When you think of tropical Asian countries that offer an attractive way of life for expats, Thailand and Singapore are likely to top the list, followed perhaps by the Philippines and, more recently, Vietnam. Hong Kong too, if you’re talking humid subtropical.
But Malaysia has a sizeable expat population too. And it has held a special appeal from the time I first visited it on holiday in the mid-1970s. It was my first taste of tropical Southeast Asia.
I flew to Thailand from Hong Kong, where I was working, and travelled from Bangkok by train and bus through Malaysia to Singapore.
Malaysia made a lasting impression on me, although I couldn’t have guessed back then how large a part it would play in my life.
What particularly attracted me – apart from the delicious food – was its diverse nature, with people of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage, as well as indigenous groups, living alongside each other and all contributing to the country’s culture and way of life. The kind of melting pot that makes travel such a pleasure.
During my short stay, Kuala Lumpur appealed to me as an attractive, medium-sized city with a slower pace than Bangkok or Hong Kong. And the tropical greenery throughout the country was a feast for the senses.
The 1980s found me working in Brunei on the island of Borneo. I soon grew to know and love the neighbouring East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak – the larger, less developed part of the country, with many fascinating places to explore.
Back in Australia in the 1990s, I missed life in tropical Asia. And when the chance came to work in Malaysia in 1997, I jumped at the opportunity. This time I wouldn’t be just a visitor; I would be living there.
I worked in Kuala Lumpur for the next decade and a half. And when it came time to retire from full-time work, I chose to stay on. A lot of people ask me if Malaysia is a good country in which to live. I’ve now lived there longer than in any other city. It’s a decision I haven’t regretted.
For an expat, moving to Malaysia to work, as I did, is a relatively easy process. Your employer will apply for a work permit for you. The process should go smoothly, provided the government is satisfied your company could not find an equally well-qualified Malaysian for the position. Your employer will probably also help you find accommodation.
If you’re bringing your family, finding a school for your children isn’t difficult either. Kuala Lumpur has many international schools, some long-established, others newer.
If you’re planning to settle in Malaysia without working, the best option is seeking a long-term visa under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. The rules for the programme change from time to time – and changed yet again during the pandemic – so make sure your information is up to date.
If your spouse is a Malaysian citizen, you can apply for a social visit pass. These days the duration of the pass is usually one or two years.
English is widely spoken, making it easier for arrivals from the English-speaking world to fit in. Learning something of the local language, Bahasa Malaysia (commonly known as Malay) is fun but you don’t need to be fluent in it to get by.
An important factor in deciding to make your home in Malaysia is its affordability. The cost of living is considerably lower than in, say, the US, most European countries, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Australia or New Zealand. According to this website it’s less expensive even than nearby countries such as Thailand and the Philippines.
This affordability extends to dining out, one of Malaysia’s favourite pastimes. The range of food extends from deliciously spicy local dishes to western and cuisine from other Asian countries. And eating out is so easy on the pocket that it becomes an integral part of life rather than a luxury.
In common with most cities, Kuala Lumpur has grown rapidly in recent decades. Tall buildings now fill the skyline and some green pockets have vanished, as have some of the city’s attractive old areas. Traffic jams have got steadily worse – although they are still less of a problem than those in the larger cities in surrounding countries.
Malaysia has all the pleasures of life in the tropics: from the rich greenery and plant life to the wonderful late afternoon thunderstorms and the fresh tropical fruits available all year round. For me, those are some of the reasons that make Malaysia a good country to live.
Few climes are perfect, though, and the tropical climate has its drawbacks. Pleasant though it is to be able to wear light summer clothing all year round, the constant humidity can be draining.
Combined with the fierce heat from mid-morning to late afternoon, it’s enough to make you want to spend most of your time indoors, preferably in air-conditioned comfort.
What I particularly miss about life in the tropics is the turning of the seasons, the delightful arrival of spring and autumn in more temperate climates. Holidays in cooler places are a welcome change – although it’s usually a pleasure to feel the warmth enfold you again on your return to Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia has the added advantage of being in the heart of Southeast Asia. It’s surrounded by exciting travel destinations within relatively easy reach. They range from India in the northwest to the Philippines in the northeast, and from Indonesia in the south to China and the countries of Indochina to the north.
Within Malaysia there is much to explore too. It’s another of the pleasures of living here. These are some of my favourite places:
Sabah and Sarawak, both in Borneo, are ideal territory for adventure holidays. They form the less built-up part of Malaysia, with rainforests still covering large swathes of land. In some places, the only way to reach the interior is by river.
Sabah is home to Mount Kinabalu, the county’s – and Borneo’s – highest mountain. It’s 4095 meters (13,435 feet) and climbing it is an exciting experience. It takes two days to get up and down, with a night spent in a hostel high on the mountain before you push for the summit early the next morning. The climb isn’t technically difficult but requires a reasonable level of fitness. Reaching the summit on a cold, misty morning was one of my most memorable moments in Malaysia.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, set in tropical rainforest near Sabah’s northeast coast, is an unforgettable place for anyone interested in these gentle, threatened apes. Orphaned orangutans are brought here and cared for until they are ready to return to the wild. Many experts believe orangutans could be extinct in the wild in less than 50 years. The rangers at Sepilok are working hard to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Sipadan island off Sabah’s east coast is considered one of the world’s best diving sites, with a wide variety of marine life.
I tend to avoid group tours but a tour of the Mari Mari Cultural Village outside the capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a lot of fun. It provides an intriguing glimpse into the lives and culture of the state’s indigenous tribes.
Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state, famous for its rainforests and beaches. It’s home to places like Gunung Mulu National Park, with its amazing caves and limestone pinnacles.
The state capital, Kuching, is my favourite city in Malaysia. Unlike Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching escaped the bombing raids of World War II and has many fine old buildings. A cruise on the Kuching River is a good way to get a feel for the place, as is simply strolling along the river banks, perhaps stopping somewhere for a tasty local meal.
A favourite escape from Kuala Lumpur is Langkawi, a group of tropical islands in the Andaman Sea off Malaysia’s northwestern coast. It was the first holiday destination to reopen to foreign tourists as the country began to emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic in late 2021.
When people refer to Langkawi, they usually mean the largest and busiest island. It has an excellent range of hotels and resorts designed to appeal to everyone from those seeking a quiet time in secluded surroundings to families eager for a fun-filled beach holiday.
Two of Langkawi’s top attractions are a cable car and a sky bridge, which are interconnected. The cable car takes you up Machinchang mountain in the island’s northwest. At the top is the 125-metre sky bridge, a curved suspension bridge that provides an exciting walk high above the ground.
The island of Penang, northwest of Kuala Lumpur, is another great getaway. It has an excellent range of resort hotels on its northern coast. The capital, George Town, combines old and new, with intriguing lanes to explore. And there are excellent nature trails on Penang Hill overlooking the city.
For those interested in Malaysia’s history, the city of Malacca to the southeast of Kuala Lumpur is something of a treasure trove. It was a trading port during long periods of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Each of these colonial rulers left their mark on city’s culture and architecture. Add to the mix the distinctive Peranakan culture of Chinese settlers who moved into the area centuries ago and you have a fascinating place to explore.
Malaysia’s hill resorts
The country’s hill resorts provide an escape from city life. They have grown steadily over the years and are no longer the sleepy places they once were, but most still have a pleasant, laid-back feel.
The Cameron Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur is the largest and best known. It includes three towns, tea plantations to visit, walking trails aplenty and lots of hotels to choose from. A smaller, sleepier resort closer to the capital is Fraser’s Hill, developed by the British in the 1920s.
If it’s action you want, Genting Highlands northeast of Kuala Lumpur is a hill resort with a difference. Its casino attracts gamblers from around Asia – at least it did in pre-pandemic days and no doubt will again. Its other attractions include a cable car, a roller coaster and music concerts. It’s where you go for noisy entertainment.
What appeals to me as a long-time resident of Malaysia is that there are always new places to see. After all these years I still haven’t visited the town of Taiping, for instance.
It’s about three hours by train northwest of Kuala Lumpur – and Malaysian train journeys are a lot of fun. It has a rich colonial heritage, sees lots of heavy rain, boasts museums and large public gardens and is near a hill resort. These are all things I love about Malaysia. It’s next on my list.
All images: © Alan Williams