“This is so weird, Mom… there’s nobody here… it’s like… the zombie apocalypse or something…”
The streets of central Bandar Seri Begawan were completely empty.
An eerie quiet had replaced the usual bustle. Store fronts were locked and shuttered. Not even the ubiquitous coffee shops had their reliable contingent of men smoking around round tables on the sidewalks. The air hung hot, and heavier than usual, as we walked past the Royal Realia Museum, our intended destination; closed.
The only sound to break the tropical afternoon silence was the tinny wail of the call to prayer.
If you come to Brunei, it might be good to mark your calendar, so that your busy tourist schedule takes into account Friday’s noon prayers. By decree of the Sultan, every business must close between 12 and 2 p.m. every Friday, to allow for mosque attendance. That means no bank, no shopping, no lunch, no coffee, no ice cream, no museum, no nothing during Allah’s two hours.
Nothing really sticks out more than an oversized western family in the downtown of the capital of a Muslim country during Friday prayers. Other than a few Chinese, who were clearly annoyed by the weekly interruption of commerce, loitering in front of their noodle shops, and a pair of Indian fellows who were gesticulating wildly on a street corner, we were the only people about. So, we did what we always do: we walked.
Up past the Royal Regalia Museum and in front of the gold domed mosque that Hannah thinks looks like a sand castle, from whence the blaring stream of Arabic floated. Around the corner and down along the waterfront, with a quick dip into the blood red Chinese temple next to the bus station (which is not really a station, so much as an extra lane set aside as a pull off.) Dragons with glowing red eyes watched us, coiled around pillars, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Incense burned our eyes. The sermon of the Imam droned on in the background. I read later, in the newspaper, that it had been about the decline of moral living in Brunei, and how the free association of men and women was leading to child abandonment, theft and generally loose living.
Across the bridge we wandered through the fresh market on the wharf. The stalls were all shrouded with blue striped tarps. A few women leaned on tables in front of fans, looking happy for the mandatory rest. Children ran, barefoot, between the tables, laughing, as children everywhere do.
Kampong Ayer is the largest water village in the world.
It was dubbed “Venice of the East” by a fellow who visited here with what was left of Magellan’s expedition in 1521. It’s five miles of stilt houses are home to more than 30,000 people.
I chuckled as Tony negotiated the price for a tour with the boatman. I don’t know what it is about him, perhaps it’s not him at all, that makes a tout jack his price up by half. I’d leaned over the bridge rail and asked a price: $40. When he asked the same guy, the price jumped to $60. He smiled, nodded off at the horizon and looked at the guy with his “one eye” look and said, “How ‘bout $30?” Laughing ensued. Eventually we were on the boat, for Tony’s price.
I looked at the Kampong Ayer with two sets of eyes as we flitted across the surface of the muddy brown water to the dragonfly whine of a 20HP outboard motor.
On the one hand, here is a community that has been in continual habitation for over 1,000 years. Rickety stilt houses leaned together, seemingly holding one another up. Newer government constructions, solid on concrete posts, stood sentry in stark contrast to their ramshackle neighbours. Bare foot children ran along the spiderweb of raised bridges connecting homes to “streets,” and streets to form communities. Boys fished. Women wrapped in peacock coloured silks from head to toe carried baskets between houses. Boats hung below houses. Chicken and rabbit pens swung precariously over the water below. Everyone shouted to us, smiling and waving. It was a charming scene.
And then there is the trash. Not just a bottle or two floating, but great rafts of refuse, above and below the brackish water that stank of fish and sewage. We pranged our prop on a piece and the boat shook hard for the rest of our voyage, the driver periodically lifting it to check on the damage. Rusty satellite dishes hung at rakish angles from roofs that were anything but waterproof. Dingy curtains hung out of the black holes of windows that were like the very eyes of poverty herself. Docks were rotting and dropping away into the sea. Concrete supports crumbling. Refuse water pipes poured straight into the bay below and electrical wires hung precariously from bent and rusty nails between houses, some dipping so low as to be a hazard to our boat and others.
What must it be like to live in these villages? To have a baby, and then a toddler in a place seemingly designed to maximize potential for death or destruction. To know that your boy, swimming and paddling his boat beneath your house is in the same water that 30,000 other people have pumped their household waste, and worse, into for as many generations as anyone can remember?
“This is my favourite place!!” My friend Jun said to me this afternoon. “I say, that if you have not seen the Kampong Ayer then you have not been to Bandar Seri Begawan!” He enthused.
Indeed, it’s a must see, but I can’t help but wonder about the mixed motives and ethics of allowing poverty to remain a tourist trap and capitalizing on the quaintness of the locals while doing little to clean up the ecological disaster.
But then, I understand little. I am not a local.
I think we were a bit of a disappointment to our boatman.
He started off driving gently and then ramped up to breakneck speed, weaving in and out between the tightly packed wooden columns as if moving a character through a video game maze. Three times he made violent U-turns and looked at me sideways from beneath his glasses to see if I would screech. I kept knitting. The kids smiled. Tony didn’t even register the movement. We’re used to Grampsy’s wild antics with the bass boat in our canals back in Canada. This guy had nothing on Gramps.
Two o’clock came and went. We disembarked next to the only aspect of the water village that is reminiscent of Venice at all, the red and white candy striped pillars on the wharf.
“Not exactly a gondola ride… but very neat!” Someone reported.
The Royal Regalia Museum is worth an afternoon. It’s air conditioned, which might be it’s best feature. You’ll become familiar with the Sultan, his history and many of the gifts he’s accrued over the years from around the world.
There’s a lunch spot, in an alley behind the Pizza Hut, that is run by a Chinese family and serves quite good food at about $4 a plate. You should eat there, once you’re famished from waiting out Friday prayers. At home, we joke about “beating the Baptists” to a restaurant when eating out on Sunday afternoons. There were definitely no Baptists in attendance, but we managed to find seats among a few families of veiled ladies and men in their best white caps following their visit to the mosque. We’re happy to report, that we escaped the zombies.