Kampong Ayer: Brunei’s Stilt-House Villages
Brunei is a tiny sultanate in northwest Borneo, sandwiched between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Divided into two separate parts, it’s known not only for its oil wealth but for its rainforests, many of which remain well preserved.
For senior travellers who spend time in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, and are looking for a new experience, there’s an attraction that’s unique and easy to reach: Kampong Ayer, the stilt-house river settlement that has existed for hundreds of years.
Kampong Ayer (the name means “water village” in Malay) is a series of interlinked stilt villages built along the Brunei River, which runs through the capital on its way to Brunei Bay. The villages are home to an estimated 30,000 people and are thought to be the largest stilt settlement in the world.
Many tourists visit the villages, where they generally get a friendly reception from local residents. Most senior travellers are probably up to the challenge of making a visit, although they need to take care; while the wooden walkways are safe, some are in need of a little repair and many lack handrails.
The villages on the same side of the river as Bandar Seri Begawan can be reached on foot. These cover a smaller area than they once did, as some of the villages were demolished to make way for urban development as Brunei put its oil and natural gas earnings to use.
The main stretch of villages is across the river, which entails a short, exciting water taxi ride. The taxis criss-cross the river all the time. Just wait on the waterfront and a boatman will soon head your way to offer his services.
A good place to start the visit is the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, as the visitors’ centre is known. Opened in 2009, it features a history of Kampong Ayer, which dates back to at least the 10th century, and other information, as well as a viewing tower.
Visitors are free to stroll wherever they wish along the walkways. By some accounts there are more than 30 km of them winding their way through the settlement. The villages are not primarily a tourist attraction and are pleasantly uncommercial. You won’t be bothered by souvenir sellers and probably won’t see a lot going on – just people getting on with their daily lives.
Families have lived there for generations, many rejecting appeals by the government to move to dry land. At one time, half of Brunei’s population is believed to have lived in the villages. They have their own schools, shops, clinics and mosques, as well as electricity and water supplies. Many homes have air conditioning. Some of the houses are modern and well-built but the older ones are made of wood, and over the years have been badly hit by flooding and fires.
The visitors’ centre is open from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Sunday with the exception of Friday, when it opens from 9am to 11.30am and 2.30pm to 5pm. It is closed on public holidays.
Water taxi journeys from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kampong Ayer cost 1 Brunei dollar (about US 75 cents) for a one-way trip. Longer sightseeing trips can be arranged up and down the river; fares are negotiable.