Like Singapore, Japan is spotlessly clean. Buildings are freshly painted, yards are tidy, litter is nonexistent, and recycling containers are everywhere. Also as in Singapore, signs are posted everywhere reminding citizens to be neat, courteous, and orderly.The public transportation system is unbelievably efficient—another similarity with Singapore. We saw this not only in Tokyo, which has one of the most efficient mass transit networks in the world, but everywhere we went in Japan. Traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, was a simple matter of showing up at the railway station, buying a ticket, and hurrying to the platform to catch the next train, which arrived on time and within moments. In Kyoto, subways and efficient city buses were waiting to take people onward. We visited several towns and cities in Japan, and this was consistently our experience. Public transportation was fast, efficient, clean, comfortable, and affordable.Japan, like Singapore, is quiet and orderly. People wait patiently at the crosswalks for the light to change before walking, and cars unfailingly yield to them. Horns are rarely heard. In fact, it was very unusual even to hear someone talking on a cellphone in public; public service signs were posted to discourage the practice, and most people made it a point to have their conversations in private. Like Singapore, Japan is a fully developed country. The vast majority of Japanese seem to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Though there was some new construction, we didn't hear jackhammers or see dozens of cranes when we explored the major cities. Men wearing suits and ties and smartly dressed women crowded the subways on their way to and from their jobs. Children dressed in tidy uniforms filled the school playgrounds. It seemed that nearly every city worker wore a uniform of some kind; even road crews were dressed in clean and pressed work clothes.As much as Japan reminded us of Singapore, it was vastly different in some ways. Outside Tokyo, the population density was far less than we are used to in Southeast Asia. We saw a surprising amount of farmland, many single-family homes with yards, and lots of parks and open spaces. Expansive gardens, even in the largest cities, offered carefully sculpted trees, tranquil lakes, and well-tended pathways. For us, this was one of the joys of visiting Japan. It seemed that every plant, every stone on the footpath, and every rock was hand-picked and placed with great care and forethought, everything carefully designed to offer an atmosphere of serenity and tranquility.We saw a surprising number of traditionally dressed people in Japan. It was common to see people of both sexes wearing kimonos. In Kyoto, we saw geishas, beautifully adorned in full face makeup, ornate headdresses, and stunning costumes. At the Shinto temples, parents dressed their young children in kimonos and gave thanks to the gods for making them grow and be healthy. Rickshaws, powered by energetic young men in spotlessly clean traditional garb, took tourists down ancient Kyoto streets. Not everyone dressed traditionally, though. Tokyo might be the best place in the world for people-watching. A trip on the Tokyo metro might reveal an eclectic mix of cosplay girls dressed as fairies, Little Bo Peeps, or other fictional characters and young men wearing studded black leather jackets and Mohawk haircuts. Although there are many ancient temples and castles, little in Japan has not been rebuilt or extensively renovated. This is due to Japan's history of devastating earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and fires. Few buildings on the main island of Honshu have survived these disasters untouched. Like Singapore, most of what we saw was relatively new.Art is everywhere in Japan, from fantastic museums to public sculptures. Nowhere is art more apparent, though, than in the restaurants. Numerous dishes were served at every meal, carefully chosen to blend flavors with aesthetics. Sometimes we had to wait a few minutes for our food to arrive while the chef took care to prepare and arrange our plates precisely. Singapore may have a more diverse cuisine, but it lacks the artistic presentation and creativity that we found in practically every Japanese restaurant. Although many Japanese, especially in the cities and at the tourist sites, spoke some English, we found that English is not spoken nearly as much as in Singapore, where the majority of people are fluent. This didn't present too much of a problem for us, though. Many restaurants have plastic representations of their food displayed in the window. We simply took pictures of what we wanted to order and showed them to the server, which worked perfectly. Unfortunately for us world nomads, Japan shares one more characteristic with Singapore. It is very difficult for foreigners to retire to Japan. Unless you are Japanese, married to a Japanese citizen, or are in Japan to work, run a business, or study, your visa expires in just three months, and it is difficult to extend without leaving the country, which is a relatively expensive proposition even at today's favorable currency rates. However, Japan is an immensely interesting and quirky country to visit and would be ideal as a part-time retirement destination.And, right now, it's all more affordable than it's been in a long time for those of us traveling with U.S. dollars in our wallets.Wendy Justice
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Perhaps the strangest thing about Christmas in Kuala Lumpur is the big Christmas Eve buffets offered at hotels around the city. These are elaborate feasts, with turkey, roast beef and all the trimmings, local specialties, and a fantastic selection of desserts. That's not the strange part. What is unexpected are the party favors and the New Year's Eve-style countdown to midnight and the official start of Christmas Day. There are dances, visits by Santa, and Christmas skits (again, secular). At midnight, fireworks erupt. Malaysians love their fireworks, and almost every holiday is celebrated by a display of them, but we had never before considered Christmas a fireworks kind of day!Wendy Justice
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The city has grown a great deal in the 200 years since, but it has not lost its colonial flavor. Wandering around the historic downtown, it's easy to imagine yourself living in another era and, as well, another place. Here, you're in old China. Around the corner, you could be in India. Another neighborhood is reminiscent of an old Malay kampong (village). Everywhere the architecture and infrastructure harken back to England's colonial heyday. Impressive British-colonial buildings serve the same functions as they did more than a century ago; they are banks, churches, and residential mansions. Many of the dilapidated Chinese shophouses have been scrubbed, painted, and renovated into attractive hotels, community centers, cafes, galleries, and private homes. The early Indian traders left their legacy, as well, in the vibrant Little India neighborhood where you find ornate Hindu and Sikh temples and a commercial district where you can shop for yard goods and clothing, incense, fruits, spices, herbal teas, and natural remedies. Other parts of the city reflect the Malay culture, with mosques and more shopping. Adding to the ambiance are dozens of murals and whimsical, wrought-iron sculptures depicting life in the early days of the city. The city is home to at least a dozen museums. Venues for indulging in high culture include the Penang Philharmonic, ProArt Chinese Orchestra, Performing Arts Center, and the Actors Studio at Straits Quay. Free concerts are offered in various locations across Penang Island during the summer months. Jungle parks reveal secluded beaches and indigenous wildlife. Amusement parks provide family fun. Expat clubs meet regularly to serve the large and growing foreign community. Everywhere are eateries serving delicious and inexpensive gourmet fare. When the sun goes down, cooking smells permeate the air and tables fill with enthusiastic diners from around the globe. Though there are many fine restaurants in George Town, the real food scene is in the cafes, open-air restaurants, and hawker stalls. This is where chefs prepare regional Chinese, Malay, and Indian specialties, Chinese, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Malay, Indonesian, Nyonya, Teochew, and Thai cuisines, all manner of seafood, and Western-style dishes, using recipes that have been perfected over generations. Prices are something to rave about, too. Unless you're eating in an upscale restaurant, you can eat very well for about US$3 per person. George Town is a great place to visit, but it's also a great and, thanks to the government's Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program, easy place to live or retire. The MM2H program provides you with a retirement visa that is valid for up to 10 years, duty-free importation of personal belongings, a duty-free allowance to import or purchase an automobile, and a reduction in the required minimum purchase price of a home in the state of Penang. If you don't have the MM2H visa, you can buy a home or condominium valued at 1 million ringgit (about US$307,000) or more. MM2H visa-holders can buy property on Penang Island for half that amount. Note that, unlike other countries in this region, Malaysia allows foreigners to purchase and own a clear title to land, houses, and condominiums. It is common for foreigners to move here, rent for a year or two, then purchase property or a home. As a result, sizeable expat communities have developed in the suburbs north of George Town. Some come to work at one of the many international schools in the area. Others have moved here with their school-age children, to raise them in this safe and peaceful place. Many others have chosen to relocate here for retirement, in luxury condos with ocean views or in the quiet residential suburbs. We make it a point to visit George Town whenever we're in the vicinity. It's always a fun place to linger. The people are exceptionally friendly, and language is not a barrier in this English-speaking country. We enjoy wandering around the historic downtown and, of course, the food. For so many reasons, George Town is a place worth returning to again and again. Wendy Justice
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As Mr. Twain suggested long ago, though, statistics are a funny thing. Some pieces of data we've collected for each locale in our Index are straightforward enough—number of international airports, for example. Others less so. What's a museum? How many books does a building need to house before it's a library? Some data points beg doubt. Who's counting the expats in residence in each of these places? Or surveying the local population to confirm who does and who does not speak English...and at what level? In a country like Belize, for example, with three paved highways (in this case, that was one statistic I could confirm from my own experience), there's not a lot of room in the budget for polling and census taking. Coincidentally, I was in Cayo, Belize, as we finalized this year's Index. Driving to meet a friend one day, we passed the Statistical Institute of Belize. It's a single-room wooden shack that didn't appear to have electricity. For this survey each year, we start with recognized sources—including the CIA Factbook, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and WorldPopulationReview.com, for example. Our team in our Panama City headquarters spends weeks plugging numbers thus collected into spreadsheets, then figuring averages and ranking results. That work done, they present their findings to Lief and me. We call in reinforcements, sharing those early results with key correspondents around the globe. "How can you say that the per-square-meter cost of an apartment is greater in Medellin, Colombia, than in the City Beaches of Panama," wondered Overseas Property Alert Editor Lee Harrison after reviewing this year's initial figures... "Those expat population figures can't be right," Lief responded... "It's easier to establish residency in Thailand than these rankings indicate," Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice pointed out, "and I'd say that the residency program offered by the Philippines is one of the best anywhere..." "The City Beaches of Panama can't finish that high in the rankings this year," I commented. "The cost of living in the extended Panama City region has risen too much for that to make sense..." And so on. Full disclosure: When our personal experience differed from what the statistics suggested...we went with our personal experience. "Next year, maybe we should short-cut the whole thing," Managing Editor Kaitlin Yent, who has directed and overseen this mammoth project, suggested when all was said and done. "Maybe we should forget the statistics and jump straight to our experience." We won't go that far. The published, formal statistics, such as they are, provide a foundation and give us something to react to. We know we must start there, then overlay some judgment. Bottom line, where did all that figuring and comparative analysis land us this year? We've shared our hot-off-the-presses 2014 Retire Overseas Index first with subscribers to my Overseas Retirement Letter. It comprises our bumper August issue, in subscribers' inboxes now. Next, we'll reveal the results to attendees at this week's Retire Overseas Conference in Nashville. If you're among the hundreds of readers preparing to meet us in Music City, watch your inbox for a special email from Conference Director Lauren Williamson containing a link to the complete 2014 Retire Overseas Index online, including fully detailed budgets for each of the 21 destinations featured. In addition, of course, we intend to detail the survey results for you, too, dear reader. Watch this space. Kathleen Peddicord
Asia Correspondents Wendy and David Justice: Hanoi, Vietnam Of all the places we could pick from in our travels, Hanoi, Vietnam, is the city we have chosen to call home. The city is an energetic and chaotic jumble of ancient neighborhoods, tranquil parks and lakes, modern high-rises, and centuries-old pagodas. It is also home to one of the most healthy and varied cuisines in the world. In more than two years of living in Hanoi, we are still discovering delicious and exotic new foods. Even more important to us are the people. They are curious, polite, friendly, and generous to a fault. They really want to get to know you and to make friends. Friendships we've formed here have lasted many years. There are always other foreigners to socialize with if we want, and there is always something to do. And the cost of living is so affordable. Here in Hanoi—anywhere in Vietnam, for that matter—we don't have to worry about money. We know that Hanoi isn't the right place for everyone, but we can easily imagine living here for many more years. If we ever had to leave Vietnam, we would probably head over to Pai, Thailand. Its funky, mountain-town ambiance reminds us of the small towns we knew in the Colorado Rockies. If we developed ongoing health problems or became too elderly and frail to tolerate the stimulation of Hanoi, we would strongly consider moving to Hua Hin, Thailand. Asia Correspondents Vicki and Paul Terhorst: Lviv, Ukraine Vicki and I are perpetual travelers, which means we wander around the world without a fixed home base. By default, therefore, wherever we are at the moment becomes our favorite place. Otherwise, why would we be here? I'm writing this in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which makes Chiang Mai a favorite place. Recently, we chose to spend time in Lviv, Ukraine, because of its combination of European culture (historic buildings and churches, art museums, opera and ballet, convenient public transportation, cafe society, hearty food, robust wine) and low prices. Lviv also makes a useful base for exploration to the rest of Eastern Europe, with six international borders within 200 kilometers or so. Just jump on a train or bus and you can get to Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, or Belarus. The rest of Europe lies just a bit farther along. Ukraine's pro-Russia rebel insurgency remains far to the east of Lviv, more than 800 miles away. Your biggest day-to-day problem in Lviv will be the language. Ukraine uses a different alphabet, making it hard even to guess at street names or menu offerings. Along with Lviv and Chiang Mai, I'd choose Paris as our third favorite place. Having three favorite places makes it easy to avoid running into trouble with 90-day visa rules in any one of them. Asia Correspondent Robert Carry: Cambodia Cambodia might seem an unusual number-one pick, but it has some serious strikes in its favor. First up is cost of living. Put simply, this is the cheapest place I've ever been to. You can get a great apartment in a city center location for less than US$400 a month. A Cambodian-style meal in a local eatery will run you less than a dollar and some of my favorite watering holes charge 75 cents a beer (and as little as 25 cents during happy hour). Everything here is just unfathomably inexpensive. Then there's convenience. You can turn up at the airport unannounced and get a one-year visa, renewable at the end of the 12 months, on arrival. It's almost too easy. Plus, the U.S. dollar is the main currency here, English is widely spoken, and there's a sizable expat community in place. However, Cambodia's real draw is its people. After decades of war and continuing poverty, the Khmers have somehow managed to keep their smiles. They're warm, welcoming, and infectiously optimistic. Cambodia's enchanting culture and Buddhist ethos underpins its peoples' relaxed, live-and-let-live way of life. When I retire, Cambodia is where you'll find me. Tomorrow, top picks from key correspondents in Europe and the Americas... Kathleen Peddicord Editor's Note: Want to learn more about what Live and Invest Overseas correspondents really think about living and retiring overseas? Join us for three days of live discussions next month when we'll be convening with dozens of our normally far-flung experts and expat friends for this year's Retire Overseas Conference taking place in Nashville Aug. 29–31. You have four days remaining to register for what will be the biggest retire-overseas event of the year taking advantage of the Early Bird Discount. This discount, which can save you up to US$300 off the cost of registration, expires this Thursday, July 31, at midnight. Complete details of the event are here, and you can register online here.
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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