Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Report of what it's like to live there - 11/06/13
Personal Experiences from Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've lived in some of the big cities: Tokyo, London, Paris, Taipei.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Home base is Washington, DC. It takes 2-3 days to reach post and about 2 days to return back to the U.S., usually via the U.S. West coast, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Overnight at one of the connections, especially Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, is practically mandatory due to lack of connecting flights.
3. How long have you lived here?
Just short of two years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most people live in single houses. These are generally quite spacious but show wear and tear pretty quickly. Expats generally live in the same areas, clustered together. There are a few apartment buildings that have pools, parking, and sometimes other common spaces.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are actually quite expensive especially if you are buying imported items. Fresh milk is about US$8 for half a gallon. Beef and pork is really expensive. It can be hard to get sea food and the quality of meet really isn't very good. There are a few specialty stores that sell German, Turkish, Australian, and Japanese ingredients.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Consumables, especially if you like specific U.S. brands. Laundry detergent, make-up, clothes, healthcare items like vitamins and medication.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
For familiar brands from the U.S., there's one McDonald's and many Dairy Queens, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafes and KFCs. There are some very good Thai, Japanese, Italian, Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants. Most food isn't expensive. Local food can start at US$1, but expect to spend about US$15/person on average for dinner and US$10 for lunch.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There are actually fewer mosquitoes than expected, but a lot of ants!!! If you don't use insecticide or refresh it every 2-3 months, you will have infestations of ants. Really big cockroaches and bees have also been an issue. Also, during various times during the year, there are large flying black ants that swarm, but they'll go away if you turn off the lights for a few minutes.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I send it through DPO/Pouch or FedEx but have used the local post office before. DPO/Pouch takes 1-2 months. They're once a week each. FedEx is much more reliable and fast, but very expensive. UPS also has an office in BSB but I haven't used it. The local mail is super slow and very, very unreliable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is readily available but the hiring process can take awhile. Most domestic help hired by expats work exclusively for expat families and have a lot of experience but may be rather set in their ways.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There's one chain and a few dance/spinning/arobics/yoga studios.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
There really isn't a culture among the locals for using credit cards but the chain stores, hotels, and most popular restaurants take them. Most small establishments won't be able to accept them. ATMs for Standard Charter, HSBC and Citibank (the international banks, basically) take international debit cards and can be found around town.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are 2 Catholic churches, a Baptist church, an Anglican church, 2 Buddhist temples, a Hindu temple, and of course, lots of Mosques.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. Basically everyone speaks English. It helps to have some basics for bargaining and getting the "local price" versus the "tourist price."
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, there is a very noticeable lack of handicap access. Almost all buildings lack elevators even the mall and airport. There are more sidewalks now than when I arrived but they're often in disrepair. There are no handicap accessible bathrooms.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There is a local bus system that only costs US$1/trip on average but it is not reliable. Drivers will make random stops and often don't follow their route. Buses aren't maintained very well so often their speedometers don't work or have been tampered with. Taxis are safe but have to be called except at the airport where there's actually a taxi stand. They can be fairly expensive, though. My 10-15 minute trip from the airport is usually US$30-40 depending on the time of day.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Small Japanese cars are ideal for Brunei. Parking is very narrow and can be hard to find. Try to get something with a higher clearance since there are a lot of potholes and high speed bumps. You can bring a car older than 5 years, but you'll have to work for it. Right-hand drive cars are prefered (UK style) but you can bring left-hand drive cars. You'll just have to get a special sticker for it.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet really isn't high speed. Brunei still uses copper cables versus fiber optics. You get about 2mbps at best. It's about US$50/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring one! They're really expensive to buy here.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Pet's can be hard to bring in especially dogs as they are taboo for Muslims. It's also very expensive. Expect to spend about US$3,000 to bring along a medium sized pet such as a cat or similarly sized dog. There are, however, a number of pet stores.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
If you're a teacher or work in oil/gas/finance, then yes. Otherwise, decent job opportunities are very limited.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There really aren't any.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress is fairly formal and conservative at work. If you're a woman, you're expected to avoid shorts, sleeveless shirts/dresses, and skirts above the knee.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There isn't a lot of high level crime, but petty crime is fairly common. Thieves will break your car window to get things left out such as bags and electronics. If you're a woman, there can be quite a lot of harassment (whistling, calling out, honking, stalking, inappropriate suggestions and sometimes even being propositioned) particularly when you're alone on foot. There are also roaming packs of stray/feral dogs that have attacked or chased people aggressively.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
It can be hard to get prescriptions. Health care for common illnesses is fairly good, especially at the private hospital. Anythings more requires a trip to Singapore.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
It's moderate. Good compared to say Jakarta, but if you're a walker, it can get fairly unhealthy because of all the cars on the road, half of which are run on diesel and stuck in traffic. There are open sewers and some locals practice open burning of trash that smoke up the surrounding areas.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's about 80-95F degrees all year round and sunny, but there's usually a downpour every day. Mostly it rains around noon or at night.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are two major international schools JIS and ISB. They both follow an English system but ISB offers an international baccalaureate. Schooling is fairly high standard but may lack the wide range of extra curricular options that are common in the U.S.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are some preschools/daycares, but I haven't heard much about them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There's a sizable group of expats especially in Kuala Belait where the oil/gas companies are. However, there's only about 400,000 people in Brunei, so even sizable can seem small at times.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Have dinner at a restaurant or watch a movie at one of the 3 theaters. There's also the hash and some hiking trails for those interested.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is definitely a city for families particularly with small children. Almost all events are child-oriented. Couples without kids may find it okay particularly if they like hiking and other outdoors activities. It's hard to be a single here because there isn't much social life and the majority Muslim population is afraid to associate with non-family members of the opposite sex for fear of being arrested for Khalwat, close proximity between the sexes when not close family.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Really not. Locals are very traditional and sexual relations between people of the same sex is a jail-able offense. Any locals that may be gay or lesbian keep it quiet.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes - the government definitely promotes its Muslim Malay Monarchy system, and the attitude in the country has become increasingly conservative in many aspects. There is also significant preferential treatment for Muslim Malays over other ethnicities. If you're a Caucasian Westerner, racism/prejudice isn't as much of a problem, but otherwise expect to encounter issues. If you're a woman, also expect to encounter a lot of gender issues.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The food is really good and the expat community is close.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
You can do the canopy tour with a local indigenous guide. The museums aren't very good and are small. The mosques can be quite breathtaking, but make sure you go when it's not prayer time or a religious holiday.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There really aren't any unless you want to take home a drop of crude oil encased in glass for your nearest and dearest.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's quiet, the weather is summer all year, and you can save a lot of money if you don't travel all the time.
10. Can you save money?
Yes; most people don't buy much aside from groceries in Brunei. If you don't get island fever and travel all the time, then you can save a lot.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It would have been nice to know how lacking the evening/night life is and the restrictiveness of being a woman.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter gear unless you want to go somewhere cold for vacation or a business trip.
4. But don't forget your:
Hobby items and enough clothes for the entire time of your stay. Clothing is really hard to buy here. The quality of sports equipment really isn't great, so bring that, too. Also, bring your own alcohol if you drink. Brunei's dry and restaurants don't sell alcohol. You can bring in 2 bottles and a 12 pack every 48 hours.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There really aren't any. Even travel guides are sparse.
7. Do you have any other comments?
It's a great post for career opportunities but you'll burn out pretty fast from the workload (it's surprisingly busy at work), and life can get really hard because it's truthfully rather boring. If you have small children, it's likely ideal. It's safe, quiet, and very young family friendly. Your teenager, however, will likely be pleading to leave asap.