Tourism in Brunei - History

Tourism in Brunei - History

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Reconsider travel to Brunei due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Read the Department of State’s COVID-19 page before you plan any international travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 1 Travel Health Notice for Brunei for COVID-19, indicating a low level of COVID-19 in the country. Your risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing severe symptoms may be lower if you are fully vaccinated with an FDA authorized vaccine. Before planning any international travel, please review the CDC's specific recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers.

Brunei currently requires U.S. citizens to obtain permission and sponsorship before entering due to COVID-19. Furthermore, travelers arriving indirectly from the United States are subject to a 14-day quarantine and at least one COVID-19 test at the traveler’s expense. Visit the Embassy's COVID-19 page for more information on COVID-19 and related restrictions and conditions in Brunei.

If you decide to travel to Brunei:

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Last Update: Reissued with updates to COVID-19 information.

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The present name 'Kampong Ayer' is the old romanised spelling of the Malay term 'Kampung Air', which is literally translated as 'Water Village'. However, the old spelling version is retained and still used as the primary name of the place.

Kampong Ayer is believed to have been inhabited for several centuries. There are several historical records, particularly foreign sources, which reported the existence of 'water settlements' on the Brunei River. The most well known is arguably the account by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian explorer, on his visit to Brunei as part of the Magellan fleet in 1521, [5] in which he described the settlement as

entirely built in salt water. It contains twenty-five thousand hearths (families). The houses are all constructed of wood and built up from the ground on tall pillars.

There is a possibility that the stilt settlement might not have always been where it is today, that Kampong Ayer might have undergone relocation throughout history. Olivier van Noort, a Dutch, on his stay in Brunei from December 1600 to January 1601, described the houses (of the nobles) as

made of wood, and built on such light piles that when there is a storm or some other untoward event these houses can be removed from one side of the river to the other.

The stilt settlement of what we know today as Kampong Ayer had always been the primary settlement area of the de facto capital of the Bruneian Empire for centuries. [6] However, the role also extended into the time from the arrival, and subsequent imperial presence of the British even until the early 20th century. It was only during the Residential period that a programme which encouraged the Kampong Ayer residents to resettle on land began to be introduced, although it was initially unsuccessful but eventually took off, resulting in significant reduction to its population. Nevertheless, substantial number of residents still remain to live on water. Kampong Ayer also survived bombardments during World War II. [7]

Kampong Ayer consists of several small neighbourhoods which are officially designated as villages, the third- and lowest-level administrative divisions of Brunei each has its own village head (Malay: ketua kampung). The villages are under a few mukims (subdistricts) of Brunei-Muara District, with penghulu as the mukim head. The mukims and villages administration in Kampong Ayer are overseen by the Brunei-Muara District Office.

Subdivisions Edit

Until recently, there used to be another mukim division in Kampong Ayer, that is Sungai Kedayan. However, the mukim and its constituent villages have ceased to exist, due to the redevelopment project on parts of the Kedayan River which coincided with the settlements. The residents have been relocated elsewhere in other parts of Kampong Ayer or on land. The area has been redeveloped as a riverfront park, [10] which has been inaugurated to the public in October 2017 as part of the Golden Jubilee celebration of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's ascension to the throne. [11]

The houses, thus villages, of Kampong Ayer are interconnected with bridges and walkways, [3] wooden and concrete, creating contiguous areas. Thus, accessibility among many villages are possible by foot. Among non-contiguous areas and where the villages are not located along the riverbanks, these areas are accessible by water transport, whereby the most common transport mode is the 'water taxis' (Malay: perahu tambang). [3] They are wooden motorboats which transport anyone, at fares, among jetties in the villages and along the riverbanks in its vicinity.

Similar to public housing developments on land, Kampong Ayer has also a few public housing areas, in the form of stilt houses. The most recent development is the pilot project in upgrading Kampong Ayer, which saw the construction of single- and double-storey houses in the Saba and Peramu areas. [12]

Common utilities are available in Kampong Ayer, which include may electricity, pipe water, telephone lines, internet access and television services. [2]

Educational institutions are available in Kampong Ayer which provide public education comprising primary, primary religious and secondary. There are at least a primary school in each mukim. Similarly, religious schools can also be found, which provide primary religious education to the resident Muslim pupils. The secondary school in Kampong Ayer, Awang Semaun Secondary School, is the only school of its kind where its buildings are built on water. Nevertheless, Sayyidina Umar Al-Khattab Secondary School, which is built on land, also has catchment area in some villages of Kampong Ayer.

There are mosques which serve the need of the Muslim residents for Islamic congregational activities, in particular the Jumu'ah or Friday prayers.

For security and emergency services, there are police stations and fire departments. The latter plays a very significant role, as fire cases are common in Kampong Ayer, in which the main causes include faulty wiring and susceptibility of houses and infrastructures to fire due to many are built with wood. [13]

Survival Edit

As a major historical and cultural heritage of Brunei, there has been increasing concern on the survival of Kampong Ayer in modern times. This is factored by the emigration and relocation of the inhabitants to land. Over the last few decades, the overall population has been shrinking, estimated to have decreased from about 28,000 in 1981 to 13,000 in 2011. [1] The diminishing population, added with the busy modern lifestyle, are threatening the survival of the customs and traditions practiced in Kampong Ayer. It also weakens the sense of community among the residents. [1]

Waste Edit

The floating of rubbish and sewage on the waters of Kampong Ayer is a persisting issue despite substantial measures and initiatives taken by various government and non-government agencies. [14] It is acknowledged that the sources of the problem are not simply from within Kampong Ayer but may also due to ineffective waste management on land, specifically in the vicinity of upstream tributaries and streams of the Brunei River, in which Kampong Ayer lay along its downstream flow. [15] Measures have been implemented by the government which include upgrading and installation of sewage treatment works in the catchment areas, as well as installation of rubbish collection system in the villages of Kampong Ayer. [15] [16] However, complete success is still yet to be seen. Systematic sewage disposal in Kampong Ayer itself is only feasible on public housing villages, namely Bolkiah 'A', Bolkiah 'B' and Sungai Bunga, where they have organised residential layout, where as in the traditional villages, which constitute the majority of Kampong Ayer areas, such disposal system is still not yet available. [15]

Non-government organisations also play significant roles in combatting this issue. Together with the government, as well as the general public, in particular the Kampong Ayer residents, multiple cleaning campaigns have been conducted. [14] Awareness programmes to the public on the importance of waste management have also been carried out for many years. [15] Again, the effectiveness of such programmes have yet to completely yield the desired results.


The small (2,226 square miles) South-East Asian Sultanate of Brunei is located on the northwestern coast of the island of Borneo, sandwiched between two states belonging to neighboring Malaysia. The official name of this wealthy, oil-rich country that became independent of British control (although it was never an outright colony) in 1984 is Brunei Darussalam (Arabic for "Abode of Peace"). It has a predominantly Malay Muslim population with a substantial Chinese minority, many of whom are classified as non-citizens. One striking educational feature of this country, which due to its prosperity ranks third in the world in per capita income, is that citizens of Brunei enjoy the benefit of access to free schooling at all levels.

Historically, the first Malay language school began in what was then Brunei Town (now the capital and renamed Bandar Sri Begawan) in 1912. Similar schools in other towns followed it. A Chinese school was established in 1916, followed by an English medium one in 1931. The growth in schools, both government and private, continued through World War II and beyond. The first five-year plan for economic development, beginning in 1954, resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Education.

This Ministry, which was subsequently reorganized in 1974 on the basis of an official governmental commission report, continues to oversee educational policy and allocate resources to all schools under its control. All government and private schools are overseen by the Ministry of Education in conformity with the Education Act of 1984. All primary and secondary schools follow a common curriculum that is set by the Ministry. Although there have been both official and unofficial recommendations urging the adoption of Malay as the sole medium of instruction, currently dwibahasa (bilingualism, using both English and Malay for teaching purposes) is being practiced. Due to Brunei's small population, many teachers have historically been expatriates from neighboring countries in Asia or from Australia and Britain. One provision of the Education Act is the requirement for private school teachers to register with the Ministry.

Based on Brunei's Islamic heritage and government by monarchy, its official educational philosophy emphasizes Koranic elements, such as faith and piety, along with loyalty to the Sultan. At the same time, its past reliance on Britain has resulted in educational structures and curricula that draw from that nation's educational system. Brunei's educational policies, as stated by the Ministry of Education, aim to achieve the following. They wish to provide:

  • greater scope for the use of Malay in education
  • a total of 12 years of education for all students
  • a system of integrated curricula and public examinations
  • Islamic religious education as part of the school curriculum
  • facilities for education in scientific and technological fields
  • appropriate co-curricular activities
  • access to higher education as appropriate and
  • educational structures that are in harmony with national needs.

In the year 2000, a total of 221 educational institutions were in Brunei. These consisted of 175 primary schools, 39 secondary schools, 2 vocational schools, and 1 each of the following: technical college, nursing college, mechanical training center, technological institute, and university, the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (or UBD). There were 32,316 students in government primary schools and 27,914 in government secondary schools. In addition 24,370 students attended private primary schools and 4,038 were in private secondary schools. There were 2,867 students at the University of Brunei while 2,500 students attended the other vocational and technical colleges. Clearly, a significant proportion of the country's population (more than one-third) consists of students at the primary, secondary, or tertiary levels. One additional feature worth noting is that, according to official statistics, while the enrollment numbers of males and females keep pace with each other at the primary and secondary levels, approximately 57 percent of students at the tertiary level are females.

Brunei follows a 7-3-2-2 pattern of education. This means that there are seven years of primary education (including one year of preschool), followed by a public examination known as the Primary Certificate of Education. Lower secondary education is for three years, followed by another public examination, the Lower Secondary Assessment examination. Based on the performance of an individual student and following the ninth year of schooling, he or she will be tracked into one of two streams. One stream leads to technical or vocational education that prepares the student for immediate skill-based employment after graduation such education is provided at a number of technical and vocational institutes described below. The other "academic" stream leads to two or three years of upper secondary education culminating in the student's appearance in the Brunei-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination at either the O-(Ordinary, similar to its British secondary school counterpart) or N-Levels. The GCE examinations are conducted jointly by Cambridge University's Local Examinations Syndicate and Brunei's Ministry of Education. Those not immediately prepared to take the O-Level examinations are allowed to take the N-level examinations which, if passed, give them an additional year of schooling and preparation to tackle the O-Level examinations. Finally, students with adequate achievements at the O-Level examinations can go on to two years of preuniversity education that prepares them for the Brunei-Cambridge A-Level (similar to the British GCE Advanced Level) examinations.

At the apex of Brunei's education system is its only university, the UBD. This relatively new institution of higher learning began operations in 1985 and offers undergraduate and a few graduate programs through its six faculties (colleges). These include faculties in the arts and social sciences business, economics and policies studies Islamic studies Brunei studies science and education. The last named faculty originated as a separate institute of education that predates and was incorporated into the UBD in 1988. UBD's teaching staff numbers slightly more than 300 people. While most undergraduate programs of study are offered in the English medium, some are also offered separately in Malay.

Brunei's educational system will face two major future challenges. The first is to expand available educational resources and choices at all levels to match the demand both from its own population and the changing economy of Southeast Asia. The second is the continuing dilemma of integrating historical and traditional (religion, monarchy, and "colonialism") as well as modern (liberalization and globalization) elements into a coherent educational infrastructure.

3. Kampong Ayer

Source: flickr Kampong Ayer

Sat smack bang in the middle of the winding Brunei River as it weaves through the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan, this standalone area of the city can be seen as a destination in its own right.

Also known as, simply, the water village, it’s formed completely by homes that jut just above the channels on stilts.

Many are connected with rickety boardwalks, and play host to happy local families who love showing unexpected visitors around.

The only way to reach Kampong Ayer is by flagging down a water taxi from the banks in BSB.

Brunei bans entry of visitors with recent Hubei travel history The government has flown home 42 of 73 Brunei students from China amid the novel coronavirus outbreak

From L to R: Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism YB Dato Hj Ali Apong Minister of Health YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad Isham and Minister of Education YB Dato Hj Hamzah giving updates on the country’s preventive measures for the novel coronavirus during a press conference on Jan 30, 2020. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Brunei government has barred China’s Hubei residents from entering the country starting January 30 as part of preventive measures to contain the new coronavirus outbreak.

Health Minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad Isham Hj Jaafar said anyone who visited Hubei province – the centre of the coronavirus epidemic – in the past 14 days will be denied entry to Brunei, except Brunei citizens and permanent residents.

In a press conference to announce the preventive measures on Thursday, the minister warned that the risk of imported coronavirus cases into Brunei is “considered high” even though no cases have been detected in the country thus far.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said anyone who has been in China in the past two weeks will also be required to undergo self-isolation for 14 days.

The virus has killed 170 people and infected 7,711 in China. At least 21 countries across Asia, Middle East, Europe and North America have also confirmed coronavirus cases.

The Ministry of Education said 42 out of the 73 Brunei students have been evacuated from China since December 2019.

The health minister said another 29 students are expected to return to Brunei on Friday. All of the students will undergo self-isolation for 14 days.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on bringing [home] the remaining two students in the near future,” he added .

Thirty-nine Hengyi Industries workers who recently returned to Brunei from China for the Lunar New Year celebration are also in self-isolation for 14 days.

The students and Hengyi employees will be transferred to Tutong Isolation Centre for further review if they develop symptoms, the health minister said.

Symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

He added that those who are unwell and currently in China are advised to delay their return to Brunei and seek assistance from the Brunei embassy in Beijing.

Brunei citizens and residents have also been advised to avoid travelling to Hubei province and postpone non-essential travel to China.

All of the above measures are temporary and will be reviewed from time to time, he added.

Brunei has also postponed official government visits to China and government officials are advised not to travel to China at this time.

The minister added that government-linked companies must also decline invitations to travel to China during this period.

Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism YB Dato Seri Setia Hj Ali Apong said they expect a decrease in Chinese tourist arrivals this year in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We expect tourist arrivals to [decline] this year compared to last year but this will be the same [situation] in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, so the [whole] region will be affected,” he said.

China has been the top tourism market for Brunei for the last three years. A total of 49,533 Chinese tourists were recorded from January to August last year.

China has ordered all its travel agencies to suspend sales of tour packages, which the minister said was part of their efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

Brunei began thermal screening at its international airport on January 21 following the increasing number of confirmed cases and evidence of human-to-human transmission in other countries.

In addition, incoming passengers will have to submit a health declaration form while incoming passengers in cruise ships and other vessels will also be subjected to temperature screening.

He added,” Businesses will feel the pinch of the impact of the virus and we just have to accept that. Our side [Brunei] as well as China are trying our best to stop the spread of this virus”.

Brunei takes serious look at Islamic tourism

With Brunei Darussalam having identified Islamic tourism as a strategy to expand the tourism sector and diversify the economy, the kingdom’s tourism stakeholders are fine-tuning strategies and enhancing tour programmes to lure more visitors to the country.

Islamic tourism in Brunei Darussalam spans the local way of life or sightseeing at some of the mosques that represent the culture and heritage of Brunei, said Salinah Salleh, head of promotion and marketing at Brunei Tourism.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is one of the main attractions in the Sultanate

The major attractions for Islamic Tourism in Brunei Darussalam include a tour of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, Darul ‘Ifta Building that exhibits Islamic artefacts, The Royal Mausoleum, Brunei History Centre among others.

Salinah shared: “Brunei Tourism has been continuously working closely with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to enhance the product offerings to attract tourists to come for the purpose of Islamic Tourism. Calligraphy activities and Al-Quran reading classes have also been offered. These activities are considered as value-add to the normal travel itinerary, such as visiting mosques and Islamic gallery.

“The month of Ramadhan is a very enlightening time to visit giving a unique insight into the country’s Islamic activities and local culture.”

The main source markets for Islamic Tourism, he said, are Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Brunei Tourism supports inbound agents promoting Islamic tours by providing materials as well as facilitating on potential Islamic tourism products and tours that would be of interest to their clients.

Freme Travel Services is an inbound tour operator selling Islamic Experience tour packages in Brunei that showcase the Sultanate’s Malay Islamic monarchy and give an insight into Malay culture and heritage and how Islam as a religion is practiced.

Sugumaran Nair, manager, inbound & MICE division at Freme Travel Services said the Islamic sightseeing tours offered at the company and have been well received by the Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian Muslim visitors, who make up the bulk of demand for such tours.

Year to date, the company saw a 10 per cent year on year growth.

In 2018, Freme Travel will include The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Islamic Exhibition Gallery, expected to be open by then. The gallery will house over 1,000 Islamic manuscripts and artefacts owned by the Sultan of Brunei. There will also be research facilities available in the building.

Another new package that will be introduced in 2018 is Muslim Youth Camps. Spiritual activities such as Islamic lectures and attending mass prayers will be part of the itinerary. Youths will stay within the mosque grounds for the entire duration of the programme.

The origins of tourism

By the early 21st century, international tourism had become one of the world’s most important economic activities, and its impact was becoming increasingly apparent from the Arctic to Antarctica. The history of tourism is therefore of great interest and importance. That history begins long before the coinage of the word tourist at the end of the 18th century. In the Western tradition, organized travel with supporting infrastructure, sightseeing, and an emphasis on essential destinations and experiences can be found in ancient Greece and Rome, which can lay claim to the origins of both “heritage tourism” (aimed at the celebration and appreciation of historic sites of recognized cultural importance) and beach resorts. The Seven Wonders of the World became tourist sites for Greeks and Romans.

Pilgrimage offers similar antecedents, bringing Eastern civilizations into play. Its religious goals coexist with defined routes, commercial hospitality, and an admixture of curiosity, adventure, and enjoyment among the motives of the participants. Pilgrimage to the earliest Buddhist sites began more than 2,000 years ago, although it is hard to define a transition from the makeshift privations of small groups of monks to recognizably tourist practices. Pilgrimage to Mecca is of similar antiquity. The tourist status of the hajj is problematic given the number of casualties that—even in the 21st century—continued to be suffered on the journey through the desert. The thermal spa as a tourist destination—regardless of the pilgrimage associations with the site as a holy well or sacred spring—is not necessarily a European invention, despite deriving its English-language label from Spa, an early resort in what is now Belgium. The oldest Japanese onsen (hot springs) were catering to bathers from at least the 6th century. Tourism has been a global phenomenon from its origins.

Modern tourism is an increasingly intensive, commercially organized, business-oriented set of activities whose roots can be found in the industrial and postindustrial West. The aristocratic grand tour of cultural sites in France, Germany, and especially Italy—including those associated with Classical Roman tourism—had its roots in the 16th century. It grew rapidly, however, expanding its geographical range to embrace Alpine scenery during the second half of the 18th century, in the intervals between European wars. (If truth is historically the first casualty of war, tourism is the second, although it may subsequently incorporate pilgrimages to graves and battlefield sites and even, by the late 20th century, to concentration camps.) As part of the grand tour’s expansion, its exclusivity was undermined as the expanding commercial, professional, and industrial middle ranks joined the landowning and political classes in aspiring to gain access to this rite of passage for their sons. By the early 19th century, European journeys for health, leisure, and culture became common practice among the middle classes, and paths to the acquisition of cultural capital (that array of knowledge, experience, and polish that was necessary to mix in polite society) were smoothed by guidebooks, primers, the development of art and souvenir markets, and carefully calibrated transport and accommodation systems.


Whatever the annals say about this, one thing was certain that it was made for pleasure to satsify man’s longing to take to the air.

Over the centuries, the kite progressed from an object of pastime to a vehicle for purposes of study. Famous persons like Benjamin Franklin, Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers successfully employed kites to conduct their atmospheric electricity and aeronautics.

Today the kite may no longer be used to carry out experiments but it is still flown as a hobby as well as a sport in competitions, especially in southeast and eastern Asia.
During competitions the kites, which vary in size, are colorfully decorated in the forms of birds, dragons and fishes.

Kampong Ayer - Venice of East

Since settlements on stilts are an important part of Brunei's history, it makes sense to go and visit Kampong Ayer (Malay for 'Water Village'). From the jetty at Bandar Seri Begawan there are constantly water-taxis travelling back and forth across the Brunei river.

For the aesthete the settlement is quite disappointing with all its concrete and metal, especially at low tide, when the stilts are standing on mud, often with quite a bit of garbage. Hardly a description is more misleading than to call this place 'Venice of the East'.

Probably the best way to visit it is with a guided tour, showing one around with a chance to meet people living and maybe working here. For me the only really satisfying experience was the Kampong Ayer Cultural & Tourism Gallery with several good information boards in English about various subjects referring to Kampong Ayer. Of special interest is the thousand year old history of this 'Floating City', which had been the capital of Brunei until the construction of Bandar Seri Begawan just across on the mainland in the early 20th century.

Watch the video: Tourism through history