Our main goal with a visit to the island of Borneo was to visit the country of Brunei, checking off a more remote country in the area. Many visitors to the island will spend some time in Malaysia as well, but we focused our limited time with just Brunei. Coming in from the air, my first glances suggested a lot of money: golf courses, new construction homes and condos with pools and nice cars. Once on the ground, the main striking thing was how quiet the place seems. As you move away from the airport into the center of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (or, BSB) it’s clear that the more affluent areas are actually closer to the airport. The center of town looks a bit more like other less-developed cities in the region. The capital has a little bit of automobile traffic, but nothing even close to the bigger cities in Malaysia and Indonesia. We overnighted at the “Brunei Hotel,” which as best as we can tell offers some of the nicest accommodations in BSB. Strolling around nearby and browsing a medium-sized shopping mall, things looked a bit more like what you would expect in a less-developed country in this region: lots of cheap Chinese-made goods and minimal older imported brand-name goods. However, on our departing night we visited a larger indoor mall where you can glimpse a bit of the “other half” in Brunei (Porsches parked out front, a chocolate store with goodies @ >$200/box). There is a large Islamic population in the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, but Brunei seems to feature this more prominently in daily living. We didn’t come across any noteworthy dining on our first day in the capital. On our final nigh before departing BSB, we went by a local favorite called Aminah Arif, which specialized in Ambuyat, a Brunei dish of gooey Sago Palm starch dipped in various sauces and paired with meat and vegetables. It was interesting, to say the least.
We were able to sleep in a bit before beginning the transit out into the Brunei jungle. And with that transit, it was goodbye to hotel internet for a few days. The Ulu Ulu Resort in Brunei lives up to its name, meaning “far away.” The place is far away from far away. After transit from riverboat, more remote overland travel to another longboat (like a huge powered canoe) and a ride through the rainforest, it was obvious why the place has no internet access. Our room was nice and the food was decent, so the place provided a good chance to just relax and disconnect from everything for a few days. It’s possible to book a “private” tour for a stay at Ulu Ulu, but it seemed unnecessary during our time there. We stayed for 4 days and only a few other guests came and went. For most of the time, we had a guide to ourselves.
The next several days had lots of tubing, kayaking, and trekking through the rainforest both day and night. About an hour hike from the main resort grounds, there is a scaffolding built up above the forest canopy that makes for amazing viewing of the rainforest and a chance to sneak a glimpse of some of the wildlife. Standing on suspended slightly wobbly sheet metal that high above the forest floor definitely induced some palpitations for me. Surprisingly, I managed to get a bit used to being up there after spending a few hours up top and being convinced that the structure was sturdy. We went once for sunrise and once for sunset, both times capturing some great pictures. The sunrise hike allowed for viewing all sorts of birds and wildlife starting their day high up in the trees. By 1000 or so it gets pretty stifling and the animal activity slows down a bit. When we hiked up for the sunset, we had to take refuge in one of the forest huts during a rainstorm and saw some leaf monkeys and a “bear cat” while waiting for the rain to slow down. Luckily, there was a lull in the rain just long enough for the window of the sunset. While we were above the canopy, a full double rainbow lit up to the north that was brighter than anything I’ve ever seen. It was so surreal it made me think of that youtube meme. The sunset itself was just pure gold reflecting off of phantom mists rising from the forest. I wish we had more time up there.
There are a couple of nearby waterfalls that we hiked to and did some swimming. Two of the waterfalls had a pool below with the little fish that nibble at your feet that you see in tanks around Southeast Asia trying to offer “spa” treatment to tourists. We always thought those fish spa things were kind of gross, but it was neat to encounter them in the wild. Also, it didn’t seem to have quite the same yuck factor in a fresh flowing natural stream. The smaller waterfall had some timid little fish that would gently approach two or three at a time. The second, larger waterfall pool had a dense, very aggressive group or much larger fish that would gnaw at any exposed flesh that was submerged in the water. I got used to it and let them go to town on feet and ankles for a while. Our guide told us that they had an Italian man that wanted to be left alone to float around in the pool naked for an hour or so. If that’s your thing, I guess you can get a pretty thorough exfoliation treatment.
Tubing through the rainforest was also pretty cool, if a bit harrowing at times. At one point, Martha got flipped out of her tube in a rocky section of rapids, making the decision to forego helmets seem questionable. We did see a crocodile on the way out to Ulu Ulu, but we were assured that there were “probably” not any crocodiles in the section where we were tubing. The palms and ferns loom large and exotic over the river, giving distinct and constant reminders that we were nowhere near the creeks and rivers where you can go tubing back in Florida. There are all sorts of weird plants and insects and animals making for a cacophony of strange sounds through the forest. The time out there in the jungle was a refreshing change from visits to various cities.
If you’re interested in a visit to Borneo, there are probably some really great options with visits to the rainforest on the Malaysia side. However, if you are specifically considering a visit to Brunei, I definitely recommend booking a couple of days at the Ulu Ulu resort. This proved to be one of our more memorable destinations visited and we both had a really great time.