Back in the 1500s, Kampong Ayer was once described as being the “Venice of the East”. A collection of water villages built on stilts above the Brunei River, Kampong Ayer is one of the principal tourist attractions of Brunei. For many people, it is a world away from how we live our lives – on solid ground – and so visitors make the short boat trip around the village all the time. During my trip to Brunei for Chinese New Year back in January I joined this people, and hopped on a boat and went to see the famous location for myself.
The first thing I noticed was just how dirty the river was. I don’t think the torrential rain that we lucked out with helped the situation, but it was filthy, with a fair amount of rubbish littering the water. Our tour first took us southwest down the river, where we could see the back of the Sultan’s palace as well as the Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota Pengiran Muda Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah Mosque. We then turned back and began to weave our way through the villages, between stilts and bridges and jetties and walkways.
For me, the most interesting part was seeing that Kampong Ayer is a town like any other, despite being built entirely above the water. There are several schools, a police station, a mosque and, of course, a whole load of homes. Around 10% of the country’s population live in the water villages, so the sheer volume of houses comes as no surprise.
There is even a fire station with fire engine boats, something that seems a little amusing considering the place is surrounded by water. But it later proved itself necessary as we toured further through the villages and came upon the burned ruins of some houses, with only the stilts left behind. We were told of how a woman had fallen asleep while cooking which resulted in a fire destroying several homes. It was a relief to hear that everyone had come out unharmed, but the burned remnants of the buildings were still there and were a little eerie to see.
Coming out the other side of the villages, we saw the under-construction Sungai Kebun Bridge, before whizzing back to dry (well, rainy and wet) land. Our 30-minute tour cost around 25$BND for two people, but we got that deal because my boyfriend speaks Malay. Be prepared to barter and be strong about it, or you’ll pay a little bit more if you don’t speak Malay.
A tour round Kampong Ayer comes highly recommended during a trip to Brunei. It’s fascinating to see such a different place in which people live.