[UPDATED: Nov 2020]
Nestled between two East Malaysian states is a tiny country that is one of the wealthiest nations in the world: Brunei Darussalam. The king is in the top 3 of the world’s richest monarchs and he lives in the world’s biggest palace.
If you’ve never visited Brunei or seen any pictures of it, you’d probably imagine a ritzy, opulent city with glittering skyscrapers and cutting-edge facilities. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Apart from the palace and the mosque, Brunei doesn’t give off any posh vibe.
In fact, 13,000 of its citizens still live in a floating village.
Kampong Ayer, Brunei Darussalam
Kampong Ayer, which means ‘water village’ in the local language, is the world’s largest settlement on stilts. Located right in the capital city (Bandar Seri Begawan), it comprises around 40 individual villages that are linked by 38 kilometers of stilted walkways. Kampong Ayer even has its own mosques, schools, markets, sports facilities, and a fire station.
Apparently, the government has been trying to relocate the residents to landed settlements, but only received rebukes.
A Brief History of Kampong Ayer
According to records made by ancient Chinese merchants, Kampong Ayer has been in existence for over 1,000 years.
When Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta sailed near Brunei in 1521, he saw the similarities between Kampong Ayer and his hometown, and started calling it “Venice of the East“. So, although you may have heard the nickname being used by other places, such as Bangkok, Dhaka, Srinagar, and Osaka, Kampong Ayer was the original one.
The village then grew over the centuries, and by the time European settlers arrived, it was the center of the Bruneian Empire. Instead of building their houses on the swampy river banks, the locals preferred living on the water. This included everyone, regardless of social status — from wealthy nobles to lowly peasants.
In the 19th century, the British encouraged the residents to move onto land, causing more and more people to give up their floating abodes. By the early 1900s, at least half of the village population had left.
Today, although the population has been dwindling steadily, there are still those who choose to stay behind to preserve the legacy of the former Bruneian Empire. Thus, Kampong Ayer remains a national landmark and major tourist attraction in Brunei.
How to Get to Kampong Ayer
You might think that all floating villages are hard to get to, as they are usually located in remote areas. Well, not this one. Due to its proximity to the city center, Kampong Ayer is very easily accessible. All you have to do is hail a water taxi from any of the points along Jalan McArthur and Jalan Residency.
You don’t even have to worry about having to wait long. As the village residents are heavily reliant on water taxis to get to and from the city, you can see many of the boats crisscrossing the river at all times during the day. As soon as they spot you, they will come speeding your way.
The journey takes only a few minutes and costs B$1 – 2 in each direction.
There is also one part of the village, called Tamoi Tengah, that can be accessed by land, but it is a little further away. To walk from central Bandar Seri Begawan to Tamoi Tengah, take the Sungai Kebun pedestrian bridge, which is in the Sungai Kedayan Eco-Corridor park, next to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.
Guided tours are also available to take you around Kampong Ayer, but it is easily doable on your own.
What to Expect
Although Kampong Ayer may look like a slum at first glance, don’t let that fool you. Not everyone in the village maintains a traditional lifestyle. Some of them are proud owners of those flashy cars you might see parked along the waterfront.
The wealthier residents live in two-storied concrete houses and may even have their own fiber motorboats, while the rest live in wooden houses with zinc roofs and use wooden boats. However, despite the huge disparity, all households — rich or poor — are supplied with electricity and clean water.
Kampong Ayer comes with all the facilities and conveniences one would expect in any regular neighborhood, including garbage disposal system, petrol stations, grocery shops, a community hall, and a post office. And of course, Wi-Fi is also available throughout the village.
Most residents are fishermen and boatmakers, but there are also government officers and those who work in the private sectors in the city. These people commute by boat every day to get to their cars that are parked along Jalan Residency. The local police force and fire brigade have their own speedboats to get around the labyrinth of houses and boardwalks.
Due to its status as a national landmark, Kampong Ayer receives a substantial amount of annual budget from the government.
Kampong Ayer is a must-visit if you ever come to Brunei. It is a fascinating study in contrasts and can give you a better insight into the local life in Brunei.
The good thing about Brunei is that the citizens are well taken care of financially. Therefore, although Kampong Ayer is a tourist attraction, you won’t find anyone trying to sell you souvenirs. When you take the water taxis, there’s no haggling required. You pay a fixed fare, just like everyone else. If you’ve been traveling in other Southeast Asian countries, I’m sure this is a refreshing change.
However, please remember that although this is a tourist attraction for you, it is their home. So, please be respectful and know your boundaries. Refrain from making too much noise and if you wish to take pictures of the residents, please ask for permission beforehand.
Have you been to any floating village before? Where was it and what was your experience like? Share your story in the comment section below.