The tiny tropical country of Brunei doesn’t usually find itself on most travellers’ itineraries. But once a year, this little corner of Southeast Asia offers an unusual and unforgettable reason to stop by.
To celebrate the festival of Hari Raya (or Eid al Fitr, as it’s known in most Muslim countries, marking the end of Ramadan), the Sultan of Brunei opens the doors of his palace for three days to welcome anyone and everyone who’d like to visit.
As the world’s wealthiest monarch, with a sprawling palace that would be the envy of kings and princes the world over, the sultan knows how to throw a party! Guests can enjoy a delicious holiday banquet, and everyone has a chance to meet the royal family (the sultan receives male visitors, while female guests are greeted by the queen).
While more and more intrepid travellers are learning about this incredible tradition, it’s still off-the-beaten-path enough to make it hard to know what to expect when you actually arrive. While experiencing this royal celebration may not be as hard as you think, a few helpful tips can help you get the most out of your Hari Raya.
10 Tips for visitors to the Hari Raya Festival: Brunei Darussalam
1. Have a flexible schedule
While the estimated date of Hari Raya is known far in advance, it is only confirmed 100% on the last night of Ramadan, when local religious officials attempt to observe the new moon signalling a new month. If they don’t see the moon, then the holiday is postponed for one more day.
This means that the date of Hari Raya can vary from country to country. In 2017, neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia celebrated on June 25, but Brunei didn’t begin festivities until June 26. So make sure your schedule has enough room to accommodate a possible extra day.
And remember, the palace open house only begins on the second day of Hari Raya – the sultan spends the first day with his family and receiving ambassadors and other official guests.
2. Bring money!
There are ATMs in Brunei Airport, but it’s still smart to have a backup plan, since nearly all currency exchange counters in the airport and in downtown Brunei will be closed for the holiday.
Your best bet is to bring Singapore dollars, which are accepted as legal tender everywhere in Brunei. Just note that you’ll likely be given local Brunei dollars back as change. They may be a little hard to exchange abroad, except of course in Singapore, where Brunei dollars are likewise officially accepted alongside the local currency… although you may get some strange looks if you try to spend them at smaller shops.
3. Get to the palace early
The royal family starts receiving guests at 10am, but the long wait to see them means it’s best to arrive far in advance. Getting through security at the palace gate can take 20 minutes to a half hour in the morning, and considerably longer in the afternoon.
Once inside, the wait to see the royals takes about an hour and a half, as visitors are led row-by-row from their seats in a series of increasingly opulent waiting rooms and corridors. If you arrive around 10am, you run the risk of getting to the end of the line just as the Sultan and his wife take a break from meeting guests from noon to 2pm (he’ll continue for another two hours, until 4pm).
4. Dress well (but not too well)
For a meeting with royalty, you might expect a super strict dress code, particularly in a devoutly Muslim country like Brunei. But requirements for visiting the palace aren’t much different from visiting a temple or church in most places in the world: long pants or skirt, covered shoulders, and closed-toe shoes are more than enough.
5. Pack a camera
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this, you’ll definitely want to capture as much of it on film as possible.
There’s no problem taking even the bulkiest DSLR through security, though an attendant will come around to collect oversized cameras moments before you meet the royals – you’ll get a ticket you can exchange to get it back as soon as you leave the audience hall.
6. Take a boat
Traffic on the road to the palace is a nightmare. Grabbing a water taxi will bypass the congestion, give you a stunning view of waterside monuments and mosques, and just be a lot more fun!
The boat driver will know where to drop you off, and palace officials will be waiting on dry land to help you fill in the registration form required from every visitor – saving you the long wait to do the same thing at the palace itself.
There’s a free shuttle bus from the pier to the palace, but if you can brave the heat for a ten minute walk, you’ll get there a lot faster on foot.
7. Load up your plate
As soon as you get through the main door, you’ll be directed straight to the buffet, with about a dozen local dishes ranging from barbecue lamb to vegetable curry.
Try as many as you like, since you won’t be able to go back for seconds (unless you want to exit the palace and go through the security line again).
If you’re still hungry though, don’t worry, scattered around the banquet hall are multiple dessert stations that will be happy to give you as many slices of chocolate cake or scoops of rice pudding as you can handle!
8. Relax, it’s just royalty!
Meeting the sultan or his wife is a simple, well-choreographed affair. There won’t be time for a conversation, and don’t be surprised if they don’t say anything at all – you probably wouldn’t either if you had to shake hands with over 40,000 people in a day! A simple nod and a handshake will do. Many visitors will also show their respect by adding a bow from the waist, but this isn’t necessary.
9. Enjoy all Brunei has to offer
While visiting the Sultan may be the highlight of your trip to Brunei, it shouldn’t be the only thing you do here!
To be fair, there’s not much to see in the small, sterile capital Bandar Seri Begwan, whose museums (along with most stores and restaurants) will be closed for the holiday. But make sure you spend some time wandering through the quirky, maze-like water village of Kampong Ayer.
Hire a speedboat to explore the further reaches of Brunei Bay, with its thick jungle of mangrove trees inhabited by wild monkeys… and the occasional crocodile. For a longer side trip, head to Ulu Temburong National Park, where you can enjoy breathtaking treetop views of endless virgin rainforest.
10. Have a ball!
The most important thing to remember is, of course, just have fun!
Hari Raya is the biggest celebration of the year in Brunei, and it won’t be hard to get swept up in the excitement of the holiday atmosphere at what feels like the world’s biggest and swankiest house party. So relax, enjoy your time in this little-visited corner of the world, enjoy checking off an item from your bucket list… and finally, enjoy the delicious cake you’ll receive from palace staff as a parting gift!
About the writer: Based in China, Michael Evans is fascinated by the surprises hidden just around the corner from the well-worn tourist trail, but is just as willing to venture into the foothills of Tibet or bike down country roads in Vietnam, as long as he knows there’s a good story waiting at the end. Follow Michael on Instagram to check out his latest adventures.