The Eternal Kampong Ayer

The Eternal Kampong Ayer
written by Rozan Yunos
published in The Brunei Times, 11th February 2013

IN the recent regatta which was held on February 3, many spectators were seen at the Royal Wharf. Their views of the river while watching the regatta include the Kampong Ayer houses on stilts across the Brunei River.

Even though some of the houses especially the newly built Kampong Ayer houses are now modern houses but which just happened to be built on water, all the houses looked as if they blended in and all we can see are houses on water.

This view of Kampong Ayer is just as described by travellers in the past as far back as 500 years ago such as the Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta in 1521: "The city is entirely built in salt water, except for the houses of the king and certain chiefs. It contains twenty five thousand fires. The houses are all constructed of wood and built up from the ground on tall pillars. When the tide is high women go in boats through the settlement selling articles to maintain life ..."

Houses built in Brunei in those days were always made out of wood. Archaeological finds at Sungai Limau Manis which goes even further back to about a thousand years ago showed similar houses were built then on water.

It was mostly from the 16th century onwards which we gather more description of how houses were built in Kampong Ayer. A few accounts of the Kampong Ayer during those times read as follows: "Their houses are small, built of mud and earth, covered partly with rubble and partly with palm leaves. It is ascertained that there are twenty thousand houses in the city of Porne." De Moluccis Insulis by Maximilian of Transylvania. (1521)

"The city of Borneo is big, surrounded by a brick wall, with many buildings where the kings live, and has magnificent palaces." Da Asia, Decara Quarta. Parte Segunda by Joao de Barros, Lisboa, 1777.

"There are in this island many big villages; the city of Borneo is very big and surrounded by a brick wall. It has great and noble buildings, especially the place of the King. It is inhabited by rich merchants who trade in all parts." Cronica de Muyto Alto e Muito Poderoso Rey Destes de Partugal, Dom Joao III Deste Nome. Secunda Parte. By Francisco d'Andrade. Lisboa 1589.

"The island of Borneo is one of the largest in the whole of East India. The capital, which has the same name, is in a swamp so that the inhabitants have to go from one house to another in praus. There are between two and three hundred houses but the inhabitants have more further inland. There are many people on the island." Nederlandesche Reizen. Amsterdam-Harlingen 1784.

"The houses are built on each side of the river upon posts some houses on the right side of the water, are two stories high, which I never saw in any other Malay country." (Forrest 1779:380)

"The city was very large and rich, and was built over a very broad and deep river and had the appearance of another Venice. The buildings were of wood, but the houses were excellently constructed, many of them being constructed of a stone work and gilded, especially the king's palaces, which were of huge size. That city contained a very sumptuous mosque, a very large and interesting building, quite covered with half relief and gilded." Francisco de Sande

By the mid 19th century, the British and other western explorers were actively engaged in Borneo and were affecting the Brunei state. Brunei by the early 19th century only had the north western part of Borneo left from today's Sarawak to the tip of the Borneo Island in Sabah. With the coming of the Rajah Brooke and the North Borneo Company, Brunei was squeezed from both sides. Many travellers came to Brunei in those times and many accounts about the Kampong Ayer were received together with illustrations. These were published in newspapers such as the Illustrated London News (ILN) or the Ballou's Pictorials in USA.

Some of the descriptions read: "...Our last view was drawn at Bruni, in the island of Borneo, and shows the Sultan's palace. Previously to the Powhatan's joining the Japanese expedition, and while on her way, her duties completed her to touch at the island of Borneo for the purpose of ratifying a treaty which was negotiated some fifteen years since, and which requires renewal every five years... The meeting was held at the palace of the Sultan (the house in the centre of the picture), and the negotiation was concluded in a manner satisfactory to both parties. After an exchange of presents of trifling value between our officers and the natives, and a playing the national airs, with a national salute from two howitzers. The result of such expeditions has been to make our flag known and respected in the remotest quarters of the globe." Ballou's Pictorials, November 18, 1855.

"Accordingly, we have received from a correspondent the annexed view of Borneo, the capital of the kingdom of Borneo Proper, or Brunei, lying on the north-west coast of the Island Borneo, on the banks of the river, about ten miles from the sea. The mouth of the river is narrow, with a bar in front of it, on which there are scarcely seventeen feet of water at high tides. Further up, the river has a considerable depth, and here the shipping lies, particularly the Chinese junks, which are moored head and stern. The town, which is on low ground, contains a considerable number of houses, built on posts, four or five feet high, which, at the rise of the tide, allow the water to pass freely under them. The streets are formed by canals, either natural or artificial, which facilitate communication; and the are always covered with boats, which are managed by women with great dexterity." Illustrated London News, December 13, 1845.

"Our correspondent, the Reverend O'Donnell Ross Lewin, naval chaplain to HMS Audacious, describes Brunei as a town actually built in the water, the houses being erected on piles. It stands in the estuary of a river, and can be approached only by small vessels. The Sultan's palace is entered by a ladder." Illustrated London News, October 13, 1888.

"The town of Brunei, the capital of the Malay Sultan who reigns over the greater part of North Borneo, is situated fourteen miles up the Brunei river, which here expands into a lake, with many islands, or rather mud-banks. The houses, constructed of wood, bamboo, and thatch of 'attap' or palm-leaf, are raised upon frames supported by piles in the water, so that the only communication is by means of boats and canoes, the population is estimated at 30,000." Illustrated London News. December 10, 1881.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Kampong Ayer had managed to continue its tradition as the place of choice by many Brunei Malays to stay in. Even with the coming of the first British Resident, MacArthur, who declared that he wanted a new town on dry land, the Kampong Ayer survived.

Even though Kampong Ayer experienced fundamental charges with the shifting of the administrative centre, the Kampong Ayer did not depopulate. In 1971, the Kampong Ayer population represented 60 per cent of the Bandar Seri Begawan residents. Today the Kampong Ayer is still a vibrant place and still housed a number of Bruneians.

The Golden Legacy is the longest running column in The Brunei Times. The author also runs a website at

-- The Brunei Times --


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