My alarm was set for 2 am. I had a 3 am pickup to the Kuala Lumpur airport (I was heading to Brunei that day). I didn’t really sleep much knowing that I was literally getting up in the middle of the night, so when I did finally land in Brunei, I was exhausted and grumpy.
Now if any of you Westerners are like I was until a few months ago, you probably haven’t heard of Brunei, or if you have, you likely don’t know where it’s at. Well, it’s a small country in Southeast Asia, located on the Borneo island which is predominantly occupied by Indonesia and Malaysia. It wasn’t originally on my list of stops because they were closed due to the pandemic, but about three weeks ago, they opened up and I just had to squeeze them in.
Brunei is incredibly wealthy; they have access to oil. Ironically, about 60% of the island is an uninhabited rain forest, and they intend to keep it that way. None the less, because of their wealth, the country is incredibly well maintained. The Sultan (like a King) was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world a few years ago (he’s dropped a few notches on the list recently). He lives in a home that has 1,800 rooms – the largest home in the world! It’s been completely locked down due to the pandemic, but in normal times, locals are able to visit three days out of the year, when he also hands out food and green envelopes full of money.
The country itself is small, both geographically and from a population standpoint. There are less than 500,000 people in the entire country. The country’s named religion is Muslim and they operate under Sharia Law. This means varying things for different countries and different religions, but specifically for Brunei, it meant a few things that stood out to me. First, there are several major offenses that are punishable by death. Being involved in a homosexual relationship or discussing LGBTQ+ matters is punishable by death. Adultery is also a death sentence. Bringing alcohol, tobacco, or drugs into the country will cost you, although that wasn’t a guaranteed death sentence. There are a handful of non-Muslim citizens, but if a citizen or visitor talks negatively about Islam, that is punishable by death. There are a number of other things on the list, but you get the point. There are rules, and they are not to be broken. At the time I was there, there were seven people on death row. Oh, and the execution? That’s done by stoning or hanging.
I knew all of this going in, so I wasn’t totally surprised, but did of course want to do my best to ‘follow the rules’ and respect the culture. I may not have agreed with them, but it wasn’t my country and I was just a visitor. I will do as told.
There are about six or seven hotels in total in the major city, and no chains, for what it’s worth. I had chosen a pretty inexpensive room for the two nights I was there at a local hotel. I had arranged for the hotel to pick me up when I arrived at the airport, which they did. Prior to passport control and customs, I had to go through COVID screening and purchase three antigen tests. It was required that I take a test for the first three days that I was there and upload the results to their local app (I’ve learned that each country has their own COVID app for contact tracing, test results, and vaccination status). It seemed so simple, and of course, I’d self-administer a test each day, no problem!
I checked into my room and figured I may as well get out and explore while the sun was still up. I just committed to getting to bed early, which I did that night. There was nothing within walking distance as the city itself is pretty spread out. The hotel driver was so kind to bring me to the city center, about five minutes away, and pick me up two and a half hours later. I walked along the river where there is a village just a short boat ride away. This village has about 13,000 inhabitants and is 100% a floating village. There are schools, hospitals, mosques, you name it, it’s all here in this village. And the entire village floats. It’s called Kampung Ayer, and if you do a Google Maps search, it’s so large that it appears as land on the map! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…there are so many ways to live life!
The city center itself is about six blocks by six blocks, and incredibly quiet. There are few cars, few pedestrians, and very little noise. I was able to walk the entire area in less than 30 minutes. I needed to eat and actually had a difficult time finding a restaurant! The few I thought were there had closed down (likely due to the pandemic) so I settled for a mall food court. As I entered the mall, a security guard asked me to scan my BruHealth app – this is the COVID app I needed. I hadn’t set it up yet, or rather, I had tried but got stuck. I tried to communicate this but I don’t think he understood. He let me go past but I realized I needed to get this done or I wouldn’t be able to get in anywhere else.
For lunch, I had the traditional Nasi Lumak that is popular in this part of the world. It was very tasty and filling, and only about $4 USD. I hadn’t gotten money out of the ATM yet, so when I handed my credit card to the cashier, he said, “No, you must spend $20 to use credit card.” I explained that I had no cash, asked for an ATM, and he frustratingly took my card. I realized I now had two tasks to accomplish – find an ATM and get my app working.
I had about an hour left before my hotel driver would be back, so I found a little café a few blocks away and enjoyed a slice of cheesecake and some coffee – the first dessert I’ve had on this trip, by the way. Ironically, they didn’t ask for my app QR code, but it was still on my list of to-do items.
Once I got back to the hotel room, I worked on getting my app set up. I was tired, frustrated, and not having any luck. The first step is to input your phone number and they will send you a text message with a verification code. I have a global eSIM package for data only, and am paying my US provider for SMS messages. I do not have an international phone number, which truly has not been a problem for me traveling…ever. So, I waited, and waited, and waited for this alleged verification code to come through. It wasn’t coming. I decided to take a 30-minute snooze and just ‘give it some time.’ Thirty minutes later and nothing…
Now, had I not been in a place where the rules were so strict and punishments severe, I might have just said, “Forget it. I did what I could.” But I wasn’t about to risk it. I needed to report my antigen test results for the day. It was the rule.
I finally found a WhatsApp number for the Ministry of Health and was able to communicate with someone there. They advised that I needed a local number to receive the SMS message, that they don’t send messages to international numbers. Ugh. Ok, I need a Brunei number. Where can I get one? I asked if I could use the hotel staff’s number just to get a text, but their numbers are tied to their app profiles, so that was out. I spent an hour on Google trying to find a Brunei number that I could ‘rent’ for about 20 minutes and a nominal fee. Yes, there are dozens of services that let you ‘rent’ a number for these exact situations. But in Brunei, no, there are not Brunei numbers to rent.
At this point, I knew I would have to succumb and just buy a SIM card. I went down to the lobby again and asked if there was a market nearby that I could get one at. Of course not. They only sell them at the airport. So, I asked if there was a taxi that could bring me to the airport. After much debate about how best to get a SIM card, one of the workers told me that he had a friend picking a guest up at the airport in a few hours and would get me a SIM card. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Ok, now how do I pay him? I hadn’t yet found an ATM. So, I asked about this too and the hotel worker said he would bring me to an ATM later that night after he got the SIM card. Thank you, thank you, thank you again!
A few hours later I got a knock on the door and this incredibly kind gentleman came into my room to help me install the SIM card, get the COVID app working, and report my test results, which included watching me administer the test. So, all in all, I paid roughly $25 USD for a text message. One text message. $25. Talk about breaking your travel budget. Two days later, after I had already left Brunei, I received another WhatsApp message explaining that they could report the results for me, I just needed to send it to them…
All in all, Brunei was a checklist country for me. It’s small, and outside of animal research or hiking within the rainforest, there’s not a lot to do. The people are incredibly nice and accommodating. The hotels provide drivers to pretty much anywhere you want, and because of the wealth, everyone speaks very fluent English. It’s taught in the schools early on. Will I go back? Unlikely. Am I glad I went? Of course; I’m always glad when I get to experience something new. Exposure is key to growth!
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