Next year Brunei Darussalam will celebrate 25 years as an independent country, but in essence this kingdom of unexpected treasures has been in existence for centuries. Part of the island of Borneo, the current sultanate-ruled, oil-rich nation remains a relative tourism unknown in Asia. That's likely change as travelers go in search of authentic cultural and environmental experiences.
Brunei's population is made up mainly of Malays, with a mixture of Chinese and Indian communities plus a smattering of expatriates and indigenous groups. Bahasa Melayu is the official language but English is spoken and widely understood. The country is ruled according to established Islamic values and traditions by the present monarch, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, a man recognized at one stage as the richest in the world and known in international circles for his phenomenally vast and prestigious car collection.
Although the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is attractive enough -- with decent quality hotels, numerous monuments, and shopping centers -- the real appeal of Brunei lies in its natural landscapes and, in particular, the pristine rainforests which make up a huge chunk of the country.
The easternmost part of Brunei (Temburong District) is separated from the capital and the three other Bruneian provinces by a slither of the Malaysian state of Sarawak and is therefore only really accessible by boat. From Bandar Seri Begawan, water taxis take less than an hour to reach Temburong's main town, Bangar, traveling through the mangrove forests which line the Limbang River into Brunei Bay.
Almost 40% of the area is preserved as Ulu Temburong National Park and is considered one of the world's most diverse ecosystems with a range of wilderness habitats, from lowland forest and jungle rainforest to mountain forests and waterfalls. Most of the park is untouched by man and the traditional culture of Borneo longhouse communities (where an extended family or several families live together in a single, long home) remains intact. Home to the rare Proboscis monkey and thousands of unique species of plants and animals, access is via traditional longboats along river corridors or jungle hiking tracks -- there are no roads into the park. A series of canopy walkways rising over 180 feet above the tree tops and long suspension bridges give new definition to the term "back to nature." Temburong's isolation, mountainous terrain, and a strictly enforced government preservation policy have protected it from the logging and clearing that have affected other regions of Borneo.
Unlike the Malaysian side of Borneo where it can take several hours to reach National Parks and wildlife reserves, Temburong is remarkably easy and quick to access. Although there are day trips available from Bandar Seri Begawan, the park is best appreciated and discovered with an overnight stay or a multi-day experience. In addition to wildlife viewing, the Temburong River offers rapids making rafting and kayaking action-packed add-on options. Although you may be tempted to try and visit on your own, taking an organized tour may be the best and simplest method to enjoy the park and avoid the red tape of arranging National Park permits and transportation. Often your "group" will consist of just two to six people so it isn't like crowding into a tour coach and spending the day with 20 people you have nothing in common with.
Accommodation at the National Park is available in simple chalets and guesthouses with bunkrooms near the park entrance or at a resort located in the park's central area. Infrastructure is kept simple to minimize the environmental impact. Piped water and electricity generated from waterfalls are used and generators are only run in the evenings for basic lights and power. There are also air conditioned rooms available at a guesthouse outside the park which can be used as a base for day trips into the park, and for tours around Temburong.
Nestled in the middle of the park on the banks of the Temburong and Belalong Rivers and set amidst over 120,000 acres of Batu Apoi forest reserve is the Ulu Ulu Resort (tel. +673/2-441-791; www.uluuluresort.com). Accessible by ferry and longboat from the capital (approximately a two hour trip from door to door) the resort features 19 standard rooms plus a number of suites and villas designed in the traditional Malay style using tropical wooden construction with balconies and terraces overlooking the forest. A two-day one night stay here including all transportation and transfers from your hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan to the resort and all meals is priced at $B248 -- approximately $168) per person plus a 10% service charge. Single supplement is $B60 -- approximately $40 and additional nights are $B120 (approximately $80). Four day/three night packages are priced from $B400 (approximately $272) per person. Activities run by the resort include kayaking, longboat rides and canopy walks ($B20 -- less than $14 each) and waterfall treks ($B60 -- approximately $40).
Locally base travel company Intrepid Tours (tel. +673/2-221-685; www.bruneibay.net) specializes in one and multi-day programmes that help visitors interact with the natural and cultural heritage of Brunei through a number of activities, cultural immersion opportunities and mild adventure trips suited to a range of ages and interests. Their nine-hour Ulu Temburong National Park dayÂ tour departs from the Bandar jetty at 8:00am and return by 4:00pm. The tour includes hotel pick up; a private guide; a boat ride and visit to Bangar town; morning tea with local cakes; transfer by vehicle to Batang Duri; a longboat ride upstream through the Temburong River rapids; a chance to see wildlife like Hornbills, butterflies, Proboscis monkeys and Macaques; National Park fees; Ulu Temburong National Park's network of elevated walkways; crossing suspension bridges; amazing views; a waterfall walk; a buffet lunch by the river and a chance to explore, relax or swim; afternoon tea; and water taxi back to Bandar Seri Begawan.
For two people the cost is $B141 ($95), for three $B135 ($91) or for four to eight participants $B130 ($88). All prices are per person. The Ulu Temburong National Park Rafting dayÂ tour is the same as above but an hour longer and includes a return journey from the National Park to Batang Duri paddling an inflatable raft. The Temburong River has grade 1 and 2 rapids, so is an ideal experience for beginners or family groups to enjoy the thrill of shooting the rapids, the tranquility of drifting with the current, listening to the jungle sounds or watching for birds and other wildlife. Everyone usually gets wet so a change of clothes sis recommended and participants will have an opportunity to change before afternoon tea.Â All safety equipment, including international standard life-jackets (PFD-1) and helmets are included. Children size lifejackets and helmets are available.Â This tour is priced at $B162 ($109) per person and a minimum of three people are required. The Ulu Temburong National Park overnight tour starts atÂ 2.00 pm on day one and finishes at approximately 4:30pm the following day. It includes water taxi, vehicle and longboat transport, morning and afternoon teas, dinner, breakfast and lunch, air-conditioned accommodation at Intrepid Tours' guesthouse, an evening mangrove river safari, National Park entrance fee, and an experienced guide. This overnight tour gives visitors a comfortable pace and time to experience the jungle at dawn and dusk when the wildlife is more active and the environment has its unique colors and sounds. The guesthouse has private rooms with bathrooms in a Malay style house and is located ten minutes drive from Bangar town.
The firstÂ afternoon includes a visit to a local longhouse (with dance display for groups of nine or more) and the Agriculture department's arboretum of local trees and fruits. The two-and-a-half-hour evening river safari provides an opportunity to see Proboscis Monkeys, birds Macaques, crocodiles, fireflies and other wildlife along the mangrove lined shore. This trip is priced at $B389 ($262) per person in groups of two, $B319 ($215) for three people or for four to eight participants $B287 ($193) per person. Add $B30 ($20) for a river rafting excursion. A three-day/ two night tour, including a river safari is $B546 ($368) per person for two, $B433 $$292) for three people or $B389 ($262) for four to eight people. Stay in bunkroom accommodations with private bathrooms and enjoy all meals, transportation, park fees, a private guide and multiple park tours. Highlights include jungle waterfalls, swimming in crystal clear pools, sunset canopy walks, longboat rides and river rafting (for an additional cost).
You won't find the Brunei dollar ($B) on any exchange rate lists but the currency is pegged to the Singapore dollar which currently trades at approximately $0.68, making prices here very affordable. You may often see prices advertised in Singapore dollars and that currency is readily accepted by most businesses, especially hotels.
Le Gallery Suites Hotel (tel. +673/222-1228; www.legallerysuiteshotel.com) is the closest thing to a chic boutique hotel in Brunei with slick minimalist rooms and larger apartment suites. Double room rates range from B$58 ($39) per night with breakfast to B$125 ($85) for apartments.
The Empire Hotel and Country Club (tel. +673/241-8888; www.theempirehotel.com) is probably the most luxurious and opulent hotel/resort in Brunei. It is located a 20 minute drive from the airport and from the capital and features extravagant suites and five star rooms, a championship golf course, eight pools, a private beach on the South China Sea and spa facilities. Rates start from $B213 ($144) per night for a large (over 600 square feet) superior room with a balcony for two people plus a 10% service tax.
Although Royal Brunei Airlines (www.bruneiair.com) does not fly to the U.S., they do fly to Brunei from London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Sydney, Auckland and a number of other Asia-Pacific cities, or you can get to Brunei flying Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com), Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) or Thai Airways International (www.thaiair.com).