The Brunei rainforest in Ulu Temburong National Park was probably one of the most – to use the cliché – off-the-beaten-path places I’ve ever been. Especially when you consider there’s no actual “path” to get there!
Brunei, a tiny country on the north coast of Borneo, is surrounded by Malaysia on three sides and the sea on the other. With a predominantly Muslim population, it hasn’t fully hit the tourism radar, but very much wants to attract travelers. Its main attraction is its practically untouched rainforest. Ulu Temburong National Park alone covers 505 square kilometers (212 square miles) and is only reachable by river.
Note: A new criminal law came into effect in Brunei after we visited which should make you think twice about traveling there. Under this new law, homosexual sex can be punished by death. This represents a change in the Shariah Penal Code; before, homosexuality could already be punished by 10 years in prison. The law can be applied to non-Muslims too. Under international pressure, in 2019, the Brunei government announced a moratorium on the death penalty, but homosexuals still face severe punishments like years of imprisonment or caning.
I’ve decided to go ahead and publish what I wrote more than a year ago in case you’re a) planning a trip to Brunei despite the law and/or b) just curious what this untouched rainforest is like.
I hope you’re reading this for the second reason rather than the first.
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We added this stop in Brunei to our trip around Malaysian Borneo because Brunei’s rainforest, we had heard, is pristine. While clearcutting has devastated much of the rainforest in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo – for hardwoods and for planting palm trees to produce palm oil – Brunei has its own oil and natural gas reserves. That means that they’ve never deforested. Their forest is truly old growth.
So that’s why we were there. Getting to Ulu Temburong, though, was a bit complicated, involving four different forms of transportation.
Getting to Ulu Temburong
We had signed up for a one-night trip into the rainforest with Sunshine Borneo Tours. Our first step to getting there was to meet our guide at a particular bus stop in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.
That part was easy enough. Staying in a friendly little bed and breakfast in Bandar, we were on the edge of the “water village”: an expanse of houses on stilts, some giving an impression of poverty, others looking more substantial. Getting to the meeting point, our host told us, would just involve a short water taxi ride. It would cost no more than two Bruneian dollars, which is less than two US dollars or euros.
1. Water taxi
It was a matter of about five minutes in a water taxi – a glorified rowboat with a small engine on the back – and we’d arrived at the meeting point.
Our guide introduced himself and the other members of our group: a family from Germany with two teenagers, a couple from France, a young British woman traveling solo, and the two of us.
As we waited at the water taxi dock, surrounded by our luggage, the guide explained that we were waiting for a bus. It surprised me to find out that this expensive package we’d booked didn’t include private transportation and we’d be on a plain old public bus.
When the guide told us it was time to board the bus, it became clear what was going on. The “bus” was a boat: a long, low, covered boat holding perhaps forty people. There was no outdoor deck; just rows of seats with a narrow aisle down the middle and a life preserver draped on each chair’s back. It was a very bus-like boat.
2. The bus/boat
Once we’d settled in, the boat took off, cruising smoothly and quickly away from the city. Within minutes it seemed we were far from everything. The boat sped along waterways, sometimes as narrow as a four-lane highway, sometimes much wider.
On both sides, once we were away from the city and the water villages, the river’s edge was thick with a tangle of mangroves and palm trees. Later, the greenery shifted to the sorts of varied rainforest growth we’d seen in the Danum valley in Malaysia: a taller mix of trees. The driver swooped smoothly around curves at full speed, and turned into unmarked side waterways without hesitation.
After about 45 minutes, we arrived at a small town, which I think was Bangar. Our guide ushered us off the “bus” and into a waiting room that looked much like a small bus station, with the typical rows of plastic seats. He explained that the next leg of the trip was 20 minutes in a bus, which hadn’t yet arrived. This time he really meant a bus, and it came specifically for us.
3. The bus
The bus – really more of a van – took us on some good roads and on some not-so-good roads through rainforest and villages. In 20 minutes it deposited us at a dock next to a small lodge on a river.
Our next step was longboats. We donned life vests, our luggage was distributed among a number of these boats, and then, so were we.
This part of the trip, about 45 minutes long, was exhilarating. As we sat in single file, gripping the tippy boat on either side, the driver behind us steered us upstream against the current.
The river wasn’t very high. We passed up shallow rapids, where the driver at the back of the longboat expertly tipped the motor forward from time to time just enough so the propellers wouldn’t get damaged. In a few places, another man in the front of the boat had to fend us off rocks with a stick.
Once I settled into the ride, determined not to worry about my things getting wet in the sloshing water in the boat under my feet or about capsizing, I began to enjoy myself. After all, my laptop was in a bag on top of another bag, so it wouldn’t get wet. If we capsized, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I lost my laptop. This river is not at all wide or deep, and I can swim anyway. I relaxed into the experience.
We filmed bits of the ride, and I incorporated the clips into this short film about the trip:
We were navigating through real, unspoiled wilderness. Imagine the stereotypical picture of a jungle: vines hanging down for Tarzan to swing from, plants with massive leaves, tall trees stretching high to the blue sky, shorter palms of a thousand sorts crowding the forest with green, unidentifiable fruits hanging down, colorful flowers emerging from or on the trees… this is what we saw. As we plowed around curves in the river, where stones had piled up, we startled white egrets into taking flight.
Ulu Ulu Resort
The place we stayed, Ulu Ulu Resort, was our destination, and we splashed out of the longboats onto the rocky river’s edge. The lodge is a long, low, series of buildings arranged along the river, connected by roofed wooden walkways.
Unfortunately, the lodge has closed since we visited – a casualty of the pandemic. If you want to visit Ulu Temburong National Park, you’ll either have to go on a day trip from Bandar or stay at a lodge somewhere on the edge of the rainforest.
Night jungle walk
After dinner and sunset on the night we arrived, we took a walk in the rainforest. Our guide focused mostly on little creatures: insects, snakes, frogs and such.
We saw a lot of bugs in a variety of forms, most of them significantly larger than their relatives at home. Our guide would point out an insect, snake or other creature using a flashlight. Then it would scuttle, slither or flutter away while we frantically tried to take photos.
Sunrise hike in the Brunei rainforest
This was meant to be the high point of the trip, and for my husband it was. Woken up before sunrise, we piled back into the longboats for a short hop across the river. There, we began a very long climb (747 steps, according to a sign at the top) into the rainforest. It was dark so we saw very little, apart from assorted (but large) bugs that happened past the beams of our flashlights.
For me, this walk was hard. I am terribly out of shape and I have knee trouble. I wore a knee brace on the worse knee, and it helped, but I wished I had bought two, since the other started aching. Waving the rest of the group to go ahead, I told them I’d take my time and use my mobile phone’s flashlight.
The 747 steps was actually more. Between the lengths of stairways the path inclined upwards. On those sections, we walked on a wooden structure: two parallel boards along the upward path, with smaller boards connecting them horizontally at intervals. Those smaller boards offered some traction as I stepped on them, becoming, essentially, more steps.
The first early dawn light was showing by the time I reached the base of the canopy walkway, where I found the guide waiting for me. The walkway is a long metal structure on top of a hill overlooking the rainforest. From the top, visitors can watch the sunrise over the forest and do some early-morning birdwatching.
The rest of the group was up high at treetop level by now. I took one look at the structure and told the guide to just go on up without me. I’d catch my breath and make a decision.
The structure was made of the sorts of steel poles you see builders use to make a scaffolding next to a building. It was supported at five or six points along its length by more scaffolding, with a bridge between them at their peaks. Only the first and last of the row of supports contained stairs. (You can see the walkway in the short video I linked to above.)
The thing that stopped me was those stairs: they were really more ladders than stairs. Each leaned at about a 45-degree angle within the structure. You would climb up the ladder, step onto a landing made of metal, and walk to the next 45-degree ladder. The spaces between the steps of the ladder were more than big enough for my feet to slip through. After the first three flights, the structure was edged in fencing of a sort, so at least it would be more enclosed. But those first three flights …
I managed one flight, but just couldn’t get myself to go further. Only one flight up, I was already terrified. I could not keep going. I thought about how much I knew I’d like seeing the sunrise from the top. But I also thought about the fact that I’d have to get down again if I actually managed to climb all the way up, and down would be even more scary than up. And I’d have to climb back down all those stairs to the riverbank as well.
So I didn’t do it. I ended up waiting at the bottom of the structure for about two hours, I’d guess, but, to be honest, I didn’t mind. Alone in a primeval forest, I could hear hornbills wake up and call to each other. I heard monkeys of some sort. Some sort of insect – maybe crickets? – made an absolutely piercing shrill noise that sounded like a sawmill. I didn’t see any creatures, but I could hear so much just standing in the forest. It was pretty magical. (Again, you’ll see what I mean from the video!)
I walked a bit more too, along the base of the structure, back and forth a couple of times, adding to my step count. The sun rose, the birds and insects quieted a bit, and eventually the people descended. Albert was excited to have been able to see and photograph some beautiful birds. The sunrise itself, apparently, wasn’t any more beautiful than the one we saw much more easily at Danum Valley in Malaysia.
Other Brunei rainforest activities
On both days of our trip we took part in other activities on the rainforest.
My husband and I took a two-person kayak down a side branch of the river, where the water was still. There, we spotted what I think were macaques high in some trees. We quietly sat to watch them for a while.
This was the highlight of the trip for me. Returning from kayaking, we traded in the kayak for innertubes, setting off on the river, letting the current take us downstream. This time, we didn’t have the noise of a motor, like with the longboats, or oars splashing, like the kayaks. All we heard was the rushing of the water and the occasional whoop of enjoyment as we swirled around in its flow. It was a joy to surrender myself to the river this way.
Occasionally my bum hit some of the water-smoothed rocks below the surface. Most of the time it sufficed to lift up my bum and the current would push me past it. Once or twice I had to work a bit more with hands and feet to push off the rocks. I didn’t mind; the water cooled me.
A nature hike
We also took a hike into the rainforest. While we didn’t spot any larger animals, we enjoyed the sights and smells and sounds of walking down a narrow path through real virgin rainforest.
The highlight of the hike was a small waterfall. It didn’t seem like anything special at first until we took off our shoes and waded into the small pool below it. Small fishes started to nibble at our feet. They startled us at first, but once we realized what was happening we could relax into our natural pedicures!
Would I recommend seeing the Brunei rainforest at Ulu Temburong?
Normally I would recommend Ulu Temburong, especially if you like an adventure and are physically fit. Nature lovers would enjoy the chance to spot monkeys, insects and other wildlife, but keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed. Unlike many wildlife reserves, the Brunei rainforest at Ulu Temburong National Park is huge and the animals might not be anywhere close by.
I’d also caution that if you have a phobia of insects, snakes or spiders, you might want to think carefully. My fear of heights didn’t ruin the trip for me, but there is no way to just say “I’ll sit this one out” when it comes to spiders and bugs.
On the other hand, given the reprehensible new anti-homosexuality law in Brunei, I’d say no, don’t go there. Just read about it and enjoy the photos, but wait until a more LGBTQ-friendly time to visit.
As an alternative, Malaysian Borneo does have some protected remnants of rainforest left in national parks. Look into the Danum Valley, for example, where we saw more wildlife, especially monkeys, than we saw in the Brunei rainforest.
What to bring
If you decide to go anyway, bring bug spray, sun lotion, a hat and very comfortable walking shoes that can get wet. If you are into photography, a zoom lens would be very handy because any animals you do spot will be shy. A first aid kit is also a good idea, just in case you stumble and scrape yourself or get a bug bite of some sort. If you get seasick, bring some meds for that.
Don’t worry a lot about covering up; in the Brunei rainforest a sleeveless shirt and shorts is perfectly okay, but in the evening it’s wise to put on long pants and long sleeves because of the bugs. Don’t bother with rainwear; it’s hot enough so you’re unlikely to mind getting wet. On the other hand, some sort of protective cover or bag for your camera is definitely a good idea.
Ulu Temburong can only be visited on a guided tour. While people do often visit it on day trips from Bandar, I’d recommend staying for a night or more. You’ll see more and have the time to slow down and savor being in a truly primeval rainforest. How many people ever get to experience that?