George Town, Malaysia, is not only one of Asia’s best options for retirement living, but also a top choice worldwide. Though the city has grown a great deal over the years, it has managed to retain its British colonial flavor. At the same time, it has developed to be hugely culturally diverse. Wandering around the historic downtown, it’s easy to imagine yourself in another era and even another place. There are neighborhoods reminiscent of China, India, an old Malay village, and everywhere you find architecture and infrastructure harkening back to England’s colonial heyday.
Impressive British-colonial buildings serve the same functions they did more than a century ago. Some are banks, churches, and residential mansions. Many of the dilapidated Chinese shop houses have been scrubbed, painted and renovated into attractive hotels, community centers, cafes, galleries, and private homes. The early Indian traders have left their legacy, as well, with a vibrant Little India with ornate Hindu and Sikh temples and a commercial district where you can shop for yard goods, 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.
Historic George Town, the capital of the state of Penang, got its start in the 18th century, when the British established a colonial outpost to control trade in the Straits of Malacca and to exploit a thriving opium market. Commerce prospered, and by the 19th century George Town had a busy financial district, an active seaport and scores of wholesale shops. Immigrants flooded the town hoping to improve their fortunes.
Today you find at least a dozen museums in George Town, along with venues for indulging in high culture, including the Penang Philharmonic, the ProArt Chinese Orchestra, the Performing Arts Center, and the Actors Studio at Straits Quay. Free concerts are offered in various locations in George Town and across Penang Island during the summer months. For lovers of the outdoors there are jungle parks, secluded beaches, and exotic wildlife. Amusement parks provide family fun. Expat clubs meet regularly to serve the large foreign community.
Malaysia is an especially appealing retirement choice for foodies, and nowhere more so than in George Town. There’s no need to cook with so many eateries serving delicious and inexpensive gourmet fare. When the sun goes down, cooking smells permeate the air, and tables fill with enthusiastic diners. Few places in the world offer such diverse and varied cuisine prepared from fresh ingredients and available for such bargain prices, explaining why George Town is consistently recognized as one of the world’s top dining out destinations.
While you’ll find many fine restaurants in George Town, the real food scene is in the little cafes, open air restaurants, and hawker stalls. This is where chefs prepare regional Chinese, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Nyonya, Teochew, and Thai cuisines, all manner of seafood, as well as 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 well for about US$3 per person.
Retirees interested in settling in for the long term can take advantage of this country’s Malaysia My Second Home program, which comes with a host of benefits, including a 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 hold MM2H visa status, you are restricted to buying a home or condominium valued at RM1 million (currently about US$307,000) or more. MM2H visa holders are permitted to buy property on Penang Island valued at half that amount. Unlike other countries in this region, Malaysia allows foreigners to purchase and hold clear title to land, houses, and condominiums.
It is common for foreigners to move here, rent for a year or two, then purchase homes of their own. These expats and foreign retirees have formed sizable communities living in luxury condos with ocean views or quiet, residential homes in the suburbs north of George Town, enjoying each other’s company and also integrating easily into the local community. Malays are exceptionally friendly people, and language is not a barrier as everyone speaks English.
Kathleen Peddicord is the publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, offering retirement and overseas living advice in her free daily Overseas Opportunity Letter and the monthly Overseas Retirement Letter. Her preceding essay originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report.