Wednesday, January 31, 2018

HoustoniaMag: Visiting Brunei, the Tiny Kingdom of Borneo

There’s no booze, but the wildlife and mosques are worth it.

I had been obsessing about snapping some photos of Brunei’s most famous denizens, the Proboscis monkeys. Besides the fact that I’m fascinated by one of the weirdest creatures on the planet, I could hardly wait to visit the Royal Kingdom of Brunei to tag my 172nd country.

There’s always been something mysterious to me about this little monarchy sandwiched together with parts of Malaysia and Indonesia on the island of Borneo. You can fly to Brunei for less than $35 one way from Kuala Lumpur and there’s no visa necessary for U.S. citizens. Plus, let’s not forget they have Proboscis monkeys.

Brunei is divided into two parts by a sliver of Malaysia’s Sarawak region, but the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan and the international airport are in the larger western portion of the country. The Temburong region to the east is much more remote and is largely inaccessible except by boat. The southern half is a protected area known as Ulu Temburong National Park and is one of the biggest draws of the country. If you come to Brunei, you’ll more than likely be spending your time in BSB or the National Park, so a couple of days is enough to see the main sights.

Most of the capital city’s action seems to be centered near the riverfront. The muddy brown channel snakes through the city and the jungle and allows the speedboats to access Malaysia and the Temburong region. The most distinct feature of the Brunei river are the stilted houses along the shore that look like they would be better suited in a Louisiana swamp.

These water villages are made up of hundreds of wooden buildings and shacks connected together by piers, jetties and wooden bridges. This area has been nicknamed the “Venice of the East;” it’s unique, but comparing it to Venice might be a bit of a stretch.

For $1 Brunei, you can take a one-minute ride to the other side of the river to wander through the labyrinth of wooden buildings and bridges. It’s pretty quiet, but you can find small shops, restaurants, schools and even a police station, all built above water. If you’d rather see the town from below, you can hire a speedboat to ferry you through the channels and up the river to see the monkeys.

The Proboscis monkeys look more like Alice the Goon from Popeye than monkeys, and the adult males get quite large. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that you can see them in the trees, but it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to get that National Geographic photo you had your heart set on. The one hour trip up the river costs about $30 Brunei and includes a quick tour through a water town as well as potentially spotting some crocodiles, snakes and tropical birds along the way.