The Safest Country in Southeast Asia?

My day began in Little India, peering in doorways of crumbling colonial shophouses at sari sellers and stopping for a coffee at the Coliseum Hotel, where Somerset Maugham used to drink. Moving on through Merdeka Square, colonial heart of the city, I found the daily market in Chinatown, where, after some five-flower tea and curry potato puffs, I strolled into the Golden Triangle.

This isn’t the famed smuggling region on the border of Burma, Laos and Thailand. It’s a plush and modern neighbourhood in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. I was in the city to meet expats and get the low-down on life here.

I heard a shout and hurried footsteps as someone ran up behind me. Flight or fight. I turned to face a breathless stranger.

“Sir, you dropped this,” the fellow said handing me a wad of crumpled ringgits (the local currency) and waving away my gratitude.

This for me—along with great food—defines Malaysia. I’ve travelled all over the country and it’s one of the safest places I have ever been…maybe the safest. It’s certainly the only place anyone’s ever chased me to give me money.

People in Malaysia are gracious, polite and considerate. They’re also easy to talk with. They learn English in school, many are fluent and most people have some. This country’s unique mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and western influences has created a tolerant and fascinating society.

In Penang, a one-hour flight from KL, which costs as little as $30 for a round trip ticket—I was looking for ocean-view rentals. I found them, and Aussies renting them for as little as $400 a month.

Every local I met was happy to talk, point me in the right direction and tell me where—in their opinion—I would find the best food on the island. With the best mix of street food in Southeast Asia, cuisine is a topic that gets people’s blood up.

The concerns we all have about going abroad dissolve in Malaysia. Despite decades of travel experience I still get anxious about catching the right train or bus. But in Malaysia it was worry-free. Exploring Kuala Lumpur on the city’s ultra-modern lightrail system was easy. And the two-hour trip south to the old port of Malacca was on one of the most comfortable buses I have ever experienced and cost just $4.42 one-way.

Healthcare here is excellent. You’ll find doctors trained in Australia, the U.K and the U.S. I met with expats who had nothing but good things to say about their doctors and any who had spent time in hospital gave five-star reviews.

That’s another thing. Yes, the local people are great but you also have loads of expat friends to make. Australians, Irish, Brits, Canadians, Americans, French… I remember a particularly fun evening with IL Malaysia Correspondent Keith Hockton, hosted by the International Women’s Association. In fact, I remember lots of fun evenings in Malaysia with all sorts of expats, from all walks of life. It’s that kind of place.

Here you can join a country club for a fraction of the cost back home. In fact, they’re so reasonably priced you can afford to join a few. Sign up to a gym and take classes, get a dining club together or find some travel buddies and use the low-cost flights to explore Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Or just sip a few cold ones in Shamrocks Irish Bar on the promenade in Kota Kinabalu—gateway to Malaysian Borneo—its owner is an Aussie expat.

You’ll have the funds you need to have fun because the cost of living in Malaysia is so low. And you’ll easily find the friends to have fun with.

One final thing, you’ll laugh… People here have a good sense of humour. As I rushed for the plane the last time I left, the taxi driver passed on a local proverb: “To truly love your wife, leave her alone every once in a while.” Good advice indeed.

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