Urban population: 76 percent of total population (2011); rate of urbanization: 2.13 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.) Major urban areas - population: Bandar Seri Begawan (capital) 241,000. The boundaries of the capital city were expanded in 2007, greatly increasing the city area; the population of the capital increased tenfold (2011). Net migration rate: 2.47 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 39

Brunei life and culture is similar to Malaysian life and culture. About 10 percent of Brunei's 400,000 or so people like in kampongs ("water villages"), where many homes are built on poles over rivers and waterways (See Below).

Brunei is so rich there is enough money to go around. A generous welfare system keeps population happy. Even kampong house have satellite dishes. One government minister told the New York Times, "We've been fortunate in our history because we've never had to prioritize. We've been able to take care of our children, our sick our elderly."

Brunei is very clean but many foreigners complain it is boring. Maureen Callahan wrote in the New York Post: “In 2012, Forbes magazine ranked Brunei the fifth-richest nation in the world. Yet there is little fun to be had: Alcohol is banned and there is virtually no nightlife or culture. “I’m trying to think of a place that’s duller,” Australian writer Charles James told Fortune in 1999. “Maybe a British village in midwinter.” [Source: Maureen Callahan, New York Post, May 10, 2014]

Because of abundance of oil money floating around citizens of Brunei have a strong welfare system with free education, free health care and subsidized housing, low interest housing loans, subsidized rent, subsistence payments for widows, even a free amusement park. There are generous pensions. It is often called a "Shellfare." Brunei Shell Petroleum is the state oil company.

Homes in Brunei

Many Bruneians live in subsidized houses. The government has given out free plots of land along with long-term, low-interest loans. The National Housing Development Program allows houses to be purchased through installments over a 15 to 30 year period. The Bruneian government also runs a housing scheme for landless indigenous people.

Because of abundance of oil money floating around citizens of Brunei have a strong welfare policy with free education, free health care and subsidized housing (virtually free for many), low interest housing loans, subsidized rent, subsistence payments for widows, even a free amusement park. There are generous pensions. It is often called a "Shellfare." Brunei Shell Petroleum is the state oil company.

For foreigners the situation is different. According to expat-blog.com: “There are 2 aspects that are considered problematic to expats – cars and housing. Housing is scarce, especially in the KB area, because Shell takes up most of the houses available to rent and pays top dollar. That leaves everyone else fighting over scraps. The average rental for a good house in a good area will not be less than $2500 a month. In Bandar and surrounds the situation is better than in Kuala Belait and the Western parts. By the way, the towns are known as BSB (Bandar Seri Begawan), KB (Kuala Belait), Tutong, Jerudong, Muara etc. Don’t think you will be able to find “cheap” housing and pocket any difference in your allowance – not likely! [Source: expat-blog.com]

“When you do find a house, you will be surprised at the high standards. Most houses are very spacious and large, especially when compared to the average housing in the UK. Sprawling ranch-style bungalows and double storey 5 bedroomed houses are almost the norm, with large gardens or yards. We have viewed some incredible places, some with outstanding locations, but poor facilities and vice versa. We saw one house that was in the most idyllic location- Large lawns, no fences, right next to a river, with lush tropical growth and palm trees. BUT…..open, squat toilets, crocodiles in the river, no aircons, and cramped small rooms. Then we saw a huge mansion, with 5 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, huge garden, BUT $3500 a month and a busy construction place next door. Another house was right on the beach, BUT the landlord was not willing to do any renovations and boy, did it need that done! There were rats in the roof and 12 cats lived around the property too.” [Ibid]

Everyday Life in Brunei

According to expat-blog.com: “The day starts early – you will probably be up by 5.30 in order to get the kids to school by 7.15. School starts at 7.30, so if you are a teacher, you need to plan all activities around that. Fortunately, the sun is up early and it is hot. Patience is a virtue, but essential in Brunei. It will take as long as it takes!... Utilities – Cheap is all you need to know. Gas and electricity will cost about $120 a month if you use a lot. Water is negligible and all of these are often incorporated in the rent.[Source: expat-blog.com ^+^]

“The cost of living is cheap, if you work for CfBT and get the housing etc. There are no drunken yobs fouling up the streets, no threatening youths, drug dealers, crime gangs and all the other detritus that Western “civilisation” has spawned. Here you will meet people from all over the world – Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, English, Scots, Samoans, Dutch, Italians, Thais, Chinese, Philipinos, Americans etc etc. The World has descended on Brunei to make the most of its beauty and privileges, but only those who can adapt to it, will be accepted and will last. ^+^

“The shops are plentiful and usually well stocked. Sometimes you will have to wait a day or two to get what you want (like lettuce), but it will be there eventually. If you are willing to walk around and look in the many smaller enterprises etc, you will find it. Places like “Super Save” import from the UK and Australia, so you can get most of the usual stuff. Meat is available from the butcher in Super Save as is pork, including bacon. There is a butcher in Bandar in the Gadong area opposite the Mall. In KB there is a meat wholesaler where you can buy lamb, beef and some really good luxuries for low prices….$7 a kg for Topside! Then there are other supermarkets like Soon Lee, Giant and a myriad of “enterprises” and trading stores (that look like nothing but once you go in, you are surprised at the range and quality, let alone the prices). ^+^


A kampong is traditional Malay water village, where many homes are built on poles over rivers and waterways. A traditional kampong consists of 20 or 30 thatch- or zinc-roofed wooden huts set on stilts around an estuary or river. The residents are typically fishermen or rice farmers. Many of the fishermen caught fish with traps and dried them. Houses were often set among orchard crops, with rice fields outside the village boundaries. Kampongs typically didn’t have any public buildings other than a small mosque.

In Malaysia, the term kampung (sometimes spelling kampong) in the English language has been defined specifically as "a Malay hamlet or village in a Malay-speaking country". In other words, a kampung is defined today as a village in Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. In Malaysia, a kampung is determined as a locality with 10,000 or fewer people. [Source: Wikipedia]

The term "kampong" is one of many Malay words to have entered common usage in Malaysia and Singapore. Locally, the term is frequently used to refer to either one's hometown or a rural village, depending on context. There are only a few kampong villages remaining in Singapore, mostly on islands surrounding Singapore such as Pulau Ubin. In the past, there were many kampung villages in Singapore but now there aren't many on the mainland.

The residents of Sabah's kampongs don't have to pay taxes because their housed are not built on land. Instead they are built on stilts over tidal flats. Some are shacks. Others are more elaborates dwelling with porches and gardens. Most have electricity and water but no plumbing. At low tide the muddy flats are exposed and they are filled with trash and not very attractive.

Kampong Life

In old days there was a lack of general supply of electricity, running water and sewage system in most kampongs. On kampong life in the 1960s, Nurfitri Kasman of North View Secondary School wrote: “ Kampong kids(boys in particular) love to catching fish in drains or ‘longkang’, digging for earthworms, catching toads, tortoises and any other small or tiny animals to add to their collections. Another favourite hobby of the kampong kids were chasing the chickens all over the place and playing in the rain. Not only that, they will also invent games with their surroundings such as chongkak, chapteh, five stones, gasing(also known as spinning tops) and goli panjang(aiming at the marbles on the ground). [Source:Nurfitri Kasman, 16, 2E1, April 7, 2007, North View Secondary School >>>]

“Not to forget, the adults have their own hobby of watching the wayang in the open-air as not many could afford a black and white television. The adults will also grow durians, rambutans and many other kinds of fruit trees. During the harvesting, if a family has excess food, they will give the excess food to their neighbours. The most interesting part of living in a kampong was that it’s very safe as everyone knew every other person and thus, they look out for one another. >>>

“In a kampong, the people were not rich enough to have an individual pipe and sewage systems. Thus, they share everything together. There was only one small hut toilet with just a hole in the center. In the hole, there will be a container where all the waste landed and every evening, a man, who earns a living by doing this job, will collect the container and replace a new one. As for bathing, there was only one small government pipe where everyone does laundry and collects water. If not, the villagers have to collect water from the well or from rainwater. >>>

“As for my mother, her kampong was located at Jalan Udaya and the kampong was a multi-racial village. Fortunately, almost all the people in the kampong knew how to speak the Malay language and thus, this allows them to communicate with each other without any problems at all. There were also not many schools located in the village itself and majority of the schools were located far away. But not many kampong kids go to school as their parents could not afford to send them. Due to favouritism years ago, those parents who can afford only sent their boys to school while the girls stay at home to help their parents with the household chores.” >>>

According to singaporekampong.blogspot: Have you ever wondered how people bathed in the kampong? Of course, you cannot expect running water or the private bath. More often than not, you have to bathe in the open. At least, you won't be bathing in the cold air and get a chill. [Source: singaporekampong.blogspot . June 15, 2008 |+|]

“Bullocks were used as beasts of burden, and performed many functions, including to transport timber to factories or sawmills. Indians used some bullocks to do grass cutting. Remember the old folks in the kampong. They used the bullock carts to carry heavy things. But strangely enough, bullock carts were also used in the old days to transport water around Chinatown. Most of the bullock carts were stationed along Kreta Ayer Road, hence its Malay name. Chinatown in Singapore was also referred to as "bullock carts carrying water." Indian convicts brought into Singapore to do hard labour in 1825 were given bullocks as incentives for good behaviour, upon the completion of their penal sentence in Singapore. |+|

“A fishing kampong scene in the east coast of Singapore in 1940 shows the drying of fishes with a background of coconut trees. True, the beach and sea and the boats are still there, but the attap huts, the way the fishing folks wore and work, the smell of fishes in the air - they have all gone with the passage of time. More remarkable is the crescent-shaped formation of the fishing folks hauling up the fishing nets and re-arranging them.” |+|

Kampong Ayer

Kampong Ayer has been dubbed as the world’s largest self-contained water village. Extending from both banks of the Brunei River, this famed centuries-old village is home to almost 40,000 people and is almost entirely built on stilts, and even has schools, post offices and clinics on stilts. It can be reached by river taxi. One thing that sets this kampong apart from ones you'll find elsewhere in Borneo is that the rich Brunei government has seen to it that the houses are outfitted with all the latest conveniences.

Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in the Asia Times, “The sight of its unique houses that seem to be floating above the water is enough to put it in a class of its own. But Kampong Ayer is also replete with history, having been part of this small but oil-rich sultanate for more than a thousand years. Indeed, the historic water village at the center of the capital goes to the very heart of Brunei's seafaring cultural roots. It forms a significant part of its capital city. It has 36 kilometers of walkways mainly supported by concrete columns decked with meter-wide timber piles. Alongside the houses, there are also retail shops, eating houses, mosques and schools. It is more than a mere village and could become a great tourist attraction - if and when Brunei decides to promote tourism as a major industry. [Source: Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Times, March 26, 1999]

Kampong Ayer's recorded history goes back to at least 1,300years. It formed a formidable network of commercial and maritime settlements along with Melaka, Sri Vijaya, Johor and Pasai. Abdul Aziz of the Geography department of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam told the Asia Times: ''Kampong Ayer is culturally and historically the most famous, as well as the largest, water settlement in the Southeast Asian region,. It was historically the very core of Brunei and one of the most important centres of trade in Borneo."

Kampong Ayer stretches for several miles along the banks of the Brunei River. Comprised entirely of stilt houses and wooden walkways, it embraces a cluster of 42 villages. Kampong Ayer retains many historical features of the 16th century when Ferdinand Magellan's chronicler— Antonio Pigafetta— described it as the 'Venice of the East'. The traditional lifestyle of its inhabitants—fishermen, river traders (or padian as they are called in the Malay language) and artisans making and selling traditional handicrafts (silverware, brassware, woodcarving and cloth weaving) — has remained virtually unchanged since then.

Kampong Ayer, or the Water Village (Malay: Kampong Ayer) is an area of Brunei's capital city Bandar Seri Begawan that is situated after the Brunei Bay. The people that live there represent roughly ten percent of the nation's total population. All of the Water Village buildings are constructed on stilts above the Brunei River. The small villages that make up the kampong are linked together by more than 36 kilometers of foot-bridges and boardwalks, with the community embracing of over 4200 structures including homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools, and a hospital. Private water taxis provide rapid transit. Most of these taxis resemble long wooden speed boats. From a distance the water village looks like a slum. It actually enjoys modern amenities including air conditioning, satellite television, Internet access, plumbing, and electricity. Some of the residents keep potted plants and chickens. The district has a unique architectural heritage of wooden homes with ornate interiors. [Source: Wikipedia +]

People have lived in Kampong Ayer for over 1300 years. Antonio Pigafetta dubbed it the "Venice of the East" when the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan visited in 1521. The district is a culturally important part of Brunei that preserves the nation's river dwelling origins. According to geography professor Abdul Aziz of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, this is the largest and most famous water settlement of Southeast Asia. "It was historically the very core of Brunei and one of the most important centres of trade in Borneo." +

The 42 villages of Kampong Ayer are Mukim Sungai Kedayan including Bukit Salat, Sumbiling Lama, Sungai Kedayan 'A', Sungai Kedayan 'B', Ujong Tanjong and Kuala Peminyak; Mukim Tamoi including Tamoi Ujong, Tamoi Tengah, Pengiran Kerma Indera Lama, Pengiran Tajuddin Hitam, Ujong Bukit/Limbongan, Pengiran Bendahara Lama; Mukim Burong Pingai Ayer including Burong Pingai Ayer, Lurong Dalam, Pandai Besi 'A', Pandai Besi 'B', Sungai Pandan 'A', Sungai Pandan 'B', and Pengiran Setia Negara, Pekan Lama; Mukim Peramu including Peramu, Pekilong Muara, Bakut Pengiran Siraja Muda ' A', Bakut Pengiran Siraja Muda 'B', Bakut Berumput and Lurong Sikuna; Mukim Saba including Saba Tengah, Saba Ujong, Saba Laut, Saba Darat 'A' and Saba Darat 'B'. Mukim Sungai Kebun including Setia 'A', Sungai Siamas/Ujong Klinik, Setia 'B' Sungai Kebun, Bolkiah 'A' and Bolkiah 'B'. +

Kampong Ayer: A Kampong with All the Mod Cons

Today Kampong Ayer is an almost self-sufficient community, equipped with modern facilities such as schools, shops, markets, mosques, clinics, police stations and fire brigades. All are connected by a maze of stilted platforms and walkways. Kampong Ayer is a national heritage and efforts are being made to preserve this lifestyle so that the legacy of the 'water' people of Brunei will be retained, not only as a tourist attraction, but also for the future generations of Brunei.

In order to preserve Kampong Ayer as Brunei Darussalam's most valuable heritage, the Government through the District Office has provided it with numerous facilities including foot-bridges, concrete jetties, piped water, electricity supplies telephones, a school, mosques, clinics, a police station and a marine fire station. All of the six water village mukims (districts) are collectively known as the water village (Kampong Ayer) but are identified as separate mukims for administrative purposes. Visitors can have a personal experience of this heritage by taking one of the many water taxis that ply daily between the water taxi jetty in front of the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah in the centre of town and the water village itself. +

Kalinga Seneviratne wrote in the Asia Times, “Raised above the water level, the houses at Kampong Ayer remain uniquely Bruneian in architecture and style. Much of the houses’ distinct character is due to use of rattan and leaves, combined with timber. But major fires in recent years have discouraged residents from rebuilding damaged houses with the same materials. After a big blaze a few years ago, in fact, the government built an entirely new community on the water using paved concrete slab pathways and fiber-houses on concrete bases. The houses have also been provided with amenities such as piped water, gas supplies and sewage and waste disposal systems. ''When our houses were burnt down, the government built these ones for us,'' says Kampong Ayer resident Latifa. ''We pay 162dollars a month . . . maybe for another 30 years. But, we own the houses already." [Source: Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Times, March 26, 1999 >>>]

“Latifah says her family has not considered moving to a house on land because, used to the water village's lifestyle, they enjoy it. ''If we are happy,'' she says, ''and the government is willing to help us, why should we move?" Besides, Kampong Ayer, which is adjacent to the city administrative and employment centre, happens to have a very convenient location. Urban planner Idris Haj Belaman also says the lower cost of living, including virtually free land tenure, is a factor that helps attract people to live in the water village. >>>

Kampong Ayer’s Modern Problems

“A study done recently by Aziz has found that although the settlement holds a nostalgic place in the hearts of the Malays of Brunei, the population at Kampong Ayer has declined dramatically during this decade. He names pollution and fire hazards as two of the main reasons for the population drift away from the water village. Other modern-day realities have also seeped into the village. The settlement traditionally housed the country's best craftsmen and artisans, but today, according to Aziz's study, it has become the home for mainly unskilled laborers. There are also many migrant workers from India, Bangladesh and Thailand living in kampong Ayer today. >>>

“And while in many cities the biggest danger facing those who are returning home after dark may be that of getting mugged in a street corner, residents of the water village say their worries at night are no less dangerous. There is almost no lighting in public areas so it is risky to travel at night as high-speed taxi boats criss-cross the water.A few months ago, four people died within a span of just two weeks because of accidents involving the water taxis after dark. Police patrols on the water have since been increased after a public outcry. >>>

“Recently, residents in some of the old timber houses complained that during high tides and thunderstorms, they feel as if they are sinking into the river. They may be right. Many of the old houses rest on shallow muddy foundations, which are settling so fast that the river water almost reach their floor levels at high tide. ''We dare not go to bed,'' says Awang bin Sunggoh, who lives in a wooden house that is believed to be more than a century old.''High tide coupled with the downpour may spell disaster." He adds, ''The recently built houses fare better, especially those on raised concrete piles are safe from invading river." >>>

“While all the villagers of Kampong Ayer own their houses, they do not have ownership of the space over which their residences float. But Idris argues that Kampong Ayer must be preserved and is against offering government money to coerce residents there to move out and build houses on land. Instead, he says, what should be done is improve housing standards in the village. ''Kampong Ayer is a national heritage,'' he says. ''Whatever it may be, there should be a balance between conserving our national heritage that is Kampong Ayer and the need for a more dynamic and sophisticated development." To make it a modern urban development model, Idris even advocates exploiting Kampong Ayer's potential to become a tourist destination, by providing chalet accommodation and restaurants on the water for tourists.” >>>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Fortune magazine, Vanity Fair magazine, Brunei Tourism, Prime Minister's Office, Brunei Darussalam, Government of Brunei Darussalam, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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