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A thriving oil trade has brought Brunei great wealth, and today the country's population are like spoiled children: free health care, tax-free income, low loan rates and free education are all handed to the populous on a silver platter. The people seem pretty content with their strict Muslim Sultanate ruling family, as dissent for the increasing fundamentalism of national laws is slight.
What is interesting about Brunei is that despite the relative wealth afforded to Bruneians, many still live in very traditional ways. In Bandar Seri Begawan, some 30,000 Bruneians still live in water villages, built entirely on stilts over the Brunei river. The apparent contradiction between a nation as wealthy as Brunei and a population living in water villages is what makes Brunei a fascinating place.
In the absence of any other evidence, scholars have created an early history of Brunei that is mainly based on flexible interpretations of Chinese texts. Chinese records from the sixth century mention a state called P’o-li on the northwest coast of Borneo. In the seventh century, Chinese and Arab accounts state a place called Vijayapura, which was thought to be founded by Kingdom of Funan royal family members, who landed on the northwest coast of Borneo with some of their followers. They then captured P’o-li and renamed the territory 'Vijayapura'. In 977, Chinese records started to use Po-ni instead of Vijayapura to refer to Brunei. A report in 1280 described Po-ni as controlling northern parts of Borneo Island, Sulu and some parts of the Philippines. In the 14th century, Po-ni became a vassal state of Majapahit.
The power of the Sultanate of Brunei was at its peak between the 15th and 17th centuries, with its power extending from northern Borneo to the southern Philippines.
By the 16th century, Islam was firmly rooted in Brunei, and the country had built one of its biggest mosques. In 1578, Alonso Beltrán, a Spanish traveller, described it as being five storeys tall and built on the water.
European influence gradually brought an end to the regional power, as Brunei entered a period of decline compounded by internal strife over royal succession.
In the 16th century, Brunei lost Manila to Spanish forces and at one stage, Spain took Brunei itself before being defeated in what is known as the Castille War. Brunei's regional power continued to gradually fade as European influence increased in South East Asia.
The final blow for the Bruneian Empire was in the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II. In 1841, James Brooke, an English adventurer, arrived in Sarawak. There was a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, and a royal family member, in charged of solving the problem, sought Brooke's help in restoring order. Brooke and his crew managed to bring about a peace settlement without bloodshed, and this enhanced his reputation amongst the native people. In return of the assistance, the Brooke was bestowed the title Governer, which made him the effective ruler of Sarawak. In 1842, the Sultan appointed James Brooke as the Rajah of Sarawak in return of an annual payment of an agreed sum of money. Sarawak at that time was only an area around Kuching. Throughout the rule of the White Rajah Dynasty, the Sultans of Brunei ceded further stretches of territory to the White Rajahs through a series of treaties and agreements.
In 1888, Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin signed a treaty with the United Kingdom which placed Brunei as a British protectorate; Britain took charge of foreign representation of the Sultanate. A rebellion in the 1962 against the monarchy, known as the Brunei Revolt, was suppressed with the help of the United Kingdom. The rebellion was partly responsible for a failure to create a North Borneo Federation and affected Brunei's decision to join the Malaysian Federation in 1963. The country has been under hypothetical martial law, renewed every two years, since the rebellion.
On 1 January 1984, Brunei Darussalam ended its status as a British protectorate and became a fully independent state.
Brunei occupies 5,270 km² of the island of Borneo in South East Asia. It is made up of two unconnected parts; the western section home to 97% of the population, while only 10,000 or so call the mountainous eastern exclave of Temburong home. It has about 160 kilometres of coastline next to the South China Sea, and it shares a 381-kilometre-long border with Malaysia. It has 500 square kilometres of territorial waters. Most of Brunei is within the Borneo lowland rain forests ecoregion that covers most of the island but there are areas of mountain rainforests inland.
Brunei is organised into 4 districts (daerah):
Kampong Ayer (English: Water Village) is a district of Bandar Seri Begawan and home to 30,000 people. All of the buildings in the Water Village are constructed on stilts above the Brunei River and roughly one out of ten people in Brunei live here. Kampong Ayer contains many small villages that are linked together by almost 30 kilometres of foot-bridges, although speed boats nowadays are a more important mode of transport, especially on some longer distances. There are over 4,200 structures including homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, and a hospital and on top of the foot-bridges there are 36 kilometres of boardwalks connect the buildings.
The Ulu Temburong National Park, one of the natural highlights of Brunei, is comparable to Borneo's many other parks, including those in Malaysia. It is located in the remote part of the Batu Apoi Forest Reserve and can be accessed only by long boat. The main feature of the Ulu Temburong National Park is the canopy walkway, suspended from the treetops, 50 metres above the forest floor. From the canopy walkway there are tremendous views of the virgin forest and you can see wildlife including birds, butterflies and monkeys. Most people visit on tours which can be arranged in Bandar Seri Begawan or the administrative centre of the Temburong District, Bangar.
An Islamic holiday without a fixed date, Muhammad’s Birthday usually falls in January/February. The Sultan and the rest of the royal Brunei family typically lead a procession throughout Bandar Seri Begawan.
February 23 is Brunei’s National Day, an annual celebration of its independence from Britain. Though freedom was actually achieved on January 1, 1984, the official celebration is held every February 23 to follow tradition.
Armed Forces Day is celebrated every May 31 to pay tribute to the dedicated men and women behind the Royal Brunei army. You will see displays of artillery, exhibitions, parachuting, and military parades.
July 15 is Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s birthday. He is the 29th Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of the country, and is also the first Prime Minister of Brunei. He was born in 1946 in Brunei Town, which is currently known as the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
This day celebrates the migration of the prophet Muhammad and his followers to Medina from Mecca. This festival also marks the Islamic New Year, so it doesn’t have a fixed date but typically falls in June/July.
Eid al-Fitr is the celebrated at the end of Ramadan or the month of fasting, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. There is also no set date, but it usually takes place in August. Children are given presents and money, and everyone wears new clothes. Muslims go to the mosque in the morning for special Eid prayers, worship and thanksgiving. The rest of the day is all about eating and socializing with friends and family.
Brunei has a tropical climate with hot and humid conditions year round. It doesn't have specific wet or dry seasons, although rain falls heaviest between September and January at around 300 mm a month. February to April is the driest and sunniest time of the year, a good time for a visit with only around 120 mm of rain in March. The country has a mean average temperature of around 28 °C and high humidity. Temperatures are around 31 °C during the day and 23 °C at night, with very little variation throughout the year (average highs: 30.4 °C in January versus 32.6 °C in May, average lows: 23.0 °C in July versus 23.7 °C in April and May).
Brunei International Airport (BWN) is the one and only civilian airport in the country and is the base of the national carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines. Other airlines flying into this airport include AirAsia, Cebu Pacific Air, Malaysia Airlines, MASwings and Singapore Airlines.
An airport tax of B$12 is payable for departing passengers, at the check-in desk, in cash. For Royal Brunei Airlines passengers, the airport tax is already included in the ticket price. Passengers from other airlines boarding a Royal Brunei Airlines flight on codeshare are still required to pay the airport tax at the check-in desk.
The Pan-Borneo Highway, a joint project with Malaysia, connects Brunei to the Malaysian part of the island, both Sabah and Sarawak. You can travel quite easily across the borders with a rental car or your own car, but have the right documentation and insurance and driving licence and you will be fine.
The main overland route to the west is between Kuala Belait in Brunei and Miri in Sarawak, which is a straightforward journey by bus or taxi. It is also possible to travel between Bandar Seri Begawan and Limbang and Lawas in Sarawak and onward to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, but it is a long and tougher journey compared to taking the boat.
Daily ferry connections operate out of the Serasa Ferry Terminal in the port town of Muara, connecting Brunei to the Malaysian island of Labuan. The journey takes about an hour and a half. Water taxis run regularly to the Temburong district as well as the Malaysian towns of Limbang, Lawas, Sundar and Labuan.
There is no domestic flight in Brunei.
Taxis are quite expensive in Brunei and the cost for one way from the airport to the city centre, a mere 10-minute journey, is approximately B$25. You can find taxis easily around the airport (arrival area) or around the city (bus station).
There's variety of transit tours available for transit passengers, if you are in the airport you can look for the airlines ground handler and they will assist you to the tour department. The tour department can be found in the transit area as well as in the arrival hall itself.
The best developed road network is in the Brunei-Muara district, including a coastal highway which runs from Muara to Jerudong and then on to Tutong. You can rent cars at the international airport or Bandar, either driving yourself or hiring a car with a driver that can double as a guide. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit. You will get a temporary Brunei driver's license when showing your national driver's license as well.
There are bus services to Seria, Tutong and Muara from Bandar Seri Begawan and to Kuala Belait from Seria. There are many local bus routes around Bandar Seri Begawan but beware that they stop at 6pm prompt and after that time you'll be lucky to even find someone to call you a taxi.
Water taxis are the most common way of getting to the water village of Kampong Ayer, with stations at Jalan Kianggeh and Jalan McArthur. Regular water taxi and boat services also ply the waters between Bandar Seri Begawan and Bangar (in Temburong).
All foreign nationals entering Brunei must have visas obtainable from any Brunei diplomatic missions abroad except the following countries with whom Brunei Darussalam has visa arrangements.
Countries which have Visa arrangements with Brunei Darussalam:
Visa on Arrival
For a complete, detailed and up-to-date list, refer to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Visa Information.
See also: Money Matters
Brunei's currency is the Brunei ringgit. It is sometimes referred to as Brunei dollar and normally abbreviated with a dollar symbol and the letter B (B$). It is pegged to the Singapore Dollar at a 1:1 ratio, which is particularly convenient because Singapore is Brunei's largest trading partner. One ringgit is divided into 100 sen (cents). Coins exists in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 sen. Banknotes are in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000 and 10,000 ringgit.
Brunei also officially uses the Arabic script for Malay known as Jawi, although most signs are written both in Jawi and Roman letters. Nevertheless, with the exception of religious publications, the Roman alphabet is still by far the more commonly used script when writing Malay in Brunei.
Local nasi katok, a simple combination of rice and curried beef or chicken, can be quite spicy but it is very tasteful. Another choice is ambuyat, a culinary experience unique to Borneo. It is a paste made from sago that can be dipped into a savoury sauce. Kueh melayu (sugar, raisin, and peanut-filled sweet pancakes) is a delicious desert.
Accommodation in Brunei was until recently relatively expensive (there is still only one youth hostel in the entire country) — but some reasonably cheap guesthouses can now be found here and there.
Public alcohol consumption is banned in Brunei and the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Non-Muslims over 17 years old can however import up to two bottles of wine or spirits and twelve cans of beer. These must be declared at customs. It is advisable to keep the customs slip in case of inspection and you should of course be careful to only consume the alcohol in private.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Brunei. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (6 days or less before entering Brunei) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Brunei. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as Hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhoea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
There is no malaria in Brunei. Few travellers though will visit Brunei, without paying a visit to nearby Malaysia, so having anti-malarial pills is probably recommended anyway. Dengue occurs as well, so take other general precautions as well, including sleeping under a mosquito net and using repellant (50% DEET).
See also: Travel Safety
Brunei is a very safe country with few problems for travellers. Crime against westerners is almost unheard of and walking around the capital at night poses few problems either. As with any other place, just take care of your personal belongings the way you would elsewhere. And although it might be a bit redundant to mention: drug criminals can face the death penalty and also the usage of small portions might mean years in jail.
The numbers to call in an emergency are:
Internet cafés are available at major business districts. Most cafés and eateries provide free Wi-Fi service, simply ask the staff for the password.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Brunei has a modern telecommunications infrastructure. To dial overseas from Brunei, dial 00 followed by the country code and telephone number.
Prepaid call cards are available from mobile phone shops and mini-markets in various denominations and can be used at any phone in the country to make local and international calls.
Mobile phone services are available from local network operators DST and PCSB (Progresif) with connections up to 4G (LTE). Mobile prepaid services are also available.
Telephone numbers in Brunei are assigned in the following prefixes:
Brunei Postal Services Department is the government-run postal service. Airmail, EMS, registered letter, parcel service and Poste Restante are available. Post office opening hours are 08:00 to 16:30, from Monday to Saturday.
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