Getting to Brunei

I planned to reach Brunei from Kota Kinabalu but I didn’t fancy a direct (and expensive) bus or the boat via Labuan, so I improvised. I took an early morning train ride to Beaufort through nice jungle along a rail track originally built by the British in 1896 to transport tobacco to the coast. The ride was beautiful and I think the scenery would get even better when it continues all the way to Tenom in the interior. I then hitch-hiked the rest with 3 rides.

The train station in Kota Kinabalu at 6:45am. 
The town of Beaufort, nothing particularly interesting there but it was quite pretty.
To start hitch-hiking from Beaufort I walked out of town to find a good location. I had a few hits early on but they either wanted money, a chat or take me to the bus station, I didn’t want any of these… except maybe the chat. Within 25 minutes of waiting I got a lift, the guy didn’t speak a word of English, spent most of the time on his phone and I was convinced he would ask me for money when we reached Sipitang, the next major town, but to my surprise he didn’t.

From there I walked and walked again in the searing heat to find a suitable spot, I was really enjoying the walking actually - got me thinking about doing a big trek. With just a 15 minute wait a lovely Christian Chinese family picked me up, they shuffled around and gave me the front seat. They were going all the way to Lawas, the biggest town before Brunei and that suited me well. Really nice people and English teachers by profession so language was not an issue and I could have a good chat with them, even sharing a few jokes. As we were driving and talking they pointed out the car in front was from Brunei, at the next red light Martha jumped out of the car and told the other driver to pull up further down the road. Unbeknown to me, she had asked him if he’d take me to Brunei. He stopped, we met and he was more than happy to take me all the way to the capital – result! His name was Long from Chinese descent, born in Malaysia but living in Brunei for the last 20 years, he spoke brilliant English and the next 5 hours pass in no time. 

In Brunei. Not a great picture but it's the only one I took.

With all the money this country have you'd think they could afford the build a bridge. Waiting times can be up to 4 hours to cross apparently. 
Crossing the border, Brunei seemed different to Sabah… immediately I noticed the roads were better and the nature was more unspoilt. Palm oil is a major export in Malaysian Borneo and while driving around the country you can't help but notice jungle is always making way for more palm oil trees, I definitely preferred the natural look of Brunei.

When crossing from Kota Kinabalu to the capital of Brunei by land your passport gets stamped 8 times, crazy.
Long was a complete legend…. Driving me all the way to Bandar Seri Begawan, buying me a KFC lunch (nom nom) and even giving me a dollar to ride a bus into town. After taking the bus into town I immediately found the hostel I was looking for – Pusat Belia Youth Hostel. This is the only cheap accommodation in the whole of Brunei, costing £5. I only checked one other hostel (apparently the second cheapest) costing £18 and it looked worse. 

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque 
I was lucky enough to meet a really cool Kiwi guy, Simon, when I arrived at the hostel. As I still didn’t have any Brunei Dollars, I went out to find a money changer, unfortunately they were all closed for the day. Simon very generously offered to buy a massive bucket of chicken (second KFC of the day!) and we ate in a beautifully air-conditioned building munching on delicious chicken with great chat. If I needed reminding how nice people can be, this day was it.

Bandar Seri Begawan stakes a claim for the world’s biggest water village, over 20,000 people live in a maze of houses supported by wooden or concrete poles. Walking along the wooden walkways was an attraction in itself.

A water village in Bandar Seri Begawan.

Cool walkways connecting villages and the mainland.
Brunei wasn’t what I expected, I thought it would be all modern buildings and a sterile environment similar to Dubai, but it feels much more rough around the edges. The people here seem really friendly, drivers actually stop at zebra crossing which is a minor miracle considering other South East Asian countries. If you walk away from the main roads, there are very few cars and you’re left alone with the sound of birds, I found it a peaceful place. Brunei Darussalam actually translates to “abode of peace”. Maybe they are so happy because diesel costs just 16 pence a litre or that they don’t pay any income tax!

An honesty box for buying fuel on the side of a main road!
Everything I read online said there was nothing to do here. If the country wasn’t shutdown due a public holiday, I could have quite happily spent a few more days looking around the museums and chatting to people. Another country I'll come back to :-)

A mosque on stilts.
I’ve been travelling Borneo during Ramadan which finishes on 8th August, I had been told that once fasting ends the Sultan of Brunei opens up his palace and everyone is invited - even stinking backpackers. He provides food, drink (non-alcoholic of course- this is a very dry country) and he even welcomes you with a handshake. Unfortunately my hostel was closing for the next 4 days, all the museums would be closed and I’d have a 2 day wait for a handshake, so I decided it wasn’t worth hanging around while Sarawak is calling me.

A fun Brunei fact, there are only Shell petrol stations here.


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