Tourism products can help preserve Brunei’s Kg Ayer culture

National 4 minutes, 2 seconds

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

TOURISTS and locals are keen on the idea of establishing heritage trails in Kampung Ayer, saying it would help preserve the culture of the water village as an increasing number of people migrate from the centuries-old settlement on to land.

With the rising popularity of homestays among tourists - which showcase traditional Brunei-Malay life - there is a potential market for walking tours of Kg Ayer, said Dk Kemariah Pg Hj Duraman, owner of Kunyit 7 Lodge, a bed and breakfast in the Water Village.

“I always take my own guests on a free one-hour walking tour of the water village. But there are 36km of walkways around Kg Ayer, there is still so much to be explored,” she said.

Although compact, Kg Ayer conceals a series of intricate walkways, connecting 42 different stilt villages. Historical records show that the Brunei-Malays have been living on the Brunei River for at least 1,000 years.

“Kg Ayer tourism has so much potential – so far we have the Kg Ayer (Culture and Tourism) Gallery, but that’s it,” Dk Kemariah said, adding that she plans to start her own walking tours soon.

“We could start our own heritage walks but we need the regulators to fix the walkways and put up signboard indicating places of interest.”

A Japanese tourist, Rie Ono, said she was surprised to see Kg Ayer has its own schools, mosques, police station and fire brigade.

“It really is a living, breathing community. It would be even better if we had someone tell us about the history of the place, how the village began and so on,” she said.

Last year, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports said it was exploring the idea of creating a “living museum” in Kampung Ayer, where visitors can walk through heritage trails which depict the lifestyle and craft- making of the residents. The heritage trail would also be an avenue for traditional artisans to sell their creations to tourists and locals.

Head of Kg Lorong Sikuna, Hj Ahmad Bujang, added that people from the Water Village should be trained as guides for walking tours, as most families in Kg Ayer have been living there for several generations and had intimate knowledge of old trades such as weaving, boat-making and blacksmithing.

“Most of these old trades are dying out. If we have tourists coming here, maybe a father will have reason to pass this trade down to his son. It can provide jobs for the people here aside from fishing.”

Hj Ahmad said often water taxis only let tourists explore Kg Ayer on foot for “15 to 20 minutes”, eager to hurry visitors on to their next stop.

“This has become a problem, in my opinion. Many travelers need time to explore the Water Village but they are rushed through by the taxi drivers who want to take them to see other places like the mangroves or wildlife spotting.”

A century ago, half of Brunei’s population lived in Kg Ayer when it was the centre of government and administration.

In the 1980s, the Water Village population was estimated at 40,000 but according to the 2012 national census, it has dwindled to 13,162.

The villages on the river’s north bank, which is on the same side as the city centre, used to cover a much larger area, but many have fallen victim to fires or have been demolished as part of plans to spruce up the waterfront area around the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

In 2014, 500 residents of Mukim Sungai Kedayan were forced to relocate on land after the government announced a “river beautification” project. Another 49 households in Mukim Lumapas and Mukim Sungai Kebun also had to relocate to make way for the construction of a bridge.

“Our way of life is slowly fading away,” said Hj Ahmad, who also operates a homestay in Kg Ayer, which showcases several Bruneian antiques and handicrafts. He has hosted some world-famous guests, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo and former prime minister of Timor Leste Xanana Gusmao.

“That’s why I always welcome tourists into my home, People should see our culture, the real Brunei-Malay life.”

In his coffee table book, Kampong Ayer: Living Memory, scholar and author Dato Paduka Dr Hj Abdul Latif Hj Ibrahim wrote that migration has “killed” the culture and lifestyle of Kampung Ayer.

“Cultures would not exist if there’s no society to practise them. Many traditional and cultural practices have already vanished from modern society, such as padian (river traders) and pengalu (middlemen) as well as craftsmen and experts,” he said.

“What do we want to preserve here? People talk about the culture of Kg Ayer such as merambat (catching of fish using a net), but this will no longer exist as the younger generation is moving to land,” he added.

“Brunei is Kampung Ayer and Kampung Ayer is Brunei”.

The Brunei Times