Malaysian discovers traditions and culture at a floating village in Labuan

The wooden houses in Labuan’s Kampung Patau Patau were painted in many different colours. — DR OH SEONG POR

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Within the tiny Federal Territory of Labuan lies a unique water village called Kampung Patau Patau. This village is located on the Brunei Bay and is mostly inhabited by the descendants of sailors, traders and fishermen from Brunei, who settled there in the 1930s.

(However, there seems to be new evidence that the village existed as early as 1830 during the reign of Brunei Ruler Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II.)

During World War II, the village was destroyed in the Battle of Labuan which involved the Allied forces (Australia, United States and Britain) and the Imperial Japanese army. Thankfully, the place was later rebuilt and has continued to exist till today.

Even after so many decades, the villagers continue to preserve their traditions and culture, and speak in the Brunei Malay dialect too. The word “patau” actually means float in this dialect, and it rightfully describes the village.

My friend had introduced me to Kampung Patau Patau a few years back, knowing that it would arouse my interest. When he described the place, I thought it sounded like the 1995 Waterworld Hollywood movie starring Kevin Costner that told of the story of a floating settlement in the middle of the ocean.

I was definitely interested in the place and had then decided to include water villages into the list of places that I would explore in the future.

Fortunately for me, I was able to visit Patau Patau earlier than I had expected when I was invited as a guest speaker for a seminar in Labuan.

I took my family with me to Labuan and extended our stay after the seminar in order to explore the island further, and of course, this included a visit to the water village.

I rented a car and drove to Patau Patau as it was the easier way to travel. It was a pleasant morning and the drive from town to the village was smooth; we reached our destination in under 25 minutes. There were about 100 houses built closely together in a somewhat neatly arranged manner, beginning from the coast and extending to about 100m into the sea. The houses were not directly attached to each other, though. Instead, each house was constructed individually on an elevated platform, supported by stilts that were “planted” into the sea bed.

Simply put, the houses were built over sea water.

Most of the platforms and houses were made from wood but the newer units had platforms made from concrete. The stilts were said to be made from belian hardwood, also known as Borneo ironwood.

Belian is a rare timber tree native to Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. It is very hard and has a unique anatomical feature that is naturally resistant to rot. This quality provides a solid foundation for houses built over sea water.

Every house was painted with a different colour, so the houses kind of resemble brightly-coloured toy blocks.

Originally, the houses had attap roofs but these days it is more common to use metal or ceramic tiles. The houses were all connected by a series of narrow wooden boardwalk, and concrete platform. There were no railings for you to hold on to while walking on the boardwalk.

Most of the houses had a verandah or balcony that were decorated with a variety of items and plants. Some of the decorations I saw include a lamp shade made from sea shells, a stuffed hawksbill tortoise, lots of handicrafts, traditional fishing traps and a large kite.

As we were checking out the decorations, a few villagers came out from their houses. They easily recognised me and my family as visitors. They smiled and invited us to come into their compounds to see the decorations better, and we did.

I was particularly impressed by the stuffed hawksbill tortoise as it was well preserved. The owner, a fisherman, said that many hawksbill tortoises used to be found around Labuan a long time ago, but the number has greatly reduced these days.

He added that one day, while out at sea, a pair of hawksbill tortoises got entangled with his fishing net and died. The fisherman took the tortoises and later stuffed the shells.

I also noticed there were potted plants and flowers on the verandahs. With care and sufficient sunlight, I suppose they can still blossom beautifully despite living above sea water. What an amazing sight – a floating garden at sea.

We continued to explore the place, walking on the boardwalk and inspecting the surroundings. Soon, I realised that the place was fully equipped with basic utilities like the ones available at landed villages. There were multiple pipelines supplying fresh water to individual houses.

In addition, the houses were also connected with power cables suspended by poles placed along the boardwalks. There were street lamps and a yellow fire hydrant.

Another unique amenity is a surau for the villagers to congregate and perform prayers. It looked like it was built sometime ago, although it was well maintained, clean and organised. There were some kedai runcit or sundry shops, and small restaurants serving traditional dishes like ambuyat and paha paha (green vegetables), as well as fresh fish, crab and other seafood.

Smalls boats and sampan were found everywhere in this village as they are important modes of transportation for the villagers. Some folks actually prefer to transport items from one end of the village to another via boat, rather than carry things up and down the boardwalk.

Of course, these boats are also used for fishing.

As I walked to the end of the village, a boat ferrying several foreign visitors were cruising by. A few passengers waved to us while the others were busy snapping photos. They seemed to enjoy touring the floating village by sea.

I think Kampung Patau Patau is a fascinating place that’s also self-sufficient. It’s a heritage village, which the local community is very proud of. My family and I are glad to have travelled to this wonderful floating village.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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