Inside the surreal capital city of Brunei, a tiny nation of unimaginable wealth where oil money pays for everything and half the population lives in a floating 'water village'

Mark AbadiJame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan.
  • Brunei is tiny, but it’s one of the richest countries in the world.
  • Its wealth is on full display in its capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, where oil money pays for glittering mosques and extravagant architecture.
  • Much of the city’s population lives in a floating village, where the houses, schools, and restaurants are all on stilts.

Brunei is one of the smallest countries in the world – at 2,200 square miles, it’s smaller than Delaware, and its population is lower than that of Omaha, Nebraska.

Yet the Southeast Asian nation is also one of the richest in the world, with a higher GDP per capita than countries like the United States, Germany, and Japan.

Brunei’s wealth is on full display in its capital city Bandar Seri Begawan, where grandiose mosques and extravagant buildings dominate the townscape and tributes to the country’s mega-rich sultan lie around every corner.

But Brunei’s capital is also a city of contrasts. Despite its flashy architecture, the streets of Bandar Seri Begawan are eerily quiet, and after dark, the lack of nightlife and bustle turns the mood downright surreal.

Even stranger, nearly half of the city’s population lives in a floating village where houses, schools, restaurants, and police stations all rest on stilts in the middle of the Brunei River.

Here’s what it’s like inside the capital of city of one of the most enigmatic countries in the world:


Bandar Seri Begawan is the small but flashy capital of Brunei, a tiny country on the island of Borneo. Bandar means “city” in the Malay language, while Seri Begawan is a royal title held by the sultan of Brunei’s father.

Source: Oxford Business Group


Brunei’s economy is almost entirely dependent on crude oil, which has paid for some of the most glamorous buildings in Southeast Asia.

Mark Abadi

Source: Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training


The Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is a particularly stunning example.

Mark Abadi

Source: Royal Brunei


Thanks to his country’s oil and gas exports, the sultan of Brunei is the wealthiest monarch in the world, and one of the richest people overall, with an estimated net worth of $US20 billion. His residence is considered one of the largest palaces in the world.

Wikimedia Commons

Source: Business Insider


Much of the city feels like a shrine to the sultan, with giant pictures of him looming around every street corner.

Source: A Long Way Back


There’s even a giant museum called the Royal Regalia Museum dedicated entirely to the sultan.

Wikimedia Commons

Source: Atlas Obscura


Inside the museum are artifacts from the sultan’s coronation, as well as room after room of extravagant gifts he’s received over the years from other world leaders.

Wikimedia Commons

Source: Atlas Obscura


Meanwhile, the residents of Bandar Seri Begawan don’t come close to sniffing the sultan’s wealth. This “floating village” on the Brunei River is home to an estimated 13,000 of the city’s 27,000 people.

Mark Abadi

Source: CNN


It’s called Kampung Ayer, meaning “water village.”

Mark Abadi

Source: CNN


Kampung Ayer doesn’t just contain thousands of residential homes, but also schools, restaurants, police and fire stations, and mosques — all on stilts.

Source: Lonely Planet


People get around — very carefully — on a series of interconnected walkways.

Mark Abadi

Source: Lonely Planet


And they also get around by ubiquitous water taxis, which take people back and forth from the mainland for a fare of $US1.

Mark Abadi

Source: ASEAN Information Center


The use of water taxis earned Bandar Seri Begawan the nickname “Venice of the East.”

Source: ASEAN Korea


Back on the mainland, the streets are eerily silent, creating something of a surreal feeling.

Shutterstock/Aleksandr Sadkov

Source: Mei Meichu


That only intensifies after dark, when the city practically turns into a ghost town. There is no nightlife to speak of, as alcohol is banned nationwide.

Flickr Creative Commons/Mark Lovelife

Source: Mei Meichu


One of the only places you’ll find a crowd after sunset is the local night market.

Flickr Creative Commons/IQ Remix

Source: Brunei Travel Guide


There, you’ll find merchants selling foods most Americans have never even heard of.

Mark Abadi

Source: Brunei Travel Guide


There’s also a gaudy shopping mall that is open after sunset, but it isn’t exactly brimming with shoppers.

Flickr Creative Commons/bettch

Source: Trip Advisor


Despite the lack of activity, nighttime is when Bandar Seri Begawan’s architecture really pops.

Flickr Creative Commons

Source: Lonely Planet


The city’s calm and quiet energy makes it one of the most interesting capitals in the world.

Mark Abadi

Source: Lonely Planet

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