NOTE: The Gadong Night Market has changed. See the updated post here.
By 5 PM downtown Bandar Segi Begawan, Brunei, is quiet.
The small daytime market has packed up. The sun is dipping low over the river, giving the golden dome of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque a sort of halo effect that makes the serene and nearly deserted streets of downtown Brunei live up to it’s name, the abode of peace.
The only place to go, if you want some night time action and durian, is Pasar Malam Gadong – the Gadong Night Market.
If you’re staying in downtown Bandar, Gadong Night Market is unfortunately not convenient or easy to get to.
The market is about 4 km away on roads designed for fast, new cars pumping the cheap petroleum of the Oil Sultanate.
There is a public bus, known affectionately as the “Purple Bus” despite the
system having long ago invested in green, grey and blue buses as well as various shades of plum and magenta.
These buses run frequently throughout the day but taper off starting
around 6 PM and are back in the bus barn by 8 PM.
Except for the Night Market, which is open until 11 PM, Brunei goes to bed early.
On the way you’ll pass Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, an impressive glimmering gold collection of 29 minarets built in 1992 in honor of the current Sultan, who is the 29th king in his family.
The domes will twinkle at you from the highway, a reminder that you are in the opulent and oil-rich Kingdom that is one of the last true monarchies on earth.
The market itself feels a lot like Malaysia – more expensive and possibly cleaner – but with a similar hustle and bustle as shoppers weave through the bright lights and smoke from the many Satay barbecues.
Jess and I were lucky enough to have our own local guide for the evening, our new friend Faizal, so we didn’t have to worry about how to get there.
Rob and I visited Gadong Market in 2012, but back then we arrived and left early. This time the crowds surprised me. Shoppers drifted between the blinding white lights and smoke, poking at produce and buying all kinds of food wrapped in banana leaves.
It wasn’t really the durian season, and I had my doubts about what we would find. But we found the durian right away, in the first row on the side toward the building housing the daytime Fish Market.
Since we had some time and the market’s piles of unknown foods and fruits beckoned, we decided to do a quick meander through the four long aisles of white tents set up in the parking lot of the largest shopping complex in Brunei, The Mall.
Many stalls had beautiful arrays of chili peppers set out on long tables, four or five different kinds and colors.
I guess Bruneians like their food spicy.
At one stall Faizal stopped. “If you like tempoyak, you should try this.”
He pointed to a tray of unrecognizable but delicately wrapped packages, held together with toothpicks like fortune cookies.
“It’s fermented rice, it’s good. It’s called Tapai Manis”
The lady at the food stall gave Jess and I one each to try. We opened the wrapper, not knowing what to expect.
Inside was a lumpy dollop of mushy rice, with a strange yeasty smell. I nibbled. I blanched. I decided I’d rather have fermented durian.
It smelled like yeast because it tasted like yeast. It had a peculiar sweetness combined with a sharp alcoholic bite. It was interesting, for sure, but I wouldn’t put it on par with the deliciously tart and surprising creaminess of durian tempoyak.
Luckily, there was still durian for sale.
Jess and I had saved our durian appetite in Labuan, hoping for jungle durians. We criss crossed the market, looking for the five-petaled orbs of D. kutejensis or the close-knit green spikes of D. graveolens.
It just wasn’t the season in Brunei, despite the season being in full swing a ferry ride away in Kota Kinabalu.
Only two types of durian were available: Kampung, or village durian grown from seed, and the mysterious Kahwin.
Kahwins come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. In Malay, it can be translated as “mixed” or “married,” and can refer to either an unnamed durian cultivar that was selected for quality and grafted, or a kampung that tends to have good flesh-to-seed ratio.
It’s a bit of wild card, and can be hit or miss. These were a bit of a miss for us, but we were spoiled from our exploits in Ranau and Kota Kinabalu (Pink durians!). If you are just walking off the plane from the UK, you’d have loved these.
Because after all, they were fresh and ripe and they hit our durian spots better than any frozen durian could. Any durian is better than no durian, right?
Still, I’d recommend going to Gadong Night Market in the height of durian season, when a lot more jungle durians are available. When Rob and I were there in 2012, we saw plenty of them.
How To Get To Gadong Night Market
The market is located in the parking lot of The Mall, right next to the Gadong Fish Market.
It’s open from around 4 PM to 11 PM, but it’s best to go around 6 or 7 PM to see the full magic.
You can see the public bus routes here, but buses stop running between 7 PM and 8 PM so if you stay late you’ll need to take a taxi back to Bandar.