Modern, Cultured, and Affordable: My Life in Kuala Lumpur

Every morning at his condo complex in Damansara Heights, in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Karl Hutchison, 61, sits on the patio next to the swimming pool, enjoying the palm trees, quiet neighborhood, and the warm, sunny weather. “I like sitting by the pool. People know me. It’s a wonderful community,” he says. The on-site café serves cold drinks and a delicious $5 lamb chop lunch when he wants it.

And if he feels like eating out…

“There are so many great restaurants here,” says Karl. “You can find anything you want, except for good Mexican food. My favorite restaurant is Two Sons Bistro, a new place that specializes in clams and mussels. A dinner for two with a couple of drinks costs between $35 and $50. There is also a good Italian place in Damansara Heights called Nero Teca that I like, because they have a wood-fired open oven for pizza. A meal for two with wine costs around $30 there.”

The New Mexico native became “international” when he first moved to Tokyo 17 years ago and began making friends from all over the world. “KL is, if anything, even more international than Tokyo, and that is what I like best about it. Expats come from everywhere. Just here where I live, there are residents from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Canada, India, and Singapore. The Malaysians who live here are themselves international; most were educated overseas. I love that internationalism.”

When Karl isn’t relaxing at the pool, he enjoys the many activities that KL has to offer. “I belong to the Tropicana Golf and Country Resort. It costs about $50 per month and it’s a nice golf course.” The cost of a senior’s golf membership in his hometown of Alamagordo would have been $70 a month. As with nearly everything in KL, living the good life here comes at a discount. Karl says that he also likes “listening to music—going to jazz clubs, the symphony, concerts, and the Philharmonic.”

With nearly 2 million people, KL is one of the most modern cities in Southeast Asia. You’ll find towering skyscrapers, trendy malls, a fabulous food scene, and excellent medical care. For less than a dollar, the super-modern monorail whisks passengers from KL Sentral to the best shopping areas in less than 15 minutes. It also connects with an extensive light-rail and bus network that makes most parts of the metropolitan area easily accessible.

Most KL-ites speak at least some English, and many of them speak it as their main language. That makes Karl’s life easy. “I know very little Malay because I don’t have to. I’m lazy. It would be better if I spoke a few words, but if I just throw in a ‘lah’ at the end of every sentence, I’m speaking Manglish,” he says.

The climate is consistently hot and humid year-round, averaging 89 F during the day and cooling down to around 74 F at night. “You don’t have the change of the seasons here,” says Karl. “It took me about three years to adjust to perpetual summer. Now I love the weather.”

And it’s not just the weather that Karl loves.

“I’ve been living in Asia for 18 years,” Karl says. “I lived and worked in Tokyo as an executive for a multinational corporation for nearly eight years, but I didn’t want to retire there. I wanted to live somewhere that resembled a large city. I had taken a holiday in 2001 to [the Malaysian island of] Langkawi. I liked it, but I thought that it was too remote for me. So in 2006, I went to KL for the first time. I went to the Philharmonic—I’m into that—and it was very reasonably priced. At that time, it was less than $15. So that was why I decided to move here. Malaysia’s inflation rate is very low; tickets cost about the same now as they did in 2006. Compared to paying a minimum of $79 to see the Philharmonic in New York City, the KL Philharmonic is great value.”

The medical care in KL is the best in Malaysia, and Karl has had a few opportunities to try out the system. “I was arm-wrestling once and broke my upper arm. I went to Gleneagles Medical Center. I had to have surgery, and they put rods in my arm and kept me there for two nights. For all that, including a private room, medications, everything—it cost me about $3,000. Another time, I discovered that I had a little tumor in my chest. I saw a reconstructive surgeon, who took it out and gave me a skin graft. That experience, which included two nights in Damansara Specialist Hospital, came to about $4,000.” Either event would have cost much more in the U.S. A visit to an English-speaking doctor at a private clinic in KL costs just $5.

Damansara Heights is located on a forested hill just a few minutes from the central part of the city, which makes it very convenient. It’s close to shopping, but far enough out of the urban area to enjoy peace and quiet among the many trees and birds.

Karl owns his condominium in Damansara Heights. It’s big—two bedrooms and a study that come to about 1,600 square feet—and includes all the modern amenities that he could possibly want. He looks out over tropical forests from his living room balcony and can see the world-famous Petronas Twin Towers from his kitchen window.

It was less when Karl bought, but foreigners must spend at least RM1 million—about $250,000—to buy a house or apartment in KL now. Units at his complex are currently selling for about RM1.2 million (around $273,600). You can rent one, though, for around $1,200 a month.

“I spent my first four years here renting where I now live. But in 2010, when I realized I wouldn’t be returning to the U.S. for a good long while, I bought it for RM780,000, which at the time was around $250,000.”

Karl’s complex is just three miles west of KL Sentral, the city’s main transportation hub. He says, “I recommend living on the west side of KL. The healthcare, traffic, and amenities are all better here than on the east side.”

Since Karl doesn’t pay any rent, his cost of living is very low. Even though he eats practically every meal by the poolside and has a weekly housekeeper, his monthly expenses, excluding health insurance, only come to about $1,250.

“My homeowner’s association fees are $200 per month,” he says. “Each room in my condo has its own air conditioning unit, which I use occasionally, so my electric bill is usually around $60 or $70. Water is less than $5, and my cable TV and internet are bundled together for $23 per month. I eat most of my meals right here by the pool, and that’s my biggest expense—I’d say about $280 to $320 per month. I pay road taxes, auto insurance, and property taxes annually, but it works out to about $51 per month for the car and $33 for the condo. The rest of my budget goes toward miscellaneous expenses. Alcohol isn’t cheap, but you can find it duty-free, and wine isn’t overpriced.”

Most of Karl’s foreign friends live in the same condominium complex he does. He’ll run into foreigners at the Western restaurants and bars that he goes to. Other expats here socialize by attending the Expat Mingles or by getting involved with activities hosted by the International Women’s Association.

Karl likes his life here just the way it is. “I have no reason to leave,” he says. “I love my apartment, I have great neighbors, and my life is stress-free and easy. With the U.S. dollar gaining strength against the Malaysian ringgit, it has gotten much less expensive to live here, too.”

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Kuala Lumpur and other great retirement destinations across Malaysia, look for our feature story in next month’s issue of International Living.

Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. Delivered straight to your door each month, we delve into the details you need to take action. We share our contacts. We lay out the pluses and minuses. And we keep you up-to-date on the latest developments with the best havens abroad, including…7 Great Retirement Towns You’ve Never Heard of…

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