Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2004
The water taxi spluttered away from the steps of the Customs’ Quay and then, with a scream of the outboard motor, we hurtled across the Sungai Brunei. The craft skimmed over the hard waves at a teeth-rattling, knee-knocking rate. We approached the kampung ayer and then slowed before ducking under a schoolhouse and turning into a large causeway that flowed between the elevated homes.
This extraordinary community that is home to over half of Bandar Seri Begawan’s population of 60,000 is a maze of stilted boardwalks, landing stages and gangways that link homes, schools and small shops all high above the water, held up by a framework of pilings and pillars. Poles hoist electricity cables and telephone wires above the homes, while pipes hanging underneath gurgle and bubble with fresh water.
Children waved to us from bridges; a young woman turned a corner and ducked into a shop for groceries; an elderly man hung over a railing and shouted down to his son, who was working on a boat in the shadows below, as a neighbor tended to plants and flowers that shook and shivered in the cool breeze off the water.
The mukim (a collection of villages) on the south side of the Sungai Brunei sees a lot of traffic as people head over to Bandar to work, eat or shop. Water taxis plow back and forth, weaving between each other and the stilted homes, from dawn until dark. At the mukim’s heart is a mosque, but many residents also pray at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque that rises majestically at the center of Bandar. The mosque is bright, almost illuminating, and draws light as much as it draws attention. At some times of day, pools of sunlight are reflected up against the pink walls by the waters of the lagoon, while at sunset, golden, wispy reflections are cast by glass-clad office buildings on the far side of the taman, or central square.
Though Bandar is a new capital rebuilt since being flattened during World War II and acquiring its name in 1970, there have been villages at some point along this stretch of the Brunei River for 1,300 years. The present kampung ayer, focused around the confluence of the Brunei and Kedayan Rivers, has been home to a large population since the 15th century, when this was the center of a wealthy and vast realm that embraced the whole of Borneo and most of the Philippine archipelago.
Despite the sultanate’s current wealth and cash incentives to encourage people to move from the kampung, most residents choose to stay in the water villages. “Malays will never lose their affection for village life,” an elderly man told me. We were sitting in front of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at dusk as market stalls were setting up in the taman in front of the mosque. “We have all we need. It is safe. And it is where our memories and our hopes live.”
A visit to the kampung ayer begins on a path that curves behind the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which comes across a boardwalk that heads west. This leads through the village to a school where a bridge allows pedestrians across the Sungai Kedayan to the mukim by its western bank. Throughout the kampung, platforms close to the water are landing stages that water taxis pull alongside. Single journeys cost B$0.50-B$2, but a taxi may be chartered for about B$10 per half-hour tour.
In the evening, Bandar’s streets quieten down fairly early. Most folks gather in the stores and cafés of the Yayasan Complex where there are fast-food outlets and a popular pasteria, or on Jalan Sultan, home to several popular Chinese, Malay and Indian restaurants. The Jubilee Hotel on Jalan Kampung Kianggeh offers a pleasant café that may be open until 10pm and, on the same floor, a cheap and cheerful Internet and gaming parlor that can be crowded with local kids. Other hotels offer a range of entertainment and eateries, including the Sheraton Utama, the Empire Hotel & Country Club and the Crowne Princess. But, however hard you try to burn the candle at both ends, it’s likely you’ll succeed in hitting the sack early—the reward may be a dawn visit to the bustling central market on Customs’ Quay and another tour of the kampung as the sunrise skims dazzling light at obscure angles under the stilted houses.
Far from being a strange world, these cool, unhurried water villages are welcoming and peaceful, and the lively center of Brunei’s capital on terra firma just across the river seems a million miles away.
Though there are no direct flights between Brunei and Japan, Bandar Seri Begawan is served from most major airports in Southeast Asia and northern Australasia. Carriers landing in Brunei include Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines. The Brunei Hotel, Jubilee Hotel and Sheraton Utama are well positioned for central Bandar and the kampung ayer. Accommodation enjoying beach-frontage or with more luxurious facilities are located close to Jerudong or Muara, a few kilometers from the capital, and includes the Empire Hotel & Country Club. Further information about Brunei is available online at www.tourismbrunei.com, www.brunet.bn/indexjv.htm and www.lonelyplanet.com.