“I can get you Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool. Come! We also have Super Man! What you want?” One overly enthusiastic boatman approaches us as we stand on the bank of Brunei Bay weighing up our touring options beyond the streets of the very small city centre. Kampong Ayer, the water villages, scatter right across the waters, and their water taxies cut through the bay like jet boats, narrowly avoiding each other delivering locals and visitors alike to and from the villages to the main ‘land’. I can’t help but notice, that all the boats have something famous painted on them, whether it be a football club or a fictional super hero, it’s evident that speed is not the only competitive factor in the lives of a boatman here.
After some persuasion and negotiation, I board ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and before I have time to warm my seat and consider the safety options, I am traveling up the river in quantum speed. With my hair and ears flipping in the wind, Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan is soon past as the boat slices through the water weaving a blanket of waves with the other boat traffic. Heading up the river, I pass the palace and a derelict boat rusting in the waters on my right, and wave at three excited children playing on the mud bank on my left.
Surrounded by thick mangroves and chirpy birdcalls, it takes ‘Buffy’ around 5 minutes to arrive at the first sighting spot. I am on the look out for the oddly looking proboscis monkeys.
“Up there, at the top of the tree, a family is having something to eat”, my guide whispers quietly, as he steers ‘Buffy’ slowly into the intertwining mangroves. I hold my breath and listen. Suddenly, with some rustling of branches and rowdy commotion, I spot the family of proboscis monkeys feasting at the top of the tree. Their long and lanky tails dangle like ropes; their featured nose, proudly displayed, covering most of their facial features and athletic limbs supporting their large round bellies like grumpy old men sitting in the park minding their own business, it’s hard to believe how an animal can be so disproportional yet so interestingly beautiful.
Proboscis monkeys are native to the Borneo Island and are found nowhere else in the world. Due to habitat loss, these funny looking primates have been placed on the endangered list. In other parts of Borneo visitors often have to walk for miles and camp out in the hope of catching a glimpse, but thankfully, living so close to civilization, the monkeys of Brunei are easily seen by boat as they live safely under the shadow of the Sultan.
After a few minutes of quietly admiring my funny looking friends ‘Buffy’ starts its engines again taking me to more sighting spots. Unfortunately only one family wanted to make an appearance today so I left the area to go back to visit the water villages.
Many are used to the concept of water villages as slums, but in Brunei those who live in these villages chose to live here. I are invited to have afternoon tea with one of the families and I can’t help but notice the brand new flat screen TV, the air conditioning and the beautiful leather couch as I enter through the wooden front door. The décor is certainly that of a modern age, and in complete contrast to the exterior I had just seen. I think of my small apartment back home and fantasize the possibility of moving. Half way through traditional cakes and sweet wheat tea I feel a whiff of fluff at my feet. A cat was making its presence known, starring me down for a piece of the treat.
After some basic conversation in English it is approaching four thirty in the afternoon and I am ushered to leave. It is coming up to peak hour, the guide explained, and the traffic will pick up too much on the water making it dangerous for us to cross. I thank the lady of the house, who is getting ready to settle down in front of the television for a session of what seemed like Brunei’s version of Idol, and hop on ‘Buffy’ once more. As I cross over to dry land I hear a loud roar of laughter. The village school is out and a boat full of school children is being transported home. I giggle at the name of their boat – School Bus – and wonder if the same concept would work at home.
Featured photo by Axel Heller