February 15, 2019: We first started musing about going to Brunei when we were hanging out for months and months at the marina in Kota Kinabalu with our dock neighbours, John and Kay. They had spent many years living and working in Brunei and still returned on a regular basis to visit friends. Kay was adamant. We should go. And while we were there, we should take a walking tour of Kampong Ayer with her friend Kem Aria.
Kampong means village. Ayer means water. Ergo, water village. A bunch of houses built on stilts over the water. Big deal, I thought, yet another water village. It’s not like there isn’t a shortage of them in Southeast Asia. But apparently, this was a water village with a difference.
First off, Kampong Ayer has been around in one form or another for at least one thousand years, with villagers trading forest products with foreign traders in exchange for goods from elsewhere. In the 15th Century, an Italian by the name of Antonio Pigafetta travelling as part of the Magellan fleet marvelled over it. At that time, he said there were some 25,000 households built on stilts surrounding a palace. He called it the Venice of the East. By this time, local traders were travelling as far as Malacca and southern China, and townspeople had begun to worship Islam.
Today, it is the largest water village in the world, covering an area of ten square kilometres and housing somewhere in the ballpark of 11,000 residents in a few dozen small, contiguous villages each comprising two or three dozen homes. There’s a fire hall, mosques, schools, police stations and all the trappings of a modern community. While the population is well down from its peak, it’s still a huge place.
We were lucky to catch Kem on the day before she was heading to Mecca for the Hajj and she kindly agreed to squeeze in a morning walking tour for us before everything shut down for Friday prayers at noon.
Kem runs Kunyit 7 Lodge, a small guest house in Kampong Ayer with great view across the Brunei River to Bandar Seri Begawan. This is where we met up with her. It cost us B$1 each for the short hop in the water taxi across the river from downtown to Jeti 2. Her place was the first house on the other side.
The lodge was open and breezy, with comfortable furnishings and a breakfast spread laid out on the dining room table for her guests. She invited us to tuck in as well to a variety of local delicacies, cakes, juice and some scrambled eggs before we set out around the village.
Kem is very active in community affairs, so she was able to give us the low down on everything from her own family’s history in the village, neighbourhood gossip, local politics, community plans and the latest news. I must admit that a lot of it went straight over my head at the time. But one thing that really stuck out was the number of empty lots in each of the water villages as we wandered through. Most of the traditional houses are built of wood. If a house burns down, it cannot be rebuilt.
We also spotted many houses still resting on old wooden stilts that were in many cases deteriorating to thin spindles because of the wakes from all of the traffic on the river. To upgrade to a concrete piling costs around B$300 each, and each house has dozens of pilings supporting it. Homeowners must pay for the maintenance themselves, but a lot of people simply cannot afford it and their homes are falling into disrepair as a result. Other homes look like they’ve simply been abandoned.
Kem took us inside her cousin’s home, a well maintained blue longhouse. A small lounge was located at the front, with family photos and memorabilia on display. Private rooms ran off either side of a long wide corridor down the middle of the building. The large communal kitchen was located at the back with a small covered porch outside crammed with potted plants. Most of the extended family now lives offsite but often return on weekends for get togethers and to get away from life on land.
During British rule, the government tried to get villagers to resettle into new developments on land, citing health and hygiene concerns. Some left, some stayed, some returned. Overall, the size of the village declined, and continues to do so. For those remaining, I can see the draw of living on the water. The breezes help keep the homes cool in the heat of the day. It’s much hotter on land.
On our walk, we had to be careful where we stepped. The wooden walkways were missing boards in many places, there were no hand railings and some of the walkways swayed as we moved. Apparently large tourist groups are often brought through the area. They’ve been known to damage local property and it’s up to the local residents and each water village to pay for the repairs without seeing a cent from the tour companies.
We came across a few houses with colourful trays of homemade prawn crackers drying outside in the sun. An older man let me try one. They were really good, so of course I bought a bag. They need to be deep fried so they puff up, something I haven’t quite gotten around to yet.
Kem pointed out the old water mains and that got me wondering. So I asked her where the sewage and grey water goes. Straight into the river, according to Kem. She said there’s lot of catfish just waiting in the murky water below, along with all the garbage that gets blown into the water or possibly dumped there. She hinted that the villagers do not eat the catfish.
There are old rundown stilt homes, colourful well cared for stilt homes with boats parked underneath, the occasional ostentatious new build, and entire areas of new modern construction; concrete row houses of identical design. There’s not much character to these homes, although some families have tried to add their own flair with elaborate gates and front doors, or a mishmash of boards to close in an area below for storage. On the plus side, the new developments do have sewage treatment in place.
Kem also took us into the local cultural centre for a quick look at several displays showcasing arts, crafts, textiles and historical pictures of the area before shepherding us into a water taxi for a tour of the village from water level.
We buzzed down the Brunei River toward the new bridge that connects both sides of the river and the only secondary school built on stilts over the water. We went past the parking area on the far bank where residents park their cars, we dodged other speedboats under pedestrian bridges, we zipped by the firehall where several bays house the fireboats and we watched linemen replacing power lines from boats. We also crossed over to the north bank of Kampong Ayer and then headed even further up the Brunei River, past the big mosque where we spotted intact mangrove forests and even a couple of very large crocodiles. Hunting must be good.
As noon approached, we said our goodbyes back at the downtown waterfront and dashed back to the yacht club before everything shut for the extended Friday noon closure. The weather forecast was looking promising, so we decided it would be a good time to start heading south again the following morning. That afternoon, we made our way back to the ferry terminal and reversed the process to clear out of the country, then treated ourselves to one final steak dinner at the yacht club that evening, topped off with pie and ice cream.
Our next stop is Miri.