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Feast Your Eyes on Brunei’s Magical Village on Stilts

Brunei’s magical water village, Kampong Ayer, is one major reason to visit Brunei.

Once an empire that stretched all the way across the Philippines, Brunei is a small, oil-rich sultanate nestled within the Malaysian province of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.  Ravished by British colonialism in the previous centuries, Brunei (Malay: Negara Brunei Darussalam) now stands as a proud independent country of untouched beauty and rich cultural history.  In the river flowing through Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, there is a village built on stilts older than the city that now surrounds it. The typical wooden home only lasts a few decades, however this particular village has existed for over a thousand years. Discover the colorful, secret side to Brunei that most residents of this small Asian sultanate, and the world, never see.

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PHOTO: Karen Ertrachter
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Kampong Ayer has “street signs” along its wooden walkways; however, you won’t find numbers on the doors.  Instead, the residents of the water village paint their homes in distinctive patterns and colorful colors to help visitors locate their homes.When navigating the water village, keep an eye out for the house numbers, often painted onto the vibrant walls of the houses. Some go as far as decorating their homes with elaborate ornaments, including this home with airplane decorations. Although crime is rare, at least one has a guard goose.

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Visitors to Kampong Ayer (“water village” in Malay), can only arrive one way: by boat. With your back to the beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, walk towards the shores of the Brunei River and make eye contact with any of the water taxi drivers waiting below the steps. Tell them your destination in Kampong Ayer and hop in to visit the “Venice of the East.”

INSIDER TIPThe water taxi drivers usually ask you which jetty (spelled “jeti” on signposts) you’re heading to. Prices depend on your final destination with rates increasing after dark.

 

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Kampong Ayer has existed for hundreds of years although its colorful wooden houses are rebuilt every 60 years as wooden foundations can rot away. Historically, the people of Kampong Ayer were fishermen, and if you stay in one of the Airbnbs within the water village, you’ll wake up to the sight of local fishermen bringing in their morning catch and residents heading to work by water taxi. If you visit the museum in the water village, you can view images of the water village’s history as documented through Bruneian records, the journals of European explorers, and photographs.

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Shipbuilding is a traditional trade in the water village due to its historical connections to fishing. Proud residents of Kampong Ayer, skilled in creating watertight wooden boats, spent months designing custom boats and show off their racing boats once a year in the yearly Regatta boat race in the Brunei river.

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The cost of maintaining a wooden home can be quite expensive, as the wooden foundations typically rot within 60 years. However, innovative residents are starting to rebuild (or even move) their colorful homes onto cement pillars to ensure that the water village of Kampong Ayer remains afloat. As you walk along the waterways of Kampong Ayer, many residents will greet you warmly. Some residents will even invite you into their homes to view the interior of a typical home. Other residents have turned to Airbnb to give travelers and Bruneians a glimpse into life in the water village.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking for Bruneian food, you can stop at a few homes with restaurants for an inexpensive traditional meal. There’s a home that opens itself to both locals and tourists as a restaurant some days in between the Water Village Museum and Jetty 1.

 

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The wooden pathways along the various Kampongs (little neighborhoods) of the water village make it easy to get lost; you’re bound to realize how many amenities this community on stilts has, including an elementary school, fire department, supermarket, and mosque.

INSIDER TIPBrunei is a Muslim country with Sharia law. However, non-Muslim visitors are not fully subject to all laws, although you should dress modestly while visiting Brunei. (Jeans and a modest shirt are fine.)

 

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Cat lovers, get ready to book your ticket to Brunei. With water comes rats; with rats come cats! Kampong Ayer is full of friendly cats that roam the wooden planks for mice. Most homes have at least one cat, and it’s a guarantee that you’ll find a furry friend (or eight). Most cats are street cats fed by the residents, so consider bringing some cat treats with you.

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If you decide to spend a few hours walking around this magical water village, be sure for the sunset and remember that you can always catch a boat back to where you started (as long as you remember the jetty number) as finding the path back through the maze of wooden boardwalks through its forty-two villages can be near impossible. Luckily for your Instagram account, every turn is picture-perfect (#nofilter).

INSIDER TIPAfter dark, wave your lit-up phone in the air to alert nearby water taxis that you’re in search of a ride across the river.

 

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Prior to the 1980s, Kampong Ayer had a floating market with merchants who would stop underneath the kitchens of all homes in Kampong Ayer to check if the residents wanted to purchase any goods.   But with the expansion of the villages’ amenities and the addition of a supermarket, the floating market ceased to exist. It’s been a disappointing loss to those interested in preserving the unique culture of Kampong Ayer, however, the water village is still a piece of living history.

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For most of Brunei’s history, the Kampong Ayer was the capital of Brunei. Despite its historical significance, many Bruneians, even those who live in on the mainland, have never visited the Kampong Ayer water village and never discovered the wealth of beauty that stands just across the river from the modern-day capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.

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