Expat tales: Peaceful and safe Brunei

MATHEW THOMPSON
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014
EXPAT TALES BRUNEI

NEW LIFE: Mathew Thompson moved to Brunei for a lifestyle change for him and his family.

EXPAT TALES BRUNEI
HOLY SPOT: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin, one of Brunei’s biggest mosques.

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Why did you move to Brunei?

Firstly the money. It's tax free here, no GST, no petrol tax and no income tax. Petrol is 50 cents a litre - I spend about $20 a week. Everything seems to be cheaper for better than in New Zealand. Going to our doctor here is $18 per visit, and there's no waiting or need to book.

I had been a principal of schools back home for the last 10 years. I loved my job, but I couldn't stand to watch the wholesale, idiotic and scary vandalism being wrought on our public education system. In the end, I became bitter at the forced changes - being made to report and run my schools in a way abhorrent to me. I felt I was tacitly approving the system by being part of it, so I had to go.

What do you do there?

I teach English at a local school. This was important to me, to get back into the classroom fulltime and teach, not in a private English school with foreign kids like my own, but in the community.

It was a real challenge teaching a preschool class for the first time, especially when the kids couldn't speak any English and I couldn't speak any Malay. But we have settled really well. The kids are fantastic and I love teaching them.

What do you like/dislike about it?

Brunei is a peaceful, quiet country which highly values family and family life. It's safe to walk around at night in the city, nobody hassles you, no drunken youths vomiting and fighting, respect is important, manners are very important, you do not toot your horn.

Religion is a huge part of Brunei and this is apparent in school and public life. It is a largely Muslim country. It has very strict rules compared with New Zealand but I think we could learn something from Brunei in terms of their tolerance of others.

Although you can't buy alcohol, it is only 20 minutes to the Malaysian border and as a westerner, you can bring in 20 cans of beer in each day.

The people of Brunei are very helpful and polite. As long as you don't offend by being a big loud-mouthed western know-it-all, people will go out of their way to assist.

Dislikes: the house is full of lizards and, if you leave any food out for 10 minutes, ants are swarming. Monkeys are everywhere, including your local supermarket. Yesterday at school I watched a family of them raid the schoolkids' bags for oranges.

But it's not as clean as New Zealand. And where is the Marmite?

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?

It is much cheaper. Some things from the big supermarkets cost more, you have to go in a hidden-from-sight section to buy pork and other non-halal (non-Muslim) food. Even at the local dairy you find the prices really cheap.

What do you do on weekends?

Play tennis, squash, or golf with the neighbour, go to the movies, or to the beach. I have never been so social - we get invited somewhere every weekend.

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We've got big trips booked this year to Singapore (an hour away) and Labuan resort - a Malaysian island (two-hour ferry trip). Next year we're off to Hong Kong Disneyland.

What do you think of the food/what's your favourite thing to eat there?

Food is huge in Brunei. Where to start - it's amazing. You can go to a western-style restaurant and get $6 mains. Whatever you want, you can get it, cheap, with excellent service. They do amazing things with fruit smoothies and juices.

Whats the best way to get around?

The only way - by car. There is very little public transport although this is improving.

What's the shopping like?

Bruneians love to shop, from big big western-style malls to little ethnic markets. Haoho (wah ho) is a firm here which has huge multi-storey stores, with Chinese music blasting out that makes you feel like you're in a kung fu movie. Cash is important, as lots of stores just don't use cards.

What's the nightlife like?

Clubs and bars do not exist. That doesn't mean people aren't out and about, it's just not like New Zealand. Refreshingly this means I can take my young family around the city streets without fear on a Friday night.

What is your favourite part of the city?

Where I live. It's really close to my kids' school, the airport, a really nice shopping mall, the beaches, and five minutes to the centre of town. I love how all the ex-pat kids just wander over to our house and play and just hang out. It reminds me of eighties Kaiapoi where I grew up, and you just went round to a mate's house and, as long as you were back by tea, no one seemed too worried.

What time is the best time to visit?

Any time. Every day is hot and sunny, with a good chance of a spectacular thunderstorm later. I think December to March is rainy season so you might want to give that a miss.

What is your must do thing for tourists?

Well, it's a better place to live than visit I would think. But a visit to the big mosques, and a jungle canopy walk spring to mind. And a trip to the water village by water taxi would be a must.

How easy is it for you to get back to NZ?

Easy but expensive - $1500ish a ticket, and the best way is Brunei-Melbourne-Christchurch. It's about a nine-hour journey. But around us, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Japan are all easy and cheap to get to.

- Sunday Star Times

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