Being a budget traveler, I’m always on the lookout for cheap flights, cheap digs, cheap food and cheap adventures. Part of the thrill is taking flights with cheap airlines that include layovers in strange places. Royal Brunei airlines offer one such experience. And it won’t cost nearly as much as you think.
For just under $900, you can buy a return flight to London departing Melbourne and have up to three days in Borneo if such a layover takes your fancy. I’ve done the trip a few times now and it never ceases to amaze me. On one hand, you have abject poverty yet, a short cab ride will place you in a maze of absolute wealth. There is very little in between so the contrast is quite sharp for the untrained eye. Human settlement to the shipping port has been traced back to the 7th Century. By 1920, the area had been granted city status and the region prospered until 1941 when the Japanese captured Brunei before the allied forces took control back four years later. Since this time, the money has flooded in from all regions turning Brunei into one of the worlds most wealthy corners of the globe.
So there I was, wandering the half empty streets with some back packing buddies I had met on the first night. We had been tipped off about a night market that ran on the outskirts of town so made a bee line for cheap food. How cheap you ask? Well, for $1, you are served a dish of your choice that you will struggle to fit down your fat guts (well, my fat guts because I love food that much) and plenty of smiling locals looking to earn an honest dollar. One thing you need to remember, Sharia law was introduced in 2012 so whatever you do, resist the temptation to play up or show any kind of disrespect because you may well find yourself in hot water within no time at all. Thankfully on this night, we were all good little boys and girls. A few hours later, we decided to go back to the hotel and have an alcoholic beverage. I should note here that your hotel is the only place where alcohol consumption is allowed. Drink in public and you will wind up in a dirty prison cell in no time at all.
The funny thing about travel is the people you meet. I managed to stumble along a fellow Liverpool supporter on a night out in the market district. He was a massive admirer of Stevie G and had a dream to one day explore Liverpool and get along to a match at Anfield. He’s already been saving for three long years and suggested he was only twelve months away from getting enough money together to visit Liverpool for a match. Imagine spending four years to save up just so you can attend one match? That my friends, is dedication to the team you love.
The following day, we all headed out for a river cruise to locate the mysterious “proboscis” monkey, a rare and endangered breed. for just $10, you can hire one of the young lads to take you out on a boat for two hours as you cruise along the river in search of sights and memories. A few times we spotted the infamous monkeys from a distance but they tend to scarper at the first sight of human life which is why they are so difficult to capture on film for the average tourist. Like me.
Despite not getting up close and personal with these fine creatures, we still thoroughly enjoyed our time out on the water. Firstly, to escape the heat and most of all, to experience nature at her finest. in absolute silence apart from the natural echoes of the jungle. To be honest, we could have spent the entire day out on our little boat with our host who was only around 13 years old. The money he collected from these river journeys kept his family in a healthy state. He’s left school two years prior in order to work and provide a living for his family. Talk about growing up fast!
Once back on land, there was more exploring to be had and prayer time was easily the highlight of the day. The city draws to a standstill and the prayers echo out over the land via a not so complex public address system. The only people on the streets at prayer time are western tourists like us. We felt compelled to remain still and respect the prayer time and local culture. I may not agree with religion in any way, but I will always respect peoples beliefs when in far flung foreign lands. Once the locals had resumed their business, we headed off for more market food where the main choice seemed to be fish. And fish. And yes, more bloody fish! Yuck! It’s safe to say, I kept to the local rice dish.
Our hotel rooms were the most expensive aspect of the adventure. I think I paid around $70 a night for mine. Nothing too flash but still a step up from other places in this region that I have stayed in over the years. After all, they see the tourist dollars on offer and charge accordingly like any other city around the world. You won’t find Starbucks and McDonald’s on every corner which makes for a nice change. The local authorities encourage local business and offer generous tax breaks for family run business. The airline itself is solely owned and operated by the Sultan of Brunei. Despite losing oodles of money, the airline is run purely to give local citizens an opportunity to travel abroad when flights would otherwise be too expensive. Imagine that? An airline run for the people? We need more of this in the world we live in.
If you are ever in need of a layover with a difference, then consider heading to Brunei for a short stay. Two days is more than enough to see all there is to offer. Ohh, you will need to take plenty of spare shirts when you head out because you are guaranteed to sweat your bollocks off. Even standing still! This aside, you are going to have a blast in Borneo so what are you waiting for?