Spot endangered proboscis monkeys on a cruise down the Brunei river, take in the swathes of virgin rainforest on a canopy walk and enjoy activities such as tubing and kayaking when you visit the small nation
Dawn is breaking over the forest canopy of Ulu Temburong National Park and it looks like a watercolour painting.
Shrouds of mist part to reveal the treetops, while the rising sun turns the sky pink and lilac, and then a blazing orange.
I am viewing all this from 50m high, perched on a tiny platform atop a metal scaffolding that forms the first tower of the canopy walk. Up here, the sticky heat of the rainforest lifts.
The trees ring with the cacophony of wildlife, even if I cannot spot them.
Mr Hans Hazebroek, a wildlife photographer who shares the platform with me, points out a keening squall that belongs to a type of cicada known as the Crying Lady, and tells me it can be found only in virgin rainforests.
Brunei has this in swathes. About 70 per cent of the country is covered with rainforest and Ulu Temburong National Park is one of its most well-known tourist sites.
On top of that, its small size and sleepy reputation means Brunei rarely makes it onto travellers' bucket lists.
But there are worthwhile attractions in the oil-rich sultanate just two hours from Singapore - the last piece in the puzzle for those who have visited the rest of South-east Asia and are curious about what Brunei has to offer.
For travellers who enjoy discovering hidden gems, now is a good time to go. The government wants to double air arrivals from 218,000 in 2015 to 451,000 by 2020, and is drawing travellers with ecotourism and food festivals.
New infrastructure, such as a 30km-long bridge connecting Brunei's capital to its forest hinterland, is slated to be finished later this year and will cut travel time from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), to Ulu Temburong National Park by about half.
The current route takes about three hours, including a 45-minute speedboat from BSB to Temburong Port, a 30-minute car ride to the village of Batang Duri, and a longboat ride to the national park that takes 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the depth of the river.
During my visit in March, when it has not rained in weeks, the water is so shallow that we must navigate the last leg cautiously to avoid hitting the rocky riverbed.
But the slow cruise down the Temburong river, surrounded by local fishing boats, is part of the adventure and makes the destination feel even more remote. While many tourists visit on a day trip, spending the night at Ulu Ulu National Park Resort offers more time to enjoy activities such as tubing or kayaking.
I opt for the latter after descending from the vertiginous canopy walk, and follow my guide, Mr Richard Ret, as we navigate through some gentle rapids, pulling up along a short trail that leads to a waterfall.
We encounter more wildlife during the 10-minute trek. A persistent knocking turns out to be a woodpecker; a rustling in the trees reveals the distinctive orange crest of a hornbill.
At the waterfall, I wade into the shallow pool and a swarm of fish, two or three times the size of the ones at fish spas, surround my feet, their teeth prickly and ticklish on my skin.
There are animals near the city too. Back in the capital, the surrounding mangroves are home to about 1,500 endangered proboscis monkeys, known for their pendulous noses and pot bellies.
The species is endemic to Borneo, Asia's largest island shared by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is fairly easy to spot the monkeys and I count about 20 of them in various troops during an hour-long boat tour.
Some swing through the treetops, searching for a place to rest for the night, while others clamber on mangrove roots at eye level.
Mr Ret points out their webbed feet, evolved to move nimbly near the water's edge, and peppers our boat ride with a stream of simian trivia.
For instance, proboscis monkeys do not eat bananas or other ripe fruits, as the sugars can ferment in their stomachs and cause fatal bloating.
Instead, they live on the young leaves of the rhizophora tree or mangrove apples when the latter is in season in the second half of the year.
Crocodiles are the monkeys' main predator. Mr Ret sees one in the water, but it submerges before I can catch a glimpse of it.
I do, however, spot a monitor lizard basking on a bare branch on our way back to Kampong Ayer, or Water Village, which houses over 10,000 people in homes built on stilts.
Some have been recently refurbished, with concrete jetties leading to brick-and-mortar homes. Others are more rundown, with wobbly wooden jetties and timber-patched walls. And some houses are made to stand out.
One resident has decked out her home and jetty leading to it in a riot of pastel colours. The front porch brims with pots of real and fake flowers, and windchimes tinkle prettily in the afternoon breeze.
The candy-coloured house looks like it came from a children's storybook.
Another colourful home-turned-guesthouse is the Kunyit 7 lodge that sleeps up to 12 people.
The cottage opens up onto a cosy porch that includes a small herb garden, and is run by a Kampong Ayer resident who inherited the property from her grandparents.
Kampong Ayer also has a school, police station and restaurants selling local dishes such as Nasi Katok, a simple meal of rice and fried chicken.
Katok refers to the sound of customers knocking on the door of a seller's home to make a purchase.
Residents get around by water taxi, which are small speed boats that zip through the narrow waterways.
Stand on any exposed jetty to flag one down - short hops cost a dollar and that also gets you to the nearby Tamu Kianggeh, a market where the locals shop.
The produce is familiar - I spot okras, bananas and dried ikan bilis - and the vendors are friendly.
There is yet more food at Gadong Night Market, housed in a sheltered, airy building that reminds me of Singapore's hawker centres and feels just as clean.
Prices, too, are similar - a plate of char kway teow costs $2.50 and a whole barbecued fish slathered in punchy chilli sauce costs between $6 and $10.
At the next table, a group of friends blasts music from a portable speaker as they chug pastel-coloured syrupy drinks, served by the pint in disposable cups.
This is Brunei's version of nightlife, Mr Ret says.
Instead of bars, youth hang out past midnight at parks, restaurants and cafes. Some even open establishments of their own, breathing new life into the somnolent capital.
The graffiti-decorated cafe Le Keris, which was started by a pair of brothers in their 20s, serves Malay-European fusion food and draws a young crowd with its hearty and affordable fare.
Kari ayam ($9), or chicken breast rolled and cooked sous vide, is served with curry and roti jala, a soft, stringy bread. Laksa risotto ($11) is studded generously with fresh seafood and served with both belacan and shaved parmesan.
And Project Ice Cream, which is run by a pair of engineering graduates aged 27 and 28, has been serving up trendy flavours such as white rabbit candy, charcoal honeycomb and salted caramel crackers in a cosy, neon-lit shop front since last year.
At night, after the white and gold Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque across the street has sounded its last prayer call for the evening, I walk off all the food with a stroll through the nearby eco corridor park.
Newly opened in 2017, the park is bustling even on a weeknight. Groups of women picnic on the grass and young children play amid light installations and neon-lit trees.
The moon is out, and the city is thrumming.
• The writer's trip was hosted by Royal Brunei Airlines.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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