Kampong Ayer: Postcards from a Water Village in Brunei
Brunei had always been a mystery to me. For longer than I’d like to admit I thought it was in the Middle East (and I used to be good at geography – not sure how that one slipped by me), but it’s actually a small country wedged between 2 states of Malaysia, on the exotic island of Borneo.
Kampong Ayer: The largest water village in the world
By far the most interesting part of Brunei is Kampong Ayer, a huge water village (more like a water city) perched on stilts over the Brunei River. Wikipedia tells me 39,000 people live there, surely in preparation for when the floods come and we all grow gills like Kevin Costner in Waterworld.
Kampong Ayer is in the heart of Brunei’s capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan. If you pay a dollar to the boatmen who ferry locals between the mainland and the village, they’ll drop you at one of the many piers, and from there just pick a direction and walk. A lot of tourists cruise around the village by boat, but since I was on a budget I declined the many offers, and in the end I think walking was the perfect way to get a feel for everyday water village life.
As I walked along the rickety boardwalks I thought what a terrible place it must be for kids. One wrong step and you’ve twisted your ankle, or less painfully (assuming you can swim) you could end up in the river. As I continued to walk I saw streams of children skipping along, riding bikes, playing basketball and just generally being kids; I guess people adapt to their surroundings, and if you believe the movies (and scientists, but I’d rather heed my warnings from movies) we might all be living on (or in) water someday.
Kampong Ayer is huge and I didn’t get close to seeing it all. It really is like a floating city; there are shops, schools and mosques – but you’ll mainly see houses. I thought Brunei was a super-rich country, but some people live in little more than shacks, while others live in rows of brand new houses that all look the same. One thing is clear though, even most of the houses that look like shacks had satellite TV, power and plumbing. I looked inside a couple of the houses and they seemed like great places to live. There is a homestay in the village and I wish I’d shelled out the $30 to stay there – maybe next time!
I spent a few hours walking around Kampong Ayer and one thing that struck me was how friendly the locals are. I’d say that it’s true for the whole of Brunei, they are very welcoming and curious – I don’t think they get many western tourists. Every kid that passed me on the boardwalks would say hello and some would say “Welcome to Brunei” or try out the pieces of English they’d picked up at school. There weren’t many older people around , they must have been at work, but the ones I saw looked relaxed. It must be a great life, and I’m impressed that the Sultan of Brunei has allowed the traditional aspects of the country to coexist (and thrive) alongside the push for progress. People have been living in Kampong Ayer for over 1300 years; it’s definitely a tradition that should be held on to for as long as possible. This is in stark contrast to many parts of the world, most notably Singapore, where the way people lived 50 or 60 years ago is now all but confined to museums.
If you are travelling in Southeast Asia it’s worth making a quick detour to Brunei. There are other things worth doing in the country, but Kampong Ayer, the largest water village in the world, is reason enough to make the trip.
Have you been to Kampong Ayer or any other water villages around the world? Let me know!