At Home on a Paradise Island: Rent $900 a Month

I’m an early riser and the first thing I do each morning, coffee in hand, is throw open the living room balcony doors and step outside. I feel the warm breeze from the Straits of Malacca and see mainland Malaysia shimmering in the distance. It’s a little ritual that never gets old.

My wife Lisa and I live on the island of Penang, Malaysia. We live in George Town—Penang’s capital—in a green, tree-filled neighbourhood. At the back of our apartment, where my office is, I have interrupted views of jungle-clad hills. On rainy days, the clouds sink down, obscuring the top of the hill—and when the rains come, it’s rather spectacular. Taking a moment to take it all in, I’m reminded that I live somewhere quite exotic.

Back in 2008, I was on holiday in Malaysia and got talking to a fellow Aussie on a scuba diving trip. He showed me photographs of his home in Penang and when he told me that living there cost just about a quarter of what it cost back in Australia, I was intrigued.

He owned a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with sea and jungle views in a complex with two swimming pools and a fully equipped gym. And he’d bought it for just $150,000. Similar apartments in his block rented for as little as $600 per month.

He also mentioned that the old colonial club scene was thriving in Penang and if I wanted to join a five-star facility to play tennis, go sailing or just relax in a club environment, it wouldn’t cost the earth to do so. My wife sails and we both love tennis so I set about researching a country club lifestyle in Malaysia…on a budget of around $2,000 a month.

When it came to sports clubs, everything we wanted, we found. The Penang Sports Club has more grass tennis courts than any other club in Malaysia, a good gym, a swimming pool, a library and various restaurants, while the Penang Swimming Club has impressive pools overlooking the ocean and a selection of speed boats and sailing craft. It also has an excellent library, gym and a number of good, subsidised restaurants.

And it wasn’t just great rentals and affordable luxuries drawing us to Malaysia. English is widely spoken, so we didn’t have to learn another language if we didn’t want to. Add to that the fact that Malaysia offers top-notch healthcare at a fraction of the cost of back home as well as boasting a fantastic cafe and restaurant scene, theatres, art galleries…and Vegemite in every supermarket!

It didn’t take us long to decide that Malaysia was the overseas spot for us. In early 2009 we made the move. We took an open-minded view that if it didn’t work out or we didn’t like it, we could try somewhere else. But we haven’t looked back a day since.

We’re happily at home in our spacious, air-conditioned apartment which we rent for $900 a month. The complex includes a gym and a pool but we joined the Sports Club and the Swimming Club as well as they’re affordable, (there’s one-off joining fees as well as monthly charges which run to about $30 per couple, per club), the facilities are top-notch and the social scene is thriving so it’s a great way to make new friends.

Penang is famous for its food and you’ll be spoiled for choice come meal times. For lunch I’ll walk to a street stall and have Nasi Lemak, a traditional Malay dish of fragrant rice, melt-in-the-mouth spiced chicken, with sides of cucumber, peanuts and dried fish for $1. For dinner we might try out an international restaurant and all-up it’ll rarely cost more than $30.

We travel to Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia on a regular basis but we’re no longer looking for our Shangri-La. We’ve found it. But it’s still exciting to get out there and see what’s happening. This is a part of the world that is still exotic and, even after eight years here, I still get a thrill from the fact that I live in the middle of it.

Just last month we travelled to Palau Wey, a dot of an island in north Indonesia. We stayed in a cabin overlooking a pristine bay, teeming with fish, for just $27 a night. These places still exist and the fact that there were direct flights from Penang and that it took just over an hour to get there, made it all the more appealing. Malaysia has made me excited about travelling again. I love the fact that everything is so close.

My advice to anyone looking at retiring overseas is to go for it. You don’t need as much money as you think you do and, knowing what I know now, I wish someone had told me to do it years sooner. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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