“Can you see something in there? Hey! Can you see something in there?!” I had to unstick my eye from my camera’s viewfinder in order to find out where that little girl’s voice was coming from.
I was walking on wooden planks over the large river bordering Bandar Seri Begawan, capital city of the Sultanate of Brunei. I was in a quite amazing place known as Kampong Ayer, the “Water Village”.
Around me was a succession of colorful wooden houses built on stilts over the river. But even if it was all made of an organized Mikado of planks and rusted sheet metals for the roofs, it wasn’t the slummy kind of village. The stilts are actually in concrete and electricity has been brought here over the river in a complex (messy) network of aerial cables. The “streets” are also made of wooden planks. This village is actually a whole district of Bandar Seri Begawan, home to 4,000 houses and 39,000 persons.
An extension of the village was even under construction at the time of my visit, but I must say that the new houses don’t have much interest in picturesque point of view. They are all clones of a same charmless white-walled house.
“Hey!! What can you see in there?!” The child kept screaming her question to me and was getting quite impatient and frustrated at my lack of answer. Intrigued, I walked towards her and discovered one of the cutest kids I had ever seen, standing in front of her house. She welcomed me with a big smile and was very satisfied with my explanation of the concept of digital camera.
That little girl had an amazingly good American accent. Her name was Noliya (I hope I spelled it correctly) and she was 8 years old. She is learning English at school she told me. I couldn’t resist asking her if I could take a picture of her. She overcame her shyness and agreed with a smile.
I had seen and said hello to other people in that village. But Noliya really enlightened my day. So adorable.
I felt a little awkward at times while walking in Kampong Ayer, because there is not much between you on the path and their life. You walk past houses with little hanging gardens over the water, drying laundry, kids playing or a group of men chatting and relaxing. So it’s easy to feel like you are an intruder… but I tried my best not to be one! I must say that the inhabitants were not particularly excited at the sight of a foreigner walking around. Not hostile either, just not interested and wondering what I was doing there. So it doesn’t really help to feel completely at ease.
When I was on the other bank of the river, in the modern part of Bandar Seri Begawan, I was constantly harassed by these speed boat drivers wanting to take me to the village for a few coins. They are relentlessly scanning the river bank for someone who will need their services. Well, I am glad I got on one of these boats to find myself in such a surprising place. It is so different from the other part of the city.
Some may tell you that there isn’t much to see after all in Kampong Ayer, and that it’s not particularly pretty or attractive. Okay it’s not a gorgeous kind of place, but I don’t know why, I just really enjoyed walking in that village. I find surreal to see all these houses, all these people, living there normal daily life, like this on stilts over a river. I guess that it was just very exotic to me.
Probably like many visitors, I got enthralled by the sumptuous monuments on the other side of the river. But that long walk through the village kind of changed the vision I had about Brunei and its inhabitants. This water village felt like the true soul of Brunei. I am well aware that this lifestyle belongs more to the past more than the future and that nowadays most Bruneians no longer live this way. But it is their traditional lifestyle it still is well alive.
From a distance, it seems that all the houses are of the same kind. But even here you can spot those who climbed the social ladder a little higher than others. Their houses are more solidly build, and more decorated. It’s just like anywhere else after all. You have a really cool house if you are reach, and you have a slightly less cool one if you are less rich.
This type of place is truly worth visiting; at least to get a complete picture of how Bruneians traditionally live. You will probably come across some boat tours around the village. I wouldn’t say it’s useless because it’s always nice to see things through different angles, but to me nothing compares to actually getting to walk around Kampong Ayer, on your own, exploring the paths, meeting the people, appreciate the relaxed pace of the village and get the feel of the place.