After a lazy start I grabbed some breakfast at ‘Da Cafe’, a great coffee shop in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan City, Brunei. I was finished by 10:30am and already it was 32*C, I was wondering what the point of clean clothes was. Headed down to the waterfront where I found a number of small wooden boats hovering at the bottom of some steps. As I approached the drivers (or should I call them captains) bust from their melancholic state into a perfect example of ‘survival of the fittest. They were all asking if imwanted to be taken around Kampung Ayer (the Floating Village). Apparently it has earned the name of the Venice of the East however this village is over 500 years old and the largest floating village in the world.
I bartered the price down from $25 for 45mins to $15 for an hour. Moments later I was in the boat named ‘Chelsea, The Pride of London’ and whizzing down the river with Azmi at the helm.
First of all we headed south deeper into the jungle for views of the mosque, the old kings residence and a massive floating primary school. Further along the river we passed the kings new residence and wow, it is huge. We were only able to see the roof but apparently in has 1,000 rooms and is the largest royal residence in the world. Brunei gained it’s independence from the UK in 1984 and is a very wealthy country mainly due to it’s oil and gas reserves. Further down the river we passed some boats fishing for giant prawns.
The floating village is quite simply amazing. Just house after house standing about 8 feet above the water on stilts. Many are still build on wood which means the stilts have to be replaced every 4-5 years. The new ones are built on concrete stilts.
The houses have wooden walkways down the side (streets) and bridges between what I guess we would call estates/blocks. The only way to get around the village, which is more like a city, is by water taxi which operate more like busses. Inside Kampung Ayer they have have everything from restaurants to schools and fire and police stations. below is a photo of the police station complete with small prison.
Azmi, who lives in the village, told me about the free healthcare, free education, no income tax and the $1000 each family receives each year to pay for school uniforms and books and pens. I asked if he makes a good living, he instantly replied with a huge smile ‘yes, if you work hard at school everyone can make a good living here’. He payed $2,200 for the boat and $6,300 for the engine and makes enough money for himself and his four children.
I jumped off the boat Andes headed straight to the must see Sultan Umar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. It’s sharp white walls and golden domes look like an oil painting against the vibrant blue sky. Apparently the spike on the top of the dome is made of pure gold.
As I moved around the back of the mosque I could see a walkway going directly into the floating village. So just like a kid I jumped onto the stilted walkway and headed into the depths of this unknown world. It is an absolute labyrinth of walkways getting narrower and less stable. Apparently each house has a number and street name all with postcodes, it must be quite the challenge delivering to these places.
Just after the above photo was taken everything nearly went a little wrong. My camera was standing on my back pack an as I got next to it one of the rotten planks on the walkway broke and went crashing to the floor below. I nearly fell through it but caught myself, knocked my camera over and grabbed it as it tumbled towards the end. I even saved my flipflop. Phew.
Then came the tropical rain. Hot sticky and very wet.
It was time for a little more culture so I headed to the Royal Regalia Building. If you are ever in Brunei this is a must do and it’s free. No cameras are allowed but this museum contains everything from the coronation uniforms to the knighting sword. You have to enter with bare feet and once you have got over the sensation of the freezing cold tiles you will see gifts from what seems like every country on earth. There is the Olympic torch from Korea, a vase from queen Elizabeth II and some stunning artwork from Vietnam. There are guns, golf balls, model boats, goblets, glasses, swords, pens and paintings all of the most ornate designs from con tries like Canada, Syria, Malaysia, Ghana, Chile and Pakistan to name a few. I whipped round in about an hour but you could spend half a day there easily. No photos allowed though, sorry.
As I came out it was rush hour in the city which consists of a few extra cars and a lot more water taxis.
I have to say that people in Brunei are some of the most welcoming and kind people I have encountered. People have waved at me in the street and answered all questions with delight. Even now whilst wring this blog I met Joshua, a guy from Brunei interested in performing arts and has invited me to come back some day. He wants to start the first theatre group here and was full of questions. A moment later I was sitting across from a journalist doing an interview for a news paper.
My day ended with sweet and sour prawns, garlic bok Choy and a fresh lime juice. Delicious.
Oh and one final look at the mosque at night.
Brunei really is a wonderfully calm country. I am in the Capitol city which feels more like a small town. I do have one question, with a country with such a small population and a city that seems empty why do so many people live in houses over the river?
Thanks for travelling
– Brunei has the larges floating village in the world
– when it rains it pours
– it is always hot here.
– Brunei was a British colony until 1984.
My blog: which you are reading.