Kampong Ayer

Village in Bandar Seri Begawan

Image by BHS Getty Images

Home to around 30,000 people, Kampong Ayer consists of 42 contiguous stilt villages built along the banks of the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River). A century ago, half of Brunei's Malay population lived here, and even today many Bruneians still prefer the lifestyle of the water village to residency on dry land. The village has its own schools, mosques, police stations and fire brigade. To get across the river, flag down a water taxi (B$1).

Founded at least 1000 years ago, the village is considered the largest stilt settlement in the world. When Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta visited Kampong Ayer in 1521, he dubbed it the 'Venice of the East', which is, as descriptions go, a bit ambitious. The timber houses, painted sun-bleached shades of green, blue, pink and yellow, have not been done up for tourists, so while it's far from squalid, be prepared for rubbish that, at low tide, carpets the intertidal mud under the banisterless boardwalks, some with missing planks.

In some places smart new houses have been constructed – these sturdy buildings look better equipped to survive the monsoon storms that have been known to cause flimsier wooden structures in the village to collapse.

If you look to the main roads on the banks opposite the village, you'll see luxury cars lined up on the shoulder of the road; many of these cars belong to water village residents. That said, Kampong Ayer is also home to a sizeable population of the undocumented immigrants who constitute Brunei's underclass.

The villages on the river's north bank (the same side as the city centre) used to cover a much larger area, but many have been razed as part of plans to spruce up the waterfront area around the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. To get to these villages, follow the plank walks that lead west (parallel to the river) from the Yayasan Complex, itself built on the site of a one-time water village.

The water villages used to be the epicentre of traditional industries, such as silversmithing, goldsmithing, the weaving of fine cloth and boat making. Boat making is still something you can see easily, but to find the weavers you need to go with an operator who can arrange a demonstration in advance.