I chose to visit Brunei Darussalam this year after two Bruneian friends invited me to visit Bandar Seri Begawan. I love reading blogs, but I can't believe how wrong some of them were about travel in Brunei for Westerners. Let's set the record straight about must-knows before you travel to Brunei, what to wear in Brunei without offending folks, and what to expect when traveling in Brunei.
This post contains affiliate links from Amazon and Booking.com. All opinions are our own and we independently funded our trip to Brunei. Thanks to B., C., and D. for showing us around Brunei.
Don't underestimate this small Asian sultanate
A lot of people only visit one or two days in Brunei, but I'd say at least four days in Brunei is perfect. There's more to do than people spend in Brunei and if you're only visiting Brunei for two days, you won't get to visit Ulu Temburong National Park. It's a fascinating country and not the kind to rush through.
Controversial statement: Bruneians are some of the most friendly people you'll meet while traveling
Bruneians LOVE tourists and Brunei might be one of the friendliest places to visit in the world. Every single street, people would greet me welcoming me to Brunei before asking where I'm from. Even as we got onto a bus going to Malaysia, we were welcomed to Brunei by a friendly local who passed by the luggage hold. Bruneians absolutely love travel, so expect to hear some stories about what they thought of your country too.
The whole reason I went to Brunei was that I met two girls from Brunei who invited me to visit Brunei. This was years ago. True to their word, our Bruneian hosts showed us around, took us out to dinner, and tried to ensure that we tried traditional Bruneian food by showing them a little slice of their lives in Brunei. My most important tip: Make Bruneian friends!
Sharia law doesn't apply to everyone, but use your judgment
Brunei has sharia law, but sharia law doesn't equally apply to non-Muslims depending on the law. This is a big misconception I see on a lot of blogs written about travel in Brunei. This was told to us by so many people and although I had no plans to break the laws, I was a bit nervous before our trip. Once we were in Brunei, I was shocked how laid-back Brunei felt. That said, don't be stupid and stick to your best behavior as tourists are still a rarity in Brunei. We don't need a bad reputation abroad (We're both Americans...) Many Bruneians we met were frustrated by Brunei's perception abroad, due to stories by sensationalist newspapers elsewhere. Tourists are beloved, but still, try to be respectful and use your judgment.
Brunei is boring if you're trying to party in Brunei
My mother-in-law likes to say only boring people get bored. A lot of people find Brunei boring as it doesn't have nightlife, but we loved Brunei. I went all in trying to experience local Bruneian culture and came with an open mind. I had a slightly different experience as someone who almost entirely spent their time with Bruneians while in Brunei, but we'd spend our late nights sitting on the balcony of Kem's homestay in the Kampong Ayer water village chatting away with her.
That said, Bruneians love lingering at coffee shops and restaurants over long dinners and coffees at night, so you'll find many restaurants open until 10/11pm still serving food. If you're into culture, sustainable tourism, and elaborate architecture, you will probably enjoy traveling in Brunei. Bruneians are proud of their country and happy to show a little piece of Brunei to foreigners, but you also need to be interested in experiencing Brunei. If you're following the Southeast Asia party route, you'll hate Brunei.
How to dress appropriately in Brunei
Although I read a lot of blogs about travel in Brunei and I asked a lot of people about what was appropriate to wear in Brunei, so I came off my flight wearing a hijab, a long-sleeve shirt, and a long skirt. Immigration asked me if I was Muslim. I had to explain that I was trying to be respectful before the officer was like .... Thanks, but you don't need to try hard. Okay officer. ;)
I was lucky to visit friends in Brunei who told me not to worry much about appropriate clothes in Brunei while other female travelers in the travel community told me to dress very conservatively. I think somewhere in between the two is best as one girl at our homestay did not dress appropriately both inside/outside the home. It was not appreciated by our host.
Brunei is very humid and as a tourist, you'll be walking around in the heat day-time, so keep this in mind when looking for clothing for Brunei.
What to wear in Brunei for women
What did I wear in Brunei? Most days, I wore a non-sheer loose fitting t-shirt, jeans, a silk scarf, and sandals. On some days, I wore a tulle skirt (MISTAKE as it is a really heavy material) with a t-shirt. I'd recommend a lighter material. Do not wear short shorts in Brunei and stick to lighter fabrics (think cottons). If you're planning on visiting Ulu, bring a bathing suit!
Just in general, avoid excessive skin, cleavage, sheer clothing, and clothing with holes that might be seen as revealing. Use your judgment and try to dress appropriately in Brunei.
To get into the major mosques in Brunei, they will give you a garment to wear over your clothes and as well as a hijab, so no need to bring your own.
You see some Bruneian women dressed more conservatively, but I saw some women who were not Muslim wearing shorts (let me clarify: knee-length shorts). For women, I'd recommend a comfy appropriate skirt/t-shirt combination with a cotton/silk scarf. I recommend the scarf as it's nice to be able to cover up your arms when you're in restaurants/cafes as the air conditioning can be quite high and you don't want anything heavy.
I don't recommend a dress as I ended up sweating through my dress while walking around day-time. A skirt/t-shirt combination allows more possibilities for a clean outfit if you're not packing a lot of clothes as you can just swap your t-shirt out for a clean one the next day!
For going out to eat at sit-down Bruneian restaurants, bring a nice modest knee-length dress as eating out is a big deal in Brunei. People definitely dress up for a nice sit-down dinner, so I recommend getting dolled up with a nice dress and makeup.
What to wear in Brunei for men
For men, we'd recommend wearing pants with a plain t-shirt (preferably white to help with the heat) are okay. My husband is a metalhead and toned it down while we were in Brunei although we saw some wearing printed/band t-shirts (although not metal t-shirts) around Brunei. We did see some Westerners in knee-length shorts too.
Politics are better not discussed.
Be careful what you say about Brunei, especially about the Sultan. This is a sensitive topic, with legal implications, and it's best not to discuss politics in Brunei, especially if you have something critical to say. Remember: Brunei does not have freedom of speech.
Bruneian food y'all.
I thought Singaporeans loved food, but I had never visited Brunei. Bruneians are HUGE foodies, so don't leave without trying ambuyat and sampling the Bruneian food at the night markets. The seafood is fresh and very spicy, so if you see a local food centre, consider trying some seafood. I swear, I gained 5 pounds while in Brunei.
Everyone speaks English and people are super friendly
Bruneians speak flawless English. In case you forgot, Brunei used to be a British protectorate, so not surprisingly, English is still taught in schools. That said, many menus may be in Malay, but if you ask, the locals are happy to help.
Don't miss Ulu Temburong National Park
Brunei may produce a lot of oil, but the government has made significant conservation efforts to preserve its incredible environment, and Brunei has some of the best preserved virgin rainforests in the world. 60% of the country is made up of virgin rainforest, which is unaffected by human activity. The parts of Ulu Temburong that the public can access are limited, but incredible. From the top of the slightly terrifying canopy bridge (not for those with a fear of heights..), you an see rainforest for miles... and the boat ride upstream in a traditional boat is worth it. Read tips for visiting Ulu Temburong National Park.
We can't avoid talking about LGBT rights in Brunei as many people avoid going to Brunei for this specific reason. Let's be clear: there's a death penalty for same-sex sexual activity, and non-gender conforming people can be arrested/fined for cross-dressing. We met some travelers who told us that LGBT travelers could visit Brunei with no problems with some precautions regarding appearances, getting separate hotel rooms if traveling together, not posting photos on social media, keeping a low profile, and being very careful as the government takes homosexuality seriously. That said, travelers who are coming to Brunei will be honestly surprised by the friendliness of its citizens towards any foreign tourists, but it's your call if you're willing to visit a country where homosexuality is illegal. I think Meg Cale's article about travel in anti-LGBT destinations is a good read if you're on the fence.
Brunei isn't cheap
You'll find prices in Brunei similar to prices in Singapore although hotel prices were surprisingly high. So, if you're coming from Malaysian Borneo, brace yourself for hotel prices that are generally higher than $50. Homestays are catching on within Brunei, so consider doing a homestay if you want to experience a bit beyond the hotel.
We stayed at the Kunyit 7 Lodge, a sustainable tourism homestay in the middle of the Kampong Ayer water village. Book your accommodation in Brunei as there's not that many hotels in BSB. The good ones that are affordable book up. I was about to book two different hotels and both rooms actually sold out for the dates that we visited Brunei in December after I waited a few days just to decide.
Nearly all the attractions in BSB are free, so expect to save some money on sightseeing although you'll end up spending money on drinking ice cold coffee as it's pretty hot day time. Similarly, visiting Ulu Temburong isn't cheap, but it's worth it 100%.
In Bandar Seri Begawan, don't miss the Kampong Ayer water village
I've visited a lot of countries and a lot places, but few places have inspired such awe in my mind. Kampong Ayer is a fully functional village on stilts and it's not just for tourists; people actually live there. I have no idea how it's not a UNESCO attraction, but I suspect that it might become one in the future. See it before the rest of the world discovers it...
When is the best time to visit Brunei?
Probably not summer as it's hot year-round, but especially hot in summer.
There are two great times to visit Brunei:
Have you been to Brunei? What do you recommend that tourists traveling in Brunei know?
Enjoyed this? Click for tips on things to do in Bandar Seri Begawan, visiting Ulu Temburong National Park, or aninsider's guide to Singapore.
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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