Dan was going to Sandakan to go scuba diving in Sipadan. For non scuba divers, there is a whole lot of nothing to do in the coastal town of Sandakan. So I decided to go off on my own for a couple days (well not totally on my own, I still had the Jake with me). We decided that while in Borneo, it would be an absolute shame if we visited both Sarawak and Sabah and totally skipped the little country that lies between them – Brunei.
Several people questioned my decision to go to Brunei on my own. They wondered if it would be safe for solo female travel.
The Guide to Female Travel in Brunei
Brunei is a conservative Islamic country nestled between the Bornean states of Sarawak and Sabah. Brunei is a conservative country, it is probably the most conservative Muslim country in South East Asia, but it is not fundamentalist. There is a big difference between a fundamentalist country and a conservative country. I would avoid visiting a fundamentalist country, with concerns of my safety. But there is nothing to be concerned of in conservative Brunei.
I spent two days in Brunei, and although that is only a short period of time, I didn’t ever feel unsafe.
I arrived late at night. My flight from Kota Kinabalu was delayed by more than an hour. An hour is a long time for a flight to be delayed when you are travelling by yourself with a toddler. Luckily, Jacob made fast friends with a little Chinese toddler and the two of them kept themselves busy. After clearing immigration we emerged from the large, clean and spacious airport into the night of Brunei.
Entering a country, alone, tired, confused and late at night isn’t the best idea in most countries, so I wondered what it would be like in Brunei. But luckily, even though I arrived almost two hours later than I had specified, the hotel pick up guy was still waiting for me. My first experience in Brunei was of friendly customer service.
I had one full day to explore Brunei. I had plotted out a little walking tour for Jake and I and set off in the morning after our breakfast. You can read our full day trip itinerary here. Everywhere we went, people were friendly and helpful. Despite being a prosperous country, and once of the richest in South East Asia, the sidewalks were rough and uneven. That combined with our terrible, terrible Chinese stroller, well let’s just say, there were a lot of opportunities for people to demonstrate their generosity and helpful natures.
Not once did I feel conspicuous, stared at, awkward or out of place.
After exploring the tiny town centre, I decided to try to find a boat man to take us on a river tour. My lonely planet said to expect to pay around $40 Bruneian dollars for a private boat tour. My book was a few years out of date so I expected to pay a bit extra, even after a bit of haggling. I hadn’t even made my way fully to the waters edge when a boat man starting trying to get my attention. I asked him how much for a tour, expecting to have a pay a higher price for being a solo female. He quoted me $50, I asked for $40, and he agreed. I was gob smacked. It seems like even being a solo female traveller in a conservative Muslim country, didn’t adversely prejudice me when it came to finances and bargaining with a local man.
The next morning I had to leave very early to catch the bus to take me to the ferry to Kota Kinabalu. My hotel dropped me off at the local bus station. A solo female alone, in the dark, with way more luggage than she can keep track of – you don’t get more vulnerable than that. Did anyone try to take advantage of me? Nope. Instead they helped me get my luggage onto the bus.
I only spent two days in Brunei. I can’t really comment on the social or political situation there for women. I can’t really comment on what life must be like in a nation where conservative Muslim law is enforced. But I can tell you that as a women travelling alone with a small child, that I experienced nothing negative or untoward in the way local people treated me or interacted with me.
What should you wear as a woman travelling in Brunei?
If you are travelling in Brunei as a woman, you need to dress conservatively in order to be respectful of local customs. Now that doesn’t mean every inch of your body needs to be covered, it just means keeping your shoulders and knees covered.
I packed a pair of lightweight breezy trousers and a couple t-shirts. I didn’t cover my hair, and I wore fabrics that were lightweight enough that they were still cool enough in the South East Asian climate.