Getting from Kuching to Brunei by Bus
After a wonderful week exploring Sarawak and all it has to offer we were ready to make a move. Our original plan had been to get to Brunei before dropping in at Kota Kinabalu (KK) and tackling the highest mountain in Malaysia on a two day trek. Alas my injury on our last trek in Bako National Park put paid to that little plan.
We decided on a trip to Brunei, before we left the island of Borneo. We could have flown from Kuching, but the cost exceeded our flashpacking budget so we decided on a bus journey with an overnight stop in Miri. The oil town just south of the border crossing.
There are plenty of buses plying the route from Kuching to Miri, but only one that takes you direct from Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital. These direct buses operate just twice a day and leave at 8.15am and 4pm. We decided on an overnight stay in Miri, before heading off the next morning early bus to Brunei.
There is not a lot to say about Miri, it is an oil town and is close to the border with Brunei which mean its economy is maintained by the oil business and local tourism from those wanting to escape Brunei for a little nightlife (trust me they need that escape – see later). Miri also has the obligatory smattering of designer Malaysian shopping malls, where most of the street life seems to take place nowadays.
We had less than 24hours in the place and our highlight was finding a good cheap place to stay (the Walk Inn) and a great fresh Chinese seafood restaurant where we again enjoyed some succulent crab and prawns at bargain prices.
Next morning we were up early and made it to the bus terminal at Pujut Corner, a few kilometres from the main town. The bus is operated by PHLS Express, for the four hour journey to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB for short). Tickets are purchased at the station counter, no need to pre-book. The trip through Malaysian and Brunei immigration is painless, your main luggage stays on the bus as you get off and pass through the checkpoints.
The journey through Brunei will not be your most memorable trip in Asia, apart from counting oil well pumps dotted about the fields next to the road. Some are even placed in the middle of housing estates. An unusual sight unless you live in Texas I presume.
The bus drops you next to the main bus terminal in BSB which makes it easy to get to your downtown accommodation, or hop on a bus if you have booked something further out of town.
What to do in Bandar Seri Begawan
The short answer is not a lot. We had read some online guides and travel blogs about Brunei before we left Sarawak, and were aware it was not the most exciting place for any traveller. There are some impressive mosques to visit, but what is lacking in BSB is any real atmosphere or soul.
On our bus ride here from Miri, we had bumped into Valentia for the third time on our travels in Sarawak and we agreed that serendipity had brought us together so we should play out together touring around the city. We are so glad we did, as we had a great day mostly giggling at the lack of sights or exciting ambience of this most boring of Asian capital cities.
Here is how we managed to entertain ourselves for a day in BSB which is about all you really need.
We made our way to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque situated on the water in the main town centre, but not before we had visited the post office and availed ourselves of some stamps and chatted to the very friendly counter clerks there. I guess they were just pleased to see someone, as the place was deserted (much like most of downtown BSB) and were happy to chat while we discussed between ourselves how awful the postcards on offer were.
The mosque is very photogenic, perched on a lagoon, just off one of the rivers running through the city. The golden domes and the white exterior lend themselves to being photographed from every angle. Which is what we pretty much did both in the day light and when we returned later in the evening as the sun set. The three of us also caused a minor religious incident by entering the mosque via the wrong doors without our robes on and tried to take a picture inside the building. Internal photography is banned in all the Mosques here which is a real shame as both this and the Jame’ Asri Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah further out of town have stunning interior plaster work and architecture. Strange this, as we have been able to photograph inside all the mosques we have visited so far across Malaysia, obviously outside prayer time and in specific areas with permission.
From here we wandered to the waterfront and got hassled by the various tour boats and water taxis and got offered a whole array of prices for a one hour trip around the waters of BSB. We declined, but not before John had seen how low he could get the price down from a starting offer of Bruneian $60 (US $45) per person. Brunei $10 was a parting shot from one boatman as we walked away.
We decided instead to pay a visit to the Sultan’s Palace and hopped on one of the local buses at the main bus station. Bus travel in Brunei is cheap, but is limited to daylight hours as the bus services stop at about 6pm each evening. You also won’t meet any Bruneians on the bus, they are in their fancy cars guzzling the cheap petrol and diesel on offer here (astonishing at 53c a litre – US 40c) which is about half the price per litre of a bottle of mineral water! I guess they do have plenty to go around given the wells dotted about the kingdom. You do however meet lots of charming workers from the Philippines and India. It appears that the bus service operates merely to allow these immigrant workers to get to their places of work in cafes and in the homes of the rich Bruneians. That may sound harsh, but I challenge you to ride a bus and find a Brunei local.
Getting into the palace was also a disappointment, all you will get to see is some very impressive gates, guarded equally as impressively with a police and honour guard present, but no palace as it is buried deep behind trees. Valentina managed to spot some excitement through the gates as the guards were changing, and we got to see a little flurry of activity as they changed places just before a minor member of the royal family sped out the gates in his supercar off to buy some fags no doubt.
This brings us on neatly to our next challenge for the evening. After making our way back and snapping a few juxtaposing shots of the town centre mosque and the old stilt houses we tried to buy some cigarettes in the downtown of the capital city of the country. Trust me you can’t. Apparently, there are none for sale since a hiking of the ‘cigarette selling licence’ by the government some months ago. The next day John set out on a three hour, four bus ride journey into the suburbs to find a place that actually sold cigarettes. Bizarre. We were ready for the dry ‘no alcohol’ difficulties of this country but not that. Bloody ridiculous especially as we were told that most people now take the few hours journey into Malaysian Borneo at Miri and stock up instead.
The town centre after dark is also a ghost town, everyeone has driven their cars out to their fancy houses in the suburbs and most of the restaurants bustling by day are closed with only a handful of restaurants and coffee shops left open to amuse those daft enough to remain in the centre. We recommend an excellent Pakistani restaurant, opposite the central mosque, which served us some incredible food.
We didn’t really take to Brunei did we? It is probably the only place we have visited where we really can’t find anything nice to say. Ok the Mosques are pretty impressive as are the sunsets, but we don’t think that can allow us to recommend this place for a visit.
The people here just seem bored and a bit lifeless. We did jump in the car of a local, after the last bus didn’t turn up (apparently this is a common occurrence) which was our most exciting experience in Brunei. Every lock on the car had been made inoperable, so you couldn’t open the doors from the inside. The poor guy was a little strange and obviously very lonely, he was totally disillusioned with his life in Brunei.
He was extremely fascinated by John’s legs in shorts (I did say he was a little strange) judging by the amount of time he spent clutching and rubbing them. After arriving at our destination, we said our thanks and refused his offer of taking us on a free tour. For us the most friendly and interesting characters are the migrant workers. We asked one Bruneian, who we met at a mosque, what do people do for entertainment? He said they cross the border south to Miri or visit Labuan Island in Malaysia, and entertain themselves there. That about says it all really.
If you want an extra country stamp in your passport, have a look in on your way to other Malaysian destinations, but don’t make the mistake we did and book more than one night here.
We couldn’t wait to get to the airport and fly to KL. Only problem was the dignitaries attending the royal wedding, on the day of our departure, delayed our flight. Would there be no end to this misery. Our least favourite around the world travel destination to date.
You will notice a lot of images of the mosques in the gallery, that’s because there is little else of note architecturally in the city apart from these impressive places of worship or government buildings.
*** UPDATE *** Since publishing this post we’ve received quite a few suggestions of things to do in Brunei, we promised that we would put together a list of your suggestions, which we’ve now done. Thank you for taking your time to share your ideas of what to do in Brunei with us. http://flashpackatforty.com/2013/04/19/things-to-do-in-brunei/