Brunei Darussalam (Brunei) is mainly known for two things: First it is the home of the Sultan of Brunei, Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, once the richest man in the world, and still pretty rich, with an estimated worth $10 to $20 billion. And second it is known for is its oil reserves which are what made the Sultan so rich. At one time Brunei was a fairly large kingdom, controlling much of Borneo and some parts of the Philippines, but the arrival of the British, who came to stamp out piracy, and ended up hanging around, slowly whittled down the Brunei empire down to its present small size. The official name of Brunei is Brunei Darussalam, meaning “Abode of Peace”. There were 260,000 tourist arrivals there in 2017.
Lately, Brunei has been in the news for imposing sharia (Islamic law) with some harsh punishment including death by stoning. Particularly controversial was a decision in April 2019 to make adultery and gay sex punishable by stoning — a decision that was rescinded shortly afterwards due the international outcry over the issue. A few years before that Brunei was in the news for the behavior of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei’s brother. The “orgiastic wealth” of the prince included 2,000 cars, luxury hotels, planeloads of women and polo ponies, and colossal diamonds. Once the world's most notorious playboy, Prince Jefri booked entire floors of the best hotels for his entourage jetted in on spending sprees which saw millions spent on everything from huge gem stones to Ferraris. He once owned a 152-foot yacht called Tits, hosted sex parties and maintained a harem composed mainly of underage girls. Prince Jefri was eventually reigned in after causing great embarrassment. If you ask me the imposition of sharia by the sultan, who also had quite a profligate past, was a sort of penance to make up for the sultan’s and Prince Jefri’s past misdeeds.
Brunei Darussalam is a small Islamic Sultanate on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo. Enclosed on three sided by the Malaysian state of Sarawak, it has a predominantly Malay Muslim population with a significant Chinese minority, many of whom are classified as non-citizens, and a small number of Dayak tribesmen. The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is its only major city. Brunei's official language is Malay but English is widely understood and used in business. Tourist facilities and services are generally available throughout the country.
Brunei is one of Asia's oldest kingdoms. Early Chinese records refer to it variously as "Polo," or "Puni." The present sultanate dates to 1514, around the time the sultan and the state officially converted to Islam. Brunei was a protectorate of the United Kingdom from 1888 to 1984, when it gained full autonomy. For a quarter of a century before independence, it was a self-governing constitutional monarchy, with the British assuming responsibility for foreign affairs and defense. The sultan and England’s Prince Charles share an interest in polo and have been good friends a long time.
Oil was first discovered in Brunei in 1929,. The oil and gas fields are centered in the towns of Seria and Kuala Belait, about 110 kilometers southwest of the capital. Thanks to oil wealth, the people of Brunei (Bruneians) enjoy a number of benefits, such as practically free healthcare, a well-established state education system and even a housing scheme aimed at providing all citizens with affordable homes. For a while, even though many people didn’t work, Brunei ranked third in the world in per capita income. Now, as it oil and gas reserves decline, Brunei is looking for other ways to generate income, such as tourism. The sultanate is blessed with 161 kilometers of pristine coastline, filled with palm-lined beaches and blue waters, and large tracts of virgin, uninhabited rainforest, waiting to be explored..
Geography of Brunei
Brunei is a tiny country located on northern coast of the island of Borneo. It is surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak on three sides. On the forth side is the South China Sea. Brunei covers an area of 5,675 square kilometers (2228 square miles), which is roughly the size of Delaware. Of this 2,036 square miles is land. Brunei is divided into two parts by Brunei Bay and the Sarawak district of Limbang. The western part of Brunei is about four times the size of the eastern part,
Although occupying less than 1 percent of Borneo's land area, Brunei is the only sovereign country on the island, which it shares with the Indonesian provinces of West, East, South and Central Kalimantan and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Brunei has a low coast plain, with mountains in the east and hilly lowlands in the west. There are swamps in the west and northeast. About 1 percent of the land in Brunei is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.). Apart from Bandar Seri Begawan, the country's oil rich capital, and the coastal towns, the majority of the country is undeveloped. About 70 percent of Brunei is covered by rain forest. Several rivers provide transportation routes. The coastline of Brunei along the South China Sea is about 161 kilometers long.
Only 443 kilometers north of the equator, Brunei is divided into four districts: Brunei/Muara, Tutong, Belait and Temburong. The beaches lies a coastal plain that stretches from east to west for 90 kilometers (56 miles). The land becomes more hilly towards the southern part of the country, climbing more than 500 meters (1,650 feet) above sea level. The eastern part of Brunei is much more mountainous, especially in the southeast, where the country's highest point, 1850-meter-high (6070-feet-high) Pagon Peak is situated. Brunei’s vast tract of undisturbed, or little disturbed, rainforest is mostly in the Temburong District.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. It is situated across the South China Sea, about 600 kilometers, from peninsular Malaysia. The Indonesian province of Kalimantan occupies the southern two thirds of Borneo. Sarawak and Sabah occupy most of the northern part of Borneo. Northern Borneo, where Brunei is, has a wide, marshy coastal plains and rain-forest-covered mountains in their interior. The roads on Borneo are relatively poor, but much better than they used to be. Most people get around by plane or river or ocean boats. Major Rivers: Sungai Limband River; Major Cities: Bandar Seri Begawan, with about 105,000 population,
Climate and Weather of Brunei
Brunei is just north of the equator and has a hot and humid climate the entire year, with high temperatures in the 30s C (90s F) during the day and the steamy 20s C (70s F) at night. The humidity is usually between 70 and 90 percent. The only relief is in air conditioned buildings, which are plentiful, and a few beaches. The days and nights are somewhat cooler in coastal areas with ocean breezes. March and April are the warmest months.
Sunny with a chance of showers characterizes the weather forecast most days. Clear, blue skies are pretty much a daily phenomenon, but when it rains it can really rain. Brunei does not have a distinct rainy season; the wettest months are from October to January and from May to July. The highest rainfall of 400 centimeters (158 inches) a year occurs in the rain forests of Temburong district. The coastal areas receive less rain, about 275 centimeters (108) inches a year.
Rains tend to fall in short afternoon downpours during the rainier months, when the countryside is lush and green and beautiful but the jungles are full of leeches and dirt roads in remote areas become impassable. In the drier months, road travel is easier but the countryside is brownish and dusty. Brunei is not hit very often by typhoons because it lies south of the typhoon belt.
Heavy rain in February 2018 caused flooding, landslides, and road closures. In June 2018, Brunei also experienced heavy rain resulting in landsides and flash floods. The Tutong River crested, causing substantial property damage in low-lying areas. Such environmental hazards typically arise during the monsoon seasons from October – February and May – June of each year. Brunei’s beaches are notorious for strong rip tides, which cause drowning deaths nearly every year.
According to expat-blog.com: Brunei “lies almost 5° (450km) north of the equator and is therefore in the area known as The Doldrums. There is not a lot of wind and it has extremely high humidity. When it rains (regularly) it pours sheets of water, which cause roads and rivers to flood in minutes...Temperatures in summer (July) vary around 30 – 35C by day and rarely drop below 24C at night. ALL houses approved for teachers by CfBT must have aircons. The temperature can also be deceiving. 35C with almost 100 percent humidity can feel like 47C!!!
“However, after only 3 or 4 weeks you will acclimatise and get more used to the climate. The aircons dry out the air and it can become uncomfortable to breathe at night. BUT…the aircon is a life saver....The heat can get you in numerous ways. The combination of high temperatures (30 to 35C by day) and very high humidity can be lethal. Drink lots of fluids and keep yourself and your clothes clean. The heat also results in various odors rising from open drains and water channels. Anything organic rots quickly and gives off pungent odors.” [Source: expat-blog.com]
In Borneo, the rainy monsoon season is from October to February, with the rainiest months being December and January, and the dry hot season is from March to September. In comparison, the rainy seasons in Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma, are from May to October and the rainy season in Singapore, and Indonesia are roughly from October to March. These places are influenced by different monsoon wind patterns.
Clothing in Brunei
Bruneians are tolerant people and most clothing styles are acceptable among tourists. Some Bruneians dress smartly and fashionably. Others dress in jeans. Foreign men wearing shorts in Brunei for recreational activities is generally okay, but is not okay on city streets, in restaurants or offices. Don't wear clothes with holes or go without a shirt. Keep in mind also that shorts, exposed shoulders and short skirts are may be regarded unacceptable in mosques.
According to expat-blog.com: “Men – suitable shirts, ties and light weight slacks is standard teaching attire. The problem is around hair. Long hair is frowned upon and you should ensure that you have your hair cut so that it is not over your ears or collar, BEFORE you arrive. Forget about expressing yourself and your personal rights. Do not have a crucifix showing and men, do not show any sign of jewellery other than watches and a ring. Remember Brunei is a Muslim country and the religion of Islam is strict. Women - keep it under control out here. No bare shoulders/midriff/knees or cleavage (front or back), and if you're a blue eyed blonde you will get stared at.” [Source: expat-blog.com]
In hot weather, wear loose cotton garments are best. Try to avoid synthetic fabrics; they can be hot and scratchy. White or light-colored garments are better than dark ones. Wear a hat and sunglasses and use sun screen for protection from the sun. Sandals are often more comfortable than shoes and easier to slip on and off when entering mosques. It advisable to carry a sweater, sweatshirt or long-sleeve if you can because sometimes the air conditioning can be too cold..
Islamic Dress Code
Some Bruneians follow a strict Islamic dress code but as a rule Bruneians and visitors are not obliged to observe it. The majority of Muslim women wear ankle-length caftans and teregas, hair covering that are pinned under their chins, that expose only their faces. These give Bruneian women a gentle, Pharaoh-like appearance. The caftan covers their legs, arms and hair. Conservative men wear a head covering of some sort and often have a beard.
Most visiting Western women wear long pants or long skirts and blouses in tourist areas, and ankle-length skirt and a loose-fitting, thigh-length blouses or jackets with a head scarf in conservative areas. Skirts at knee level or less are unacceptable in conservative areas. In some places you can get away with a mid-calf-length skirt. In ultra-conservative areas you may need a skirt that goes all the way to the ground. Some women carry a shawl, which they can use as a head scarf or shoulder covering. Others bring a loose caftan-style dress which they can wear over their clothes in conservative areas.
According to expat-blog.com: “Ladies, please note that there are certain strict restrictions that govern dress in Brunei. Modesty and conservative dress are the norm for women. Never show too much skin! It is offensive to the locals and you do not want to be addressed about this. As a guideline, cover your arms to the elbows, cover your chest so that no sign of cleavage is possible, cover your legs to calf length and ensure that all clothing is NOT see-through in any way. No slacks and no long slits up the side of the leg. If you plan to go swimming or sunbathing, it is advisable to wear baggies and a T-shirt, Even a full body costume is not acceptable, unless you are at a private pool.
People in Brunei
People of Brunei are called Bruneians. Brunei is predominantly made up of Muslim Malays (65.8 percent), with significant Chinese (10.2 percent), Indian and indigenous populations (23.9 percent). Malays make up a large portion of the people in Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines. If ask you Bruneians about their ethnicity, they will typically say they belong to one of seven groups: Melayu Bruneian, Kedayan, Dusun, Tutong, Belait, Murut, and Bisaya, with two of them (Tutong and Belait) being Brunei districts. Melayu Bruneian more or less means Malay Bruneian. The Dusun and Murut are tribal groups indigenous to Brunei. Kedayans are indegous people that have converted to Islam. Bisaya is language spoken in the southern Philippines, namely in Central Visayas, western parts of Eastern Visayas and on majority of Mindanao.
There are 430,000 people in Brunei (estimated 2019). About 77.5 percent of all Bruneians live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the U.S.). The other 22.5 percent live mostly in villages along the rivers and kapongs (traditional fishing villages). Bruneians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world with a per capita income of around $83,000 a year. The population is growing at the rate of 1.3 percent a year (compared to 0.6 percent in Britain and 2.5 percent in Kenya). The average life expectancy is 77.2 years; about 22.5 percent of all Bruneians are 14 and under; 5.5 percent are 65 and above.
Malays make up 65.7 percent of the populations; Chinese, 10.3 percent, indigenous people, 3.4 percent and other, 20.6 percent. There are about 30,000 Iban and Dusan tribal people which live rain forests. The are some Indians. Many of the others are foreign laborers brought in to work as construction workers, domestic help and perform jobs that Bruneians don’t want to do.
Malays are mostly Muslims. Traditionally farmers and fishermen, they have made great advances in the few decades. Most ethnic Chinese are non-Muslim. They have traditionally controlled the businesses in Brunei. The Indians are descendants of laborers originally from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh brought by the British. Some of them are Muslims.
Brunei is sparsely populated, with an estimated density of just 82 people per square kilometers (213 people per square mile). Some 85 percent of the country's population lives in the coastal areas, particularly the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan and the coastal towns of Seria, Tutong, and Kuala Belait. Seria and Kuala Belait are centers for the oil and natural gas industry.
Language of Brunei
Bahasa Melayu (Malay) is the official language. It is similar to Bahasa Melayu (also known as Bahasa Malaysian, the national language of Malaysia) and Bahasa Indonesian (the language spoken in Indonesia). It is not a tonal language like Chinese or Thai. It is not difficult to pick up a few words.
English is spoken by most Bruneians to varying degrees. Brunei is a former British colony and English is taught in the school. Visitors generally have no problem getting by without knowing any Malay. Mandarin and other Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese are spoken by the Chinese population and Hindi or Tamil is spoken by some ethnic Indians. The indigenous ethnic groups of Borneo have their own languages.
Any small effort to demonstrate your enthusiasm for learning Brunei’s culture will be most appreciated by the Bruneians, who have a deep respect for their centuries-rich Malay culture. While no Bruneian expects a visitor to have mastered the Malay language and most speak at least conversational English, a few useful words and phrases will help make your stay even more enjoyable. Jawi, Malayy written in Arabic script, is taught in schools. Most signs are written both in Jawi and Roman script.
Religion in Brunei
Islam is the state religion. About 67 percent of all Bruneians are Muslims (including 97 percent of all Malays). About 13 percent are Buddhist, 10 percent are Christian. The rest are Hindus and animists. The Hindus are mostly Indians. The Buddhists are mostly Chinese. Some Chinese follow other Chinese religions such as Taoism. Some Chinese are Christians. Both Roman Catholic and Anglican Church services are conducted in the downtown area of the city at their respective facilities. Some attendees of are expats. Some tribal people practice local animist religions.
Most Bruneians are Sunni Muslims. There are few if any Shiites. The level of Islamic zeal varies somewhat from place to place. Muslims living in urban areas tend to be more liberal and Westernized than those living in the countryside. Conservative Islam was traditionally not been particularly strong in Brunei, but a few years ago sharia (Islamic law) was introduced. The majority of Muslim women wear ankle-length caftans and teregas, hair coverings that are pinned under the chins, that expose only their faces and give the women a gentle, Pharaoh-like appearance.
Most Muslim Bruneians follow the Shafi school of Sunni Islam. In addition to Muslim Malays there are also Malay Kedayans (converts from indigenous tribal groups) and Chinese converts. Islam was adopted in the 15th century when a Malay Muslim was installed as sultan. The sultan traditionally was responsible for upholding Islamic traditions, although the responsibility was usually delegated to appointed officials. Since the 1930s sultans have used rising oil revenues to provide an extensive social welfare system and promote Islam, including subsidizing the Hajj, building mosques, and expanding the Department of Religious Affairs. With the constitution in 1959, Islam became the official religion of the country. In April 2014, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced the implementation and enforcement of the first phase of Sharia law in Brunei starting in May 2014.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Brunei Darussalam tourism websites, Brunei Darussalam government websites, Wikitravel, Wiki Voyage, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020