Brunei: Perplexing, Infuriating, Unforgettable

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The expat community of Brunei was recently rattled by the sudden deportation of one of their own.

Most expats in Brunei either work in the oil industry or are teachers. One could make the argument that oil workers or English teachers are a dime a dozen here.

This man was neither. He held arguably the most prestigious hospitality job in the entire nation, and had held it for a long time. In other words, this wasn’t taken lightly.

The reason for his deportation? He dressed up as the Sultan of Brunei for Halloween.

Brunei

I’ve been struggling with how to begin describing my experiences in Brunei, and I think that anecdote sums it up. I’m still trying to make sense of my time in Brunei. I found it dismaying and heartwarming. I found kindness and optimism amidst an increasingly dark regime.

Why did I end up in Brunei? This tiny Southeast Asian country, entirely contained on the island of Borneo, isn’t featured on most backpackers’ itineraries. But I have friend from home living here, whom I’ll call Allison, and she invited me to come visit. Allison and her husband, whom I’ll call Colin, have been living here for the past few years and have two children.

Due to the deportation of the prominent expat, I won’t be revealing their identities further than this. Just in case this wrong people discover this post.

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Strict Islamic Society

While Southeast Asia has a few countries with a majority Muslim population, Brunei governs by a very strict form of Islam.

Every business in the country shuts down from 12:00 to 2:00 PM on Friday, the holy day. Every building in the country must be within “hearing distance” of a mosque for the call to prayer. Public school has a heavily religious component; some schools require children to change into white uniforms for religious instruction. All Muslim women are expected to wear the hijab, and it’s worn by young girls as well, which is unusual.

Most famously, the sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Brunei, though foreigners may import up to two liters of spirits or wine and up to twelve cans of beer every 48 hours.

As you’d expect, Brunei is a difficult place to be gay. Acts of male homosexuality are illegal in Brunei and can be punished with up to 10 years in prison, though there are no laws against acts of female homosexuality. LGBT presence and culture are nonexistent. I met a well-known Bruneian who is assumed to be gay by most expats, but Bruneians don’t have a clue.

I actually broke a Bruneian law myself when Colin gave me a ride to a school. “The fact that we’re not married and I’m driving you alone in a car makes this illegal,” Colin told me. “But they won’t do anything about it.”

Believe it or not, bacon can actually be found in some grocery stores — but it’s kept in a private room in the back for non-halal meat, where it’s wrapped up so Bruneians won’t see it.

In fact, Allison told me that if you bring bacon into the country, the customs officials will recoil and wave you through so they don’t have to touch it. “You could smuggle in kilos of cocaine underneath a pile of bacon and they wouldn’t notice,” she laughed.

Empire Hotel Brunei

The Sultan is All-Powerful

The Sultan of Brunei is one of the world’s richest men and an all-powerful figure within the country. Though he’s beloved by most of his subjects, unlimited power and a country rich in oil has led to a life of excess, whether it’s ceremonial chariots pulled by dozens of men or his more than 500 luxury cars. And some would say it’s led to megalomania as well.

Remember how Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, though scheduled with military precision to the minute, was delayed? It was because of the Sultan of Brunei, who arrived fashionably late.

At the Royal Regalia Museum in Bandar Seri Begawan, you’ll find the chariots in question, as well as tribal canoes, crystal ships, a vase from the Queen of England, and other gifts for the man who has everything.

Brunei Children

Increasingly Fundamentalist

In October it was decided that sharia law would be implemented in Brunei starting in April. This will supposedly only apply to Muslims (and with so many expats and guest workers, only about two-thirds of Brunei’s population is Muslim). There won’t be changes in many of the restrictions, as the country is already quite strict, but brutal punishments like public flogging, stoning and even amputation of limbs could take place.

“It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilize them to obtain justice,” the Sultan said.

Some people think that this is because the Sultan is becoming increasingly god-fearing as he grows older. Like many a Saudi prince, the Sultan of Brunei had a reputation as an international playboy in his youth before returning home and adopting a more devout lifestyle.

One Bruneian whom I would describe as far more liberal than the typical citizen had something surprising to say about the implementation of sharia law: “The Sultan wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t doing something wrong.”

Brunei Water Village

No Free Speech

There is no free speech in Brunei, and the media is controlled by the government, including Brunei’s two major newspapers, The Brunei Times and the Borneo Bulletin. I was interviewed for both publications after I spoke to students about our writing and journalism careers at Jerudong International School (JIS). Here’s the Brunei Times piece.

I later met with a foreign-born Brunei journalist who bemoaned the state of journalism in the country. Basically, he told me, the journalists sit around in their office and wait for the government to call them. The newspapers are collections of press releases, and the overall quality of the journalism is low.

Bruneian journalists don’t want free speech, he told me, and pointed to instances in other countries that the introduction of free speech led to demonstrations and protests. That’s a small price to pay, I told him. He shook his head.

Truthfully, the journalist said, most Brunei journalists don’t want free speech because it means they’ll have to start doing real work.

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Expat Life

So how do you get by when living in such a strict country? For many Brunei expats, they call the “milkman,” a Chinese booze dealer within the country.

You want alcohol? You text your milkman, he’ll tell you what he has in stock, you tell him what you’d like, and he’ll have it delivered to you discreetly. He’s like a drug dealer, only for alcohol.

But that’s for expats’ eyes only — as soon as Bruneians appear in an expat’s home, any and all alcohol is hidden away. Colin and Allison have a bar in their home, and when it came time for one of their children’s birthday parties, they hid the alcohol and covered the bar with a blanket.

There is a constant wariness that comes with living in Brunei. At any moment, a Bruneian could report your less-than-holy actions. While it’s technically legal to have alcohol in a private home, the corruption of Bruneians is a far more blurred line.

So the expats band together — the teachers, the oil workers, the others, ensconced in their circle of trust. They bond over the difficulties of living in such a strict culture as they imbibe the forbidden libations, a quiet rebellion that will never see the light of day.

For that reason, I understand how it would be possible to develop a drinking problem in a dry country.

Empire Hotel Brunei

It’s All a Facade

Whether you’re walking through downtown Bandar Seri Begawan or driving along the highways, Brunei looks like it’s stuck in the 90s. Billboards are ancient. Letters are falling off signs. There is no sense of aesthetics. Despite the amount of money the country has, it’s not being spent on making it look good.

The Empire Hotel, Brunei’s most exclusive resort, is an exception. A dramatic behemoth covered with gold, the hotel proudly wears the fictitious “seven-star” moniker, just like the Burj al Arab in Dubai. Take a look at the fanciest suites — far more opulent than the #2 suite at the Burj al Arab!

I took Colin and Allison and their kids out for afternoon tea. While the tea featured delicious cakes and was excellent value (20 Brunei dollars per person, or $16 USD), the service was perplexing.

“Can I get something for the kids to drink?” Allison asked the waitress. She stared back blankly. “Apple juice?” Allison suggested.

The kids were brought apple juice in fancy V-shaped tumblers that nobody in the western world would dream of giving to a young child. Now, I don’t think that every restaurant should cater to kids with crayons and sippy cups, but isn’t it obvious that you should serve young children drinks in a cup that is least likely to be spilled?

Allison and I had talked a lot about her experiences with kids in Brunei, and the recurring theme that I gleaned from her experiences is that children are largely ignored, even when you try to make special preparations for them in advance.

After an hour or so of exploring the hotel’s grounds, we walked back through the “seven-star” lobby again. Our dirty plates were still waiting to be cleared.

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The Value of Visiting Brunei

My week in Brunei was incredible.

I helped shy nine-year-olds practice their English, knowing that they will likely never leave home.

I gave interviews to journalists who have never known freedom of the press.

I explored a poverty-stricken village built on stilts in the morning and visited the British High Commissioner in the afternoon.

I drank, spoke freely, and rode in a car with a man who wasn’t my husband.

What I learned from the people here could fill books — and yet I could never adequately describe a word of it.

But as far as tourist value goes, Brunei doesn’t have much. I don’t see any reason to come here as a tourist unless you just want to say that you’ve been here.

One of the tourist activities where Brunei excels, however, is a visit to the rainforest in Temburon province, where you can walk above the canopy and stay in the jungle overnight. (Ironically, I was so busy meeting people in Brunei that I had no time to do the main iconic activity!)

Beyond that, there’s not much to do, but I recommend taking a tour of the water villages (which you can do from downtown Bandar Seri Begawan), seeing the beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, visiting the Royal Regalia Museum, and having afternoon tea at the Empire Hotel.

What’s Next?

I’ll be following Brunei in the news once they introduce sharia law and see how it plays out on the world stage — whether they will continue to increase their fundamentalism or pull back in order to placate foreigners. Whether they will tolerate the expats or deport them at the drop of a hat.

I felt uneasy the whole time I was in Brunei and I feel even more uneasy when thinking of it’s future. I don’t think I’m going to like what I see in the future.

Essential Info: Several major airlines fly to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, including Air Asia, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, and the national carrier, Royal Brunei. You can also enter overland from Sarawak in Malaysia.

The Royal Regalia Museum, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, and the Empire Hotel are free to visit. No photos are permitted in the Royal Regalia Museum. You can explore the water villages on foot for free or bargain with a local for a boat ride. Several companies offer varying tours of the rainforest; it’s best to research before arriving.

I stayed with friends while in Brunei – you can find hotels here.

Be sure to get travel insurance before heading to Brunei. I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.

Have you been to Brunei? What do you think about it now?

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Katie @ Domestiphobia
Katie @ Domestiphobia

This is such a fascinating post! (I’m ashamed to admit that I had to Google “Brunei.”) It’s very likely a place I’ll never see in my lifetime — thanks for the glimpse into what appears to be a fascinating — albeit eerily foreboding — culture.

Stephen
Stephen

This is a really interesting write-up, Kate. I passed through during the last World Cup and sat around at night at a teahouse drinking green and watching the games. It was a weird experience, but we didn’t get much insight into life in the country to this is eye-opening as well.

By the way, you can also get there by a bus/boat combo from KK.

Laura
Laura

Brunei sounds fascinating. It’s nice that you guys got a unique “in” to the culture. It can’t be an easy thing to see with the lack of free speech and the restrictive laws. The sultan sure sounds like a character!

AkwaabaGolden
AkwaabaGolden

My jaw dropped couple of times when I read this post! What an incredible country. Just as Kate, I too had no clue where Brunei is and had to google it.

To be honest I find strict muslim countries scary.. Can’t help it.

Samantha
Samantha

For someone who has traveled extensively, you have a shockingly poor grasp on the concept of cultural appropriation or respect. To what standard are you judging this culture? Great Britain? The United States? We also have unspeakable poverty here and laws in conservative states that make it legal for hospitals to deny lifesaving service to gay people, for white men to murder children in cold blood. Also, we have dry counties here, which was apparently you largest complaint. What are you trying to prove? Why should we pity the expats who clearly choose to live there? Instead of pitying the… Read more »

Stuart
Stuart

Is Samantha reading the same article I am? I did not take that point of view from this article at all and I have worked here for 2 years. There is a lot more to the inner workings of Brunei and is certainly not in sync with the surrounding SE Asian countries. What Samantha does not realize is that the “slums” she refers too are a Brunei attraction and advertised on all the counties tourism advertisements. The people are amazing there and the extra money put into the water village from that tourism helps considerably. Maybe it is Samantha that… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa

I liked that you were blunt and honest in this evaluation. I read this as being a post similar in tone and style to your one about Cambodia. Not every place is a travelers favorite. Not every culture is everyone’s favorite. I’m sure plenty of Bruneians and Cambodians have negative feelings about Western culture and feel justified in having those feelings. You presented a lot of good and indisputable information. You told potential travelers what the situation in Brunei is regarding alcohol and freedom for homosexuals without a lot of personal opinions. At the same time, you’re also right about… Read more »

Karyn @ Not Done Travelling
Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

Wow. What a great entry. A year or so ago I read a book called “Some Girls” by Jillian Lauren. In it she details her time in the modern-day harem of the Sultan’s brother during the 90s. It’s a fascinating read if you have the time.

Katrinka
Katrinka

I read this book! Kate, I think I mentioned it to you before you went to Brunei, maybe.

Tom @ Waegook Tom
Tom @ Waegook Tom

Sounds like Brunei is going down a scary path. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Malaysia starts to follow suit, as it’s laws seem to be becoming increasingly strict, judging by what my Malaysian friends tell me. This is a really fascinating read, and to be honest the stories that you recount here make it sound like Brunei’s not really much different from the likes of Dubai, Bahrain, or Qatar. Brunei isn’t on my list of countries to visit (I’m not that into nature, and Bandar Seri Begawan doesn’t seem like it has much going for it), and with Sharia… Read more »

Haziah Salleh
Haziah Salleh

Hi Kate, I’ve been following your blog for reference of my own travel. But, I couldn’t agree for this post. I think this is very misleading description of Brunei since I am living in the neighbouring country; where Brunei is actually only 4 hours drive from my town. But, perhaps this is a point of view of a Westerner and yes like Samantha, I also think you have a poor grasp and respect of others’ culture and I think this post is rather judgmental.. As a Muslim myself I feel obliged to explain to you why all these things that… Read more »

A
A

Hello Haziah, I found your response very interesting. I always like to hear different sides, so thank you for spending the time writing this out. As a Western female it’s hard for me to understand or grasp your view points, but that is what makes this world so interesting. 🙂

Brunei Mummy
Brunei Mummy

As an expat living here in Brunei I totally accept that I am a guest, however I think your views of this country are a little skewed. All I would say is what about the rest of the population, and I mean locals… chinese who aren’t Muslim? Who provide a huge amount to the failing economy, when are their views taken into account. Yes he did exile his brother….but guess whos back in town? Money is spent left right and centre on beautifying areas for Sultans visits and ASEAN Conferences, yet local schools don’t have air-con, photocopies etc etc…I could… Read more »

Bruneian
Bruneian

As an expat…Don’t you care that Bruneian people love his majesty so much…your view is too shallow. you need to learn more about Brunei. air-con? photocopies? some schools have that and some don’t it depends on the management. Do you know that Bruneian teachers get allowance for that kind of facilities. If you are a teacher you should be aware of that. It is so hypocrite to say bad things about other people country and yet you are there slurping every benefit that you can get. If you don’t like Brunei why don’t you leave, its not your country anyway… Read more »

Bruneian
Bruneian

and again..you should pay your tax!!!

Edwin
Edwin

You have to remember though, is that Bruneiens don’t pay taxes at all! NONE!! SO then the attitude here is, we have it all for free. Why complain? Oooo!! and I’m one of them Chinese who aren’t Muslim! And yea, I’ve heard that too, that the chinese contribute quite a bit to the economy. My brother is a biz there and you just cannot get by without buying off some high level official or using a malay partner in your biz. True bout the lack of aircons in some schools though. Man it was real hot in that math class… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan

This was an interesting read on one of the only countries in Southeast Asia that I have no interest in visiting. It sounds like Hell to live there, even though I don’t care for bacon, and hardly ever drink – but still, it just doesn’t sound enjoyable.

Sarah
Sarah

I went to Brunei for a couple of days despite having been warned it was “boring”. Although I found it in an interesting place- visited the villages on stilts- I had to admit that it was quite a boring place. Just like you, I felt uneasy in Brunei. I didn’t really know why, but this post really explains why the atmosphere was so ‘different’ and uncomfortable.

Erin
Erin

If you find Brunei ‘boring’ you obvioulsy didn’t try very hard or look very far! I love all the things I do in Brunei when I visit for work which is often. IMHO I think you have to be a certain type of person to find anywhere boring – decent people can find fun, excitement or wonder in all sorts of places, you just have to be positive and outgoing and you will find it.

Laurie
Laurie

Very interesting post on your experience in a place I knew nothing about. Frankly, I find the comments almost as interesting as the post. Other sides of a story are great to read too! I just don’t like when people want to argue that your experience and your opinion is wrong. Your experience was your experience and your opinion is yours. No need to apologize for that. If I didn’t want an opinion I would read Wikipedia. Thanks and keep up the good work!

Ivana
Ivana

Interesting to read about how journalism works, or rather does not work there. Especially when you consider how much effort the journalists in other countries put into their work, or even die because they fight for free speech in their homeland. Thanks for info.

Erin
Erin

Well, I’m glad you proved to be as judgmental as like any “westerner” who consider an Islamic country as being deprived of any freedom. Thanks for such a cliche paper. I’m saddened to see that you have chosen the easy way to draw people’s attention. Would have been refreshing to read about their local festivals, traditions etc. Instead what I read is that bacon is illegal, booze is illegal etc. Is that surprising? Well maybe we all petition to ask, no wait, to demand that the sultan legalizes all and make Brunei a copycat of Vegas (such a virtuous place… Read more »

Rose
Rose

Hi Erin,

I agree entirely – cliche is definitely right, and yes, she has taken the easy route to sell a good story – typical wannabe journalist. Maybe we should write an honest and complete account of Brunei to show the reality of life behind our gold curtain in this little country. It would truly be refreshing.

Renuka
Renuka

I wonder how did you even manage to travel around in a country like Brunei! I am thankful to you that you shared so many insights about it. I am sure the country must have something intriguing to get you there, but whatever you have shared here sounds a bit intimidating.

Name Change Tamilnadu Gazette
Name Change Tamilnadu Gazette

Thanks to give this wonderful article. I really enjoyed to read this article…………….

cubic zirconia malayasia
cubic zirconia malayasia

Great article. Thanks for this wonderful article………….

Siti
Siti

Wow, as a Brunei journalist, I find this post incredibly condescending. In your post, you quote a foreign-born journalist. Did you ever try speaking to local journalists about their experiences? Or even more than one journalist? Did you even check whether this guy to talked to works in actual news writing, or is just some advertorial/social events writer that does fluff pieces for local newspapers/blogs? If you’re going to make sweeping statements, you should verify the credibility of your sources, since you seem to know so much about journalism. Not only the picture you painted of Brunei incredibly simplistic, it’s… Read more »

Neesa
Neesa

I agree with the simplifying Brunei part, based only on some expats opinion of it without doing some facts-check 😉 For example, on the law thingy: “I actually broke a Bruneian law myself when Colin gave me a ride to a school. ”The fact that we’re not married and I’m driving you alone in a car makes this illegal,” Colin told me. “But they won’t do anything about it.” Actually there is no such law that prohibit one that is unmarried to drive another being anywhere, but there is an Islamic law for those who were found at close proximity… Read more »

Erin
Erin

I agree, this person didn’t even check any facts before putting her post online! It’s ok to have an opinion, of course it is, obviously – some people will never like Brunei because they are not the sort of person to embrace cultural difference or accept that not every country wants to be vegas (from someone elses post above). And that’s fine if you want to rant about that to your friends. But if you go on a public post and you quote facts to back up your opinion, you have to make sure those facts are true. Did you… Read more »

Neesa
Neesa

Well said.. I couldn’t have explained it any better.. Thank you 🙂

Denise Carlyle
Denise Carlyle

Neesa, While I agree with some of what you have posted I take exception to a few of your points. First about the Sultan having been ‘more than generous with the public’. While it is true the Sultan has provided a relatively high standard of living for his people he has not done nearly enough. Any man who owns thousands of gas guzzling exotic cars worth in the billions (read collossal waste of money by a megalomaniac) while some of his people still live in poverty clearly needs a reboot on the societal justice front. Now, as to your Sharia… Read more »

Neesa
Neesa

Hi Denise 🙂 Okay regarding the “While it is true the Sultan has provided a relatively high standard of living for his people he has not done nearly enough”, I have to take you to a phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. You see, steps are being taken as we speak to improve the already “relatively high standard of living for his people”. Developments are carried out throughout the country to ensure that poverty is diminished and amenities are fully provided for the citizens, even in the remote areas. At least, steps are being taken towards that vision and… Read more »

Denise Carlyle
Denise Carlyle

Hello again Neesa, There are so many things to say here but I’m afraid it’s probably pointless. You live under an unelected ruler who cannot be removed except through death or revolution. You also live in a country with no free press and laws that do not permit speaking out in any way against the Sultan or the country’s laws. In short, you live in a dictatorship. I will however still address some of your replied points below. 1. “Prophet Muhammad married Sayyidatina Aisyah at a young age but only consummate the marriage after her PUBERTY.” The Muslim propagandists always… Read more »

Neesa
Neesa

Hi again Denise 🙂 To be honest, I did not read every sentence in your post, but I get the gist of what you are implying. Here goes: 1. You google for the knowledge of Islam online and consider it the bible to the religion? You do know that there are a whole lot of garbage uploaded online amidst the genuine and how easy it is to create one sort garbage, let alone on sensitive stuff like religion issue? With all your “knowledge” of Islam, you should know that Al-Quran is one of our Holy book where Islamic histories, guidance… Read more »

SG
SG

Wow, you sure are wound up tightly. Loosen up or you are going to explode. Do you expect all people to know everything about a culture they have only spent a week in? This is supposed to be a fun, light-weight travel blog not a deep religious and political dissertation.

laura
laura

It was an interesting post, but I guess I’m surprised your post on Dubai seemed so much more positive. I lived in the UAE and many of the same laws apply. People are regularly deported for kissing in public, etc. I would add, though, that we all go willingly because we’re generally treated well and teachers are much better provided for than we are in our Western home countries. That said, poorer immigrants really suffer.

Laura L
Laura L

This is an interesting point actually. I thought Dubai was stricter than Brunei because of those people who got arresting for kissing in public. But I would never say that in a blog because I haven’t lived there, I only visited so I don’t know enough about it. I wonder why this blogger preferred Dubai if they were so against the same restrictions in Brunei. But I agree about westerners accepting it because of the benefits they get. If you choose to live in a country, and get tax free life or benefits from it, then you can’t complain about… Read more »

Where in the World is Nina?
Where in the World is Nina?

Ah wow! Did really realize this about Brunei. I actually have always wanted to go there…It’s one of the richest nations in Asia, seems intriguing, and most people have never heard of because it’s the size of a crumb on the map! But I’ll perhaps think twice before going. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting place. But I figured I would go when I visit Borneo…. We shall see. Thanks for your opinion on this Kate!

Laura L
Laura L

Don’t take one person’s opinion Nina! It’s a great, unusual and fascinating place to visit, and you sound like a cool, open-minded traveller, so I hope this post hasn’t put you off. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Come and visit!

alo
alo

Hi there.. I am a Bruneian.. and let me tell you that it is NOT illegal for unmarried couples to sit together in a car, especially for non-muslim couples.. Hijab in Brunei is encouraged not FORCED.. I am aware the Syariah implementation will lead to a more conservative country.. but before that happens I hav been jogging barechested and women have little trouble wearing sleeveless shirts and gym shorts.. what im saying is the country is hardly the place for people to be afraid of.. not the fearmongering state that you tried to convey.. And a significant chunk if not… Read more »

Suichic
Suichic

I’ve always wanted to visit Brunei, but as a black female solo traveller, I am weary of discrimination, racism and prejudice. Has anyone experienced any of that whilst travelling/living in Brunei?
Is a visa required by Europeans to enter the country?
Thanks

Minan
Minan

There is no need for you to worry about racial discriminations here in Brunei. Us locals just couldn’t care less : ).

For visa requirement information just visit this page http://www.immigration.gov.bn/visiting.htm

Minan
Minan

Oh might I suggest that you visit Brunei during the eid sometime between 17 to 21 July 2015 as the royal palace is open to the public including tourists p.s you can meet the queen in person 🙂

Brandon @ TheYogaNomads
Brandon @ TheYogaNomads

Fascinating read. Brunei was on the maybe list for the current trip through Asia, thanks for sheding some light!

Doc
Doc

Hi Kate I am a local, non-muslim Bruneian. My parents have come from overseas but i was born and bred here. I agree with some of your points but I feel your opinions are somewhat skewed and the harshness of some of your comments are simply not justified by your time and experience in Brunei. Basing some of your judgments and views on your very short trip and the opinions of one or two Bruneians does not seem fair. Firstly, as many have explained, it is not illegal for a female and a male to be in a vehicle together.… Read more »

Katrinka
Katrinka

This is a fascinating post! The beginning hit uncomfortably close to home, since a journalist here in Istanbul was recently deported for tweeting about the government. But of course, Turkey is nothing like Brunei. (For starters, it is technically a secular country.)
Also, when I was in Malaysia a few weeks ago, my Malay friends mentioned off-hand that it wasn’t technically legal for me to be staying with my (male) friend in his house. I was worried, but they laughed about it– said that nothing would happen. Still, it was a strange thing to realize.

esme
esme

Great post. I had never read a blog post on Brunei before and this was insightful. Still planning to go to Borneo when it’s not the rainy season, but now know to skip Brunei. No alcohol? No thanks.

Adding your site to my blogroll. If you’re open to doing the same; great.

Laura L
Laura L

Wow what a boring, shallow person you must be if your attitude to visiting and experiencing an entire country is ‘no alcohol? no thanks.’ I feel sorry for you. I hope you find out about the real value of life soon.

Bel
Bel

Hi! Just come across your blog, that I have really enjoyed reading 🙂 I am also a solo female traveler, and also an expat in a muslim country. The alcohol/ milkman thing made me laugh because it’s kind of the same over here (less strict, everything is just ‘underground’)
Take care
x
Bel
b-by-bel.blogspot.com

stephanie
stephanie

This is such a fascinating post Kate. It’s very interesting to read the comments and hear about the country from locals perspectives too!

It’s crazy to think that the country is so rich yet many people live in poverty.

Pete
Pete

Nobody lives in poverty – everyone is employed and has housing and an ok salary. The government provides for everyone. Brunei is the only place I have visited where there are no homeless people, no squalor, no poor sanitation. Then across the border you have homeless and mentally ill on the street and all the problems from alcohol and drugs. Brunei is fine.

Nomadic Matt
Nomadic Matt

I’m a bit disappointed here and have to agree with some of the above comments. I don’t see why you are in any way shocked by this. I know you enough to know you’re smarter than this and it sort of makes you come off as a judgy naive westerner. I mean it’s a religious Islamic Sultanate. What did you expect – topless beaches? Of course, the sultan would expel someone for dressing up like him. That expat was an idiot. And of course a strict Islamic country is not going to have a good policy towards the LGBT community.… Read more »

Alissa
Alissa

I agree with Matt. This article surprised me. I thought you were more open minded and respectful of local cultures/custom. I’ve been to Brunei, its far from scary/intimidating. Boring, I’ll grant you that, but not oppressed or impoverished. The people there are given far more than most SEA countries.

Teri Blaschke
Teri Blaschke

Just blown away by both the article and the myriads of comments it got. Although your statements made Brunei sound a little less than the best place to visit, at the same time it aroused a fascination with the location. In my current life situation I would probably never make the opportunity to travel to foreign lands but this one sounds unique and somewhat alluring. It was good to read the comments of residents their and in other Muslim countries defending their lifestyle and country. I thoroughly enjoyed this whole post and comments. Thanks to all.

Ross
Ross

Very informative. I spent 2 days there before to see what it was like and although I didnt see much poverty as I was just a tourist it did strike me as a very strange spot and although I couldnt put my finger on it, ‘stuck in the 90’s’ is perfect. For all their money it doesn’t seem to have trickled down to many people.

Susan Jones
Susan Jones

Brunei has always been spectacular. The Ulu Temburong National Park of Brunei is treasured with the natural beauty of the rain forest. It is really adventurous to get a top view of the forest through canopy walkways. The wildlife reserve and the botanical treasure is a must visit place for Brunei vacation.

Camels & Chocolate
Camels & Chocolate

Yep, we spent three nights there on our honeymoon, believe it or not (and 2.5 weeks elsewhere on Borneo). I was very ambivalent about the experience—could take it or leave it—but then again, I didn’t interact with any locals, so…

Anna – The Blonde Banana
Anna – The Blonde Banana

Ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of Brunei before this post. Interesting that this sultan is trying to force everyone to follow strict religious law yet he’s living in the lap of luxury while his fellow countrymen live in these poor villages. Also the no alcohol thing must be tough for expats. I recently stayed a place in Morocco where no alcohol was allowed and we had to buy it in cash from the hotel owner and not tell anyone about it!

Neesa
Neesa

Actually if you read the recent comments, some did mention about the generosity of the Sultan towards his fellow countrymen.. Poverty although very very rare in our country (thanks to the various aids and benefits provided by the Sultan’s government), but it does exist in some secluded/remote areas of Brunei before, thus the Sultan has given efforts, supports (plus financial supports) and encourage developments throughout his country to provide sufficient amenities for his people. Did I mention that education and healthcare is literally free in Brunei (because we only pay a crazy small amount of money for our kids’ school… Read more »

Jeff | Planet Bell
Jeff | Planet Bell

What a great portrait of a country. It is a shame when leaders and politicians do things that the people don’t agree with, and you have to believe the people would want more freedom. Thanks for sharing.

Ashwin
Ashwin

Wow.a good read. And the mosque looks awesome!!

TravelGenes
TravelGenes

Very Nice and detail writeup about Brunei.It will guide new travelers to plan properly.

Owen
Owen

I always imagined Brunei being in the middle east because of it’s autocracy and what some might call stifling culture – certainly not south east Asia ! Really interesting post, it looks beautiful !

vira
vira

this kind of stories I’ve heard about Brunei is exactly what’s been keeping me from visiting the country. The strict Islamic policy while the Sultan is too free to do anything he wants, god knows what.. plus, I heard it’s boring there 😛

Rose
Rose

I am disappointed by the level of ignorance in this post, although having read Kate’s previous work, not surprised. Spending a few days in Brunei does not make you an expert. You have absolutely no right to judge a country, or the people within it, after seeing only a glimpse, as an outsider. I have lived here for years and it is a wonderful, warm, friendly and peaceful place. There are countless things to do if you have any interests other than getting drunk (and you can do that perfectly easily as well, so don’t worry yourself so much). I… Read more »

Rebecca
Rebecca

Hi Rose!

I really enjoyed your insight into the country! I am considering moving to Brunei to teach in an international school, and would love to hear more what you think of the country! I am a single female, do you think I would enjoy it? I love most sports and wildlife and I love the beach and just general travelling. I’ve lived in countries like El Salvador and Singapore before so am pretty open minded, but I have never lived in a Muslim country. I’d love to hear what you think if you have the time!

Thanks!

Some name you couldn't pronounce if you tried
Some name you couldn't pronounce if you tried

That part about the white dress for religious things is total rubbish- even when you are *praying*, which is what I assume you are referring to. You are entitled to wear whatever colour you wish, white just happens to be the most common colour because people prefer it. And wearing hijab amongst children is commonplace in Malaysia, Indonesia and even Singapore- it’s how Muslim women dress worldwide, and it is a personal choice. You might as well denunciate everyone who has decided to have pigment artificially embedded into their skin- there’s far greater risk in that but I’ll stop because… Read more »

Anya, Brunei
Anya, Brunei

Well said, whoever you are! I hope that this woman listens carefully to all the valid points you make here. I have lived in Brunei for years and the community and support here have humbled me beyond belief. I have also lived in the US which is a lonely, oppressive and bigoted nation by comparison. I hope readers will see the truth in your point of view as it is far more representative of the people of this country, Bruneian or expat alike.

esme
esme

Commenters: a little harsh?

Kate is writing a personal blog post here, not a New York Times cover story.

Consider her intention: I doubt she’s getting rich off blogging but probably puts her time and energy into it because she genuinely wants to share her travel experiences/impressions with others.

The Sultan’s excesses are interesting. I like hearing about them. Her writing about them doesn’t mean she’s saying excesses don’t exist elsewhere, like the U.S.

Pete
Pete

Esme, the commenters here are not harsh, they are responding to unfair and untrue criticism of their country. If you think the comments are harsh then surely you must see how harsh Kate’s original post is? I think the comments match the original post. You are right that it’s not the NYT but any public blog has followers and Kate is a popular blogger. If people make decisions to visit or not visit a place, or judge a place and spread that judgement, based on what they have read on Kate’s post, that is a real shame and very unfair.… Read more »

esme
esme

I think Kate’s intention with her post is to inform, not to malign. If she missed her mark, then correcting the errors is fine and warranted, but the replies I’m reading have an aggressive, sarcastic tone that I didn’t detect in her post.

So, correcting or debating facts: ok. Ridiculing or admonishing? not ok.

Anya, Brunei
Anya, Brunei

None of these posts have ridiculed her, and the only admonishing is well-deserved, for her incorrect, biased and most definitely maligned wording and tone. It is perfectly clear what Kate’s message is here, and the fact that so many people have replied with the exact opposite of most of her ‘facts’ proves how little she knows about the country, and therefore how little authority she has to be making such overdrawn statements. If I was about to post what I knew to be controversial opinions, I would damn well do my research first, which this girl has clearly not done.… Read more »

Laura, Brunei
Laura, Brunei

haha!! there is nothing informative about this post as it is all total rubbish!! If her intention was to inform then she needs to find a new career and quickly. If this was a person not a country she’s lying about, she’d be sued for libel.

kaki ayam
kaki ayam

I’m a local Bruneian and I agree with everything that Kate has said! 🙂 I could only surmise that all these comments attacking Kate are either government shills or have blinders on! Did you know that under the new Sharia Penal Code, you could be charged for indecent clothing… though no one has any consensus on what constitutes indecency? A little bit of knee? A shoulder? (http://www.bt.com.bn/frontpage/2014/03/28/no-guidelines-yet-indecent-clothing) How about non-Muslims not being allowed to drink publicly abroad (http://borneobulletin.brunei-online.com/?p=201658), while princes spend the country’s money on booze-fueled parties with Marah Carey (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2533563/A-happy-new-year-Mariah-Carey-paid-1m-sing-Sultan-Bruneis-son.html)? All this after it was explicitly stated that the… Read more »

Neesa
Neesa

Ok, I am posting to reply to kaki ayam’s post but there is no ‘reply’ button available underneath it, so I have to reply via Laura, Brunei’s post.. First and foremost, the Shariah law.. are you really being serious right now? Brunei has been a country with a Muslim ruler for generations, in fact from our very first Sultan. The governance has always been full of traditions and cultures, but none really embrace the Islamic values and laws as should be portrayed by a country that is mostly of Muslim population. Why start now, you may ask.. Why NOT start… Read more »

armenia
armenia

Well done Laura, Neesa & Pete! Shame on you Kate. You’re better than this.

Furious
Furious

“I helped shy nine-year-olds practice their English, knowing that they will likely never leave home.” Are you serious with this statement? I am BRUNEIAN and I can tell you that many if not most Bruneians are sent to study overseas in the UK, Australia and other places and they are free to go wherever they please.. and WE ARE FAR FROM BEING SHELTERED! I am so furious that a well known travel blogger would post such misinformed drivel.. looks like you have a long way to go before you could become a more well informed traveler suited to post quality… Read more »

Lanny
Lanny

I am a Canadian working in Australia. I’m not a religious man but I respect other peoples beliefs. I just landed a job in Brunei and I am very excited about it. Some of things I’ve read here are a little bit daunting and some of the blogs are comforting. I would really like to hear from more expats about their experiences. I would like to end in saying my father and two of my uncles worked in Brunei back in the 70s and they all said they loved the country, what’s changed?

aini
aini

O please stop exaggerating and making us out to be people in need of help. we are fine! This is whats wrong with white people. you always seem to think you need to help us when you have colonized us and usurped our resources for centuries, as if youre the savior of mankind. my God. and no, nobody gives a shit if two unmarried people drive alone in a car.

Mrs Brunei
Mrs Brunei

Dear Kate,
As a Bruneian, I’m really hurt and upset with your blog… obviously you don’t understand us..

mona abbas
mona abbas

Dear Kate, you can say whatever you wish to say about our country, but let alone our sultan and religion. We do not speak bad about any other religion. Please respect each other and leave in peace that’s what our religion teaches us. Its true humans make mistake. But we can always correct ourselves if we repent to the Al Mighty and never repeat the same mistake. In this way, the older we are and the more we experience we can choose whether on not to be a better person. Anyway thanks for the comment at least we can see… Read more »

Morey Hall
Morey Hall

Fascinating article. It’s incredible that people can live under these conditions and oppression from the government. I often wonder what it’s like to grow up in nations like these and not know that there is freedom in other parts of the world.

Edwin
Edwin

Well to be fair, it’s not really opressive at all. There are no labour camps or concentration camps. There definitely is no torture or people disappearing mysteriously. The Brunei govt doesn’t need those. The attitude here is ” hey, these are our rules, you want to stay here, OKAY! you don’t want to stay here? Get out. ” And why most people choose to stay, like mentioned, is that you can really earn a small fortune in Brunei for yourself and also if you’ve been brought up there, all your closest friends are there. That’s why my parents still don’t… Read more »

Martina Donkers
Martina Donkers

Hey Kate 🙂 Wow, the comments on this post are as interesting as the post itself!! You’ve certainly hit a nerve… I considered going to Brunei last year when I was in Borneo, but I ended up missing it because I was short on time, and the general consensus on travel guides I could find was that there’s not a lot to see if you’re just there for a few days – yes the rainforest is good, but no better than what you’ll find in Sabah and Sarawak, which I had already been to. But I was really interested to… Read more »

living large brunei
living large brunei

for all those who dont know about us bruneian..saying all those shit..maybe y’all just jelous..oh before trying to judge us..why not wiki ur country see how many crime perday?animal like?hahaha while we walk in brunei with pocket full of money and no 1 bother that goes night or day..poverty? please each house atleast 2new car,double storey,fully aircond..what do you have?hahaha im 24 and own benz,honda and a range rover..totally you know NOTHING ABOUT US..saying bad about our law?damn!! all i see yours run by money, ours runs by islam..we dont care if you white,black, or even pink,rich or poor

Neesa
Neesa

Hy living large Brunei.. First of all, I appreciate you sticking up for Brunei.. But I do have to say, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.. We do have poverty but it was scarce now than it was before since our Sultan’s government being a great helping hand in the matter. Although I agree that we mostly have a rather good living conditions here than what was reflected in Kate’s post, but humility goes a long way.. That is all. Thank you

Buj
Buj

I’m Bruneian myself and it is ppl like living large that I believe gives Bruneian a bad name. Haughty attitude like that are not what all Bruneians have. Bear in mind every country has snobs like him that likes to look down on others, even their own countrymen.

Get in touch with friendly locals thru socialmedia/forums before coming here, and I’m sure they’ll gladly give you a real insight of what Brunei and its ppl truly are.

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