When I knew I’d be passing through Brunei – a “dry” Islamic country in the process of introducing sharia law – my first question was, of course, “so where can I get a drink?”
I learned of the existence of a mysterious “speakeasy” known as “the lounge” and I made it my goal whilst in Brunei to track it down.
After reading a few accounts, like this one by Martin Vaughan for Wall Street Journal, Patrick Brzeski’s detective work for The Hollywood Reporter or Roger Mitton’s recollections of the legendary Brunei journalist, Ignatius Stephen, for the Phnom Penh Post, nobody was giving away the location, but I had a few clues. I knew that “the lounge”:
- Is located in a well-known hotel in Bandar, though the number of the floor differs depending on the account,
- At the end of a hall, behind two unmarked doors, and that you have to listen for faint noise within.
- Has an outdoor, but discreet terrace.
I also had to bear in mind though that these reports could be second-hand, or could include misleading information in order to protect the establishment, or the writer themselves.
Basically, this was the kind of place you’d only find if you were invited. You had to be in the know, gain trust, work your way into the inner circle…
…and I had two days to find it.
It was tough, but we did it.
Brunei Alcohol Laws
Brunei’s Sultan is in the very process of implementing good, old-fashioned sharia law, which means alcohol is illegal and drinking it (along with being gay, talking shit about God and probably even eating pork – the vices according to the Islamic world) can leave you caned, flogged, stoned (to death) or even missing a limb.
Here’s an overview of Brunei’s alcohol laws:
- Consumption of alcohol by Muslims is illegal in Brunei.
- Sale of alcohol is illegal.
- Drinking in public is illegal.
- Public drunkenness is a very serious crime.
- However, the minimum legal drinking age, for non-Muslims obviously, is 17.
- Non-Muslims are allowed to bring in up to two litres of bottled spirits or 12 cans of beer once every 48 hours (not twice a day, as some sites claim) as long as you declare it and get an “alcohol permit” on entry. This is actually one of the more generous, as far as alcohol import allowances go…
…but what they don’t tell you anywhere else, and which I learnt the hard way, is that if you’re coming overland from KK (Kota Kinabalu, or most places in Sabah, Malaysia) you won’t be able to bring your alcohol to Bandar (because you’ll cross into Brunei twice, within 48 hours).
Typical! The first time in my life I play this their way and declare something at customs, and they screw me. I had to drink it on the bus. The bus drivers asked what the hell I was doing declaring it, saying I should’ve just brought it in. You want my advice? Never declare anything. Of course, nobody ever searched the bus. Part of me had to wonder whether the whole bus wasn’t loaded with illicit booze.
Also bear in mind that being non-drinkers themselves, the border officials often don’t know the difference between beer, wine, spirits and so on, and are also unlikely to be sympathetic to your cause.
For a full guide, check out this guide to bringing alcohol into Brunei by Don’t Stop Living’s Jonny Blair, who’s been even more places than I have.
So, How and Where Can I Drink in Brunei?
If you want a drink in Brunei, here are your options. Bear in mind, most of these are illegal. If you don’t want to break the law, listen to the laws above, not to my advice.
- BYOB (bring your own booze) is common in some small, non-Muslim-run restaurants. There’s no corkage charge but remember, it’s illegal, so keep it hidden and low-profile and always ask first.
- After Muslims, the next largest ethnic group in Brunei is non-Muslim Chinese – many of whom drink. Some Chinese restaurants offer the infamous “special tea” (beer in a teapot). As a rule of thumb, if there’s pork, there’s beer…or at the very least you won’t risk your skin asking for it. So head for Chinatown!
- You can drink at your place or at the private home of a non-Muslim. (Remember, you’re allowed to bring in some alcohol.)
- Do what the locals do: go to Miri, Labuan, Kuala Lurah, etc, across the border in Malaysia.
- As it’s technically not Brunei soil, why not have a drink in your embassy?
- There are, of course, secret, underground parties in isolated spots where you can drink and dance to loud music, but good luck finding them. They’re invitation only, but try your luck with the bell-hops (hotel porters) who are most likely to be in the know.
Exposing Brunei’s Underground Drinking Scene!
Early searches for “Brunei nightlife” led only to late-night coffee shops, like the ones in Gadong, and the Chinese restaurateurs I asked in the city centre were unresponsive and the visits unfruitful.
I attempted to use Foursquare, which has a list of speakeasies in Brunei, and came up with names of places like “My Dream”, “Area 31″ and “Bebeh Hotspot”, but all of these were on the outskirts of the city and the locations were too vague, with no other information on them available online. Not to mention they sound dodgy as hell.
I drew up a list of Bandar hotels and, with the few clues I’d garnered, began my sleuthing.
After checking out all but one of the central hotels, my money was on the Radisson, but while “the Rad” does have a BYOB lounge where you can store your alcohol in lockers, it is exclusive to guests and – the big giveaway – there was no terrace space visible from outside.
All we needed to do was get in the know, get talking to a white businessman in a hotel bar – but, oh yeah, there are no hotel bars! I was at a loss…
…but just then we spotted a fellow “whitey” leaving the Rad.
I saw a chance and I took it.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Do you know if there’s a bar or anything around here?”
He smiled, instinctively looking around to check no-one was listening in. “Well…there is one place… It’s not much to look at, but…”
[By the way, unlike the other accounts I’ve read, I’m perfectly happy to blow the whistle on this place – they’re the ones breaking the law, not me, and I honestly won’t loose any sleep over making an enemy of the Sultan of Brunei – anyone who has 599 Rolls-Royces and decides he needs another one rather than sharing that money with the poor and disadvantaged is not exactly a potential friend of mine. What a twat!
However, I don’t want to be the guy who puts it online and ruins it for everyone. So, if you genuinely want to know where this place to drink in Brunei is, just contact me.]
Anyway, the guy, who we’ll lend an Irish accent and call “Cole”, was actually on his way to get booze and offered to give us a ride with his “driver”.
Cole was a great guy. He confirmed the stories of groups sitting drinking tea outside Chinese restaurants and getting gradually more loud and larey. He said that, behind the scenes, Bruneians are friendly and very liberal, like his driver, and that the lounge is actually owned by the Sultan’s cousin (a fact I obviously haven’t been able to confirm, but which I find highly plausible).
The drive was roughly four or five kilometres…or maybe it was miles.
Dropped off at the hotel, we walked in, through the lobby, took the elevator, and followed the hall to its end, where we were confronted with the set of unmarked doors, with masked, dome CCTV camera above, exactly as I’d expected. They’d even put three plants in front of the door in an attempt to disguise it.
I thought I could hear sporadic noises coming from inside, but when I knocked there was no answer.
“Come on Roy, let’s just go.”
I knocked again and, after a short wait, a small side-door just to our right unexpectedly opened to reveal a group of security guards.
“Is this the lounge?” I asked, and they shrugged and let us in.
“It should be quite obvious,” Cole had said. “Clearly everyone knows about it. If it was actually unwanted, it would be in a warehouse somewhere with heavy security and rife with hookers and drugs.”
This place was quiet and civilised – no loud music or dancing or explicit sex acts – with a pool table, people sitting around on plush but faded, threadbare chairs, like in an old, local pub in England, smoking, enjoying a beer, or some food from the legitimate restaurant downstairs. (In case you’re interested, food is about $5.50 for soup or chips and $26 for a t-bone steak.)
Apparently the Chief of Police regularly drinks here, and (contrary to what you might first think) when he’s in the house your definitely safe from a raid.
“Do you have a menu?” I asked.
The bartender just laughed. “No.”
The choice of booze was limited to a few bottles – mostly whisky, which seemed to match the clientele – and beer for $7 a pint, which is, perhaps surprisingly, roughly UK price.
There were old black and white pictures on the wall, lockers for guests to store their booze, a TV, turned low, playing sports. There was the terrace, as promised, surrounded by staggered slats to impair viewers from outside.
That shakey, adrenalin-induced feeling you get when you’re breaking the law, when you’re out of your depth and don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Maybe the equivalent of how you’d feel if you sought out an opium den in the UK. It was my first “speakeasy” and the word alone put me in the mind of Bugsy Mallone or Al Capone or whatever. I’ve no doubt there are others – lesser-known, more local – roadside cafes and so on. House parties are also a big part of life here, we were told.
The feeling had faded and we were now relaxed, on seeing the harmlessness and strange normalcy (oxymoron intended) of the place.
A trip to the toilet (which had a bath-tub) gave the impression that this was a not-so-long-ago converted suite. The lack of decor (relative to the rest of the hotel) and the fact that there’d been no attempt to remove the bath pointed to the illicit nature of the establishment.
When we were good and tipsy we called our new driver, who 10 minutes later picked us up and took us back to the Radisson, where he, erroneously but quite conveniently, assumed we were staying.
“How much do we owe you?”
“Whatever you want to pay.”
“I don’t really know the currency… We only just arrived. Is ten about right?”
“Sure,” he said with a smile that could either mean “no, you cheapskate bastards” or “thank you kindly”.
On a side note, I’m now pretty sure that journey should’ve cost about $15 – or $30 after 10 pm, when rates double.
I won’t give away the driver’s name or number or any other details as there are apparently less than 50 licensed taxi drivers in BSB…though it’s probably safe to say he wasn’t one of them.
If you’re the kind of person who often finds yourself in a Muslim nation looking for drink, you may also be interested in my post on what and where to drink in Morocco. I’ve got quite the series.
Where to Stay in Bandar Seri Begawan?
When’s the last time you met anyone who’s been to Brunei? Accommodation (especially of the budget variety) is fairly limited in Brunei. Bandar has a handful of options though:
- Pusat Belia – The equivalent of a YHA or HI hostel. Dorms from $10 (that’s Brunei dollars) (£5). Try it if you want. Didn’t respond to our emails and told us they were full when they quite clearly weren’t. (It’s massive!)
- KH Soon Resthouse – $40 double or $35 single. (Prices have gone up a bit since the latest Lonely Planet – as they always do!) This is where we stayed. Huge rooms, squat toilets, no breakfast, dead centre of the city (shame not much else is) and staff are nice enough. Perfectly adequate. It’s extortionate for South East Asia, but a good deal for Brunei.
- Terrace Hotel – $65 with no breakfast or $75 with à la carte breakfast. It’s dated but has a pool and is probably the best deal in town if you want a nice room.
- Radisson – $80 plus tax. Buffet breakfast. I wouldn’t normally mention these options but there’s really not a lot else. It’s very swish though and within easy walk of the centre even with a backpack.
What Else to Do in Bandar?
You should probably check out:
- The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, pictured above…
- …and the derelict water villages immediately opposite (and all over Brunei).
- The night market and shitty day market for some relatively cheap eats.
- Istana Nurul Iman – the largest royal residence in the world (bigger than Versailles) with 1,788 rooms and 257 bathrooms, can only be seen for three days a year, during Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the end of Ramadan). Otherwise you can take a water taxi around its immense grounds for $15 and you won’t see shit.