Brunei might be the country of oil wealth, pristine rainforests, and 1001-nights style mosques with their golden domes, but in the middle of Bandar Sri Begawan, lives a unique legacy of old Borneo culture – a water village (Kampung Ayer). Most water villages inhabited by native Malays can be dated back to over a millennium ago. Explorer Magellan came in 1521, qualifying Bandar Sri Begawan as an “All Over Borneo.”
Travelers will be able to discover water villages, some of the largest in Pontianak (West Kalimantan), Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), or around Banjarmasin (South Kalimantan), but Brunei has probably the best preserved of them. Located over the Sungai Lagoon, Kampung Ayer stretches along the river and is in reality a collection of some 20 villages, forming today a community of 30,000 people, representing 40 percent of Bandar Sri Begawan’s total population and 8 percent of the country’s population. Kampung Ayer records some 4,000 buildings – most of them in wood – linked by 29 km of bridges, and there are some 14 schools, mosques, fire stations, restaurants, and shops. No cars are allowed, but transport is assured by water taxis which criss-cross the murky waters of the Brunei River. Tourists can take a public water taxi, walk over the bridges, or take a private boat at a reasonable cost (US$ 10).
Behind the wooden walls of Kampung Ayer, modern life has made its way into being. All houses have electricity; most of them are equipped with air-conditioning, and some of them bear satellite dishes. Recently, the village has been upgraded to offer more attractions to visitors. A Cultural and Tourism Gallery was inaugurated late last year offering an insert in the village’s life and its handicraft. It will soon be complemented by a new performance hall to host cultural shows.
The difficulty will be to retain Kampung Ayer’s authenticity and not transform it into a kind of “theme park” for visitors. During the recent Asean Travel Forum hosted in Brunei, the Asean-Japan Centre assistant director Fuchigami Joukei suggested that Brunei should apply to UNESCO’s World Heritage status for the Ulu Temburong rainforest and for the Kampung Ayer. To put the water village on the World Heritage list would not only help to preserve the village but also give more worldwide exposure to Brunei. No demand has reached UNESCO so far, but as Brunei is increasingly keen to promote a soft family-oriented tourism, a listing on UNESCO could only do well for the country.