The tiny but thriving Islamic Sultanate of Brunei perches on the northwestern coast of Borneo, completely encircled by the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. It has a population of 323,000, nearly seventy percent of which is made up of Malays and indigenes from the larger ethnic groups like the Murut and Dusun; the rest are Chinese, Indians, smaller indigenous tribes and expats. They enjoy a quality of life that is quite unparalleled in Southeast Asia, with the literacy rate a staggering 93.7 percent of the population. Education and healthcare are free; houses, cars, and even pilgrimages to Mecca are subsidized; taxation on personal income is unheard of; and the average per capita salary is around US$19,000. The explanation is simple: oil , first discovered in 1903 at the site of what is now the town of Seria.
The sultanate's full name is Negara Brunei Darussalam, the "Country of Brunei, the Abode of Peace", and peaceful is a fair, if rather polite, description of the state. Nightlife is almost nonexistent, and liquor extremely hard to get hold of since a ban in 1991. Until recently, the Sultan viewed the development of a tourist industry as unnecessary, and there's been little for visitors to do in Brunei. However, things are gradually changing. Brunei is becoming less introspective and looking more to the West. You can see the results in the building of smart plazas with their requisite coffee bars in the capital Bandar. The authorities are starting to promote Brunei's natural resources, and sections of pristine rainforest like Ulu Temburong National Park in eastern Brunei are opening up to visitors. The lack of accommodation outside the capital is being tackled by the recently formed homestay programme - where travellers overnight in Malay and Murut kampungs (villages) and Iban longhouses. This opportunity to share in rural life is gaining popularity. Add to this the fact that the capital Bandar Seri Begawan is an attractive city, with two exquisite mosques and the fascinating Kampung Ayer stilt village , and a stop-off in Brunei is a more appealing proposition than ever before.
That said, the problem remains that Brunei is more expensive than neigbouring Malaysia or even Singapore - hotel prices in the capital are at least double those in nearby Kota Kinabalu or Miri. Most travellers still end up in Brunei either because of an enforced stopover on a Royal Brunei Airlines flight, or as a stepping stone to either Sabah or Sarawak. In the latter case, however, it can work out cheaper to take an internal MAS flight between Miri and Labuan rather than bussing it through Brunei.