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Volume 46, Number 3May/June 1995

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The Water Village of Brunei

Written and photographed by Eric Hansen

Facing the South China Sea along the northern coast of the island of Borneo, the diminutive nation of Negara Brunei Darussalam is wedged between the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. As a monarchy ruled by Sultan Hajji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzadin Waddaulah, Brunei was founded on the principles of Islam, and it prospers today thanks to a generous natural endowment of oil reserves.

The predawn sky lightened and revealed a village standing in midstream.

As I drew closer, television aerials became visible, and I could hear the crowing of roosters. Street lights flicked off one by one and the morning call to prayer floated over Kampong Ayer, the water village of Brunei.

In the gathering purple-blue light, this village of about 30,000 people appeared as several enormous clusters of houses on stilts, all moored in tight formation in the middle of a bend in the Brunei River. As the village slowly wakened, the clattering footsteps of children and commuters along Kampong Ayer's rickety wooden walkways, known as jembatan, were joined by the growing bass rumble of motorized tambangs, or water taxis, as they ferried people to the nearby shore. There, buses and cars waited to take them to work throughout Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei that today virtually surrounds Kampong Ayer.

Soon after the morning commute subsided, women began to drape the wooden balconies of the village with lines of freshly washed batik sarongs and children's clothes. Bedding was aired, and, as the sun reached the household balconies, woven mats were set out and spread with prawns, small fish and krupuk, the distinctive dried-prawn crackers of Southeast Asian cuisine. Every additional bit of balcony space seemed to overflow with cascades of orchids and bougainvillea. Beneath the houses, open boats bobbed in the river. Little boys lowered crab pots from bedroom windows. Telephones rang, cats and lizards took up sunny positions on the wooden walkways, and the sounds of hammers, saws, and boiling teakettles indicated that another day was in full swing in Kampong Ayer.

Boatbuilder Hajji Razali, a fourth generation craftsman, was one of the first people I met in the village. He lived in a typical single-story, wood-framed family house built on stilts. Standing barefoot on the hardwood planks of his open-air workshop, he said he specialized in the construction of river taxis. Each month, Razali and his assistant Abdul Ali produced four new boats built from planks of meranti merah, a local hardwood. They used power tools from Japan, as well as traditional spokeshaves and handsaws and a brace and bit that appeared to date from the late 19th century. The sweet, pungent scent of hardwood sawdust permeated the warm air as we sipped hot, milky tea and talked. When I asked why he lived in a house built on stilts and not on dry land, he laughed before replying, "It is our custom. We have always lived here."

Listening to his description of everyday life, I realized that the residents of Kampong Ayer, like all citizens of Brunei, enjoyed a level of social services most people can only dream of. The government of Brunei collects no taxes, but provides health care, old-age pensions, education, and, for those without the means, assistance in making the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah. A code of social behavior prevails that makes random violence and robbery non-existent in the village. "It is not our way," Razali explained with a shrug of his shoulders.

Continuing my morning stroll along the wooden walkways, I thought back to the earliest known mention of Kampong Ayer by a European, the Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of Magellan's fleet. When Pigafetta visited the Sultanate of Brunei in 1521, he described a prosperous city of considerable size built on stilts in the river. Although the fortunes of Brunei have fluctuated since Pigafetta's visit—the nation was a protectorate of the British crown for nearly a century before gaining independence in 1984—his account of a wealthy Islamic monarchy, famed for hospitality and splendid palaces, still describes Bandar Seri Begawan passably well. The palaces have moved to dry land and become still more magnificent but, 16 kilometers (10 miles) upstream from the mouth of the Brunei River, Kampong Ayer functions just where Pigafetta saw it more than 500 years ago.

In modern Kampong Ayer, not only homes but medical clinics, mosques, fire and police stations, shops, schools and markets line the suspended maze of stilt-supported wooden walkways. Beneath them run metered water mains and electrical power lines. Although Kampong Ayer enjoys modern luxuries, including washing machines, televisions, cellular phones and fax machines, fishing lines and gill nets are still strung from the pilings, and boats are moored in the cool shade underneath the houses.

Kampong Ayer's 3200-meter-long (two-mile) labyrinth of buildings is divided into 40 village units. Each is governed by a tua kampong, or headman. Islamic law and a democratic system of headmen and local councils facilitate community participation on matters from the repair of walkways to the settlement of disputes and the organization of firefighting crews.

First-time western visitors, however, frequently mistake Kampong Ayer for a ramshackle slum. In the mid-1800's Sir James Brooke, the first British rajah of neighboring Sarawak, described Kampong Ayer as "a very Venice of hovels, fit only for frogs." Brooke did not see that Kampong Ayer's vernacular architecture is supremely adapted to the tropical environment of Brunei, nor understand how this architecture has helped form the social dynamics of a town which people live in by both tradition and choice.

The most obvious benefits of living in stilt-supported buildings over the river have to do with cooling winds, defense, ease of construction and sanitation as well as access to water, fishing grounds and riverside building materials, such as nipa palm (Nypa fruticans) and mangrove poles. Building materials have changed greatly over the years, but the visual appeal of an entire village on stilts remains undiminished.

The houses were originally built on mangrove poles or ironwood posts set into the river mud. Like most traditional building materials in Southeast Asia, kayu bakau (Rhizophora mucronata), the most common mangrove tree in Brunei, has numerous uses. A boiled extract of the bark, known as cutch or gambier, yields a valuable dye used in the tanning of leather, but bakau is now used primarily as support posts for rein-forced-concrete formwork. Daun apung, the frond of the nipa palm, was the other standard building material. The fronds provided covering for roofs and walls, and the palm tree itself was a valuable source of gula anau, a deliciously heady brown sugar that is still available in the street and floating markets.

Rutnah belah bubung, as the old style of house for commoners is called, consisted of three rooms: the pentaran, or front room, the ruang tamu, or living room, and one bedroom. The single-ridge roof was covered with atap daun apung, an overlapping leafy shingle folded and stitched from nipa-palm fronds. The walls were constructed of the same material, and windows were hinged at the top and could be propped open with a short stick to provide cross-ventilation. Air was free to circulate through the entire structure, and the gaps in the split-bamboo flooring, which was covered with rattan mats, further facilitated the passage of cooling breezes. Fabric was hung from the ceilings for cleanliness. Wide steps leading down into the water gave access to boats.

A more elaborate style of traditional house, favored by Malay nobles and the merchant class, was known as rumah tungkup. It consisted of a hip roof and walls covered with atap, two bedrooms, a front room, a living room, a kitchen and a covered veranda known as tangga pemandian, which was reserved for women's bathing and the washing of clothes.

These early styles utilized an intricate system of interlocking joinery with the occasional use of mortise-and-tenon joints or wooden dowels, known as c arbut, to tie the main structure together. Neither nails nor milled lumber were used. The atap roof and walls were fastened to the frame with strips of rattan—but nothing was fastened rigidly. Every part of the construction could shift and flex, an ability that is essential for a village built in the middle of a river. Waves could sway a structure without weakening it, and roof panels lifted, allowing wind to pass through the building rather than blow it away. A violent storm during the monsoon season might rip walls and roof to pieces, but often the frame and floor would remain standing, simplifying rebuilding.

Likewise, fire might quickly consume the dry frond roof and walls, but the framework of the house would often survive intact. By official estimates, it takes just seven minutes for an average Kampong Ayer house to became engulfed in flames. Indeed, every few years a section of Kampong Ayer is destroyed by fire, and this has provided the village with its most common reason to rebuild, leading to perpetual growth and change.

This old style of construction, utilizing local building materials, was in common use until the 1940's. Then milled timber and corrugated-metal roofing became widely available and affordable. By the 1950's, westernized designs had come into vogue. One was known as rumah belanggar: In Malay, belanggar means "to collide with," and this described how two roof lines met to form an L-shape. The roof was covered either with iron-wood shakes or with corrugated metal. Tightly fitted milled timber was used for the walls and flooring. The switch to this style, however, greatly hindered the easy movement of air through the building. Shutters and louvered glass windows become more popular, and with the introduction of electricity, overhead fans came into general use.

The overall proportions of the present buildings in Kampong Ayer reflect the classic style of Anglo-Malay architecture. Local builders continue to follow simple roof lines and floor plans, but the use of new building materials have made possible the construction of larger structures over the river. Reinforced-concrete pilings and floor joists are capable of supporting more weight and have, in turn, led to the use of brick walls and the construction of houses of two stories. Private homes, schools and mosques have increased their size, and now brightly-colored paint, linoleum, plywood, smoked-glass windows and whirring air-conditioning units are the basic exterior design elements of the 1990's.

The nature of work in Kampong Ayer is also changing in the growing prosperity of Brunei's economy. Before the discovery of oil at the turn of the century, each neighborhood specialized in a craft: silver and gold work, brass casting, or the weaving of brocades known as kain songket. One of the neighborhoods of Kampong Ayer is still called Kampong Pandai Besi, or "the village of blacksmiths." But now, few craftsmen can produce a spear or a keris, the traditional ceremonial dagger, and it is far more likely that the young residents will become doctors, businessmen, motor mechanics, bus drivers, plumbers, teachers or computer programmers than artisans.

One afternoon I came upon Hajji Baba, who was sitting in the shade of his front porch making a broom from the fronds of a coconut palm. Children who were helping him with the work clustered around us. Within a few minutes an elderly woman, dressed in a sarong, appeared with a tray holding two glasses of tea and a plate of banana fritters. The hospitality, the setting, and the ease of conversation was typical of the traditional Malay villages of Southeast Asia.

Hajji Baba explained that he had the day off from his job as a medical technician at the government hospital. Dressed in a pair of running shorts and a white tee-shirt, he was spending the afternoon catching up on domestic chores. When the day cooled into early evening, he said, he would replace some of the corrugated-metal roofing on his house, in anticipation of the approaching monsoon season, and before nightfall, he would go out to check his crab pots and fishing nets. As we talked I was reminded of how well the people of Kampong Ayer have integrated traditional village lives with the changes brought about by the developing economy of modern Brunei.

Signs of these contrasts and changes are everywhere. Young men wearing pink-framed wrap-around sunglasses roar by in water taxis bearing names like Rolling Stone, Jurassic Park and Bujang Sinang ("The Happy Bachelor"), while old women sit quietly on their verandas weaving ketupah, the delicate coconut-frond containers in which individual portions of rice are steamed. The market boats sell everything from fresh turtle eggs and durian to rainbow lorikeets and hamburgers di bungkus—to go. One night while I strolled, I heard the far-off sound of a tambourine playing the hadra, a traditional beat that announces a wedding, while nearby a young man sat on a wooden bench listening to a Bob Marley reggae tune on a tape player.

Work, architecture, styles of dress and musical tastes will surely continue to change, but the residents of Kampong Ayer remain united by the traditions of Islam and a strong sense of community—the latter nurtured, in part, by their unique setting. During my week-long stay, the only problem I encountered was a lack of time that prevented me from accepting many of the numerous invitations to have meals with hospitable families.

On my last evening in Kampong Ayer I sat at the end of one of the covered tambang landings and smoked a clove cigarette with an old man who told me about his 22 grandchildren. We watched the sun set, and as the stars came out, a row of lights illuminated the Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque that overlooks Kampong Ayer from across the river. There was the sound of lapping water, and the distant notes of a bamboo flute hung in the air as the old man told about a dramatic fire that had been battled by courageous neighbors just a few weeks earlier. Soothed by the gentle swaying of the pilings and the voice of the old man, I found myself fantasizing about what it would be like to build a house and live in Kampong Ayer myself.

Of course there would have to be French doors opening onto wide, shaded verandas crowded with pots of orchids, frangi-pani trees and night-blooming jasmine vines. I imagined myself in a checked sarong, lying beneath a mosquito net that rustled in the breeze of an overhead fan. At dawn, I would explore the floating market in search of ingredients for delectable Malay, Chinese and Indian dinners with visiting and local friends. Would I need a fax machine, or a linen sports coat? Should I buy a small boat, or would it be better to depend on public transport?

The old man's voice brought me to my senses as he shook my arm and let me know that a tambang was waiting to take me across the river for my last night in Bandar Seri Begawan.

As I headed into the warm night air, the lights of Kampong Ayer receded and I found myself wondering where else people enjoy such a community, where old traditions are so successfully combined with the conveniences of modern life.

Following a year in Borneo, Eric Hansen wrote his first book,Stranger in the Forest, and after travels to the Middle East wrote Motoring With Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. He lives in northern California.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the May/June 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1995 images.