Currency: Brunei Dollar (BND)
1 BND = £0.59 . £1 = 1.69 BND
Time Zone: GMT +8 (7 hours ahead of UK summer time)
21st – 24th Oct
With a scheduled arrival time of 23:59 and having been delayed by significantly more than one minute we actually arrived on the 22nd. Our first job was to sleep.
The next day our plans were to wander around the capital city of Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB or Bandar for short). We had arranged a tour into the rainforest and the driver from the tour company came to collect the cash. We needed an ATM so he very kindly drove us into town. Once cash was withdrawn and the tour was paid for we sat down for lunch at a nearby coffee shop.
Our first sight was the Sultan Omar Ali Suifuddin mosque, the central mosque and a rather extravagant example of the kind of thing you can build when your country has vast amounts of oil money.
We weren’t able to go inside so we wandered around the outside to the reflecting pool at the front with a replica barge within. They are currently renovating the waterfront so we were unable to walk all the way round.
We spent some time in the nearby department store and it was around this time, looking at all the mirrors, I had realised my hair had not quite been cut properly. I had a long dangly curtain at the back and the sides were far from symmetrical. So we bought some scissors so Kate could try and save my dignity later on.
The city is sat on the Brunei river, some of it is literally sat on the river. BSB is home to the world’s largest water village, Kampong Ayer.
A village on stilts it has been a part of Brunei culture for over a thousand years. Villagers built boats, baskets and fishing nets and would trade with their neighbours. It is still going strong to this day, although it has been modernised to some extent with running water, electricity and outboard motors for the boats. The village however is relatively self-sufficient with schools, shops, petrol stations, a post office, a police station and a fire station.
We got a taxi boat for $1 to the jetty the opposite side of the river. We wondered tentatively along the many slatted walkways and found the visitor centre, a small, free exhibition on the history and culture of the village. They have a viewing platform you can climb up to get great views of the village.
After speaking to a couple of super friendly locals we went to find a jetty to get a boat back to the main city. A boat very quickly turned around and picked us up but offered us a tour of the mangroves to see the beautiful dangly appendaged proboscis monkeys. We had wanted to do this anyway, it was the right time to do it (almost sunset) and he gave us what seemed to be a good price so we went for it.
We started off exploring the waterways around the city. We saw the mosque, the sultan’s 1,788 room residence and the beginnings of his new residence (slightly smaller but in a nicer spot).
After this we headed into the mangroves to try to spot some big floppy noses. We popped into a small clearing next to a larger tour boat full of rather loud Chinese tourists. There was a small group of monkeys way up at the top of the trees but our fellow boat blabbered, shouted and screamed the whole time they were there, so the monkeys stayed put. When the shouty boat left the monkeys came down and towards us and we got our first glimpse of that glorious nose. Unfortunately there were still too many trees in the way so I couldn’t get a good photo.
We set off for another 10 minutes or so until we found another boat taking pictures. They were stopped right underneath a proboscis monkey sat eating right next to the river.
In real life you could see that dangly beauty flopping around! We stayed put for a few minutes before heading back the way we came. We had a small tour of Kampong Ayer and he dropped us off back on the city side of the river just as the sun was setting.
On the way back to the hotel we went past the SOAS Mosque all lit up.
Our destination for tea was a night market 15 minutes north of our hotel. Like previous night markets we’d been to nothing was in English but thankfully all the staff spoke English. We stopped at a seafood stall and had butter milk prawns, rice and tom yam soup. A beer would have completed the ensemble but I made do with a watermelon juice.
The next day we had an early start for our rainforest tour. We saw the driver who’d met us the previous day who told us we needed to wait for the next boat to Bangar. There were three other people on the same tour as us and we all got on the boat and whizzed off round Malaysia to the tiny town of Bangar. We were then picked up by our tour guide Brian in his van who took us to Sumbiling Eco Village.
Once there we had a not-so-light snack of deep fried banana with coffee and tea before heading off on our third leg and second boat to the rainforest. The boats were motorised longboats with an experienced driver and a child with a stick at the front. The river was barely knee deep throughout and they had to navigate around underwater obstacles with the stick being the last resort to push off when grounded or when the propeller didn’t fit in the water. At times we were going uphill up rapids.
After all that excitement we got off the boat and climbed up to the Ulu Temburong park HQ to sign ourselves in. A second boat arrived with three more trekkers that had stayed overnight at the camp (an older couple and their grown up daughter) and we set off up the hill. The couple were a little bit slower than the rest of us so we had to do a fair bit of waiting.
We had a short climb to a bridge (with one pit stop) to cross the river before we started our climb up towards the rainforest canopy. This climb was in 5 parts with huts on the way to rest. When we got to the 4th we were stopped by a ranger as it was windy and raining and therefore dangerous. We didn’t appreciate at this time why it was a problem but we would find out soon enough. In the meantime one of the group of 3 we met on the boat decided he would walk all the way to the bottom and run all the way to the top. Because he was mental.
Once the weather cleared a bit of a queue had built up for the canopy walk and we were at the back. We walked up to the top station and saw why we were stopped ffo some wind and drizzle. The canopy walk is a spectacular scaffolding structure around 50m high. You climb up multiple ladders to the top and walk along to the end to get unbeatable views above the tallest trees. A few of our group decided against it in the wind but fair play to the older couple, they went for it and loved it! Their daughter and 2 out of 3 of the other group stayed on solid ground.
After all this fun it was back down, across the river and back to the boat. It was a quicker journey back to base camp and it became much more obvious how steep some of the rapids we’d powered up were. We were supposed to visit a waterfall on the way back but took too long getting to the canopy so unfortunately that bit was missed. But it was 14:00 and we had lunch waiting for us so I wasn’t too disappointed.
After a traditional Borneo lunch it was bus time before a half-hour wait at the boat terminal. We explored the local vicinity but Bangar is tiny so after 5 shops we had seen it all.
Just as our boat was due to depart a large man with a baseball cap, multiple tatoos and a heavy metal t-shirt shouted something in Malay on got on a boat. I joked this was our driver. He was our driver. Brian and the other guides had to run to get on the boat because they’d got the time wrong and had clearly been indulging in Bangar’s burgeoning shopping scene.
Our boat driver was crazy. The boats between Bangar and BSB are somewhere between river cruisers and speedboats and when we went round the corners you felt it!
Once back we walked the short journey back to our hotel, spotting a large group of monkeys ravaging through bins on the way. We were supposed to be going for a nice dinner somewhere but unfortunately Kate wasn’t feeling well after our hectic day in the sun so I went down to the cafe in the hotel and ordered what I thought was exotic but turned out to be chicken and chips.
After dinner it was time for another early night for yet another early start.
Jubilee hotel is a budget hotel 10 minutes walk from the harbourfront and centre of BSB. Due to the lack of backpacker options this was the cheapest we could get. It was once a very fancy establishment (back in 1977 I assume) but it appears to have not changed since. Thankfully neither have their prices so for an ensuite double room in the spot we got, we were happy.