I have been on a solo female trip to Brunei more than once for several reasons (for projects, leisure, and personal reasons), but what I will share in this article are mostly coming from the story of my first trip to Brunei.
My first encounter of basic information about Brunei was in high school when I was selected to compete in an ASEAN Quiz Bee as part of the celebration of the ASEAN Foundation Day which is August 8. My high school days was a era of dial-up internet connection and PHP10 per page printing services.
In order for me to collect the information about ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries that I have to review for the quiz bee, I have to save them in a 3 1/2 floppy diskette and bring it to school so that my Quiz Coach could print them on a printer at the Principal’s Office. Yes, guys, that wasn’t really a long time ago, but those were the days.
My blurry memory of my high school knowledge about Brunei was its history as a former British colony when James Brooke led Sarawak, that “Darussalam” means “Abode of Peace”, that His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was their leader, and that there are so many rainforests in Brunei albeit being a small country. Ten years after, I was able to see the place that I could only see in photos from the internet.
Tip # 1: If you’re coming from Manila, flights to Brunei are one of the cheapest, consistently.
One morning, when I was still in my crappy government office job not-so-long ago, I was stuck in traffic (as usual!) on a standing capacity with my elbow pushed towards the headrest of one of the passenger seats of the bus I was in. Thinking I have some spare money to travel, I randomly checked a budget airline website and scanned over the available destinations. “Hmmm which among these places I could go to for the sake of going which will not require me a visa and some tedious preparation?”
I remembered recently talking to a Bruneian friend who told me he’s about to celebrate his birthday, and, lightbulb! I mock-booked a flight to Bandar Seri Begawan and the round trip flight did not even reach USD120 so I booked it instantly.
Tip # 2: Be prepared to be asked, “Brunei? Where’s that?”
Since I have been meeting other travelers from different countries whenever I go to places, I managed to keep in touch with them so that if our current destinations happen to match, we could meet again to catch up. However, I have this mindset that “people come and go” that’s why I don’t really stick with people. *black heart emoji* let’s discuss this part some other time.
Anyway, on my flight, I sent a selfie on the plane to one of my American friends with the note “Flying to Brunei tonight!” Guess what’s his reply: “Brunei? Where’s that?” Aside from him, I met a lot of Westerners being intrigued about Brunei, “Oh, that small country somewhere in Malaysia, right?” (Singapore could also be described exactly that way, am I right?)
Tip # 3: Brunei is a Muslim country. Do your research on the basic Muslim etiquette.
Like most people, I made sure I brought the most conservative clothes I have, in which case I went for my usual long sleeve pullovers + colorful maxi skirts I always wear when traveling. I picked up this habit because I have been traveling to places with temples and churches in the recent past. I even brought a black hijab just in case.
The friend aka the birthday celebrant promised to pick me up at the airport but had an emergency so he sent his cousin to pick me up instead. Having met his cousin for the first time, I introduced myself by offering a handshake, just like how I normally do it when meeting new people casually. I saw the uncomfortable hesitation on his face to return the handshake, but he did it anyway. I was paranoid and asked some Filipino Muslim friends about it.
In Islam, it is not customary to shake the hands of the opposite sex unless they are a close member of the family. During my inquiry with my Muslim friends back home, I was also able to learn basic Islamic greetings, such as “Assalamualaikum”.
Tip # 4: There is no nightlife in Brunei. If you are looking for alcohol, this is not the place for you.
I rented out a room in a nice apartment owned by expats working in Brunei. And as I waved them goodbye to have dinner with some local friends, I saw that they had another foreign visitor and I was sure that I saw a can of beer on the dining table. It left me very, very confused since it is widely known that the sale of alcohol is totally banned in Brunei. However, there is apparently an exemption.
Non-Muslim visitors over 17 years old are allowed to bring alcohol to Brunei for personal consumption (and I heard there’s a lot of customs paperwork along with it). The rules allow them two liters of alcohol and 12 cans of beer.More information HERE.
I noticed that as late as 9PM there are still open establishments and my exaggerated assumption has told me that shops close as early as 6PM. Yes, there are some of them, but there will be shops (mostly restaurants) which will remain open later than 6PM. I randomly asked one of my local friends how come I don’t see people of our age out in the night market or the restaurants late at night. “We are all home by then, probably browsing our social media sites or playing online games”.
So I confirmed when I checked some data that Bruneians are one of the most active social media users in Southeast Asia.
Tip # 5: Bruneians can be the most open-minded and most cosmopolitan people you will ever meet.
As I was eating my spicy nasi katok at Gadong Night Market with some local friends, some local rap-like music has been blasting on a big speaker on one corner (for Filipinos, it’s like those OPM songs like the ones by rapper Ex-Batallion). I asked my friends about the song and they told me it’s an Indonesian song.
I was amazed how Bruneians are well-exposed to Malay and Indonesian culture (which is a little expected because they share a lot of history and language), but since the Philippines has no similar colonial history with Spain in the ‘immediate neighborhood’, it was kind of hard to connect with the rest of Southeast Asia.
When the controversial implementation of sharia law in Brunei made noise to the international community, a local friend who is a law student made efforts through social media to provide FAQs about it to point out that it’s not what the world thinks it is. You go, girl!
Since Brunei is a small state, some locals would most likely go out of the country to travel. The closest destination they have is of course Kuala Lumpur and other places in Malaysia. Then probably parts of Indonesia, Singapore, or even the Philippines. There are also a lot of foreign workers in Brunei (including lots of Filipinos), so they are constantly exposed to people from different nationalities and religions.
Bruneians know a lot about the world albeit being faithful to their Muslim faith. They are more open-minded than we think they are, especially the youth.
Tip # 6: There are a lot of Filipinos in Brunei, and Bruneians love Jollibee, a lot!
One of the people whom I reached out to before coming to Brunei for the first time was my high school classmate who used to work in a marketing firm in Brunei. Aside from the long list of local foods to try she provided me, she told me that His Majesty is very people-centered and would always interact with Bruneians (even taking selfies with them). In fact, he could be found participating in sports activities on Bandarku Ceria, if not horseback riding at the Palace.
As someone who studied a lot about Brunei from high school to graduate school, I would like to experience meeting His Majesty. Since I was still in Brunei when the next Sunday fell, I dragged a local friend to wake up at 6AM to go to Bandarku Ceria. He told me it’s not every Bandarku Ceria that His Majesty will be around. I insisted.
We went to Bandarku Ceria, no His Majesty in sight. Instead, I bumped into a lot of Filipinos who are mostly manning the bazaars at Bandarku Ceria. How did I know they’re Filipinos? They were all talking to me in Tagalog (because, girl, they clearly recognized your ethnicity instantly!)! I also met a lot of restaurant staff who are Filipinos.
On one of my succeeding trips to Brunei, I remember dining in a restaurant alone with Filipino staff hours before the New Year’s Eve and we are all kinda being emotional about being away from our families who were probably lighting some fireworks back home at that moment. New Year is a holiday that is not celebrated in Brunei like the rest of the world does, like, you know, with fireworks and noise.
Back to my disappointment of not seeing His Majesty, my friend told me I should go back at Hari Raya season because the Palace will be open to everyone and it is possible that I could see His Majesty during the event (even though men and women will be segregated and only the men will get to meet His Majesty and the women will get to meet the Queen. Also, he told me that there is a specific kuih (cake) with Nutella that is only served during Hari Raya.
Did I mention that next to Vietnam with more than 100 stores, Brunei has the second largest number of Jollibee branches outside the Philippines in Southeast Asia? Brunei has 17 Jollibee branches (compared to only having three McDonald’s branches) and a lot of Bruneians friends I know have expressed their love for Chickenjoy!
Tip # 7: If there’s a way to describe life in Brunei, it’s “elegantly simple”.
Another stereotype about Bruneians that I commonly hear is that since a lot of things are subsidized by the government (their economy is termed by the academic world as a “Shellfare” economy for being heavily reliant on oil), all Bruneians are rich. I bet this stereotype is common to economically-progressive countries like Singapore, Northeast Asian countries, and Western countries, but you know there’s some stuff we still can’t just assume, right?
Brunei is a car country simply not because people can afford cars (which is considered a luxury in other countries like the Philippines), but their economy kinda made it that way.
Of course, there are still some socio-economic inequality still existing in these “rich countries”. We can talk about this sometime else.
Having observed how life is simple in Brunei, I am living on a close generalization that perhaps yes, Bruneians are living a more than comfortable life but still keeping things simple and basic. To begin with, how can Bruneians have a quality meal in the name of a BND1 nasi katok when in countries like the Philippines, you have to spend around double for a decent meal? My friends would have known how Brunei made me pile up all my frustrations about the Philippines.
Oh, when I had some regular chit-chats with some Filipinos I met along the way, none of them wanted to go back to the Philippines. So life kinda sucks over here in Manila, huh? I agree, I agree, I agree.
Tip # 8: You can wear what you want in Brunei, but out of respect, please dress modestly.
One of the first photos I posted on my Instagram account from my first trip to Brunei was a photo at the Eco-Corridor Park wearing a shirt and tights (because I went jogging that day), and one of my followers commented, “I thought in Brunei all women will be required to wear a hijab?”.
As much as I want to reply “No, you can wear whatever you want” because a local friend told me exactly that (saying because not all Bruneians are Muslims, which is true. They have a Christian and Chinese Buddhist population as well), I want people to respect Brunei, its people and its customs. You will not be apprehended if you wear clothing that shows some skin, but you will get some stares because people are not used to seeing someone walking around in a non-modest attire.
On a more important note, if you are entering mosques, wearing a hijab and the proper attire is required. But don’t worry, mosques in Brunei provide them.
Tip # 9: Yes, Brunei is boring.
On a Sunday, people and cars on the streets are close to zero. Nobody is blowing their horns because it’s illegal. Drivers are very respectful of pedestrians crossing the street. I went to Kota Batu area and I literally hear crickets in broad daylight. There are a lot of very well-maintained recreational forest parks where people can hike and relax.
There are no big malls in Brunei (at least as of writing). There is no nightlife. Restaurants serving pork is close to zero. Alcohol is banned. New Year’s Eve is like a typical night for Bruneians. Everyone is expected to observe and respect Islamic customs. For a traveler who’s looking for some thrill in life, I could categorically say yes, Brunei is boring.
Tip # 10: But given all the hustle and noises from our respective everyday lives, perhaps the calming peace that ‘boring Brunei’ brings is something you will seek for over and over again.
The thing is, there is nothing wrong with boring. In fact, I don’t think it’s an entirely negative word when being associated with Brunei. As someone who experiences noise and city hustle on an everyday basis, a trip to Brunei is something I will look forward to. So far, there is no other place I never felt safe traveling solo than in Brunei. The peace and calmness is addicting. The people are open-minded. Life is simple but very comfortable. The country is small enough to have room for more complicated things in life and society.
After my first trip to Brunei, I expressed my idea of moving there to my closest friends. While as of writing I am still based in Manila, fate has brought me to a setup where I was able to visit Brunei more times than I imagined, so no wonder I know this much. To be honest it’s not all rainbows and butterflies, but if given the chance, I still have the same longing for the peace and kind of life that Brunei can provide me. But for now, I can always go back to Brunei over and over again.
SOLO FEMALE TRIP TO BRUNEI: Your thoughts are welcome!
Oh, I see you’ve reached this far! After all, what’s travel without some drama, right?
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