One time I got really burnt out with Graduate School and work, I decided to book a flight and spend a long weekend in Brunei Darussalam, a country two hours away from the Philippines. I did not actually expect much from the place, as I only visualize it as a place with lots of mosques. But, when I got there, I was so overwhelmed by the many things I could actually do in the country.
At first, I thought I made the wrong decision of going there. I was really surprised when I arrived at the Brunei International Airport at 2 in the morning because not many people could be seen. I only saw a handful when I was in the lobby.
The guard told me that buses arrive at 8 AM; thus, I had to stay in the airport to sleep since I did not want to spend 25 dollars for one taxi ride. Plus I did not book a hotel in advance so I had no other choice. Besides, I did not research on where to go.
Staying in the airport was a really memorable experience, because the looby was way too cold for me. I had to go outside to feel warm. I even had to go to the bathroom for minutes just to shake the cold off.
By around 6 AM, I chat with the guard albeit difficultly because he was not very fluent in English. I kept on asking him on where to go, and what time would the bus arrive. Later on, in a language I could not really understand, the guard talked to one airport passenger who also stayed in the airport. They told me then to go with the passenger and he would bring me to the public transport. During that time, what I only had in my mind was to go out of the airport. I did not even think if it would be safe to leave with a stranger. Good thing though that I was safe.
My new friend, while we were walking along the airport premises, asked me where in Brunei would I want to visit. I did not know what to say, because, as I have said, I did not have anything planned. I just said I wanted to go to Kampong Ayer (it was the only place in Brunei I randomly remembered). He was a bit surprised why would a tourist visit a place that is really not touristic at all!
When we reached a waiting shed, we waited for a ride. Shortly after, a public van arrived and I only paid one dollar for the ride going to Kampong Ayer. My friend brought me there, and that was when my Brunei adventure began.
Here are ten reasons my Brunei experience was definitely worth it:
1) Kampong Ayer is really interesting.
After some sight seeing of the waters of Kampong Ayer, I walked around and saw a place that at first appeared as a slum area to me. It was not the cleanest place I have seen, but it made me catch a glimpse of how locals live. It was a typical morning I usually see in the Philippines. Some domesticated animals roamed around the small street, while you could see through open doors locals eating their breakfast.
What surprised me was that each house has an airconditioners, and, at the end of the street were parked cars. I asked around and was told that the cars belong to the locals I saw. I thought I saw poverty, but, definitely, it was not the standard of poverty I witness back home. Perhaps it helps that Brunei collect 0% income tax from the people.
2) Rush hour looked like this.
I did not feel like I wasted my time with unnecessary traffic jams, becauses even main roads were not congested. Just a tip for tourists, always ride buses when in Brunei because it only costs one dollar as compared to one taxi ride where you have to pay at least 25 dollars.
3) I felt like I experienced maritime Asia from 14th century
Water transportation is prevalent in Brunei. You could rent a motorboat for 20 dollars, and you would be able to travel the whole Kampong Ayer area. It made me reflect on the development of Southeast Asia in the context of its maritime history. It was a time when people were connected not separated by water. It was as though I travelled back in time to experience the whole trade of products that happened across waters, among countries.
It was also near the Tamu Kianggeh, their local market. You could find there a variety of local products. Though it was rather too difficult for me because vendors did not really speak English.
4) Lorde was right: “And we’ll never be royals.”
All around Brunei were magnificent mosques. When I say magnificent, I mean really magnificent. You could actually spend a whole day just walking around and visiting these mosques. They also have local museums of different themes. However, taking pictures is not allowed inside. Most museums are free, so better grab the opportunity and visit as much as you can. There is one particular museum I really love. It’s one that houses all the gifts received by the Bruneian monarch.
And yes, it really felt like we will never be royals like them.
5) There is art all over.
So many art around the place, and even art lovers would be treated to several artworks in various areas in the city.
6) Taman Peranginan Tasik Lama was just a stone’s throw away.
When I checked Google, this park was just a few meters away from the local market. I confirmed with the traffic enforcers and they told me it was just two blocks away. But no! I was deceived. I spent almost an hour walking from the market. It really drained my energy. I brought my backpack with me, and wore long sleeves. You could just imagine how tired I was even before reaching the park. When I arrived, it was a nature park where I had to trek. I guess I was a litlle overdressed for the occasion, especially because people there wore jogging clothes.
However, it was treat with nature because it made me see another Brunei far from the grandeur it was popular for. Monkeys roamed with me, though they were not very friendly. One monkey even attacked me!
At the end of the road and the tiresome walk, you would be treated with a reward: beautiful waterfalls!
However, after the long walk, I could not find where the buses were, and I did not even know how I would walk again back in the hostel where I checked in. I rested in one waiting shed, and after repleneshing some energy, I walked again. For an hour.
7) It felt close to home.
With Jollibee and KFC around, would you not feel at home? I spent lots of hours in the local KFC because Internet connection was really fast. I was able to download several The Voice episodes and a few movies in just one sitting while eating my breakfast.
Tip: Order KFC’s egg tart. I think I spent half of my daily allowance on this.
8) I only visited Bandar Seri Begawan.
I only had the weekend to spend; therefore, it left me with so many more places still to discover in Brunei. I better make it soon and with a travel buddy, because it can be lonely singing Royals alone.
9) I did not taste the best of Brunei cuisine.
I did not really like the food I had there. But I believe that, like Malaysia, there are dishes that I would really appreciate. Maybe next time, I would find it it another area.
10) It’s very near the Philippines. And we have a deep historical relationship.
Brunei is neither too crowded nor overrated. Thus, airfare is not yet very expensive. It’s easier to save for a trip to Brunei. On a more ambitious note, its proximity to the Philippines made me hope for a parallelism in the two country’s development trajectory.
Likewise, several historical and cultural similarities could be found between Brunei and Southern Philippines. In 14th century, Chinese trade competition between Sulu and Brunei prompted the former to invade the latter. Meanwhile, in 16th century, Brunei established commercial and political ties with Manila.
Our relationship with Brunei is deeply embedded in our historical past. Therefore, the Philippine government could invest in historical and cultural tourism, in the same pattern of what Brunei did. If it works for them, why would it not work for us?
Note: Photo taken by the author for his personal page, PetibStruggles.