Once you’ve located Brunei on the island of Borneo in South East Asia, you’ll know to expect tropical rain forest rather than sand!
Tiny Brunei, the size of an English county and with a population of less than 450,000, is an independent sovereign state, still wholly reliant on its oil and gas production.
It’s too small to have sophisticated infrastructures or economies of scale. But it’s got plenty going for it: good security, clean air, readily available domestic help, really cheap petrol, unspoilt jungle, good schooling and a central position in the region for convenient travel. It’s an ideal environment for expats to bring up families.
Nightlife and the coast
What you won’t find are bars, discotheques or retail alcohol – although non-Muslims may import limited quantities of alcohol for personal consumption whenever they enter the country. Nor will you find most beaches suitable for sunbathing or water sports. They have a natural and rugged beauty; but most are rarely cleared of their marine pollution and are often plagued by sand flies.
The shops stock standard fare, with local or regional produce being the cheapest. A couple of the top-end supermarkets sell western food, including even Waitrose lines. But be prepared to pay considerably more than back home for some items. There are few upmarket or designer shops in what are essentially functional but uninspiring commercial centres. Most Bruneians travel elsewhere in the region and beyond to do their ‘serious’ shopping.
Entertainment, sports, arts
So Brunei is very much what you make of it. Try the local markets and the hawker food stalls. Visit and even stay weekends at the exotic Empire (Resort) Hotel. Sail and relax at the Royal Brunei Yacht Club. Use the recognised public walking and cycling tracks. Hash in the jungle or visit the canopy walk in Temburong’s jungle.
And make excursions to Miri just across the border in Sarawak and to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. There’s little western culture available in Brunei, particularly in the performing arts, but embrace local and regional varieties for a change.
There is also satellite TV available, with western news channels and plenty of US offerings mixed in with the Malay and regional. There’s some limited cinema, too, with a mix of both Western and Asian titles.
Finding fellow expats and befriending Bruneians
Unlike in, say, Dubai, foreigners are in the minority. The foreign community mixes well, amongst themselves and with the Bruneians – most of whom speak excellent English. Social contact with Bruneians is mainly through work and school.
A particularly enjoyable custom for foreigners to share is open house visiting, to Muslim families at Hari Raya (Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadhan) and to Chinese families at Chinese New Year.
You may also be fortunate enough to be invited to a traditional Malay wedding or weddings – a very important part of Brunei culture. The Bruneians are friendly and polite people, but it is important for us as guests to respect their religion, their culture, their traditions and their political system.
The majority of the work force are still civil servants and what seems to the outsider as unwarranted layers of bureaucracy can be a problem. A combination of patience, politeness and determination is normally the best formula. It will take a little time to settle the essentials but you will usually get help.
Phone, internet and banking
There is a fixed line telephone company (Telbru) which can provide wifi and two mobile phone companies (DST and Progresif). Mobile coverage in urban areas is good.
Standard Chartered is the only remaining international bank. The others are all local ones. The banking system is improving but interbank transfers are yet to be done with e-banking. Credit cards are accepted in a good number of shops. Helpfully, the Brunei dollar has parity with the Singapore dollar – so you can use Singapore dollars, too, when shopping.
Where to live
Brunei is geographically in two parts for historical reasons. Most people live and work in the larger part. This essentially has a developed coastal strip whilst further inland much of the land area is still virgin rain forest.
At one end of this coastal strip are the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, the international airport and the main sea port of Muara. The greatest concentration of living is either in the capital or in a series of adjoining urban areas such as Rimba, Berakas, Jerudong etc.
At the other end of the country, around Seria and Kuala Belait, is where both the oil and gas industry and the British Garrison are based. There is a good highway, virtually all dual carriageway, linking these two main areas. So where you live will depend on what you’re doing in Brunei, your place of work or possibly where your children go to school. Most expats, especially those with families, prefer to live in houses with their own gardens but apartments are also available. Property is easy to rent; bargain if you can.
Healthcare is good. Virtually all Bruneian and expat specialists and doctors are well-qualified and speak English. You can opt for government-provided healthcare, attending RIPAS (a Bruneian acronym), the main hospital in Bandar Seri Begawan, which has an enormous new and well-equipped ‘mother and child’ wing.
For Bruneians these services are practically free. For expats, we pay quite modest fees. Treatment and care are good but the facilities for washing and toileting can be somewhat basic.
Or you can go to the main private hospital, Jerudong Park Medical Centre, which has new cancer and stroke centres and a full range of standard services including maternity and paediatrics.
However, for greater specialisation, it might be necessary to go further afield to e.g. Singapore. Some expat mums happily decide to give birth in Brunei. Others go elsewhere in the region or back home, depending on their preferences. In addition to the Government-provided health centres, there are also a number of small private GP practices which are normally good and convenient.
Important practical advice on transport: you need to have your own car or cars to get around in Brunei. There are only the very beginnings of a viable public transport infrastructure currently emerging – which means very few buses and taxis. Both new and second-hand cars are reasonably priced and the cost of petrol is heavily subsidised. However, there is little car-sharing and the traffic is briefly heavy at multiple choke points when everyone seems to be on the move during rush hour.
Parking can also be a headache as there is generally insufficient provision, especially in the commercial complexes. There is some school bussing but the private ferrying of children to and from school seems to be the norm.
All that said...
Brunei is probably just too small to cater for every single need. But most expats are satisfied or adapt. If you are enterprising and resourceful, living in Brunei can be a very comfortable and enjoyable experience. The government has promoted Brunei as “The Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures”. You will hopefully be pleasantly surprised and agree.