Children playing with a kitten on the front porch of their house. A boy riding his bike on the sidewalk. Scenes of everyday life. Except when the house sits on stilts above a waterway and the sidewalk is part of a miles-long boardwalk that connects similar houses in the Kampong Ayer neighborhood of Brunei’s capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan.
Brunei was never on my husband’s and my travel radar, but it was the first port of call aboard the Diamond Princess on our cruise through the South China Sea.
Brunei, which occupies a very small part of the island of Borneo, is oil rich and the capital city, generally referred to as Bandar or BSB, shows its wealth.
The 45-minute drive from where our ship docked to Bandar presented us with views of modern suburban homes and high rises, speeding past water taxis laden with packages and modestly dressed women wearing hajibs.
Sites included magnificent mosques, a glimpse of the two-million-square-foot royal palace, and the Royal Regalia Museum, where the incredibly rich sultan keeps elaborate gifts from world leaders.
Standing in stark contrast to all this splendor is Kampong Ayer. With more than 30,000 residents, Kampong Ayer is the world’s largest water village.
Its homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, fire and police stations, and hospital are built entirely on stilts and connected by wooden walkways. Really a cluster of 42 subvillages traversed by footbridges, Kampong Ayer dates back some 1,300 years.
Up close, the water village looks impoverished, but we were told that the people living here are not poor and remain in the area by choice.
All the mod cons are here — plumbing and electricity, air conditioners, telephones, satellite TV, and Internet. Still, we had to constantly watch our step so as not to be tripped up by broken boardwalk slats.
We removed our shoes to enter a school for tea and sweet cakes.
The furniture in the room looked as if it belonged to someone’s grandmother. A poster from the 2006 soccer World Cup hung in the hallway. Nearby, a chart depicted the Malay alphabet, the official language of Brunei, and posters featured a guide to shapes and a somewhat dated periodic table.
Back outside this classroom, clothes hung on lines to dry, an elderly man relaxed outside his home and children played, all reminders that as unique as Kampong Ayer is, real people live everyday lives here.
Note: Ellen Weingart visited Brunei before the strict implementation of Sharia law was instituted.