What to do in Brunei, the Tiny but Fabulously Wealthy Sultanate on Borneo

Brunei – To Visit or Not, Given the New Sharia Law

On April 3, 2019, the Sultan of Brunei imposed Islamic sharia law on all residents of the country, including the 30% of the population who are not Muslims. In a nutshell, this means that people will be whipped or stoned to death for gay sex, adultery, sodomy, and rape, and the crime of theft will require a hand and a foot to be cut off. This is an escalation of previous laws, which carried a sentence of 10 years in prison for anyone caught in the act of same-sex relations. Normally, I avoid such discussions on this blog, as it deals with travel – not politics. However, in light of the current environment in Brunei, I felt it important to address this situation. Brunei is NOT currently a safe destination for LGBTQ travelers.

Some will undoubtedly criticize me for even publishing a story about Brunei, insisting that the country should be boycotted by tourists. I have never agreed with this thinking. Quite the opposite, I feel it is very important for people to continue to visit Brunei. Citizens of the country need continued exposure to outsiders so they can see and hear first hand how horrifically the situation is being regarded around the world. Rather than avoiding travel to the country, I believe we can have much more impact by boycotting hotels around the world that are owned by Brunei, as celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John, and Ellen DeGeneres advise in this article. I say “hit ’em in the pocketbook, where it really hurts.” Having said that, however, the following is my assessment of Brunei, which I visited at the beginning of this year.

Brunei is not a country I’d go out of my way to visit. Located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, the country is split into two parts, both of which are surrounded by the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Its widest point on the South China Sea is less than 100 miles long. Most who have written about what to do in Brunei describe it as a boring destination. But since I was already on Borneo to see the orangutans, sun bears, and proboscis monkeys, I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Long oval-shaped fountain in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan represents an oil tanker

Long oval-shaped fountain in the city center of Bandar Seri Begawan represents an oil tanker

If I had to pick one thing that defined Brunei for me, it would be the fountain in the city center. At first glance it was attractive enough. A single row of water spouts danced down its long oval shape, ending at a red, black, and yellow backdrop that resembled a giant Lego structure. Upon closer examination, I realized the backdrop represented the superstructure of an immense oil tanker, while the water spouts were emblematic of gushing oil wells. I was amused that a country would represent itself with the symbol of an oil tanker, but in the case of Brunei it couldn’t be more appropriate. Literally 90% of the country’s economy derives from petroleum and natural gas.

This gateway in Bandar Seri Begawan was erected to commemorate the spot where independence was declared in 1984. The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is framed in the gateway.

This gateway in Bandar Seri Begawan was erected to commemorate the spot where independence was declared in 1984. The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is framed in the gateway.

The capital is tiny and most sites of significance can be seen on foot. I began at the commemorative gateway to the city, which was erected on the spot where independence was declared in 1984. Brunei had been a protectorate of Britain since 1888. It became an autonomous state in 1959 and adopted a constitution in the same year. That constitution vested executive powers in the sultan while providing for five advisory councils, including a Legislative Council. The British, however, retained jurisdiction over foreign policy, defense, and internal security.

Bicycle surreys for rent in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei

Bicycle surreys for rent in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei

An election was held in 1962 to choose a Legislative Council, but Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien annulled the results after the anti-monarchist Brunei People’s Party (BPP) won all 10 elected seats. When backers of the BPP revolted, the Sultan declared an emergency and relied on British troops to put down the insurrection. That state of emergency technically remains in force today. Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah succeeded his father in 1967, becoming Brunei’s 29th sultan. He negotiated full independence from the British 1984 and retains absolute power over the country to this day.

Promenade along the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan

Promenade along the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan

Though Brunei appears to be a peaceful country under the rule of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, it is anything but free. The national sedition law makes it illegal to criticize the sultan or the national “Malay Muslim Monarchy” ideology. There is no free press and journalists have been jailed for publishing accounts that are deemed seditious. Brunei’s only television station is state run and self-censoring. Brunei’s internet code prohibits content that is subversive or encourages reform. Religions other than the official Sunni Islam are allowed, but missionary work is not tolerated and marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is strictly prohibited. Additionally, the study of Islam and the Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology is mandatory in all schools.

Teng Yuan Chinese Buddhist Temple in Bandar Seri Begawan, attended by members of the Chinese minority in Brunei

Teng Yuan Chinese Buddhist Temple in Bandar Seri Begawan, attended by members of the Chinese minority in Brunei

Caning is mandatory for many criminal offenses and religious law enforcement officers are known to raid homes where unrelated Muslim men and women are reported to be mingling. The Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods, is often employed to eliminate anti-government activists. Utilizing the long-standing state of emergency as an excuse, the sultanate bans gatherings of more than 10 people without a permit. I found that rule to be particularly ironic on the morning I visited Kianggeh Market. Throngs of people streamed through the aisles of the open-air market, buying fresh fruits, vegetables, and supplies. The more-than-10-people rule was obviously not in effect. As with any dictatorship, rules are often applied at the whim of those in power.

Kianggeh Market in Bandar Seri Begawan attracts throngs of shoppers every morning

Kianggeh Market in Bandar Seri Begawan attracts throngs of shoppers every morning

That said, Brunei is largely peaceful. Enormous wealth generated from oil and gas resources means citizens enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia. Additionally, all residents receive free medical and dental, subsidized housing, and free schooling through the university level. There is no income tax or sales tax and unemployment is virtually non-existent. I saw signs of lavish lifestyle on every street as I discovered Bandar Seri Begawan on foot. Perhaps the most impressive example was Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, with its gold domes, lush gardens, and a surrounding lagoon where the Royal Barge is permanently anchored.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

The Royal Barge at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

The Royal Barge at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

However, economic problems may be looming. According to the BP World Energy Outlook, Brunei’s oil reserves are projected to run out by 2038. Faced with dwindling supplies, Brunei adopted Vision Brunei 2035, a plan to build other parts of its economy. To date, however, little has been accomplished. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, with an estimated net worth of $27 billion, is considered to be the second richest Royal in the world. Unless he begins to achieve economic change, the Sultan will need to implement austerity measures, something that may not go down well with citizens who are used to receiving lavish benefits.

Boat landing on the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan. From here visitors can hire a boat to visit Kampong Ayer, an entire neighborhood of houses built on stilts over the water, see in in the distance.

Boat landing on the Brunei River in Bandar Seri Begawan. From here visitors can hire a boat to visit Kampong Ayer, an entire neighborhood of houses built on stilts over the water, seen in in the distance.

As the old saying goes, I certainly wouldn’t want to live there, but Bandar Seri Begawan is not quite as boring as I had been led to believe. In addition to the attractions listed above, visitors can hire a speedboat to carry them across the Brunei River to the community of Kampong Ayer. With all its houses built on stilts over the water, Kampong Ayer is said to be the largest floating village in the world. A series of elevated boardwalks lead from house to house, shop to shop, and the villagers are welcoming. Foodies will love Gadong Night Market on Simpang 37 Road. It opens around 4 p.m. every evening and features dozens of street food stalls that specialize in authentic Bruneian and regional cuisine. Museums include the Malay Technology Museum and the Maritime Museum. And of course, you won’t want to miss the Royal Regalia Museum, where you can learn even more about the extravagant lifestyle of the Sultan.

When asked what to do in Brunei, many will say there is nothing to do. But I found it wasn\'t nearly as boring as everyone says it is.

13 Comments on “Brunei – To Visit or Not, Given the New Sharia Law

  1. Well explained article with many gorgeous pictures. I just love it.

  2. I agree with you that it’s worthwhile to visit such countries. Wouldn’t the sultan prefer that critical travelers didn’t? My visit in early 2018 was good and I was lucky to be able to experience the National Day celebration with nearly all citizens taking part including the sultan. Infrequent public transport was the main difficulty in visiting the city. Like with you, this was just a stop on a longer trip, in my case a visit to Sarawak.

    • Hadn’t thought about that, Bill, but you are no doubt correct that the Sultan would likely not be pleased over critical tourists.

  3. Great to read a travel blog post on political and social issues, I wish more people would do it. I think it’s important to point out that what’s been implemented is an interpretation of Shariah law, as such laws only ever can be. There isn’t one agreed text on Shariah law and punishments even less so, over different times and places almost everything has been up for some measure of interpretation. Of course there is a generally negative view on homosexuality in Islam but progressive ideas do exist or at least there is the view that although a sin it is Allah who will judge such matters on Judgement Day. There are hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) that persons born as non-binary gender/transexuals are not in any way committing a sin, which has led to their acceptance in Islamic law in places. For example Pakistan has a third gender option on official identity documents – although that’s not to say negative attitudes don’t exist. Hence people should avoid a blanket condemnation of Islam and support Muslim scholars and activists who are no more supportive of Brunei’s actions than the rest of us.

    • A very considerate and informative comment Graham. Thanks so much for taking the time, and for your kind comment about my blog.

  4. It’s barbaric and has no place in modern societies. I wouldn’t go to Brunei if the trip came free with a first class flight. It’s bad enough cutting off a hand for theft (which of course don’t apply to rich people ripping off the poor) but to stone someone to death for loving the wrong person is repugnant to me. If I had my way, the entire world would immediately cut them off, buy nothing from them and apply sanctions.

    • “Enormous wealth generated from oil and gas resources means citizens enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia. Additionally, all residents receive free medical and dental, subsidized housing, and free schooling through the university level. There is no income tax or sales tax and unemployment is virtually non-existent.”

      If Brunei criminalizes promiscuity so be it. US has got the right to bear arms which has no place in a modern society either.

      To each his own burdens.

    • Well Val, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one, and that’s OK. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves. I agree with you that it’s barbaric, but so was the military government of Myanmar for years. That changed in large part because tourists began to visit and carried stories back home. In Albania, the despot leader had so kept his people in the dark they didn’t even know there was a thing called the Internet! When tourists started visiting the country, Albanians realized how they’d been bamboozled. The public rose up en masse and demanded he resign. Afterward they took over his palatial mansion, which had pure gold faucets and such, all funded on the backs of the common people. There is a case to be made for tourism to continue, while simultaneously hitting back at the Sultan and his family through other means.

  5. This is a compelling blog post and detail travel reporting about the issues that involve travel. I have an ever-growing bucket list of travel and keeping up to date about political matters as a traveler is very important.

    Continue your great work. 🙂

  6. Hi Barbara,

    Thank you for this insightful report on Brunei. This is one of those countries that I know nothing about other than the news on Sharia law. Probably still not a place I’d visit any time soon.

    • Really doesn’t make sense to go unless you’re in the area. I just happened to be in Borneo, so checked it out.

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