The Exotic, Modern Paradise
Malaysia is the most popular retirement haven for expats in Southeast Asia and has been a popular expat hangout since the early 1920s. Malaysia’s beaches are also second to none. Its islands, listed in various world surveys, regularly make it in to the top 10 best lists in the world, and if you like jungle trekking and all of the fauna and flora that comes with it, Malaysia’s jungles and parks are some of the best, and biggest, in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is in central Southeast Asia, and its neighbors, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, are great places for weekend getaways. Malaysia’s international airports have direct flights to Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Borneo, China, Taiwan, India, France, London, and The Philippines. You could be sipping cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents Club (The FCC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, overlooking the Mekong River, in about two and a half hours.
What’s more, the cost of living is four times cheaper than it is in the U.S., and as an added bonus, Malaysia’s street food is hands down the best in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia’s fascinating colonial history dates back to the 15th century, and Malacca, a state in Malaysia’s south, just next to Singapore, was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1511. The Portuguese were quickly followed by the Dutch, who knew a good thing when they saw it, and then the British—which now means that most Malaysian’s speak English. This eclectic mix of peoples and cultures adds a lot of color to the country and a wonderful array of rich architecture and cuisine, which makes Malaysia rather special.
When is the Best Time to Visit Malaysia?
Driving the length of Malaysia, from the tip of Singapore to the borders of Thailand, takes just six hours; it’s not a big country and the roads are first rate. The major towns that you will pass along the way, driving south to north, are Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, and Penang. Each one is roughly two hours equidistant from the other, which means that lunch and snack breaks are all relatively easy to do. And they are all very different from one another largely because of the ethnicity (Indian, Malay, Chinese, or European) that they were first settled by.
Malacca is a rich mix of Malay, Indian and European, Kuala Lumpur is mostly Malay and Chinese while Ipoh is predominantly Chinese, while Penang is a healthy mix of all of the above. Collectively they showcase parts of the country that have embraced its European, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences. This means that there are fabulous restaurants, eclectic cafés and lots of interesting colonial hotels, museums, and architecture.
The world-famous “Eastern and Oriental Hotel” in Penang is a prime example. Built by the same brothers who built Raffles Hotel in Singapore (this was their first hotel by the way), the Planters Bar is a must-visit for anyone passing through. Full of colonial charm, you could easily think you were back in 1930’s Malaya.
Where you live in Malaysia will depend on your lifestyle choice and there are a number of places for you to choose from. The center of Malaysia is mountainous, and these mountains run in a straight line completely through central Malaysia, south to north, separating east and west Malaysia. Starting just outside Kuala Lumpur in the south and running all the way to the borders with Thailand in the north, it is this mountain range that stops the west of Malaysia from being affected by typhoons that close down the entire east of Malaysia during the monsoon seasons. Both east and west Malaysia are fringed with white sand beaches, you just can’t use the beaches in east Malaysia for about six months of the year due to the inclement weather.
The largest expat populations, both retired and working, live in the state of Penang, and actually on Penang Island, and Kuala Lumpur, which is in the state of Selangor. Penang island has plenty of beaches for walking and swimming, and if you have a boat, there are numerous marinas. If you love fishing and boating and don’t have a boat there are clubs that you can join that allow you to use their boats free of charge. The Penang Swimming Club is a five-star club facility that has this as an option. They also have a good sailing section, a Scuba section, and one of the best library’s on the island,
Penang island also has a mountainous range, known locally as Penang Hill, that allows for great trekking, bird watching, and walking. The Penang Botanic Garden is a favorite among expats, and most mornings and evenings it’s crowded with people power walking and practicing yoga and Tai Chi.
The other big attraction to the island is its capital, George Town. George Town is a cosmopolitan city with award-winning restaurants, cafés, and art galleries. There is also a racecourse, run and operated by the Penang Turf Club, as well as various fitness clubs, and a plethora of expat organizations who offer and organize various programs and activities for their members. They include hiking, horse riding, golfing, day trips to mainland Malaysia and its outlying islands, quilting; mahjong, and pub nights with trivia quizzes. A few of the golfers have also formed breakaway groups who travel on a monthly basis into Thailand regularly, just to try new courses.