The name Brunei conjures up an image of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the richest men in the world, his opulent palace and hundreds of custom-made gold-plated Rolls Royces, Ferraris and Astons. But there is more to Brunei than the riches of the Sultan. This tiny nation on Borneo Island, facing the South China Sea, as its tourism brochure says, is “Kingdom of unexpected treasures”. Many people may not know that Brunei is not only rich in oil and gas but also in the biodiverse rainforest. The Heart of Borneo, made up of three countries ( Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) in 746,000 sq km of land, is Asia’s largest rainforest and about 75 per cent of the Heart of Borneo is in Brunei.
Apart from this, the biggest attraction in Brunei is Kampong Ayer (Water Village). Situated on the Brunei River in the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, it’s the world oldest and largest settlement on stilts. According to Rozan Yunos, a senior Brunei bureaucrat and historian, the Water Village has been inhabited for over 1,300 years. Brunei has a population of 350,000 and at present, about 40,000 people live on Water Village, which means that nearly about 10 per cent of Bruneians live here.
The Water Village as the name may sound is not one village. In fact, it is a cluster of more than small 40 villages (kampongs), which are connected by more than 29,140 metres of foot-bridges, consisting of more than 4,000 houses.
Rozan Yunos says most outsiders and even Bruneians assume that the Water Village is only one village. Most do not realise that is is divided into 6 mukims (or counties) and made up of many villages. In general, the village names are based on the VIP who lived there, the specialist trade of that village or the place where it is located.
Since such a large population lives on the Water Village, the benevolent government of His Majesty the Sultan has ensured that the villagers get all the modern amenities. It has schools, medical clinics, mosques, shops, petrol stations and markets, waterborne police and fire services, as well as garbage collectors. For transportation, water taxis are available round-the-clock and since petrol is cheaper than water in Brunei, the charge is very nominal (50 Bruneian cents). A special boat service is also run for the government staff working on the Water Village. Many rich Water Village residents own boats which are parked underneath their houses. Just across the river in the main city centre, a huge parking lot is packed with their cars. Every morning the Water Village residents cross the river by boat and then get on their cars to go to work.
According to geography professor Abdul Aziz of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, this is the largest and most famous water settlement of Southeast Asia. “It was historically the very core of Brunei and one of the most important centres of trade in Borneo.” Yunos says Kampong Ayer existed as early as the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah who ruled from 1363 to 1402. It was described by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian traveller that the water village made up of about 25,000 households with a palace built in the middle. The water village was a major port with Brunei exporting a variety of goods.
Over the years, the Water Village has become the main cultural heritage and identity of Brunei and the government has taken many steps to preserve its original identity.
In 2009, the Brunei Government set up the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery to celebrate Kampong Ayer’s past while preserving part of Brunei’s heritage as well as to assist in rejuvenating the cottage industries in the area and diversify the local economy.