Eco-destination: Brunei

WHEN considering places to go in Asia for a spot of eco-tourism, the Sultanate of Brunei is not exactly the first place that jumps to mind. At under 6,000 square kilometers, Brunei is the 5th smallest country in Asia by area and the second smallest by population with 4 million people (the Maldives has slightly less). It’s famous for oil wealth and lavish parties thrown by the absolute monarch, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who it is rumored has an income of 7,776,000 euros a day.

Let’s look more closely at this extremely wealthy oil state.  Although the gas and oil industries account for around 90% of Brunei’s economy, the state is investing in its tourism sector, with nature as the central attraction.

Keep in mind that Brunei is on the island of Borneo, which it shares with both Indonesia and Malaysia. Borneo is renowned for rainforests and orangutans, though you won’t find any of the latter in Brunei as it only occupies 1% of the geographical area of the island.

According to Brunei Tourism, more than 70% of the country is covered by primary rainforest, with 320 square km allocated as forest reserves and 500 square km as national parks. Despite heavy gas and oil extraction, Brunei boasts some pretty green tourism credentials.

From Brunei Tourism:

Nature lovers will definitely be spoiled in Brunei. Pristine rainforests, unspoiled coral reefs, mangrove-covered islands, white sand beaches and accessible nature reserves offer visitors a dazzling array of ecotourism options. In Brunei, visitors can have the unique opportunity to walk in the rainforest canopy which houses an abundance of birds, plants, micro fauna and mammals, such as the rare Bornean proboscis monkey, making up one of the world’s richest and most diverse ecosystems. They can also stroll around the hauntingly beautiful lakeside walkways of Tasek Merimbun or relax on the turquoise shores of Muara beach without the crowds of other Asian destinations.

One distinct advantage of Brunei is the close proximity of all these natural attractions to the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Big noses and pot bellies – Brunei’s proboscis monkeys. Pic: Frank Starmer (Flickr CC)

Here are a few options for cultural and eco-tourism in Brunei:

Ulu Temburong National Park

Considered one of the Earth’s most diverse ecosystems, including lowland and mountain jungle and rainforest, Ulu Temburong is also home to Borneo’s traditional longhouse communities. Hike through the jungle or ride down the river in a traditional long boat, view waterfalls and walk above the rainforest on canopy walkways. Hopefully you’ll spot a rare proboscis monkey.

Scuba diving

Brunei is an esteemed diving destination due to its impressive 45 square km of coral reefs and impressive range of aquatic species as well as several commercial and military wrecks (see this piece on wreck diving in Brunei). It is also notable for the disused oil platforms, which provide unusual dive sites. Look for rays, hammerhead, leopard and grey tip sharks, and numerous tropical fish.

Selirong Island

Take a tour of this small island of mangrove forests and waterways. Several tour companies offer scenic boat rides to Selirong followed by walks through Selirong Conservation Forest on elevated wooden walkways.

From Mystic Borneo:

Selirong Forest Recreation Park is a preserved area solely for outdoor recreation, research and nature education. This mangrove wonderland is a breeding ground for the marine life that populates Brunei Bay. It is also a bird-watchers delight. With pristine mangrove forests, the chances of sighting wildlife are good; especially the proboscis monkey which is endemic to the island of Borneo. At certain times of the year, migratory birds alight here to make this their nesting ground and with other denizens of the mangrove forest, make this island, a naturalist’s dream.

Mangroves on Selirong Island. Pic: whl.travel (Flickr CC)

Other nature-oriented pastimes in Brunei include surfing or just hitting the beach, mountain biking, climbing, camping and rafting. Remember that Brunei is a Muslim country and more conservative than neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. There is no alcohol available for sale, though visitors can bring a small amount for their own consumption. My advice is to just “go native” while you’re there and keep your proboscis out of trouble. When in Rome, yada, yada…