Visiting Brunei as Coronavirus Fears Accelerate

Visiting Brunei as Coronavirus Fears Accelerate

Brunei is a tiny Muslim nation on the island of Borneo, mostly surrounded by Malaysia. That puts it about halfway between Singapore and Manila.

Map of Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo

The country is ruled by a billionaire Sultan, whose wealth comes from vast oil reserves. We visited as the COVID-19 coronavirus swept across Asia and began to jump to all corners of the world. Luckily, in this isolated place, whose full name means “Abode of Peace”, we felt worlds away from that growing storm.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

One of the highlights of visiting Brunei is its beautiful mosques. Muslim culture tends to be quite modest but Brunei spares no expense when it comes to making their mosques beautiful, even extravagant.

Omar Ali Saifuddien at night

Another highlight is taking a water taxi to search for proboscis monkeys and to visit Kampong Ayer, the largest floating village in the world. We bargained down to B$21 for a few hours of exploring (Brunei dollars are pegged to Singapore dollars, which are roughly equal to CAD).

Water taxis are the main means of transport to the floating village

We saw lots of monkeys playing in the trees, jumping from one branch to another, and even running along the ground. I should get a real camera one day, so I can get better wildlife photos. It was really fun to watch their antics.

Proboscis monkey play in the trees along the river banks

Kampong Ayer has its own shops, schools, police stations, mosques, fire departments… everything you would ever need. It’s only a few minutes by water taxi from the main city. We just toured around the village by boat but if I ever return, I’d like to stay at a homestay here. That’s my kind of “over-the-water-bungalow”.

Kampong Ayer – Brunei’s water village

Food in Brunei is an interesting mix of Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese influences. The locals kept telling us we had to spend an evening at the Gadong Night Market. I’m glad we did. The air was filled with the fragrant smoke of grilling chicken and fish. Endless colourful sugar-filled drinks lined the aisles. After spending $10 each, we felt too stuffed to eat any more.

Gadong Night Market

My favourite Bruneian dish is ambuyat. Imagine a bowl of sticky goop that has no flavour at all. You wrap it around a pair of chopsticks until it forms a ball, then dip that into a sauce that’s spicy, sour, and salty all at the same time. Pop that into your mouth and swish it around a bit but don’t chew too much or it will stick to your teeth.

Ambuyat, a sticky ball of flavourless sago starch

And Durian, of course. Durian is undeniably the king of fruits and also the most offensive. It just stinks terribly. Most hotels in Asia even ban it and if you get caught taking it on the metro in Singapore, you’re in for a big fine. At the market, we found six different kinds. If you’ve tried durian elsewhere in Asia and didn’t like it, be sure to try the native Borneo variety while in Brunei. I found that it has a pleasant orange colour and a sweet flavour without the onion-like aftertaste of more common durian.

Six different kinds of Durian, the fruit of kings

On Sunday mornings everyone gets together for a cycling and running event. Some people race but most just enjoy a bit of exercise.

Sunday morning bike & run & market

Our culinary experience continued from the night before. Here, a local cooks up fiery fried noodles for breakfast.

Cooking noodles for breakfast

I mentioned that Brunei is ruled by a sultan. There’s some controversy because Brunei officially has strict Sharia Law but the Sultan’s younger brother is a famous playboy. He once had a harem of 30-40 girls who he spoiled with all kinds of crazy indulgences like shopping sprees to Singapore with no spending limits. He bought thousands of luxury cars, leaving many of them outside to rot in the humid tropical heat. One frivolous thing he did that we can all now appreciate is build a spectacular residence for his guests that has now been turned into a luxury hotel. Because of the coronavirus scare, I managed to get a room for B$250/night plus tax (compared to the usual $400).

Empire Hotel… pretty quiet these days
Exquisite hotel lobby
Looking down from the lobby

Brunei gets few tourists and those who do come usually stay for only a few days. I wanted to give the country a full week to explore and I’m glad I did. That gave us time to visit Brunei’s national park, Ulu Temburong. If you look closely at the map of Borneo, you’ll see there are actually two separate parts of the country with Malaysia in between. This second part gets even fewer visitors than the capital.

Speed boat to Bangar

To get there, first we caught a speedboat that winds and twists its way through rivers and across a broad bay.

Cozy inside the speed boat

After debarking from the speedboat we caught a taxi about as far as we could go then arrived at another boat. This one is a narrow longboat and our driver couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. He expertly navigated us upstream through rapids so bumpy and rocky I was sure we would flip.

Long boat driver getting ready
Shooting *upstream* through the rapids

There’s really only one place to stay in Ulu Temburong national park, Ulu Ulu Resort (interestingly, our guide said, “Ulu” means “upriver” so “Ulu Ulu” means “the back of beyond”).

Ulu Ulu Temburong

Ulu Ulu is usually booked solid by Chinese tourists. Amazingly, we were the only two guests for both nights! What a fantastic window of opportunity. We really appreciated our solitude in this wild corner of the Borneo jungle.

This tree has roots

It isn’t cheap. For two nights we paid B$975 but that includes everything – transportation, really good meals, and a guide to point out all the venomous creatures.

Venomous Spider – Don’t Touch

After a night walk to search for frogs and snakes, we woke up early to climb the 1000+ stairs up to a canopy walk, installed by Shell. I was soaked in sweat by the time we reached the top but enjoyed the cooler air up high and the gentle breeze above the trees.

Long ways up

The sun slowly rose, bringing the forest to life. Cicadas began to sing and hornbills soared through the air, far below. What a magical place to have all to yourself.

I really enjoyed visiting Brunei. Many other travellers say they get bored or that 2-3 nights is plenty but I’m quite glad to have spent a full week. I can even imagine returning one day after exploring so many of the other wonderful places still on my wish-list.

23 Hours in Dubai

23 Hours in Dubai

What do you do when you have a 23-hour layover in Dubai? Maybe grab a bite to eat?

Dubai is often called “Las Vegas of the Middle East”, only bigger and better. That’s pretty accurate, I’d say. It’s big and flashy with opulent “7-star” hotels, massive water fountain displays, and exorbitant man-made islands. It’s also much less seedy than America’s Sin City. Continue reading “23 Hours in Dubai”

2018 in 12 Photos

2018 was a year full of travel, adventures, and some nice time back home. I made sure to keep things interesting by having a wide diversity of themes to each trip, probably more so than I’ve done in recent years. From cooking classes in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur to backpacking trips in Kyrgyzstan and the Grand Canyon, and cycling through Western Australia, it was a great year.

January – Trying strange street-food in Hong Kong
February – I visit my mom and Aunt Bev on the Columbia River in BC. Here’s Bev’s new house, coming along well.
March – Cycling all the way from Perth to Kalgoorlie to see the Super Pit – one of the largest open pit gold mines on earth
April – Cycling through Valley of the Giants in Western Australia
May – Walking Scotland’s West Highland Way
June – I join a great group of people to walk coast-to-coast cross Sweden
July – Backpacking the spectacular Northover Ridge in unusually warm weather
August – Traversing the remote volcanic landscape of Edziza in northern BC
September – Enjoying the clean mountain air of Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir Mountains
October – Discovering old Communist monuments in Tajikistan
November – Hiking and backpacking in the Grand Canyon
December – Sometimes it’s nice just to be home, enjoying the company of loved ones

2019 is shaping up to be another great year of travel with even bigger, grander adventures in the works. Can’t wait!

What will you remember most from 2018?

Chengdu – Home of Mouth-Numbing Sichuan Pepper

Chengdu – Home of Mouth-Numbing Sichuan Pepper

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, that region of China famous for its spicy food. Chillies are a vital ingredient in almost every dish but what’s not well known is that chili peppers originated in South America – not Asia – and have only been part of Sichuan cooking for around 300 years.
Continue reading “Chengdu – Home of Mouth-Numbing Sichuan Pepper”

Chengdu China – Home of the Giant Panda

Chengdu China – Home of the Giant Panda

I’m stopping over in Chengdu China on my way back from visiting the “Stans” of Central Asia. Chengdu is famous as the home of the endangered Giant Panda. The weather here is perfect for them – warm and wet – just what you want for growing lots of bamboo. I’m very lucky that it’s actually clear and sunny! A rare occurrence, especially in winter, and a great opportunity to capture some photos of people enjoying themselves outside.
Continue reading “Chengdu China – Home of the Giant Panda”

A Month in Ladakh

A Month in Ladakh

September just might be the best time to visit Ladakh, a mountainous region in northern India sandwiched between Pakistan, Tibet, and Kashmir. Charles and I enjoyed the crisp mornings and cool nights and each time we returned to the bustling city of Leh, where we stored our luggage between treks, we were amazed at how quiet the streets were becoming. Continue reading “A Month in Ladakh”