Malaysia’s vast tropical jungles are becoming a big tourist draw, but expats cluster around its two biggest cities: Kuala Lumpur and George Town, both on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula.

George Town is an island city just across a channel from the mainland, and it is a big draw when expats living in Penang want to go shopping. Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is to the south, just 200 or so miles from Singapore, its rival as the hottest-growing city in Southeast Asia.

Key Takeaways

  • Retires may find Kuala Lumpur’s postmodern glitter alluring.
  • The slower pace of life on the beaches of Penang near George Town might be a better fit for others.
  • Retirees should also consider Langkawi, Sabah, Johor, and Ipoh.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is best known today as the home of the world’s tallest twin structures, the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Completed in 1996, the towers are a postmodern icon and a brash statement of the Malaysian capital’s intent to play a major role in Asia’s 21st-century economy. 

These towers certainly would startle the city’s original inhabitants. They were Chinese laborers, hired in the mid-19th century to break ground on a frontier town in preparation for an influx of tin prospectors. Their descendants and those of other Chinese immigrants dominate the town’s commerce and culture to this day. They have turned Kuala Lumpur into Malaysia’s only world-class city—an economic powerhouse with a population of roughly 1.8 million.

The city has other modern attractions. The Sunway Lagoon theme park has a human-made wildlife park, a water park, and a Scream Park. The city boasts a lush, 21 acre Bird Park, the centerpiece of its giant Lake Gardens. The Central Market is normally filled with artisans selling local handicrafts. Shopping is a major sport, with shopping malls scattered around the city.

Make no mistake, Kuala Lumpur is a concrete jungle, not a natural one. However, bucolic attractions are nearby. They include Batu Caves, the site of a sacred Hindu shrine.

Housing prices are considerably higher in Kuala Lumpur than in George Town. Average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the center is currently around $520, while a three-bedroom goes for closer to $900, according to Numbeo, a cost-of-living comparison site. Cheaper rent can be found outside of the city center.

A relatively low cost of living combined with easy access to amenities makes cities in Malaysia attractive to expats looking for a place to retire.

George Town and Penang

George Town is a Malay city with a strong Chinese accent and, at its core, a British colonial history. The city was founded in 1786 as a trading base for the British East India Company. Britain’s bureaucrats have been gone since the mid-20th century, but they left behind a maze of cobblestone streets lined with pristine examples of Victorian colonial architecture. The area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Today, George Town is home to branches of international corporations and banks and is the capital of the island state of Penang on Peninsular Malaysia. It is also a growing medical tourism destination. 

This city of about 225,000 people is a distilled essence of Malaysia in its rich blend of people, cultures, and architectural styles, not to mention its food. Expats frequently talk about the food, noting the mouthwatering array of bargain-priced choices offered by street vendors throughout the city.

Many expats live in modern condo complexes with all the usual amenities. Houses for sale or rent are relatively rare. Outside those complexes, George Town is famous for its low-rise “shophouses,” the strings of connected dwellings with shops on the ground floor and residences above, linked by a covered pedestrian walkway. Historians say they used to be the color of their off-white clay, but the fashion now is for bold pastels.

Unique neighborhoods like Little India and China Town dot the city. Mosques, Buddhist temples, pagodas, and Anglican churches jostle each other throughout the town. Browsing the dim sum stalls and street markets is a popular pastime.

A couple can make it in George Town for just around $2,000 or less a month, on average, according to International Living. However, many expats actually prefer to live a bit outside of George Town near Penang's beautiful beaches.

Other Places

Although Kuala Lumpur and Penang's beaches draw the most attention, other locations in Malaysia can offer better deals for retirees. Langkawi, Sabah, Johor, and Ipoh all have their charms.

Langkawi

Langkawi offers a wide range of places to live, from bargain-priced options to luxury real estate areas. Langkawi Island is located just to the north of Penang. Life is much quieter on Langkawi, and there are also about 100 smaller islands if you want even more peace and privacy.

Sabah

Sabah provides beaches at bargain prices to tourists and retirees. That's a winning combination, and real estate development was proceeding rapidly before 2020. The economic downturn created new opportunities for investing in real estate.

Johor

Johor is located just to the north of economic powerhouse Singapore, but it cost much less to live in Johor than it does to retire in Singapore. Many expats like living and working in Singapore because of its diverse cultural attractions and world-class air connections. However, they often need to cut expenses and also tend to slow down a bit after retirement. For many expats, that makes Johor a good choice.

Ipoh

Ipoh is a remarkably clean city featuring limestone hills and a substantial amount of lovely British architecture. It draws in tourists, and some of them like it so much that they decide to stay.

The Bottom Line

Malaysia is actively courting expats, whether they are visitors, business professionals, or retirees. Citizens of the United States and British Commonwealth countries do not need a visa to visit the country for up to 90 days (as long as they don’t try to take a job there). For permanent residency, Americans 50 years old and over need offshore income of at least roughly $2,350 a month or a local bank deposit of about $35,000 to obtain an MM2H visa.

Malaysia is an up-and-coming destination for travelers, with attractions that include spectacular scenery and welcoming cities. Retirees thinking about settling here will find an expat community already in place—and growing. It’s worth considering, but only an advance visit will tell you if retiring there is the right decision for you.