Kampong Ayer, Brunei’s Stilted Houses

Kampong Ayer stilted village, Bandar Seri Begawan

photography by: Bernard Spragg/ Wikimedia Commons

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In the heart of Brunei’s capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, there is a unique and sprawling settlement that has no roads, no pavements and nothing beneath it except for water. With a history that dates back over a thousand years, Kampong Ayer (“Water Village”) is known as the largest floating village in the world. Throughout the winding canals, deceivingly decrepit-looking houses and modern suburban-style homes, the lifestyle of the inhabitants is far from typical, replete with fascinating quirks as well as some disquieting dangers.

Origins and History

Situated on the Brunei River, Kampong Ayer is just a quick boat ride away from the bustling center of Bandar Seri Begawan, the country’s capital. Historians believe that the settlement was formed by Bajau sea nomads over a thousand years ago, eventually becoming the primary port of the Bruneian Empire and its capital from the 15th to 18th centuries. One of the first Europeans to stumble upon it was Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who was accompanying Ferdinand Magellan on his easterly journey in 1521. Pigafetta saw a vibrant society with tens of thousands of families living in wooden houses just feet above the water, leading him to dub Kampong Ayer the “Venice of the East”.


The inhabitants lived traditional lives, consisting primarily of weaving, boat building, fishing and crafting items with gold, brass, silver and iron. But all of that began to change in the 19th and 20th centuries when British imperialism began sweeping through the region. Residents of Kampong Ayer were encouraged to relocate to the mainland and take up new, modern occupations. The population and strength of the stilted settlement rapidly declined, marking the end of its heyday.

Kampong Ayer Today

Although Kampong Ayer may not be the thriving settlement it once was, it is still an integral part of Bandar Seri Begawan and the country as a whole. Today, the floating community is made up of around 42 sub-villages and has a population of around 10,000 people, split between those who continue to pursue traditional handicrafts and those who commute to the mainland for work. Many families still travel by small skiffs but now they have to contend with speedboats zooming around the waterways, ferrying visiting tourists around the aquatic maze but also providing efficient transport for both the local police force and fire brigade.


Connecting the various floating sections is a network of wooden boardwalks that stretches for a whopping 38 kilometers, linking together homes, restaurants and mosques. Despite the seemingly isolated living conditions, inhabitants have access to the internet, television and running water, just like in any other town. But, unlike other places, the stilted village poses persistent challenges and hazards.

The Dangers of Life in a Floating Village

Given the extensive depopulation, lack of maintenance has led some buildings to collapse completely. Other villages have been severely affected by fires, as evidenced in 2020 when an inferno ripped through the wooden houses in one community leaving 134 people homeless. Other threats include pollution from sewage and trash disposal, affecting not just the health of residents but also the livelihoods of local fishermen. The government is actively working to combat these issues.


Yet despite these risks, the municipality has an irresistible charm – the juxtaposition of sleepy village life with the ongoing modernisation and the proximity of a large capital city makes this a great off-the-beaten-path destination for tourists.

Tourism in Kampong Ayer

There is plenty to see in Kampong Ayer beyond its colourful dwellings – from the novelty of fire stations, police stations and schools on stilts to the impressive construction of the famous green and gold DPMM Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah Mosque and the Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajah Saleha cable bridge, visitors are well rewarded by their efforts to come here.


The Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery is also an excellent place to visit to delve into the fascinating history of this distinctive settlement.  The inauguration of the gallery by the Crown Prince himself in 2009 demonstrates Brunei’s commitment to showcasing this part of its heritage.


Getting to Kampong Ayer is easy – you can walk there from the city center and there are also buses and taxis to take you to the main jetty, in front of the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah shopping mall.  You can then take a water taxi to explore the surreal stilted villages in your own time, marvelling at construction methods that have existed for thousands of years as you discover the Venice of the East for yourself.