We were faced with two options of how we travelled to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu; 10 hour bus trip for 100MYR (£19) or 5hr ferry that stopped at Pulau Labuan, a duty free island along the way for 65MYR (£12). Already wearing the long distance bus t-shirt, it seemed a no brainer. Opting for economy class tickets, thereby saving us £1 each, we were keen to experience our new mode of transport.
It turns out that economy means you’re seated in the bowels of the boat with windows too high to see out of and air con only needed for sitting on the sun. Both new to sea sickness and following a breakfast of dubious looking egg and a microwaved sausage, two hours in we were deep breathing and trying to keep it all down. It was a long and very green 3.5hrs but we had read that the second leg to Brunei was smoother so docking at Labuan island was a welcome relief – pleased that we’d made it without spillage. Our relief was short lived as we trailed onto the second, much busier, ferry an hour later. As we sat down I suspiciously eyed up the little plastic bins placed at 2metre intervals down the aisles thinking people couldn’t produce that much rubbish in 1.5hrs. 45 minutes in I witnessed first hand their use as the boat rocked like it did before. All in all a unwelcome experience and a valuable lesson learnt – don’t be so tight, pay the £1 for first class!!
We eventually made it to Brunei and took an express bus from the ferry terminal into BSB city centre for B$2. Just wanting to nurse our seasickness at our hotel, LeGallery Suites, we left exploring for another day.
Over the next two days we had more than enough time to take a relaxed approach to exploring the sites we wanted to see. We had heard the Sultan was a pretty big deal so headed to see his palace first thing the next morning. The Istana Nural Iman is the largest residential palace of a state head in the world with 1700+ rooms and also serves as a large garage to store his huge car collection. Despite not getting a great view of the palace from the front, we saw a couple being test driven around the grounds convinced the Sultan was in the driving seat.
Next up was trip across town to the Kampong Ayer, water villages, on the other side of the river. The Kampongs are traditional villages built in the river on stilts, with stilted wooden walkways running between the houses labelled with street names and postboxes on the walls. They even have their own mosque, school and pets wondering around. Brunei’s is the largest in the world with more than 30,000 inhabitants. Hailing a B$1 boat from one of the boatman scouting up and down the river gets you across to the villages.
Exploring them was quite an enchanting experience. As we wondered through the maze of houses call to prayer was happening over the tannoy and apart from the odd local, we had the village to ourselves – making it quite eerie. It was really quite a fascinating place.
The tide was out and so in some parts we watched little crabs scuttling around the river floor beneath the wooden walkways. There was quite a mix of buildings, some that looked brand new, others that were more ramshackled. The coolest ones were where people had seemingly gone to a lot of effort decorating the outside with different colours and flower pots. It’s well worth an hour or so in and amongst it!
Final stop of the day was the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque, built on a lagoon and known as one of the most beautiful in Asia.
Having never visited a mosque before, we were keen to see what it looked like from the inside. Neither of us were appropriately dressed so were given black robes to wear, covering us from our neck to our feet. It was an obvious ‘spot the tourist moment’ as we shuffled around inside trying to ensure our legs didn’t pop out when we moved.
Our day was nicely rounded off with the cheapest and tastiest Indian meal we’d had so far from a place called Raja’s.
We decided to stay an extra night in Brunei and had found a cheap (by Brunei standards) hostel downtown by the waterfront – Joy Downtown Rest Station -to move to. The following morning we relocated and in the process discovered how friendly the locals can be. We were stood by a bus stop idly waiting for a bus to town when a chap called Ken pulled over and asked us where we were going. On telling him our plans he explained that there were no buses coming to that stop and offered us a lift to town. What a dude! Yes thank you Ken, we are sweating just stood here!
Later that day, sat in a cafe called SCR (serving the worst food we’d found so far, by the way), we were approached by a young local couple wanting to take our photo. Having not been presented with that question before we tentatively obliged and awkwardly posed with them for a photo. Not sure on protocol, I almost offered to sign their napkin on their way out.
After breakfast we headed to BSB’s recreation park armed with our Kindles hoping for a bit of R&R by the waterfall there. We’re not sure what happened, the maps weren’t overly clear (!?) and whilst searching for it an incorrect right turn caused us to end up on an 8km trail through the rainforest. A lot of it was up, not much of it was down and then the heavens opened accompanied by thunder and lightening right overhead. Sheltering under a big tree for some time we decided to bite the bullet and ’embrace it’ as Byron likes to say.
Two hours later we finally emerged from the trail soaked through. Squelching back to the park as the rains passed we stumbled upon the elusive waterfall (it was left!!) along with a bunch of gym equipment to have a play on.
A cheap B$1 bus ride from the centre takes you to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah mosque which we managed to get to just before closing. It’s huge! We accidentally entered during prayer time and so were quickly ejected but managed to catch a good glimpse of its wonders.
The Kianggeh night market was also worth visiting for some super cheap and tasty food from the hawkers there. Despite this looking like a pile of flat poo from a distance, it was actually really nice!
The ironically named ‘Joy hostel’ was anything but. Luckily we were only staying one night – though it was in the perfect location for the bus, within 5 minutes of leaving the hostel we were sat on the VIP coach to Sarawak for our next stop!