Sunday, August 27, 2017

3 Nights in Brunei Darussalam

I'm in Brunei, and I'm pleased to tell you more about this city-state because almost no independent literature exists to assist tourists. In a nutshell, Brunei is a combination of Malaysia and Indonesia, with many features borrowed from Singapore.

Where to Stay/Quick Overview

If you're rich or enjoy the finer things in life, stay at the Empire Hotel and Country Club in Gerudong. You'll be on the beach, see beautiful sunsets, swim in a lagoon-shaped pool, and receive excellent service. 
No filter. Right outside Empire Hotel about 7pm.
If you want an upscale hotel near the locals instead of a beach resort, try the Rizqun International Hotel in Gadong. It's connected with a mall frequented by locals, and you'll be closer to lots of activity, including a fun amusement park (Jerudong Park). 

If you're a cheap bastard like me and have a budget, consider the Jubilee Hotel, where I stayed. (I booked on Agoda and got a great deal.) It's within walking distance of most tourist spots and Bandar's major bus terminal. The taxi drivers loitering in the bus station appeared to be unlicensed but offered very reasonable prices. Away from competition, most taxi drivers tried to charge me inflated prices. As a general rule of thumb, going from Bandar--the city hub--to any well-known tourist destination should cost between 5 to 15 Brunei dollars. If you're going to a different district, like from Bandar to Jerudong, which is a 15 to 20 minute ride, then you're looking at 25 to 30 Brunei dollars. Your hotel will generally have access to a shuttle, which can take you almost anywhere for around 10 Brunei dollars.

As of August 2017, Brunei doesn't have Uber or Grab. Brunei is one of the smallest countries in SE Asia and doesn't have tons of tourists, so it's not yet a cost-effective destination for companies whose business models depend on economies of scale (i.e., lose money up front, but eventually become profitable as more customers use your service--a strategy easier to do in China than Brunei). Brunei does have an online taxi app called Dart, but phone service from the local carrier, PCSB, is out of network for my T-Mobile plan, so I wasn't able to use it. The good news: Brunei's bus system is fantastic--you can get to and see many places in an air-conditioned bus for just 1 Brunei dollar, including the spectacular Jame' Asr Mosque.
Not supposed to take pictures. Oh well.
Too beautiful not to share.
In any case, let's get you familiar with Brunei.
Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar Ali Salfuddien
1. Brunei's Dollar is Pegged to the Singaporean Dollar

Brunei has a central bank, but its dollars are interchangeable with the Singaporean dollar. (I don't know if the reverse is true in Singapore.)  If a business gives you Singaporean dollars back instead of Brunei dollars, don't fret--they're the same because their value is pegged exactly to your currency based on the Singaporean dollar's strength.

2.  It Should Cost about 15 to 22 Brunei Dollars to Get from the Airport to Your Hotel

I landed at 10:30pm, so half the airport was closed, and only two taxi drivers were available. One offered to charge me 25 Brunei dollars to go to my hotel, but I counter-offered 22 Brunei dollars, and he accepted. It turns out my hotel would have picked me up for 10 Brunei dollars, but that's what I get for not planning ahead. Oh, in case you're wondering why 10:30pm seems late, almost everything closes by 10pm in Brunei. If you want nightclubs and cheap beer, go someplace else.

When you arrive in the airport, once you exit security/immigration, go to the second floor. You'll be able to withdraw money from the ATMs there. 

Even with a non-ASEAN passport, I had zero problems with Brunei's airport or its security. Everyone was courteous.

3. Brunei Embodies Asian Fusion

As I said earlier, Brunei is basically a micro-sized combination of Indonesia and Malaysia, but with more money per capita. Everyone speaks at least some English, but quite a few people are more comfortable with Malay. If I had to guess, English is the official language of instruction in schools, but the farther away from the city center, the more people speak Malay exclusively in their homes. 

Regardless of the language spoken more fluently, every single Bruneian I met was friendly and open. Two separate Bruneians, after no more than two minutes of conversation, offered to take me directly to tourist spots by their own car or a taxi. One of them even paid for a boat to a taxi, then helped me find the Arts & Handicrafts Centre (definitely worth a visit).
Wearing the national hat, the songkok, at the Handicrafts Centre
You must understand--I'm fairly annoying as a tourist. I dress shabbily, assume every vendor is going to defraud me and my heirs, walk everywhere, ignore signs (especially ones asking me not to take pictures), and ask tons of questions. On this trip, I battered the wife of a petroleum engineer with about 25 questions once she told me she worked for the central bank. After a few particularly complicated questions, she said she was low on the bank's totem pole (an excellent way to save face), prompting her husband to remark, "It's the weekend--her brain is turned off and will start again on Monday." We all had a laugh, but if I behaved similarly elsewhere, I'm almost certain the couple would not have driven me back to my hotel and shown me their equivalent of the Royal Palace and Gadong Night Market along the way. Bruneian hospitality is incredible. 

A few other observations: 

A.  Despite lacking a train, subway, or tram system, Brunei does not have the traffic jams familiar to most SE Asia residents. You know what it does have? The most courteous drivers in all of SE Asia. 

B.  I've been to Indonesia and Malaysia, so it's normal for me to see Muslim Asians, but if you don't already know most Muslims in the world live in the Asia-Pacific region or that Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, you might be surprised to see beautiful Asian women wearing hijabs or headscarves.
C.  Brunei's food is typical Malay: every menu will have nasi lemak, mee goreng, nasi goreng, and teh tarik. Milo is really popular here. I mean, really popular. Nestle has done too good a job advertising the health benefits of its fortified chocolate milk, which plays into Brunei's biggest problem: obesity. With the weather at 88 F (31 C) in August, it's hard even for me, a former wrestler, to walk my usual 3 to 5 miles a day, so less athletic Bruneians can't burn calories naturally when they drive everywhere and do much of their walking straight from cars into air-conditioned buildings. Still, it's depressing to see so many little kids overweight.

4.  ASEAN is Creating Incredible Opportunities for Tourism within SE Asia

It's the 50th anniversary of the free trade agreement originally made with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, now expanded to all of SE Asia between Bhutan and Australia except Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. China and Japan are noticeably absent from the bloc, the idea being that Vietnam, Singapore, and other smaller Asian countries can get a better deal for their people by working together rather than individually. So far, ASEAN has worked exactly as it should. In 2017, it represents a growing population of 628 million consumers and a combined GDP of over 2 trillion dollars. If you visit Brunei's tourist centre, you'll see this picture of Brunei over the years. Notice the rapid jump from 2004 to 2008? 
Politically, America's "pivot to Asia" never happened, and China stepped into the void. Most ASEAN members were stunned when both American presidential candidates rejected the TPP trade agreement. Meanwhile, in 2015-2016, China led the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and lent almost 2 billion in 2016 alone. (I joke that America's war against terrorism isn't over, but SE Asia has already won. I realize it's not a very funny joke.) 

What does this mean for you? If you're part of ASEAN, when you travel to another member country, you will generally have your own separate check-in line and almost all major businesses and tourism operators will cater to you in your own language. This phenomenon is most pronounced in the Philippines with Korean tourists, but as Chinese tourists become more common (as opposed to their younger Japanese counterparts, who seem to prefer long-term travel via student visas), all countries are starting to cater to each other's languages and tastes. The days when people mocked Japanese tourists taking too many photos are thankfully over. Everyone today wants a piece of the tourism pie. 

(People like me, who avoid packaged tours and travel frugally, don't maximize revenue for countries, so we're left to fend for ourselves against hucksters, especially in the taxicab department. As a result, it's hard for me to suppress my desire to assault anyone criticizing Uber or Grab, both of which increase transparency and safety for international travelers.) 

5. Conclusion 

As more people learn about Brunei's hospitality, it will become more popular. For now, it's a pleasant, safe place to stay for two or three nights, especially on your way to KL or Indonesia. Don't miss seeing the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at night, the Jame' Asr Mosque, and the Royal Regalia museum. Kampong Ayer is much-mentioned on tourist sites promoting Brunei, but I suspect the hype has to do with a unique hotel there called Kunyit7 Lodge rather than the place itself.
No idea why this area is popular with tourists.

My favorite place, after the Jame'Asr Mosque and Royal Regalia museum, isn't on the official walking tour map, but it should be: the Brunei History Centre. You shouldn't miss it if you want to learn more about Brunei's history. 

Happy travels! 

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