If someone mentions Borneo to you, you will probably first think of Indonesia, which occupies the southern half, and, in fact, the majority of the island (73%) located in the South China Sea. You might then think of the jungle and Malaysia all the exciting water sports you can do on the coast in places like Kota Kinabalu. But there is one more major thing to Borneo that many people have not even heard of (even myself, admittedly, before I met my boyfriend) and that is an entire country – Brunei.
Officially named Negara Brunei Darussalam, translating as Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace, it makes up just 1% of the land mass of Borneo at 5765km^2 – that’s just over half the size of Metropolitan London! And as such a small place, surrounded by such well-known countries, it’s understandable why barely anyone has even heard of it.
I spent ten days in Brunei, staying with my boyfriend and his family in Seria, the fifth largest sub-district in the country, located within the district of Belait. There are four main districts in total, with the capital Bandar Seri Begawan located in Brunei-Muara. The district of Temburong is separated from the rest of the country by the Malaysian state of Sarawak, but is just a short drive away. In fact, it takes little over an hour to drive the country from end to end.
When I told people I was visiting Brunei I was met with surprise, and a barrage of questions as to “why?!”. Many non-Southeast Asians asked me, “Um…where?”, and most Southeast Asians were amused, and said how “boring” it is there. I took all of this on board, but as with any trip I make, I went with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it’s not the most exciting place I’ve ever visited, but it was definitely nice and I enjoyed my time there.
Brunei is a Muslim country, and this translates directly into their customs and culture. Alcohol is banned from being sold in-country, but non-Muslims can bring it over the border from neighbouring Malaysia. Because of this, there are no pubs, bars, clubs or any alcohol sold in restaurants. This isn’t unpleasant though, in fact I barely noticed it. Of course, for the young non-Muslims and the many expats of the country this is irritating, and sends them over the border to Miri, the closest Malaysian town to Belait. But at just a 20-minute drive from Kuala Belait, the easternmost town of Brunei, it’s not too inconvenient.
Far from the mind-numbingly boring picture that many people had painted for me, Brunei is a nice little place. There are lots of greats cafés and restaurants (including a pretty authentic Korean restaurant!), as well as various cinemas and shopping centres. The capital houses an amazing sushi restaurant, some beautiful mosques, the Royal Regalia Museum and Kampong Ayer – the famous water villages. There is a theme park and some beautiful hotels. And for us Brits: you can shop at the The Body Shop, buy Cadbury chocolate and even get your favourite British groceries in the supermarkets (or get your Burger King fix, if that’s your bag). Brunei is rich in culture (and amazing food) – it’s certainly not as bleak as some people paint it to be!
Its name reflects its atmosphere – peaceful. For some, this is boring. For others, it’s a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of many Western countries.