"When the tide rises, the women go in boats through the city selling provisions and necessities ..." Antonio Pigafetta wrote of Brunei in the 16th century.
Pigafetta was the Italian chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan's fleet that made a stop at the tiny sultanate in 1521.
Of the scene, he was describing the area in Kampong Ayer, the river city that gave birth to Brunei's early civilisation, where a typical early morning scene would find one's eyes feasting upon a busy floating market run only by women.
These women were known as padian or river traders. They were often matured women above forty, skilled at manoeuvring their sampan (small boat) called bidar that sliced swiftly through the water as they peddled their wares to the womenfolk living in Kampong Ayer.
The padian were also instantly recognisable via their extra large-rimmed straw hats called siraung bini that provided shade from the scorching tropical sun. On their boats were everyday sundry stuff, from fruits to vegetables and other produce, including seafood and farmed animals, which the Kampong Ayer womenfolk would gladly purchase without having to travel onto the mainland. The padian would purchase their supply of goods from various sources and then sell them to the villagers living in Kampong Ayer. Through the manuscripts from Syair Awang Semaun, the padian originated during the the reign of Brunei's first Sultan, Awang Alak Betatar (later known as Sultan Muhammad Shah when he converted to Islam).
According to the Pusaka Bilangan 5 published by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports Brunei Darussalam, the idea for a floating market in Kampong Ayer could also have been suggested by Pateh Berbai who later became Sultan Ahmad, Brunei's second Sultan.
The birth of the padian was a natural evolution of Brunei's society at that time. Mirroring the Malay Islamic customs and convention that prohibited young women from moving around freely or without a male chaperon, the elderly padian offered the womenfolk of Kampong Ayer the ease of way into which to take care of the household and family needs.
Additionally, with sundry shops and markets far and few in between in Kampong Ayer, having the padian come to their doorstep ceased their need of venturing outside the home or on land for the everyday essentials.
While the padian flourished in trade up to the early 20th century, it wasn't long before they became a dying breed. With development fast taking place in and around Bandar Seri Begawan, including the development of roads and introduction of wet markets and sundry shops, the Kampong Ayer villagers suddenly found themselves having easy access to many of their daily needs.
Kampong Ayer too has flourished to become a modern village with its own shops and services; and with bridges and boardwalks connecting one village to another, villagers could easily walk on foot to do their shopping.
The advent of the tambang (motorised boat) that ply the waters of Brunei River also created an easy means of transport for the villagers to go to the mainland.
Soon, the padian declined in number and today have disappeared almost altogether.
However, their contribution to the villagers of Kampong Ayer provides and interesting illustration of the economic role they played in the early days of Brunei Darussalam.
Article courtesy of Muhibbah