as your cash will be readily accepted. (Likewise, any leftover Brunei Dollars can be used at par in Singapore.) However, many stores refuse Singapore notes with seemingly microscopic tears in them, and notices to this effect are posted at the cash register. Malaysian Ringgit (RM) will also be accepted in a pinch, but the exchange rate may not be in your favour. The Ringgit is not available at Brunei banks but can be obtained from moneychangers.
The Brunei Dollar is divided into 100 cents. There are banknotes  from B$1 to a whopping B$10,000 (handy if you're shopping for Rolls-Royces) and coins  of 1 to 50 cents. All smaller notes and the 2004 series of larger notes are printed as brightly coloured polymer notes.
By South-East Asian standards Brunei is roughly on par with Singapore, meaning roughly twice as expensive as neighbouring Malaysia. You can reduce costs by eating at local restaurants and avoiding the more expensive restaurants in hotels. Budget accommodation, once very limited, has expanded in recent years and you can now get a decent bed for the night for around B$30.
There is also the local nasi katok, a simple combination of rice and curried beef or chicken, which can be quite spicy. It is relatively inexpensive when compared to other food that you can buy, for example local food such as chicken rice. However, it is not a healthy option, with few vegetables and too much fat.
Another choice is ambuyat, a culinary experience unique to Borneo. It is a starchy and gooey paste made from sago that can be dipped into a savoury sauce.
Brunei is a dry country: alcohol is not sold anywhere in the country and consumption of alcohol in public is prohibited by law. That said, non-Muslim visitors are allowed to bring in up to two litres of alcohol (wine or spirits) plus up to twelve cans of beer every 48 hours, and there is a wide array of duty-free shops just across the border in Malaysia to cater to this demand. However, alcohol permits must be obtained upon arrival in Brunei while going through customs.
Many higher-end restaurants allow guests to bring in their own alcohol and corkage is not charged, though this is technically illegal and it's best to keep a low profile if you choose to consume in a public establishment. At the lower end (particularly Chinese restaurants), many restaurants supply illicit booze under euphemisms like "special tea".
One should definitely try out teh tarik, a sweet milk tea, as well as the wide array of coffee (kopi) available in restaurants.
Accommodation in Brunei was until recently famously expensive — there is still only one youth hostel in the entire country — but some reasonably cheap guesthouses can now be found here and there. See Bandar Seri Begawan for listings.
Brunei, like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, has very strict laws when it comes to drugs. Drug trafficking to a certain degree has a mandatory death sentence in this country. Other crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, and unauthorized possession of firearms are also punished with death. Brunei uses caning (for males only) for less serious crimes, including illegal entry, overstaying your visa for over 90 days, rape, robbery, corruption, and vandalism. Caning is no slap on the wrist. Strokes from the thick rattan cane is excruciating and very painful. They can take weeks to heal, and even scar for life. These laws apply to foreigners as well.
The bottom line is: Know their laws, and obey them!
Brunei is a very safe country, on par with Japan. However, you should use common sense, no matter what.
Eating out is generally safe because of good food safety standards. Drink boiled or bottled water.
The Brunei Government is run as a Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB), which means that the Sultan of Brunei, apart from being one of the richest men in the world, runs the show around here, appearing on the front page of the two local daily newspapers almost every day. At all costs, do not insult or speak badly of the Royal family.
Furthermore, though Bruneians are generally courteous and tolerant, it is a good idea to be aware of sensitivities surrounding certain topics of conversation, especially politics (domestic, regional, or international), and world events, particularly those relating to Islam or Islamic countries.
The international code for Brunei is 673. The telephone numbers in Brunei consist of 7 digits with no local codes, although the first digit of the number indicates the area such as 3 for the Belait District and 2 for Bandar Seri Begawan.