Retired budget travel: Reasons to love Malaysia

As retired budget travelers, we want to get the most out of our money while we explore other countries. Malaysia certainly is affordable – and I’ll cover examples of our living expenses as visitors in this post. But there are other reasons why Malaysia is attractive, and I’ll cover those after affordability.

1. Reasonable rent

We had a one-bedroom Airbnb rental for about $625 in Kuala Lumpur with an amazing skyline view, high speed internet, washing machine, and resort-style amenities in a trendy neighborhood (the full post on that awesome place is here).

In Malacca City, $25 a night covered a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment in a high-rise, with a view of the sea and hotel-like amenities within walking distance to the heart of that city.

On Penang Island, we spent about $35 a night for a high-rise Airbnb studio apartment in a hotel on a popular tourist beach a few miles outside George Town – the famous colonial city.

Also on Penang, we spent about $20 a night for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom Airbnb apartment with high speed internet and washing machine in a middle-class neighborhood away from the tourist zones with a jungle view.

One expat I met lives on the beach in a George Town suburb. His rent is the equivalent of only $530 a month, and it includes all utilities, a sea view, and parking. A comparable modern rental off the beach could cost a couple hundred dollars less.

Of course, our Airbnb rentals are higher-priced because we are short-term visitors. But there’s no question from what I’ve seen: comfortable, modern housing is seriously affordable in Malaysia.

The views from our Airbnb rentals in Malaysia, from left to right: Gambier Heights, Penang; Tanjung Bungah, Penang; Kuala Lumpur; Malacca City.

2. Groceries, restaurants, carry-out beer

Grocery prices are reasonable in Malaysia. A liter of milk will cost about a dollar and you can find discount grocery stores for processed goods. Fruits and vegetables at local markets cost so little that you can buy a large bag stuffed with produce for a couple bucks. It’s probably nearly as cost effective to eat out than it is to cook at home, when you factor in the time to shop and cook.

A plate of food costs less than $2 at hawker stands. If you don’t know what a hawker stands are: these are semi-permanent fast food stands, almost like a parked food truck. Tip: buy food from the busy stands, the ones with lots of customers.

A meal and non-alcoholic beverage in an average restaurant can easily be had for under $5. You can find more expensive restaurants that would still be considered reasonably priced when contrasted to U.S. or European prices. By the way, wait staff don’t expect — and sometimes won’t accept — tips. (However, I like to leave a few ringgits under my plate.)

If there’s a downside on food and drink prices, for Tedly, it’s the relatively high cost of beer. In Mexico, $2 can buy three half-liter cans of beer. But in Malaysia, prices range from $2.25 to $3.50 for one half-liter can. The difference adds up over a month if you drink beer every day, which Tedly usually does. Good thing he’s not downing a six-pack daily.

Below: traditional mee goreng (fried noodles); simple chicken and rice; various roti (like a flat bread) with dipping sauces with teh tarik (sweet cold tea with milk); rojak (fruit, vegetable, and sometimes soy mix with peanut and prawn paste) and cendol (a cold, sweet desert, featured in an old post here.)

3. Transportation

Grab is popular in Malaysia. It’s a car service similar to Uber. A mile Grab ride will be $2 in Kuala Lumpur, but $5 in a cab. (I previously wrote about Grab in this post here.)

In Penang, a 30-minute, 12.5-mile ride from one end of the island to the other costs $5 or $6 during non-peak hours. Taxis would be more – but I don’t know how much more because I never tried it.

The trains in Kuala Lumpur cost less than a dollar to most destinations within the city. The “Go KL” buses are free.

The “CAT” buses on Penang Island are free. On a regular Penang bus, a 45-minute ride from the center of George Town to suburban beaches cost less than fifty cents. (Malacca was small enough that we simply walked everywhere.)

Regional transportation around Malaysia does not cost much, either. A four-hour bus ride from KL to Penang was about $10. From Singapore to Malacca City on a Malaysian bus line cost only $15. Both of those regional buses felt like luxury rides – with reclining seats and kick-ass air conditioning.

Below: monorail in the Bukit Bintang neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur; the ‘Sentral Station’ in Kuala Lumpur; a spacious regional bus; a typical train car on Kuala Lumpur’s commuter line for ‘women only’.

4. Health Care

Malaysia has a public/private health care system. Its citizens have access to free or nearly free health care. Malaysians also can go to private hospitals if they want to pay more. Non-citizens can use private hospitals and doctors. Some hospitals market themselves to foreign tourists and have international help desks.

Prices are low in contrast to America. We saved hundreds of dollars on vaccinations (read that post here); I had my post-breast cancer checkups at reasonable rates (read that post here).

There are countless dental options. We had annual cleanings and checkups in George Town at KK Ong Dental Surgery. It came recommended by locals and expats. The doctors were talented and honest; the offices clean and modern; our appointments were made with short notice during the busy holiday season.

I only needed a cleaning and exam; Tedly needed a cleaning, exam, X-rays, and two fillings. Total cost for the both of us: $135. Try getting that price for all of that work in the U.S. with no insurance.

Tedly, pictured below, is all pearly-white smiles after his dental work.

5. English, English, English

Doctors, dentists, and other professional service people all are usually fluent in English. That’s priceless. English is widely spoken in Malaysia by educated people, but even many less educated people know a few basic words.

If we need a doctor for anything serious, we’d come back to Malaysia – where nothing will get lost in translation. This is critically important to me, as a breast cancer survivor.

Also, if we needed to buy another computer during our time in Southeast Asia, we’d get it in Malaysia, where English keyboards are sold.

6. Easy visas for Americans

Americans can enjoy a 90-day, free tourist visa in Malaysia, unlike other Southeast Asian countries. For example, some countries require applications and photos, steep fees, and proof of onward travel.

By comparison, Malaysia was a pleasant breeze. We simply showed up at the border, and were welcomed in. This ease of entry is definitely an incentive to return.

7. Diversity

Malaysia has a wide mix of cultures and religions — all seemingly getting along without glaring issues. Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and whatever else; Chinese, Malay, Indian, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Europeans (especially Brits and Scots), and whatever else.

Malaysia is also diverse in its terrain. We’ve driven by rural areas and farms on bus rides to and from cities. The capital feels cosmopolitan, and yet Malaysian beaches are laid back and jungles balance modern landscapes with some greenery. We barely touched the surface exploring the varied landscapes of this country.

8. Safety

Gun laws are strong in Malaysia and punishments for breaking laws are strict. This has an overall effect on safety around the country.

Take two cities – Cleveland, Ohio (Tedly’s hometown), and George Town, Penang. The safety difference is striking. I’m more likely to be a crime victim in Cleveland than in George Town. Check the stats for yourself here.

Tedly and I split up to each explore Penang in our own ways over several days. I never felt unsafe or threatened or worried. Further, I enjoyed a few lone explorations around Kuala Lumpur’s center city. I never felt like I was in any danger there, either. Of course, street smarts and common sense rule the scene wherever you are in the world.

Is there anything I didn’t like? Yes.

  • Malaysia is damn hot, and I’m having serious hot flashes these days.
  • I was stung by a fire ant in a George Town park and I couldn’t put sneakers on for three days. So much for that gym workout on the treadmill. I later found out fire ants are a relatively new problem all over the island.
  • I was stung by jellyfish in the sea and had sore, burning legs for days. There is a deadly species new to this area within the last year (2017/2018), but I must have been stung run-of-the-mill critters. I never saw the type that stung me, because:
  • The sea water appears dirty. It’s so cloudy you can’t see one foot in front of your face underwater. (Thus, the unknown jellyfish attack.) Locals told me it’s usually not this bad at this time of year…

Not to end on a Debbie Downer note, because —

I’d definitely come back to Malaysia

Malaysia was a great place to experience as a retired budget traveler. I’d come back in a flash – and we just might. With some months of Southeast Asian travel planned, it’s nice to know there is an affordable, modern country with friendly, diverse, English-speaking people — a place that welcomes us as visitors.



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