Visiting Brunei: Things Aren’t Always As They Seem

I spent about 30 hours in Brunei over the weekend, as I wanted to review Royal Brunei Airlines. I was given the option of either a six hour layover or 30 hour layover when flying from Kuala Lumpur to Bandar Seri Begawan to Dubai, and chose the latter. I’ve always been intrigued by Brunei (especially after reading an article from The Hollywood Reporter about it a while back), so figured this represented a great opportunity to visit a new country.

Understandably, a lot of people asked me questions about how I could visit a country like Brunei. So I figured I’d briefly address that, and also share my thoughts on my visit.

Brunei has horrible laws & an eccentric Sultan

A few years ago Brunei implemented Sharia Law. In theory gay acts are punishable by death. Brunei has all kinds of other strict laws — non-Muslims aren’t allowed to use Muslim words, you can’t publicly celebrate Christmas, etc.

Let me say that I realize these problems exist, I think the policies are horrible, and I strongly disagree with them. Hopefully that goes without saying.

The Sultan of Brunei is also an… interesting guy. His residence has nearly 2,000 rooms, he has a fleet of private jets as big as that of the national airline, and he’s known for partying. Paris Hilton was actually in Brunei for new years, and we can only speculate who she was there to entertain.

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How can I travel to Brunei in good conscience?

It’s a legitimate question, so let me address it in two ways — the safety implications and also the ethical implications.

On the safety front, I wasn’t at all concerned about traveling to Brunei. Several people said “you know, you could be stoned to death for going there.” I think there’s an important distinction to draw — it’s gay “acts,” propaganda, etc., that are illegal (just as religious propaganda is illegal). I felt perfectly safe going there.

But what about the ethics of supporting a country with such backwards rules? I shared my philosophy on this in a previous post. I spent $75 for my stay at the Radisson hotel, had meals at a few local restaurants, and booked a discounted business class ticket on Royal Brunei. Did I spend some money? Yes. Did I “support the Sultan?” I mean, I suppose so, though he has made his billions of dollars through oil. So I’m supporting him every bit as much when I engage in any activity that involves the consumption of oil, as I am when visiting his country.

What makes it all worthwhile, however, is being able to experience the country and people for myself. The Sultan has been in power for about 50 years, so for me it’s incredibly enlightening to form my own opinions about the country and the people, rather than just reading about it online.

We all have impressions of Brunei based on media reports, but does that really reflect the locals? Just because a country has a leader we may disagree with, doesn’t mean that the people are at fault, or necessarily share his beliefs. I don’t believe in “punishing” people of a nation because of a leader they didn’t choose.

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So, how was Brunei?

Very different than I expected. I was picturing a country with people who weren’t especially welcoming to outsiders, a country with extremely strict rules, etc. I guess I was expecting Brunei to be as sterile and “orderly” as Singapore, while also somehow feeling like a major Gulf city.

What I found was the opposite. The people were very warm and welcoming. Everyone was informal. I didn’t feel like I was in a police state. The city felt very Southeast Asian. There was a lot of natural beauty. There were no tourists.

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I don’t think I saw a single police officer, and rules seemed to be very lax — people just parked wherever they wanted to, jaywalking was common, etc.

I met up with some locals — both lifelong residents of Brunei and ex-pats — and they seemed to live very normal lives.

In terms of the destination as such, Bandar Seri Begawan was beautiful. It’s not the most exciting place on earth, but I had a great time. There were a few things that felt a bit off, like visiting The Empire Hotel. It’s the nicest hotel in the country and seems to have hundreds of rooms, but I would have been shocked if they had over 5% occupancy.

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I’ll have more about the destination as such in a future post, but figured I’d use this post to address the most logical question people had about my trip to Brunei.

Bottom line

No, I don’t like “supporting” countries with laws against me. At the same time, I think there’s so much to learn from visiting a place you have a negative impression of, and finding out that it’s nothing like what you were expecting. That’s not to discount some of the horrible laws in place, but if you can travel somewhere safely, I find that it’s worth separating the laws created by a non-democratically elected leader from the people who make up the country.

So I’m not saying everyone should rush to travel to Brunei, but I did find the experience enriching. While my perception of Brunei’s leadership is the same as it was going in, my perception of the people of Brunei changed, in a very positive way.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed Brunei and was happy to visit there in 2014 and I’m glad I have been.

    Its an interesting place to visit. The new airport terminal had just opened when I was there, and no airlines were using it , it was like a massive airport ghost town compared to the old terminal.

  2. Lucky

    I could of wrote this post for you. You followed the plot points perfectly.

    1. Go to a dictatorship, say nice and soft things about the leader.
    2. Acknowledge that the Islamic laws are batshit crazy, but make an excuse as to why its fine because you can go without sex with a man for 30 hours while on layover.
    3 Blame the media for an incorrect description of the country.
    4. Misdirect any guilt you feel for going to such a place by making an appeal to how nice the people are
    5. Lecture people about how its made you a better person.

    Thanks for letting us know that if gay people don’t want to die while being tortured to death, they just gotta keep their dicks in their pants. You sure did solve that moral concern.

    Thanks for the puff piece on Brunei.

  3. That’s exactly what I’ve been saying in your comments section for a long time now, much to the dismay of a lot of readers.

    This is what traveling is all about and I’m glad that you finally came to this conclusion and shared it so eloquently, here’s hoping that other readers may learn from this entry and start being more open to other cultures rather than writing bigoted opinions based on what they’ve been told.

    I also hope that you get to experience more countries and cultures in the same way you’ve experienced Brunei.

  4. So if you went with Ford and did gay “acts” would you be in trouble? How would they find out? I’m guessing the hotel would have to report it to the government?

  5. Hate is stronger than love. You may let in hateful people wanting to change them with your love but they will change you with their hate.

    This is why religion has survived so long even in the face of science. Our future is sharia law and sll other stupid laws of other religions. In the meantime enjoy as much as you can. I dont give two shits if mankind survives or annihilates itself. They deserve what they get.

    Glad you are seeing the real life in other countries. I think you do pay attention to comments even if you pretend you don’t. Your travel conversations/experiences will be a lot more interesting the last time you spend in the bubble of first class.

  6. @Aziz – well said. Until that time, though, people will continue to ironically scream for “tolerance” and “acceptance” at the tops of their lungs while bashing the unknown or those who they presuppose not to fit into their views of the world.

  7. So glad you spent time to visit and explore a different country. There are many amazing places in this planet other than hotel rooms and premium airplane cabins. I look forward to have more posts like this.

  8. “Just because a country has a leader we may disagree with, doesn’t mean that the people are at fault, or necessarily share his beliefs. I don’t believe in “punishing” people of a nation because of a leader they didn’t choose.”

    Sounds like America in a couple of weeks.

  9. A good friend of mine was posted there when he worked at the State Department. He hated it and has nothing good to say about his time there.

    There are certainly plenty of these moral dilemmas with more than a few countries. I visited Myanmar when shortly before Hillary Clinton visited it as it was opening up somewhat to the world. I had been boycotting for a while but ultimately decided that it was better for the ordinary people to have contact with outsiders and was as careful as I could be about how and where I spent my money.

    But I don’t think I’d want to visit Brunei. Or Dubai for that matter.

  10. Quite curious about this as RB have invited me to review and I honestly wasn’t sure. Curious about the flight – did you BYOB? I have an MBA colleague based there and she’d show me around but I guess I’m not curious enough! Look forward to your flight report!

  11. I would not want to visit a country where my safety is at risk; like USA where I’m risking being gunned down just about anywhere… Orlando anywhere?

  12. @Mark;

    If you were writing a puff piece for Lucky, hopefully you’d know the difference between “could’ve”, meaning “could have” and actually being a correctly-used phrase, and “could of”. Otherwise, great addition to the comments. You’re a real gem.

    @Lucky;

    Great sentiment about the country being more than its ruler. We are about a week-and-a-half away from being judged just as harshly by the world for a “leader”, a term used loosely in this context, that we *did* vote into power. Geopolitical/political nonsense cannot be the only yardstick by which we measure a country. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  13. @Amol: very unnecessary and stupid comment since there is no comparison between the situation in Brunei and in the US. The Sultan of Brunei is a dictator and runs the country in whatever way he wants. Here a president was elected by the rules of the country and like him or not he was elected because people gave him the votes necessary to win the election wanted him. You may not like him but he won because he worn the majority of electoral votes. More than 61MM Americans wanted him as president while in Brunei probably nobody voted for the Sultan. Thus, like it or not has the leader people chose. Don’t start saying he did not win the majority of popular vote because if Americans are not happy with the way election works here they should fight to change it but nobody does that. It has been an outdated system for centuries and nobody changes it. Thus, yes, the US has the leader they chose. BTW, I did’t vote for the current president nor for the upcoming one. I don’t like either but that doesn’t mean I will avoid the country.

  14. Eccentric? I guess. He does have expensive taste in cars. He is one of the biggest Ferrari collector, and he has some custom ones as well – I believe – include Ferrari station wagon. He does have absolute power, but he’s not unique there. Most Gulf States rulers have absolute powers too.

    Lucky – maybe this is not your cup of tea – but you ever thought of writing about your destinations or stopover points, and expand your writing beyond the usual scope of first/business cabin and hotel reviews? I understand that if you stop at Tokyo, or Paris, or Bali – there are tons of writings about them on the web. But Brunei? Not a common spot for western tourist to visit.

  15. Very nice post. I’ve found so many Americans (not readers of this site of course) are “afraid” of going to less popular destinations. Don’t let people who haven’t been there tell you about it!

  16. Glad you visited Brunei. As a gay man, I visited Brunei in 2005 and found the people and the country pleasant.

    To the critics: EVERY country has problems, bad laws, and issues. Living in the USA does not mean we endorse the deplorable things here. So, by visiting any other country, you are NOT supporting bad politics and law.

    If we listened to what the US media says about nearly every other country, we would or should not go anywhere else. I say travel everywhere and form your own opinion.

    Happy traveling.

  17. I love this post Ben. This side of you is much nicer. Please share more feel-good travel stories alongside your reviews 🙂

  18. I think I would do a good job ruling a small country like this, if someone would let me do it for a week or two. I bet I would surprise some people! I’ve heard there are certain “concierge” travel packages that allow you to do this sort of thing, but I don’t have the right credit cards.

  19. Life moves pretty fast… personal safety aside… it seems fine to reject the idea of a foreign regime’s posture affecting where you travel in your life. Travel where you like. Regimes come and go.

  20. Question: How do authoritarian rulers solidify their position and pre-empt dissent?

    Answer: They co-op religion as a tool of power. The application of sharia law keeps the clergy happy, who then disposes of the correct messages to keep the population obedient and under control by invoking the wrath of god.

  21. Question: Why are people so welcoming, informal and easy going?

    Answer: The people live in a cocoon, ensconced through a very generous welfare state, where citizens pay no taxes, enjoy free education (even sponsored overseas tertiary education), free healthcare and generous pension and housing schemes. When life is handed to you on a platter, you consume it like a docile circus animal and never question the hand that feeds you.

  22. What crap. Lucky coming away thinking that Brunei (Dubai, wherever) isn’t as bad as he thought is very different from everyone he interacted with thinking, huh, I guess Sharia Law and the Sultan are wrong and gays are wonderful.

  23. Hehehehe if only the people in the comments realized Singapore’s antigay laws sound just as bad

    @Mark (first one)
    Thinks he’s clever because he’s got the ability to copypaste comments from Facebook he made 2 years ago on a popular post he managed to get more than 10 likes on. I swear guys he isn’t a bitch, he’s super super cunning

  24. I agree! great post. Things aren’t always as they seem or we hear about on the news of from someone who “knows” about a place.

  25. I agree Lucky, as you are quite representative of a citizen of the world through travel and the implicit cultural exchange of simply moving about the globe, you have the ability to influence others thoughts about our culture and theirs about ours.

    If we only visited places we agree with, most wouldn’t leave their front yard less they see a bumpersticker supporting a different belief. We’re fortunate to be in a country where we can disagree and agree with anything we want without fear, which means effectively that within 1000 feet of every person reading this blog right now, there is something that disagrees with you and what you might be. Be it having a different hair cut, an accent, a beard, a heritage different than their own, or something important like who you are and what you believe. Going 5000 miles to view and observe a culture who’s government you disagree with? Commendable, your future job in the state department grows nearer every day.

  26. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog, I had a great three-day stay in Brunei last year. I got to meet interesting people, see the scenery from north to south, and by doing a homestay I got a nuanced view and analysis of several levels of society. Things are more complex than one could glean from a 30-hour visit, but I think your review was quite fair. Also I noticed a number of transvestites (let’s say between 3 and 5) in the various shopping malls I visited, and was told that cross-dressers are quite accepted and integrated in society. Wonder if that’ll be the case in America six weeks or six months from now. Time will tell…

  27. I was in Brunie back in 1989 on business – the garment biz. There for a few days. Except for having to drink liquor from a ‘tea cup’, everything else appeared ‘normal’. WOW, the gold topped palace of the Sultan was very impressive – and you get that from billions of dollars of oil, Everybody I met was very nice, in business and just other people I came in contact with.
    WHAT’S IMPORTANT, is that while I had a reason to visit Brunei, everyone should avail themselves of any and all opportunities to see the WORLD – as it is, not necessarily as we would like it to be. In the last several months I have been on several cruises – which included countries that I had NO desire to visit – namely St. Petersburg Russia, and Ho Chi Ming City Vietnam. VERY HAPPY that I had the opportunity to visit these cities/country’s. Vietnam was very much different, in a very positive way – than I had been let to believe. TAKE every opportunity to travel, and enrich your life.

  28. Thought I would just do some simple research on the issue of homosexuality being illegal. Note to all,
    73 countries still state that same sex sexual contact is illegal, Brunei being one of them. 13 Countries still have it punishable by death but Brunei is not one of them. Some countries where you should reconsider travel if you value your life, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Mauritania and parts of Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

    On the topic of supreme rulers, there are 10 countries still ruled by supreme rulers, not elected in any way. They are Monaco, Lichtenstein, Swaziland, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, Bahrain and Brunei. Interesting to note that other than Swaziland and Bhutan, the other 8 all have tremendous wealth within the ruling family, and the money is maintained for the ruling family to decide what to do with it…….. Brunei is one of 73 countries that has not seen the light and legalized same sex sexual contact and is one of 10 countries with a supreme ruler. As a traveler to Brunei I have spoken to its people and they are happy, contented and well provided for. They have a better standard of living than in Malaysia and Indonesia, its neighbors, and arguably one of the best education, medical and social welfare systems of any country in South East Asia.

    Perhaps the solution to the problem is for many many more people to visit this small beautiful country and interact with its people. Only then will they see our point of view and perhaps this will encourage change from within rather than us shouting and screaming from the sidelines.

  29. Ben. Wow. This report just confirms what a ton of people say with how young etc you are. As a gay man we’ll agree to disagree. I’m sure you’d have a much different opinion if you lived there.

  30. It’s funny how many are talking about “law” this “law” that. Existing law and implementation is one another – unlike USA where every aspect of life is governed by law. Frankly they will not police what the individual does bed, but if you openly hold rainbow parade and sort that’s when the problem arises. It’s not something is black and white.

    Moreover, most people in Brunei really respect their king just like people of Thailand still pay tribute to their ex-king, when many outsiders criticized about lack of freedom to speak against their leaders.

    Well, freedom is not everything. Many prefer peace over freedom, which is exactly what Brunei is, or even in Iraq or Libya where people are now prefering life under Saddam or Qaddafi when at least there was law and order (but comparing Brunei Sultan with Saddam or Qaddafi is wrong, as he’s much more lax and receive much more popularity by his people).

    Thanks for the article, I think this kind of perspective is something very needed.

  31. @Hiro. I’ve never met a single person that prefers peace over freedom. Keep ratings the sultans crap. I’m actually embarrassed for you.

  32. It’s always good to visit a country with your mind open. After all, they probably don’t like our laws either. Who are we to say what’s right and what’s wrong?

  33. nobody cares if you go or not

    nobody cares if they imprison you

    nobody cares if you are breaking your own ethics

    nobody cares who you sleep with

    basically nobody cares

  34. First off, sorry for being late to the “party”. I am a Bruneian thru and thru and I am a straight guy and married. I’m not here to change your perception of my country thru these words as it is up to you to seek that if you wish to but I am here to tell you what it’s like for a LGBT person that I met with, study in school with, served in the military with, being a family member of and work with. They are who they are and ppl accepted them as they are. Parents are not ashamed of them. Colleagues are comfortable working with them and some are outstanding members of our society. As long as they don’t overly flaunt their “gayness” that make ppl uncomfortable we will always accept them as part of our family and friends. And that goes for the Syariah law being implemented. Just don’t openly flaunt your “gayness” and no one will bother you, not even the police (who have no inkling what anybody’s sexual orientation is and couldn’t care less)

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