The so-called express bus from Kota Kinabalu in northeast Borneo to Brunei should get a new name. On the map it looks like a two-inch trip, but in reality it’s an epic eight-hour journey.
That’s largely thanks to the six border stops in and out of Malaysia and Brunei, which seems to pretty well reflect the complex and complicated relationship between these two nations.
Brunei is one of the richest, and smallest, countries on Earth and once you reach the capital this becomes evident. A gleaming golden globe tops a mosque, new cars drive unhindered by motorbikes and zebra crossings that work are all signs that this is a highly-organised, highly-lucrative place. It’s also an obviously Islamic country, where nearly all women wear colourful full-length dresses and burkhas, and alcohol is banned.
Hotels in the city centre are a mixed bag, mostly mid-range to top end. Budget rooms will set you back at least US$25 baht, such as the simple KH Soon Rest House. Giant posters of the Sultan hang from the biggest building to mark his upcoming birthday and a marching band rehearses on a parade ground. The capital is relatively small and most of the main attractions can be reached on foot. The best of these is the Royal Regalia Museum. Filled with gifts given to the Sultan, it is a remarkable exhibition. The museum has many of the uniforms worn by the Sultan during his coronation, marriage and the country’s independence celebrations.
Istana Narul Iman is the largest residential palace in the world. It is more than 500 metres long and boasts 1,788 rooms. It’s only open to the public at the end of Ramadan in September, the rest of the time it can only be seen from a distance. Given all this opulence it is a little incongruous to see the giant water village that occupies the space across from the city. Home to thousands of locals, this wooden settlement is linked by various walkways that criss-cross and zig-zag their way around. The homes are mostly well-kept and there are even schools, restaurants and a fire station here. The multi-million dollar mosque in the background seems to shine in brilliant contrast.
A good mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese restaurants are on offer. Try the fantastic mukta baki, a roti filled with chicken, while the local coffee is strong and rich.
In a country where only outsiders are allowed to bring in a very limited amount of alcohol, it’s no surprise that everything is shut by 8pm. A handful of restaurants stay open late, and there is a mall on the outskirts of the city, but that’s it.
- Currency: Brunei dollars (BND). 100 baht = BN$5
- Brunei has only 390,000 residents and covers 5,765 sq km.
- It gained full independence from British control in 1984.
- Borneo is actually derived from the word Brunei.
- Brunei takes up less than 1 per cent of Borneo. About 78 per cent of Brunei is untouched rainforest, more than any other Asian nation.
- Brunei is the smallest non-island country in the world, outside of Europe.