Population: 4,560,667,108 (2018)
Area: 17,212,000 sq mi
Asia is the world’s largest, most populated and diverse continent. It is subdivided in five different regions and composed of 48 different countries. Asia is located in the north and eastern hemisphere, and it shares a landmass with both Africa and Europe. In Asia you will find all kinds of extreme climates, resulting in a wild variety of flora and fauna. Here you’ll also find the highest and lowest points of Earth. As a continent, Asia can be considered the home to many civilizations and many major religions.
“Affordability” is usually the first or second reason most folks give for wanting to retire overseas, and Asia is far and away the cheapest place on earth to live well… but Asia offers much more than just affordability.
Everyone is different, but other reasons tend to include:
You can enjoy white-sand beaches, tropical rainforests, sacred mountains… Modern and colonial architecture, majestic temples, river cities, beach towns… Cutting edge technology, the world’s fastest internet, and welcoming locals.
Nowhere else in the world gets you so much for so little money.
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Understanding verbal and non-verbal communication and conveying respect in a culturally appropriate manner can be challenging. Americans tend to be outspoken and verbally expressive. We are informal in our terms of address, using first names and saying “please” and “thank you” effusively. We look people straight in the eye when we talk to them.
In the Far East, a smile is often used to convey many different emotions, from happiness and amusement to embarrassment or even anger. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are much more commonly expressed by smiles or slight bows. Direct eye contact is considered aggressive and that people look down and slightly away if they want to show respect when speaking to you.
If you’re a Christian, you likely won’t be in the majority. Most of your neighbors will probably be Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, or even Muslim. Some cities, such as Saigon, Nha Trang, and Hua Hin, have large numbers of practicing Christians. Other areas, such as Kuala Lumpur and Chiang Mai, have significant Christian minorities. Jewish people make up only a very tiny percentage of the population here.
You’ll notice a difference in the food, though globalization has had a huge impact in this area. In general, food is fresher and healthier in Asia. The distance food travels from farm to table is usually much shorter. Meat makes up a smaller percentage of the diet for most people than in a typical Western diet. Most Asian main dishes are stir-fried or grilled, rather than baked or deep-fried, and are served with assorted fruits and vegetables.
Savory flavors are more prevalent than sweet. You’ll see plenty of rice and noodles, but rarely potatoes. However, restaurants catering to Western tastes are sprouting up everywhere. McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Huts are common throughout the region, and many independent restaurants also serve Western dishes. Living in Asia, you can choose your diet. Go local or not, it’s up to you.
The architecture is different in this part of the world. People live closer together here, and large, multi-generational homes are common. Large, sprawling yards are uncommon. You find a lot more solar power here than in North America. Newer buildings are made from fire- and insect-resistant concrete and brick. Most houses are at least two stories tall to take advantage of cooling breezes, and many are four or five stories high. Older homes are typically made from jungle hardwoods, such as teak. Most residences have the same amenities as their counterparts in the West—electricity, indoor plumbing, cable TV, and so on. Floors are usually tiled or may be carpeted; unless you are really in the poverty-stricken hinterlands, they’re not dirt!
Roads in Asia are generally paved. You find very good roads in Singapore and Malaysia, and most roads in Thailand are also quite good. There are plenty of multi-lane controlled-access highways. Elsewhere, roads may be dirt or gravel or paved but in poor repair—but no more so than you find in Mexico or in any developing country in the Western Hemisphere.
You see more motorbikes on the roads in this part of the world, partly because they cost less than automobiles, but also because they are more fuel-efficient. You also see plenty of Fords, Chevys, and SUVs. No one other than tourists use elephants as a means of transportation any longer! Trains are used more for public transportation than they are in the Western Hemisphere, and they tend to be clean, safe, and efficient.
As is common in many parts of Europe and Central and South America, shopping at the market is a part of daily life. It’s a good opportunity to buy fresh local produce while immersing yourself in the local culture. Bargaining is the norm in Southeast Asia, and shopping is a time when knowing a bit of the local language can be a benefit. However, many non-bilingual foreigners have gone to the market armed with nothing more than a calculator and a smile and lived to tell the tale…
In the markets, you’ll discover locally grown vegetables, such as bok choy and kai lan, and delicious fruits including dragon fruits and mangoes. When you compare prices with imported produce, such as apples or iceberg lettuce, you’ll likely develop a taste for these inexpensive alternatives. Of course, there are also plenty of supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores where you can shop.
Developing friendships and becoming a part of the community is the same in Southeast Asia as it would be anywhere in the world. People in Southeast Asia enjoy getting together for dinner, dancing, watching TV, and playing cards. Most people work during the day and relax at night…just like everywhere. Parents dream of seeing their children go to college and making a better life, and children study hard to make their parents proud. Higher education is highly valued in Asia, perhaps more so than in the West.
Living in Asia is very different from living in your own country in many ways, but, in some fundamental ways, life is very similar. Asia seems exotic because it is so far away, but this is something that probably meant much more 30 years ago before the Internet made the world so much smaller.
Living on this side of the planet, you’d also have access to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Your life would be full of the exotic, the unexpected, and the adventuresome.
That is to say, the culture shock would be significant. For some, this reality is thrilling and invigorating… for others, intimidating or even terrifying.
In the past, foreign retirees in Asia didn’t legalize their status. Historically—in some cases because it seemed easier and in others because formal residency programs weren’t an option—expats in this part of the world have relied on the “border run” approach. They’d leave the country where they were living briefly, then return with a renewed tourist visa.
However, today, more and more countries in the region are cracking down on the practice which, in fact, can be as or more expensive than obtaining legal residency. Also, more formal legal residency options are available…
Meaning the border-run lifestyle is no longer necessary in Asia.
Still there’s the practical downside of geography. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc., are literally on the other side of the world. You’re not hopping back and forth between your new home in Asia and your old one in North America for grandchildren’s birthdays, for example.
That’s why it can make sense to approach Asia not as a full-time choice but, instead, to create a retire overseas plan that allows you to enjoy the super cheap and super exotic benefits of Asia part-time.
“We’re Living Through The Asian Century, After All”
Why in the world would anyone want to live or retire in Asia in the first place? The culture shock would be significant. For some, this reality is thrilling and invigorating…for others, intimidating, or even terrifying.
Plus, living on this side of the planet, you’d have access to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. And your life would be full of the exotic, the unexpected, and the adventuresome.
Low costs are a big part of the appeal here. In addition, health care is excellent, foreigners are welcome, and the country is safe and stable. English is the language that holds the ethnic stew together.
Life here is both traditional and 21st century, exotic and comfortable. Beyond the high-rise apartments of modern George Town is one of the best-preserved old cities in Asia.
Malaysia is also one of the world’s most tax-friendly jurisdictions. As a resident of this country, you only pay tax on income derived from within the country. You do not pay tax on any income you earn in another country.
The jungle is lush, volcanoes rise into the clouds, and terraced rice fields cascade down the valleys. Multi-tiered Balinese temples adorn even the smallest villages.
The coastline is a picture postcard, and the nearby ocean offers world-class diving, surfing, snorkeling, parasailing, and all other manner of water sports.
In the city you’ll find bars, dancing, discotheques, and dining options from excellent street food for a pittance to white-glove and five-star.
On the southwest side of Bali is the small town of Sanur. This is an unpretentious suburb of the larger city of Denpasar. Quiet and laid-back, Sanur feels far removed from the crowds of tourists who flock to Bali for vacations and honeymoons. Sanur can be a top choice for indulging in a five-star, luxury lifestyle on a three-star budget.
Image Source: iStock/saiko3p
The roads and architecture are modern, but most of the businesses are still family-run. There are almost no big international brand names, fast-food joints, or coffee shop chains. This is a fast-moving city of skyscrapers, bridges, and malls with a palpable entrepreneurial spirit, energy, and enthusiasm. Meantime, women ride sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes, legs dangling over the side, chauffeured by their colleagues or family.
Some don the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, the colorful two-piece outfit with the top extending to the ankles, a long slit down one side, long white pants underneath; others wear elbow-length gloves to add a bit of class while protecting against the elements. It can feel like an old movie is playing out in front of you.
Cool weather, wooded hills, and plenty of freshwater prompted the establishment of a hill station, which served British officials as a summer resort during India’s colonial period. Today, Ooty’s natural beauty continues to draw visitors. Perched at 6,000 feet above sea level, the average temperature here is 58 degrees—a refreshing contrast to the rest of steamy southern India.The town boasts botanical and rose gardens, parks, lakes, a golf course, and several historic buildings dating to the early 1800s.
The best way to get the lay of the land is to take a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which slices through the surrounding hills and offers a glimpse of terraced tea estates and the “English fruit” (strawberry, plum, and peach) cultivation the area is famous for.Ooty is a compelling option for a quiet hill-country retirement on a small budget.
Since the 1800s, the Thai city of Chiang Mai has been luring expats from the West with its über-low cost of living, great weather (especially compared with elsewhere in Thailand), rich history, and distinct culture.
The heart of this city founded in 1296 lies within its old city walls where ancient and modern Buddhist temples coexist with residential and commercial neighborhoods. Modern Chiang Mai has grown beyond the ancient walls and offers mega malls, multinational grocery and department stores, and other trappings of 21st-century living.
The biggest advantage of Chiang Mai is its low cost of living in general and especially the low cost of health care in particular.
The biggest downside can be air pollution during the annual burning season which runs from mid-February through mid-April when local farmers burn their fields. As a result, many expats travel outside the country during these months.
Kota Kinabalu is one of the world’s most livable beach cities—civilized, safe, clean, peaceful and organized. KK, as it’s known, has a population of 800,000 and is lively, vibrant, and modern with every amenity, brand name, food variety, and entertainment option you could want.You won’t find orangutans swinging from trees, and no one walks around with bones protruding from pierced nostrils.
KK is more like Pleasantville or Mayberry in the 1950s transplanted to Asia, and Westerners are welcome. Its biggest practical advantages are the low cost of living and the high standard (and low cost) of health care.
Kota Kinabalu is small and walkable, less than 2 miles from end to end.Living here, you’d fill your days snorkeling, diving, boating, and ferry-hopping from the city center to neighboring islands.
Perched at 1,500 meters in the Lang Biang Plateau, Da Lat was discovered by 19th-century French colonists. They found respite from the heat and humidity of city life in Vietnam. Da Lat is abundantly green with lake views reminiscent of an Alpine ski town. The atmosphere is tranquil and contemplative.
French bourgeois architecture was imported in the form of grand hotels, villas, rose gardens, and churches to create a city that became known as Le Petit Paris, complete with its own miniature Eiffel Tower.
Today Da Lat is popular among Vietnamese tourists, especially newlyweds and it is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. The city’s greatest appeal can be its eternal spring climate with temperatures averaging 62 degrees year-round.
Kuala Lumpur, in the heart of the Malaysian peninsula, is a city of contrasts.
In the shadows of this ultramodern setting, less than a 20-minute walk from the city center, life in the ancient Malay village of Kampung Baru carries on. Roosters roam freely and monkeys swing from tree to tree.
Foreigners are genuinely welcome in this former British colony. The British are gone but left their mark in the form of British-colonial architecture and driving on the left.
English is the language of commerce, required learning for all Malaysian children, and the primary spoken language for many Malaysians.Health care is first-rate, public transportation is state-of-the-art and efficient, and the tap water is safe to drink. Beautiful beaches are a short drive or flight away, and cool mountain retreats are less than an hour away.
Few places in Southeast Asia meet the requirements of a “developed” retirement haven. Popular seaside towns in the region are often full of young backpackers looking for the next party.Here a retiree can afford a high standard of living and regular dinners out at first-class restaurants—on a modest budget.
The standard of local medical care is good, and you’re less than three hours from Bangkok, which boasts some of the region’s top hospitals.Housing options include modern condos, beachfront homes, and secure, modern gated communities. The big foreign community connects through reading clubs, festivals, cycling clubs, soccer leagues, wine tastings, and darts tournaments.
Hua Hin is such an inviting place that, since the 1920s, it has been the summer home of much of Thailand’s royal family.
Taiwan’s capital city is a hyper-efficient and high-tech Asian metropolis. It is building a reputation for innovation from its award-winning Mass Rapid Transit and light rail systems to the touchless technology found throughout its public spaces and its approaches to tackling environmental issues.
Architectural and cultural landmarks scattered around the city remind you of the island’s many phases of history.The best way to experience Taipei’s culture, though, is through its cuisine. From night markets bustling with food stalls to high-end eateries, Taipei is a culinary wonderland that impresses even the most pretentious foodie.
This safe, clean, well-organized, and interesting city has all the appeal, infrastructure, amenities, and comforts of the region’s A-list destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong—with one big difference. The cost of living in Taipei is within the reach of most retirees’ budgets.
When you consider the kinds of culture shock you might experience when you move overseas, it's usually related to food, weather, or language. Most of us don't think about something like our concept of time being changed. Tick tock, tick tock... time is time, right? After two decades in Thailand, I realize that my concept of time bears little resemblance to that of my fellow countrymen living in America. Please understand, I'm not referring to the old expat clichés about...Read more