Ask most people if they know where Brunei is, and chances are they won’t have a clue. This tiny nation may be hidden away on the large island of Borneo, but what it lacks for in size, it makes up for in stunning mosques, flavorful cuisine, friendly locals, and incredible natural beauty. The full name of Brunei Darussalam actually stands for ‘Abode of Peace’, and it is easy to see why when you encounter smiling faces, quaint towns and vilages, and lush, untouched rainforests throughout your travels.
Although it may be a bit expensive for the likes of bare bones budget backpackers, (after all, this is the home of the ridiculously wealthy Sultanate of Brunei), Brunei is well worth the splurge for its amazing sights and attractions. And despite its relatively high cost of living compared to its neighbors, Brunei is still considerably cheaper than most Western cities.
The capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is a great starting point for a trip to Brunei Darussalam (which stands for Abode of Peace). Wake up to the sound of the call to prayers floating over the golden minarets of the mosques, head out and grab yourself a steaming cup of milky teh tarik (black tea with condensed milk), and set off on a tour of the picturesque Kampong Ayer, the village of wooden houses set on stilts above the deep blue Brunei River. Here you can visit hundreds of shops, cafes, restaurants, mosques, and if you’re lucky, you may even be invited into a gracious resident’s home. Bandar (as it’s known to locals) is also home to many enticing restaurants, some of which overlook the water.
Although Brunei may be off the well-beaten tourist path, this is one of the best places to travel in Southeast Asia to see pristine rainforests without tour groups, vendors, and botched logging attempts taking away from your ‘at one with nature’ vibe. Over 70% of Brunei is made up of protected forests, national parks, and conservation areas, and the government here intends to keep it that way.
Ulu Temburong National Park, located on the eastern side of the thin strip of Sarawak, Malaysia that separates east and west Brunei, is a nature lover’s paradise. Here you can take a slow boat ride down a winding river with dense rainfoerst on either side, until you reach the park, where you can make your way across one of the longest rainforest canopy walkways in the world. From the walkway you can peer down at the lush green treetops below, and listen to the calls of exotic birds and animals.
Brunei is also an excellent diving destination in Southeast Asia, as there are endless coral reefs, underwater cliffs, sunken shipwrecks, and vibrant underwater marine life. The waters around Brunei teem with interesting tropical marine creatures, including barracuda, snapper, jacks, hammerhead sharks, and even the occasional whale shark. In addition, there are plenty of types of coral and sponges that add texture and color to the underwater world here. Popular dives include the Blue Water Wreck, a sunken Philippine trawler that lies on its side on the ocean floor, completely intact, and Rig Reef, a series of oil rigs purposely sunk to encourage marine life to flourish.
For those who are looking for an authentic Southeast Asia travel destination that has not been overrun by tourists and rampant development, Brunei is a sure bet. Not only is the scenery beautiful and the nature unspoilt, but the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of this tiny Muslim nation might just make you add Brunei to the top of your list of amazing Southeast Asian travel experiences.