Brunei, known for its small size and sleepy reputation, may not be on your travel bucket list. But it is one of two countries, besides New Zealand, that people in Singapore will be allowed to visit for general travel from Tuesday.
From eco-tourism to modern and traditional eats, there are hidden gems aplenty in the oil-rich sultanate just two hours from Singapore.
Here are five of them.
Explore waterways in the capital
The capital of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) is home to the world’s largest floating village, known as Kampong Ayer, where more than 10,000 people live in homes built over the water.
Recently refurbished ones have concrete jetties leading to brick-and-mortar homes, while others sport timber-patched walls and missing planks in the boardwalk.
And some homes you can spot from afar – bedecked with plants, flowers, pottery and a riot of colours – looking like they have emerged from a children’s storybook.
For a more immersive experience, spend the night in Kampong Ayer at the Kunyit 7 lodge, a colourful home- turned-guesthouse. It is run by a resident who inherited the property from her grandparents.
Kampong Ayer residents get around by water taxis, which are small speed boats that zip through the narrow waterways. Stand on any exposed jetty to flag one down – short hops cost a dollar.
You can negotiate with a boatman to take you on a village tour for between $10 and $20.
Alternatively, Brunei’s tourism website has suggested walking trails, which guide you through the village.
Monkey see, monkey do
Pair your Kampong Ayer excursion with a boat ride through the surrounding mangroves to spot endangered proboscis monkeys, known for their pendulous noses and pot bellies.
The species is endemic to Borneo, Asia’s largest island shared by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is fairly easy to spot the monkeys and I count about 20 during an hour-long boat tour when I visited last March.
Some swing through the treetops, searching for a place to rest for the night. Others clamber on mangrove roots at eye level, with webbed feet evolved to move nimbly near the water’s edge.
Crocodiles are the monkeys’ main predator.
Visit ornate mosques
Mosques are a highlight of the Islamic nation and none is as impressive as the Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, named after the Sultan of Brunei.
A palm-lined driveway leads to the building’s four minarets and 29 golden domes, impressive in the day and luminous at night. With a capacity of 5,000 people, it is the largest in the country and one of two national mosques.
The other is the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, named after the former sultan. The building glistens in white and gold and its best views are from the replica of a 16th-century Sultan Bolkiah Mahligai Barge set amid the surrounding lagoon.
Tuck into modern and traditional eats
Wander through the Gadong Night Market for a glimpse at local life. It is housed in a sheltered, airy building that is as clean and well-organised as Singapore’s hawker centres.
Prices, too, are similar. A plate of char kway teow costs $2.50 and a whole barbecued fish slathered in punchy chilli sauce costs between $6 and $10. Hawkers serve up slabs of kueh melayu – or martabak manis – pancakes stuffed with peanut or chocolate fillings.
Elsewhere, diners congregate at Le Keris, which serves Malay-European fusion food and draws a young crowd with its hearty and affordable fare.
Kari ayam ($9), or chicken breast rolled and cooked sous vide, is served with curry and roti jala, a soft, stringy bread. Laksa risotto ($11) is studded generously with fresh seafood and served with belacan and shaved parmesan.
And Project Ice Cream, run by a pair of engineering graduates in their 20s, serves up trendy flavours such as white rabbit candy, charcoal honeycomb and salted caramel crackers in a cosy, neon-lit hole-in-the-wall that is popular among the office crowd.
Watch the sunrise in the middle of the jungle
Head out of the city to Ulu Temburong National Park, a three-hour journey that includes a speedboat, car and longboat ride down the Temburong river.
The last leg, a 30- to 45-minute slow cruise, is quite the adventure. When the tide is low, the longboat must navigate cautiously to avoid hitting the rocky riverbed.
Make it a day trip if you are pressed for time or spend the night to catch the sunrise in the rainforest.
If you opt for the latter, an hour-long pre-dawn trek takes you to the 50m-high canopy walk, a metal scaffolding comprising five towers. Up high, the humidity of the rainforest lifts.
The breaking of dawn resembles a watercolour painting. Shrouds of mist part to reveal the treetops, while the rising sun turns the sky pink and lilac, and then a blazing orange.
It is a wonderful snapshot of a country where time slows and nature is still pristine and untouched.
Royal Brunei Airlines operates two flights a week between Singapore and Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. The flight takes about two hours and a round-trip ticket costs between $428 and $484.
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