Perched on stilts above the Brunei River, just offshore of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, for more than 1300 years, the village was apparently first dubbed ‘Venice
of the East’ by Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta when the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan visited the Sultanate of Brunei in 1521.

Stretching for some 3200m, Kampong Ayer is at once a fascinating glimpse into Brunei’s past and a remarkable example of traditional culture living comfortably alongside the modern world. Being just a 15-minute taxi ride, then a one-minute boat ride from the airport, it’s also very easy to experience for yourself — and with Brunei International Airport offering very
little to while away the stopover hours, it’s a welcome change of scene.

Today, 30,000 residents (the majority of the capital’s population) inhabit the Kampong Ayer (which is comprised of 42 small villages), despite government efforts over the years
to relocate everyone to the mainland. While their ancestors lived over the water for practical reasons (temperature control in a tropical climate, defence and access to water and fishing), they live there by tradition and choice.

“It’s our custom, my family have always lived here and I think we always will,” says Hajji, as we cruise through the maze of houses, each turn revealing colourful and ornately decorated homes, their smiling occupants waving from doorways and verandahs.

“There’s no reason to live on the mainland. We have all we need right here.”

I can’t argue with him there. From a distance, the clusters of weathered wooden shacks resemble a slum and seem out of place in such a wealthy nation — never more so than when
you see them backdropped by the golden-domed Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque glimmering on the nearby shore.

But closer inspection of these unique neighbourhoods reveals even the poorest citizens benefit from Brunei’s prosperity. Most homes have all the modern conveniences: electricity, phone connections, plumbing, internet — and satellite TV dishes adorn rooftops. Many of the residents are car owners too, their vehicles kept just a short commute away in garages on the mainland or, as Hajji later shows us, parked along the bank, ready to transport them to their jobs — about the only thing the community itself can’t provide for everyone.

Fishing and traditional crafts may have been the lifeblood of the village in the past, but since the discovery of oil at the turn of the century transformed Brunei’s economy, younger residents are more likely to earn a living from careers in medicine, business, construction, teaching and IT.

That aside, the village is almost entirely self-sufficient. Among the labyrinth of buildings and walkways, a school, restaurants, shops, markets, mosques, health clinics, and even a police station and marine fire brigade, can be found, courtesy of a government determined to preserve the country’s heritage.

As our tour continues up and down the bustling watery streets, criss-crossing under the 36km network of walkways and footbridges, I can’t help but notice the strong sense of community shared by Hajji and his fellow ‘water people’. Everywhere I look, doors are left wide open and unlocked, neighbours are chatting, children are playing, and the constant procession of Hajji’s fellow tambang drivers never pass by without a wave and a titbit of community gossip.

There’s a social harmony here that most cities around the world today could learn a thing or two from. Random robbery and violence are almost unheard of in the village, Hajji tells me: “It’s just not our way,” he explains matter of factly, before turning the boat around beneath the floor of a house, whizzing down a narrow passageway and bursting out into the open water between the village and the shore, just in time for us to take in a spectacular sunset.

And as the sun slowly dropped below the horizon, bathing the water village in a warm glow, I can’t help but think that the view before me really would give Venice a run for its money.

What to do

Brunei is on the north shore of the island of Borneo and occupies less than 1 per cent of the island. Apart from its coastline with the South China Sea, it’s surrounded by the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, making it a fascinating place to explore both as a stopover and part of a bigger adventure.

The golden dome

Sitting on the banks of the Brunei River, the dazzling golden-domed Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque dominates the skyline of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. Built in 1958 as a symbol of the Sultanate’s faith, the mosque is as spectacular inside as out, decorated with marble and granite floors, stained glass and chandeliers. For a great view of the city, climb to the observation deck in one of the minarets.

Night markets

For some authentic Malay delicacies, let your nose lead you to one of the several night markets that fire up across the capital when the sun goes down. This is where the locals go for some nosh, and the range of sights and smells is almost overwhelming. Try local specialties, such as udang sambal serai bersantan (spicy prawns in coconut red curry). For dessert, you can’t beat the banana fritters.

Back to nature

Believe the tourist taglines describing Brunei as ‘the green heart of Borneo’. The Government does not practice commercial logging, so the country is adorned with vast tracts of virgin rainforest (70 per cent of Brunei’s land is covered by primary rainforests) and all within easy access from the major cities. Tamen Tasek Forest Reserve, for example, is just a 15-minute walk from the centre of the capital, providing a lush rainforest retreat complete with waterfall and lake.


Flanked by the blue waters of the South China Sea, Brunei Darussalam boasts 161km of pristine coastline, including some mighty inviting sandy beaches. Close to Bandar Seri Begawan you’ll find Muara, ideal for those wanting to kick back and relax, and Serasa, a haven for watersports enthusiasts.

Visit Malaysia

Don’t forget, Brunei is just a small part of the rest of the island of Borneo, so if you have a few days to kill, it’s entirely possible to take in a few of the sights in the surrounding Malaysian states. You can travel overland or by sea, or a combination of both.

Other great stopovers

Bali, Indonesia

Lined with postcard-perfect sandy beaches — several within 20 minutes’ drive of the airport — Bali is an inviting island of intoxicating possibility and the perfect remedy for jetlag. Those wanting just beaches and nightlife need venture no further than tourist-meccas Kuta and Legian in the south-west, while those seeking less crowds and more culture should head north and north-west for the smaller villages, such as Bali’s artistic heart, Ubud, and Lovina, a popular spot for snorkelling, diving and sunset watching.

Hong Kong

Honkers is the stopover for you if you like to let your stomach dictate your travel itinerary. Renowned for its fusion of Eastern and Western flavours and top quality, Hong Kong’s cuisine, from budget street-eats to fine dining, is among the best in the world. With more than 9000 restaurants spread across seven main dining districts, the city offers almost every taste under the sun — but for the most authentic local dining experience, head to the Causeway Bay area and eat yourself silly on the Cantonese, Chiu Chow, Hunan, Szechuan, Shanghainese and Peking flavours. Once you’ve had your fill on the gourmet treats, there’s the dazzling architecture and colourful street life to sate your appetite for sight-seeing.

Tokyo, Japan

Stopping over in Tokyo is like going home via the future. Japan’s capital and largest city is a neon-infused assault on the senses, where all that is shiny, new, hip and hi-tech is king. There’s an obscene amount of shopping outlets, but you don’t need to enter a store if you don’t want to — Tokyo has the highest concentration of vending machines in the world, with more than 2.5 million selling food and drink, and hundreds of thousands more selling almost everything else you can think of (and probably a few you wouldn’t want to — used schoolgirl’s knickers, anyone?). For culture vultures, there are more museums than any other city on earth and plenty of art galleries, too. If you’ve got more time head out into the country for a day to experience a less hectic, more traditional face of Japan.

Dubai, UAE

For a touch of indulgence, the decadent and surreal metropolis of Dubai won’t disappoint. A glittering jewel on the southern shore of the Arabian Gulf, Dubai boasts the world’s first seven-star hotel, the towering (it’s also the world’s tallest hotel at 321m), sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, and the highest concentration of jewellery shops anywhere in the world —
it’s not called the City of Gold for nothing. There’s also the year-round sunshine, shopping, spas, gourmet dining and pristine beaches. For adventure there’s 4WD desert dune bashing, sand-boarding and camel trekking.