Everything You Need to Know About Brunei and the Brunei People

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Just like their neighbor Malaysiainfo-icon, the Bruneiinfo-icon people have a multiethnic society. Although the country is mainly composed of Islamic influences, they have a predominantly Malay culture. The tiny nation of Brunei sits in the island of Borneo sharing it with the Malaysian territory of Sarawak.

The Brunei people are governed mainly by a Sultan who is the leader of the government and serves as the country’s religious leader as well. In terms of economy and literacy rate, the country is in good standing. As a matter of fact, Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, only a few travelers would venture into Brunei. Thus, little is known about this tiny nation and its people. 

If you’re thinking of visiting the country and wondering what to expect from the Brunei people, check out everything that you have to know!

Brief History of Brunei

Oil has played a huge part in history of Brunei.
Oil has played a huge part in history of Brunei.

Thousands of years ago, Brunei used to be part of Indiainfo-icon and Chinainfo-icon before its kingdom was founded. It was around the 7th century that the Kingdom of Brunei was established. The kings who ruled the nation converted it to Islam in the 15th century, and the Sultanate of Brunei has remained the dominant force of the region winning a brief war against Spaininfo-icon

After the war, the empire of Brunei slipped into a decline since much of its territory were taken by the White Rajahs, said to be a dynastic monarchy belonging to the English Brooke family. In 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate.

In 1920, an abundant amount of oil was discovered in the country, which changed Brunei completely. That has also triggered interest among the Japanese who briefly occupied the country. In 1945, Australian forces took Brunei back and returned it under British governance. 

Thanks to the abundant amount of oil, along with the failed Brunei Revolution in 1962, it has become economically advantageous for the tiny nation to remain outside of the Malaysian Federation.

Nowadays, the country is governed by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, the 29th sultan of the country and one of the richest individuals in the world. He rules the country under the concept of Malay Islamic Monarchy, which promotes Islamic tradition and values to the Brunei people, and loyalty to their ruler.

Brunei Culture

A significant portion of Brunei culture is influenced by Islamic practices.
A significant portion of Brunei culture is influenced by Islamic practices.

Although the Brunei people are predominantly Malay, a significant portion of their culture is influenced by the Islamic religion

Here are some of the most notable cultures of Brunei:

  • As a Sharia country, the Brunei people are expected to follow Islamic law, practices, and teachings. But unlike other Islamic countries that follow the Sharia law, the women of Brunei play a much higher status in the country and are allowed to hold positions in the government.
  • Women dress modestly in Brunei and visitors are expected to do the same. When visiting religious places such as the mosque, women must make sure to cover their knees, arms, and head. Shoes have to be removed before getting inside a local home and mosques.
  • Bruneians may not be comfortable with shaking hands with people from the opposite sex, and it’s deemed impolite to point someone using the index finger. Many of the younger men and women, however, may have already adopted the western concept of shaking hands with the other gender.
  • As a country that follows the Sharia law, the sale of alcohol is strictly prohibited. The nightlife in Brunei has a totally different scene than that of its neighboring countries because there are no nightclubs, bars, and casinos. Visitors are expected to follow the rules, or severe penalties will be imposed for any offenses.
  • The parents usually arrange most marriages in Brunei. They would prefer for their child to marry someone from the same religion and this is why Muslim conversions in the country are widespread before marriage.

The Brunei People

Almost 80% of Brunei people practice Islam.
Almost 80% of Brunei people practice Islam.

More than two-thirds of Brunei’s population is Malay. A small percentage is Indians, Chinese, and a small group of indigenous people. As a country that follows the Sharia law, the Brunei people uphold a conservative ideology. 

Here’s what to expect from the people of Brunei:

  • The country’s official religion is Islam. Thus, almost 80% of the population is Muslim. A small percentage is reserved for Buddhism and Christianity. Although most Bruneians are very devout Muslims, they are respectful of other beliefs and faiths.
  • The country’s official language is Malay although English is also widely spoken. The English language is taught in both the primary and secondary levels in schools. In some parts of the country, Malay dialects are being spoken, especially in the indigenous communities.
  • Brunei has a hierarchical culture, and thus, positions and age are revered. From a young age, the Brunei people are taught to respect and obey the elders and most especially their leaders. They are expected to bow their head when greeting someone who is older and those of higher position.
  • Shame and honor are very crucial for most Brunei people. Thus, they are very well mannered and polite. Upholding greater dignity is of utmost importance for them, and they would do their best not to stir any issues or cause problems that could jeopardize their honor and dignity.
  • Most Bruneians find negative emotions, such as anger, irritation, and impatience embarrassing and would, therefore, avoid expressing these emotions in public. They also avoid confrontations so as not to embarrass the other person and themselves.

Traditional Food of Brunei

Just like with its neighbors, the Brunei traditional food is surprisingly diverse.
Just like with its neighbors, the Brunei traditional food is surprisingly diverse.

If you want to explore the food culture of Brunei, you will definitely not be disappointed. Just like their neighboring countries, the Brunei people are very hospitable and love to cook for their visitors. 

Brunei traditional food is influenced by neighboring Malaysia and Indonesiainfo-icon. If you have been to these countries, you might find some of the Brunei food familiar. 

Here is the best food to try when visiting Brunei:


Ambuyat is considered as the national dish of Brunei. Image Courtesy of Will Fly for Food.
Image Courtesy of Will Fly for Food.

Considered as the national dish of Brunei, ambuyat is made from the inner trunk of a sago palm. This dish is also a local delicacy in some of the neighboring Malaysian states, such as in Sarawak and Sabah. 

Just like with the ambuyat Sabah, Brunei’s version has a starchy bland texture and is eaten with a bamboo fork known as the chandas. To eat, the chandas is used to roll the starch around its prongs before dipping into a sauce.  

As the country’s national dish, you’ll find the ambuyat being served in most local restaurants in Brunei.

Beef Rendang

Beef Rendang is an everyday staple of Brunei people.

Rendang is a slow-cooked meat dish that’s an everyday staple in various countries in Southeast Asiainfo-icon, although this dish said to have originated in West Sumatra, in the province of Indonesia. 

This flavorful dish is cooked with some spices and coconut milk before it’s fried until tender. Beef rendang is best eaten with steamed rice.


Ketupat is a perfect companion to Rendang dish.

Ketupat is another Brunei delicacy that came from the Malay culture. It’s a type of dumpling that’s made from glutinous rice and packed in a woven palm leaf that’s shaped like a diamond. It is the perfect accompaniment to the rendang dish.

Nasi Katok

Nasi Katok is probably the most popular street food of Brunei.

This is one of Brunei’s most famous street food dishes. You’ll find this being sold in various food stalls and joints all over the country and is popular among the locals. 

The nasi katok basically consists of a fried chicken served with steamed rice and a chili sauce.

Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak is a Malaysian staple dish that's made its way to Brunei.

If you’ve been to Malaysia, then you must be familiar with the nasi lemak. Nasi means rice and just like with the nasi katok, the nasi lemak is served with rice. 

The rice is often cooked in coconut milk. It’s served along with fried anchovies, sambal sauce, toasted peanuts, and some vegetables including cucumber.

Pulut Panggang

Pulut Panggang is grilled glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf.

This is another Malay cuisine that’s also popular in Brunei. It refers to grilled glutinous rice that’s sometimes served with savory fillings consisting of shrimp or beef floss. 

The dish is wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over charcoal, giving it a fine, smoky flavor.  

Udang Sambal Serai Bersantan

Udang Sambal Serai Bersantan is the most popular seafood specialty in Brunei. Image Courtesy of What To Cook Today.
Image Courtesy of What To Cook Today.

This dish is one of the most popular seafood specialties in Brunei. It refers to prawns cooked in savory chili sauce along with coconut milk and is often served with rice and vegetables.

Ais Kacang

Ais Kacang is a Brunei favorite.

This is a favorite dessert in Brunei although it’s also popular in Malaysia and Singaporeinfo-icon. It is made of ice shavings served with different toppings including red beans, jelly, sweet corn, roasted nuts, and more.

Places to Visit in Brunei

There are numerous diverse places to visit in Brunei, from magnificent mosques to sprawling jungle and floating villages.
There are numerous diverse places to visit in Brunei, from magnificent mosques to sprawling jungle and floating villages.

From the most stunning mosques to a sprawling floating village, there’s a diverse range of exciting things to see in the tiny nation of Brunei. The best thing about visiting these places is that they are not as crowded as the other tourist places in Southeast Asia. In fact, there’s even a good chance that you’ll have the entire place to yourself! 

Read more: Borneo Forest and Other Highlights in Brunei

If you’re preparing for your trip to Brunei and wondering what there is to see, check out this list:

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is one of the most beautiful in the world.

This mosque is no doubt, one of the most gorgeous mosques you’ll ever see in your life. It looks very magical that if you look at it from afar, it seems like it’s floating in a body of water. You’ll be mesmerized even more if you get closer as the golden dome dazzles magically under the tropical sun. 

Check out this Postcard from Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque!

There’s an adjacent lagoon that creates a mirror image of the gorgeous mosque, which was named after the country’s 28th Sultan.

Istana Nurul Iman

Istana Nurul Iman translates to Palace of Light of Faith. Image Courtesy of Living + Nomads.
Image Courtesy of Living + Nomads.

The name literally means “Palace of Light of Faith” and this building is the sultan’s official residence. With thousands of rooms and hundreds of bathrooms, this is said to be the largest royal residence in the world. 

The elegant building is truly a sight to behold, featuring a blend of Malay and Islamic inspired architectural designs.

Bukit Ladan Forest Reserve

The entrance to Bukit Ladan Forest Reserve. Image Courtesy of Add Flag.
Image Courtesy of Add Flag.

If you’re heading to Brunei for nature, then you should check out the Bukit Ladan Forest Reserve. With various hiking trails and different viewing platforms that open to the beautiful views of nature, this place is truly a haven for nature lovers

The trails are lined with towering trees, rare orchids, and other interesting species. This 76-square km nature wonder is located in the Tutong District of Brunei, and you may need to rent a car from the capital to visit the place.

Tasek Merimbun

The S-shaped Tasek Merimbun is the largest lake in Brunei.

Another great place to visit for nature lovers is the Tasek Merimbun, Brunei’s largest lake. This S-shape lake is truly beautiful, and tropical flora grows among its foliage serving as a habitat to a wide range of wildlife, including a rare bat species. Taking a boat trip and strolling along its boardwalk are some of the best ways to enjoy this beautiful place.

Kampong Ayer

One of the numerous mosques in Kampong Ayer.

This is a sprawling settlement area that has more than 40 different villages floating on the Brunei River. The villages have their own mosques, markets, and schools. 

Check out this Postcard from Kampong Ayer!

It’s been said that some of the villages here date back five centuries ago. There are more than 13,000 residents in this floating village and visiting this place is a truly unique experience.

Ulu Temburong National Park

Ulu Temburong National Park holds one of the last unspoiled rainforests on Borneo Island.

Thanks to Brunei’s rich oil reserves, the rainforests here are protected from deforestation such as the Ulu Temburong National Park. The national park features centuries-old trees that have canopy walks and offers a great view of nature. There are also trails leading to the jungle where you will find rivers and waterfalls.

Check out this Postcard from Ulu Temburong National Park!

Brunei is a truly wonderful place to visit, and it’s a shame that not a lot of tourists would venture into this beautiful country. The country’s fascinating culture and the welcoming nature of the Brunei people are enough reasons to visit this tiny nation. 

Of course, the various natural attractions are also worth checking out as well as the stunning religious architectures

So, next time you’re heading to Southeast Asia, be sure to drop by the beautiful country of Brunei!

Before you leave, check out Adrian's Journey in Malaysia and Brunei!

Carolyn Boston freelance content writer for aSabbatical.com
Travelling the world on a budget for several years without having a hefty savings account.