Folks on the Water

“I KNOW, I TALK,” our boat driver tells us as we step aboard. “I don’t know, I don’t talk.” What he means, I think, is that he’ll tell us what he knows, but he doesn’t know everything. He knows, for instance, that his name is Lokman, that he is 46-years-old, that he became a boat driver at age 18 because he hated school, that he now has five children and one grandchild, and that his favourite food is nasi goreng, a.k.a. fried rice, because, simply, “it is my favourite.”

He knows that his grandfather lived in Peramu, one of six village districts that now make up Kampong Ayer, Brunei’s Water Village. It is affectionately called the “Venice of the East”, and is among the nation’s top tourist attractions. He is proud to still live there, even though his sister married and moved onto the mainland. He prefers life on the water. “This village I know,” he says. On the mainland, “traffic lights, jams. Here, not.”

He is one of around 39,000 people — 10 percent of the nation’s population — who live in shanty houses held up over brown water by stilts of rotting wood and cracked concrete. When they use the toilet, their excrement and urine fall directly into the water. Sometimes little children fall in and no one sees, and they drown and die. Once there was a huge fire that destroyed over 50 homes, leaving intact only a single cement jetty, pictured below.

But Kampong Ayer is important to Brunei’s culture and tourism. It is the most tangible link to the country’s thousand-year-old tradition of living on the water. This is why, after Brunei gained full independence from the United Kingdom in 1984, the government took its millions of oil-earned dollars and put some of it towards keeping the village afloat. They provided hot water, electricity, wooden footpaths, clinics, a hospital, mosques, schools and phones. They paid for school boats that transport children each morning and wait outside for the teachers at sunset.

Lokman explains all this to us in 40 minutes. He shows us the local fire and police stations, near the grand and dirty mosque. Then he points out the Sultan’s grand palace, where he used to work as a guard during his mandatory military service. The work was hard, he says, because he had to stand still for most of the day, and slept only four hours each night.

This job is better. When Lokman is bored and can’t find passengers to taxi around, he takes his boat through the river to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean and catches fish. Sometimes he can catch as many as a dozen, which he can sell for over $200, “if I’m lucky,” he says. He seems to be.

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