Several years ago I remember watching a video of Drew Binsky in which he visited the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Brunei. He heavily criticized the country and pledged not to come back. This is rare in him. He has been to every single country on Earth and it is very strange that he ever dares to take such a stance on a country. What did Brunei do to him? A couple years after watching his video I casually moved to Singapore for an exchange semester where I had the opportunity to travel around the region. All of my friends went to Bali, Thailand, Malaysia…etc. So did I, and I had an amazing time. Nonetheless, I was missing a little bit of adrenaline in my trips. Every single country in Southeast Asia (with the notable exception of Myanmar) is quite safe and most of them are flooded with tourists. That is when I came up with the idea of visiting Brunei. Some people around me hadn’t even heard of it. “What is there to visit? Why would you go there?” said some of my friends. Well, I guess I had to check it out.
Before leaving a couple of Singaporeans shared with me his impressions from Brunei, although they had never been to the country. “Everyone I know told me it is horrible — people are rude and there’s nothing to do”. It seemed Drew Binsky’s theory was somehow true, but I still wanted to see that with my own eyes. I stayed a total of two days in Brunei with a friend and we both did not have internet nor a car to move around. We were basically relying on our social skills to “survive” Brunei. My first impression was that everything was calm — the noise and the bustle of the Southeast Asian capitals did not apply to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. The town is not too big, nor is the country (445,000 inhabitants as of 2021). It seems like everyone knows each other, or that they are connected by an invisible web which builds the country and maintains the order. Here’s the deal: we had to find a way of getting to the border of Malaysia to reach the town of Miri and fly from there back to Singapore. We did not know how the public transportation worked or if it was even possible to cross the border. For this reason we spent our only full day in the country asking everyone we saw in the desertic streets if they knew how to get to our destination.
Brunei is a Muslim country. Very Muslim. The Sultan of the country has implemented the Sharia law in a similar way to Saudi Arabia or Iran. This means that, for example, when it’s prayer time all restaurants must close to allow the population to pray. I learned this first hand when I was trying to buy a couple of pizzas for my friend and I and the manager shut the door in my face. But no hard feelings, everyone was happy to explain us Brunei’s particular laws and give us instructions of where to go the following day. We decided to hire a boat to take us around. Bandar Seri Begawan is located in the end of a river or some sort of estuary with mangroves. Across the river it is possible to visit the “floating villages” where the Sultan has built impressive mosques and bridges. Our “captain” even took us to his home in one floating village and introduced us to his family, (what a guy!). Other than that, there wasn’t much to do. Brunei is a rich country. They’ve made their fortune out of their big oil reserves and everything works relatively well in the sultanate. There is a big South Asian migrant community like in the Gulf States. In some way, Brunei reminds me of the UAE or Saudi Arabia — hot, absolutist, Islamic theocracies and oil money.
The next day it was showtime. We weren’t able to find a way of getting straight to the border. After asking several locals (even at reception desks at fancy hotels) nobody could really give us a “cheap option” as they insisted on taking a taxi to the border. We were not doing that. A friendly Bruneian suggested that we took a public bus towards the West and then we improvised our way to the border, and that’s what we did. We hoped on in the early morning and after two hours of traversing Brunei’s rainforest and palaces we arrived to Seria. Seria is a coastal town constructed just some decades ago to exploit to process and exploit the nearby oil reserves. I cannot describe with words how odd the place was. It gave us the feeling of being in a far-west village — the style of the houses somehow had a similar style, and the ambience was just very bizarre. There we were left stranded with no idea of how to traverse the last 35km to the border. Luckily, an old woman saved our trip.
She explained to us that we had to take a specific bus to the last village before Malaysia, Kuala Belait, and from there “she would call her husband to help us out”. We were left speechless by the woman’s will to help us — why would she even care about us? As we did not have Internet, she took a picture of us to send it to her husband so he would recognize us in Kuala Belait. We followed her instructions and hopped in the bus. After arriving to the village, the woman’s husband appeared with a SUV and took us to the border. Once there, we were on our own. We walked towards the passport control, then we continued walking across the no-man’s land between both countries until we finally reached the Malaysian side. After several hours waiting to get our passports checked, we managed to cross the border and a policeman offered us to take us to the town of Miri for a very cheap price. After arriving to our four-star hotel (yes, we had to treat ourselves well after this odyssey) we had time to reflect on our Bruneian adventure. I assume everyone has different experiences, but calling Brunei “the worst country in the world” I think it might be exaggerated. Drew Binsky was not wrong, his experience was, and luckily I had the time of my life in Brunei.
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