Every place that we visit leaves us with memories to cherish. Some destinations go above and beyond to leave their best impression on the visitor's mind, which stays with them for a long time. The Abode of Peace - Brunei Darussalam has many such beautiful destinations, but the one that is always included in the list of major attractions in Brunei is, undoubtedly, Kampong Ayer – the world's biggest settlement on stilts.
Owing to its humble origins, Kampong Ayer is located at the heart of Brunei's capital city - Bandar Seri Begawan, situated over the Brunei River; Kampong Ayer comprises around 30 individual villages that are linked by approximately 38 kilometers of stilted walkways. In the local language, Kampong translates to 'village' and Ayer means 'water.'
Kampong Ayer has existed for over 1000 years based on records made by ancient Chinese merchants. It was the de-facto capital of Brunei from the 17th century until the early 20th century. Findings by archaeological departments depict that Kampong Ayer was regularly relocated from one place to another throughout history for the sake of its residents' well-being, safety and security until finally settling at its current location. Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar and explorer, sailed near Brunei in the early 1500s as a part of the Magellan fleet and identified several similarities between his hometown and Kampong Ayer; he has been credited to have coined the phrase and nicknamed this place "Venice of the East". Although several sites use this epithet, Kampong Ayer was the original one.
Few historians believe that Kampong Ayer has been in existence since the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah in the 14th century.
Kampong Ayer became the center of the Bruneian Empire and an important landmark and trading hub of the country. Since ancient times, the locals, irrespective of their social statuses, have favored living on the water rather than constructing their houses on the boggy river banks. However, during the Residential period in the early 20th century, an initiative was introduced that encouraged the residents of Kampong Ayer and the administrative members to shift to the mainland. It took a long time to be accepted by people, resulting in a significant drop in its population. Even after this, there continues to be a considerable number of residents that prefer staying in their floating abodes, in hopes of preserving the rich and admirable legacy of the Bruneian Empire.
Kampong Ayer is also known as the "Floating City" whose distinctiveness has lured foreign and domestic travelers to visit. The world's largest and oldest water village is a self-sufficient settlement with numerous amenities available. It has a population of about 10,000 (about 3% of Brunei's total population) and includes over 4000 houses, schools, a fire station, mosques, sports facilities, a community hall, and markets – all above water! It has almost all the necessities needed along with a few modern infrastructures. The police force and fire brigade of Kampong Ayer have their own speedboats to ply the channels between houses and other constructions and get quickly to the required place. The wooden bridges that connect villages are known as pail, a unique aspect of the water village.
The affluent houses are exclusively built - most of them live in two-storied concrete dwellings, while the others live in houses made out of wood that give a rustic look, equally appealing to those who like the old-world charm. Electricity and clean water are available for all, regardless of whether the inhabitants can afford them.
Other than fishing, the making and selling of handicrafts account for this region's main economic activities. As a result, villages have been named after former residents and the commercial activities carried out here. Villages like Kampong Saba and Kampong Setia incorporate traditional equipment for fishing, such as balat (fish trap), pukat (net), and tugu (enclosure). Boat making is carried out although on a small scale. Transport lines are also available. Most of the inhabitants use boats for transportation, while the wealthy make use of motor fiber boats. Motorized engine boats are used as water taxis. Due to its position as a national landmark, it receives a notable annual budget from the government.
Image: Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery
Travelers can visit the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, whose main aim is to revive the glory of the water village as well as the cottage industries and add value to the economic activities present there. It also strives to make Kampong Ayer a distinctive tourist destination. The cottage industries in Kampong Ayer produce excellent local handicrafts such as tudung saji, mats, baskets, and fans made out of Nipah leaves and other raw materials sourced locally. These locally made items can be bought at the gallery.
Another fun activity that tourists can enjoy is catching a glimpse of Brunei's riverside wildlife near the mangrove forests, where they can sight proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, and monitor lizards.
A walk on the world's biggest settlement on stilts via footbridges is a unique experience as it brims with Kampong Ayer's culture and history. With the shades of water underneath and the hues of the blue sky as a backdrop, accompanied by the traditional floating abodes and people going about with their day-to-day chores, Kampong Ayer is everything you wish for when you want to immerse yourself in a peaceful setting away from the chaos of urban life. It is easily accessible due to its strategic location.
Travelers can enjoy a view of the beautiful Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha bridge, a panoramic view of the sunset from their jetty with Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the backdrop, and simply immerse in the beauty surrounding Kampong Ayer from every nook and corner of the place.
Kampong Ayer has emerged strongly from the vagaries of nature and time, and it continues to be a top tourist destination in Brunei. When traveling, it is always best to opt for sustainable tourism, and Kampong Ayer ticks off all the boxes. Visitors can enjoy the raw, unfiltered beauty of what is dubbed the 'Venice of the East' and carry this experience with them for life. Simple yet satisfying is what Kampong Ayer encompasses about, as visiting the world's largest village is truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment! You have to see it to believe it! Visit the Abode of Peace - Brunei Darussalam, and you will be amazed by the warmth of the people, mesmerized by the beauty of the place, and relishing every bite of the delicious Bruneian cuisine.