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18 hours in Brunei

by nate on April 14, 2010

In our mad dash through the tiny sultanate, we found ourselves staying in an apartment on the 11th floor of the tallest building in Brunei, probably the richest country in all of Southeast Asia. As broke travelers, we did not expect our short visit to be so stylish.

The small country of Brunei Darussalam sits on the South China Sea in Borneo completely surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It’s run by a sultan who resides in the world’s largest lived-in palace. The country is filthy rich — 5th highest GDP per capita, with free health care and education. But the laws are strict: no alcohol, no cigarettes, and absolutely no homosexual activity. But, as we were just passing through from Sabah to Sarawak, none of this affected our stay (except that our Friday night was spent at a coffee shop instead of at a bar).

Hours 0-2
Nate and I arrived at the pier by ferry and paired up with a Swedish couple as we waited for the bus into town. When the four of us rocked up to the cheapest accommodation town — a government run youth hostel/gym/swimming pool — there was no one there to check us into the single sex dormitories. We ended up renting an apartment for the night, which we all shared for B$40, about $30 USD. This apartment building mainly served as an office building and maybe there was a closed movie theater attached?

Hours 3-5
The security guard on duty was probably wondering what a bunch of scummy looking, backpack toting westerners were doing in his building, but I think it was as exciting for him as it was bizarre for us. He brought us up to the rooftop for the best view in the city (as this was by far the tallest building around), where we could see the stunning Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, the sultan’s palace, and the Brunei River. Just before sunset, the giggling security guard set us up with a friend of his who gives boat tours. The four of us took a tour around the Brunei water village and saw the schools on stills above the water and the small house where the sultan was born. A bit further down river, jungle lined the sides. Here we are not even an hour out of the city and we’re sitting in a boat… watching proboscis monkeys jump around. We headed back right as the sun was setting and the sky was on fire.

Hours 6-8
We had satay from the night market on the river, then walked around the city a bit. It was Friday night and the streets were empty. The place was a ghost town… except for the coffee shops. So what did we do? Got coffee and played UNO.

Hours 9-18
The rest of the evening back at our apartment was spent talking about cameras and computers and deciding how to get to Sarawak the following morning. We wished our new friends goodnight and the next morning snuck out quietly to catch our bus to Malaysia.

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