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Brunei:   The Abode of Peace

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

After semi-roughing it in the wilds of Malaysian Borneo for a week, I found myself in a place that was still Borneo, but where I couldn't have roughed it if I tried. I was in Brunei, a country best known for its sultan who was the richest man in the world until overtaken by Bill Gates. I took a flight to the town of Limbang, still in Malaysia, and headed for the wharf where I took a ferry to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Brunei's population is mostly Malay and Malay is the official language. Were it not for the oil wealth, one could be forgiven for thinking they were still in Malaysia. Like any place with lots of Malay people, the streets are filled with colorfully dressed women. In addition to ethnic Malays, there is also a Chinese minority (about 15% of the population) and a large foreign worker population, mainly Indonesian and Filipino. The entry formalities were almost non-existent. I just gave the lady my passport, she stamped it, said "Welcome to Brunei" and that was it.

Omar Ali Safiudeen Mosque

Omar Ali Safiudeen Mosque

My first stop was the most famous attraction in Bandar Seri Begawan (hereby known as BSB), the Omar Ali Safiudeen Mosque. It's a treasure of Malay architecture—a tall, shimmering white building with huge gold minarets and domes. The outside is amazing, but the inside is breath-taking. It's a shockingly pure white with golden Islamic/Malay motifs and Arabic calligraphy. I had to wonder what it took to keep the inside of the gigantic building such a divinely pure white color. The blue and red stain glass and the green prayer rugs covering most of the expansive white marble floor make it complete. Around the inside perimeter were exotic gold lanterns. Around the center were huge chandeliers with the bulbs that looked like white candles with Malay-style gold domes where the flame would be. The mosque doesn't have a courtyard like most Arabic mosques. It has a large open area beside the shallow Sungai lagoon. A gracefully arching stairway leads to a "boat," or rather a concrete replica of a royal barge, where Koran recital contests are held.

Sungai lagoon is more than a complement to the mosque. Over it is a place where an ancient way of life refuses to die. It's called Kampung Ayer. Malays have always been a village people, close to the soil. Some of Brunei's Malays, however, are close to the water. They live their whole lives just a few feet above it. "Kampung Ayer" means "Water Village," though in fact it is made up of 28 villages all right next to each other. They all sit on stilts over the lagoon and they are home to 30,000 people who refuse to leave. The government of Brunei would like to get the people to leave the villages and move into the city. It offers the villagers subsidized housing and cash allowances to leave the villages, but they just won't go. Even today it's often said that even urban Malays in places like Kuala Lumpur are still villagers in their soul. The ancestors of Kampung Ayer residents have been living over the lagoon for centuries. It was first dubbed the "Venice of the East" when Antonio Pigafetta, an officer on Magellan's great voyage, visited Kampung Ayer in 1521. A visit to the place makes it easy to understand why the residents want to stay. The many houses, shops, and villages of Kampung Ayer are all connected by a maze of boardwalks. As most of the people are Malay (and thus love color), many of the houses are painted in bright blues, greens, yellows, and other colors. Flowers grow in pots by many of the houses and vines of Bougainvilleas are seen along the way. As in the longhouses of Sarawak, the sense of community is everywhere. Children play along the boardwalks (and sometimes in the lagoon just below them) and neighbors sit outside and chat while older women sit by the spices they have out for sale. Everywhere you go you hear two soothing sounds: the waves hitting the stilts and the shore, and feet scampering along the boardwalks. It must be easy to sleep there at night.

Getting lost in the boardwalk maze is easy and pleasant. I could always find a jetty and wait for a water taxi if (okay, when) I got hopelessly lost. The houses are very open and stealing a look inside is easy. On the inside the houses are like houses anywhere in the modern world. The community is prosperous, and the houses have many of the trappings of modern life. Despite being blessed by a sea breeze, many have air conditioners. (Even a sea breeze can't always compete against the equatorial heat.) All houses have electricity; most have TV antennas and some have satellite dishes.

But those items aside, wandering down the boardwalks of Kampung Ayer I felt like I was seeing the same place Magellan's crew saw. The friendliness of the people of Brunei is one of its tourists' draws (though it's never really made it onto the tourist map) and the people of Kampung Ayer take it to an extreme. Everyone says "hello" as you pass; many chat for a few minutes and the children love to follow the tourists around. Everyone loves to be photographed. And of course, like Malay women everywhere, the women of Kampung Ayer go about in their bright colors. In addition to houses, there are mosques, restaurants, shops, and even a karaoke lounge on stilts over the water. I stayed longer than I meant to, right until sunset. As evening falls, Kampung Ayer passes from pleasant to idyllic. As the sun sets over the lagoon, illuminating the formerly white, now bright red mosque in the distance, it all became intoxicatingly peaceful. The quietly chatting people (Malays are a very soft-spoken people), the pitter-patter of feet on the boardwalk, the sea breeze, the sound of the waves and other simple pleasure of the water village all made me jealous of the residents. If I were a resident, I couldn't be pulled away by a herd of buffalo. I could have stayed all night but figured I should get a water taxi back into town.


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