Malaysia’s vast tropical jungles are becoming a big tourist draw, but Western expats cluster in its two biggest cities: Kuala Lumpur and George Town, both on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. George Town is an island city just across a channel from the mainland. 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.
You may find Kuala Lumpur’s post-modern glitter alluring, or George Town’s slower pace might be a better fit for you.
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 1950s, 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.
George Town made it onto Live and Invest Overseas' list of The World's Best Places to Retire in 2018. It’s far from the best-known city on the list, but its low cost of living and high standard of healthcare make it a standout. English is generally spoken as a second language, too.
This city of about 750,000 people is a distilled essence of Malaysia in its rich blend of people, cultures and architectural styles, not to mention its food. Expats frequently mention the food, noting the mouthwatering array of bargain-priced ethnic choices offered by street vendors throughout the city.
Most 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 painted white, but the fashion now is for bold pastels.
Ethnic enclaves 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 $1,100 to $2,500 a month, on average, according to International Living.
Kuala Lumpur is best known today as the home of the world’s tallest twin structures, the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Completed in 1999, the towers are a post-modern icon and a brash statement of the Malaysian capital’s intent to play a major role in Asia’s 21st-century economy. The 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 more than 1.6 million.
The city has other modern attractions. The Sunway Lagoon theme park has a man-made surf beach, a revolving pirate ship and a Scream Park. The city’s Bird Park, the centerpiece of its giant Lake Gardens, is notably twice the size of the one in neighboring Singapore. The Central Market is 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, site of a sacred Hindu shrine. And you can explore the Malaysian rainforest via a canopy walkway, thanks to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia.
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 $2,500, while a three-bedroom goes for closer to $4,000, according to Numbeo, a cost-of-living comparison site. Cheaper rent can be found outside of the city center.
The Bottom Line
Malaysia is actively courting Westerners, 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 $2,400 a month, or a local bank deposit of about $36,000 to obtain an MM2H visa. There also is a special visa for second-home owners.
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. (For more tips, see Plan Your Retirement Abroad.)