Touring the centuries-old Kampong Ayer leads Cheryl Ong to discover a collection of charmingly quaint abodes, vanishing trades, and a hark back to simpler times.
Despite being the world’s largest floating village and having been in existence for more than a millennial, Kampong Ayer in Brunei’s capital has flown largely under the tourism radar. To educate visitors about Brunei’s historic settlement, the tourism board launched a Kampong Ayer walking trail last May, giving visitors access to designated abodes across five villages in the overwater city.
Once home to about 30,000 inhabitants, that number has since dwindled to about 9,000 as residents flock to the mainland. Unlike my last trip here more than five years ago, where I admired Kampong Ayer from a distance via water taxi, this time round, I decided to explore the Floating City on foot.
Crooked wooden walkways spanning 30km connect the 30 villages that collectively make up Kampong Ayer. Timber homes wrapped in sun-bleached pastel hues sit next to mosques, schools, restaurants, clinics and gas stations.
The 2km Kampong Ayer walking trail, which takes about two hours at a leisurely pace, led me from the souped-up Gallery Awang Haji Ahmad Bin Haji Bujang (home of the village head), to the Pottery House, before I descended on the turfs of the prawn cracker maker, woodcrafter and boat maker. For a taste of local life, Kunyit 7 Lodge beckons homestay guests with its freshly renovated unit boasting a large patio with expansive views of the city.
A motorised canoe zips visitors across the Brunei River to the mini-metropolis where old-world charm flourishes. Led by Freme Travel’s senior tour coordinator, Min Salazar, my trip began at the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, which exhibits the traditions, arts and history of Kampong Ayer’s long and storied past.
In recent years, the water village has been equipped with amenities like electricity, running water, Wi-Fi, and even satellite TV. But beneath its modern-day trappings, the traditional way of life lingers, as local fishermen and craftsfolk continue to ply their trade. I caught glimpses of daily life in the 1,300-year-old Floating City: an old man fishing from his veranda, schoolchildren heading home from classes, and the sight of salted fish and clothes being hung out to dry.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of the lot, the Pottery House stood out for me with its decorative knick-knacks and bold array of coloured blooms. Elsewhere, several rattan trays of sunbathing keropok udang slices greeted me at the prawn cracker maker’s house, where a 300g pack of prawn crackers goes for B$5.00 (US$3.70).
Further down the route, a cluster of boats-in-the-making ushered me into the boat maker’s abode. Aided by my group’s tour guide-slash-translator, we shoot the breeze with the boat maker’s helper, a wisp of a girl, who told us that it takes about a week to cobble together a boat, which is then sold for about B$30,000. As one-third of a boat-making trio and the only registered boat makers in the entire village, she called it “easy money” as compared to eking out a living on land.
My tour wrapped up with a visit to one of the locals’ houses, one of the most lavishly done up in the village, where we enjoyed local snacks like kuih cincin and kuih bahulu, paired with hot tea.
An engaging history lesson and scenic jaunt rolled into one tranquil walking trail. With its storied past and picturesque surrounds, this tour will not only appeal to the trigger-happy millennial, but also the cultural buff keen to visit a national landmark with remnants of a bygone era.
Duration: Approximately two hours
Rate: S$30 (US$22)