Asia’s Best Lifestyle Bargain

Asia’s Best Lifestyle Bargain

“One of the biggest incentives to living in Malaysia,” writes Correspondent Wendy Justice, “is the low cost of living. Nowhere else in Asia can you enjoy such a highly developed infrastructure and pleasantly laid-back lifestyle for such a reasonable price.

“Probably the most expensive city in Malaysia is the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Yet even KL is amazingly affordable by almost any standard. You can find what qualifies as a luxurious rental for a bargain price. An 1,100-square-foot condominium in a good area of the city, partly furnished, with a swimming pool and tennis court, is listed on one property website right now for US$250 per month. Another listing is for a 1,719-square-foot, four-bedroom house renting for US$309 per month. You could spend less, for something more modest, US$200 a month or even less.

“A foreigner must spend at least 250,000 ringgit (that’s about US$70,234 at today’s rate of exchange) on the purchase of a piece of real estate–that is, as a foreigner, you’re restricted from purchasing anything priced for less. I did a quick search on one website and found 84 condominiums currently listed at this price. Note that it is possible for foreigners to borrow to buy locally in this country; you could get up to 80% of the purchase price financed through a Malaysian bank. Purchase a property priced at 250,000 ringgit (US$70,234), make a down payment of 50,000 ringgit (US$14,031), arrange local financing at 5.99% interest, and your monthly payments would be 1,198 ringgit. That’s US$336.

“Outside KL, the cost of living can decrease significantly, while the quality of living can improve. Consider picturesque Ipoh. Surrounded by karst mountains and refreshingly cool limestone caves, Ipoh is the fourth-largest city in Malaysia, located halfway between KL and Georgetown. Here, you could buy a 2,700-square-foot five-bedroom house for about US$73,000…or can rent it for US$255 per month. Populated by a Chinese-Malaysian majority, Ipoh is a friendly place with exceptionally good food and a small, close-knit expat community.

“Perhaps you’d prefer an area rich in history with hill stations and beaches within a short drive of the city center? Take a look at the old British colonial city of Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just four hours north of KL on the island of Penang. Georgetown is home to a large and active expat community and is known throughout the world for its exquisite, eclectic cuisine.

“A fully furnished 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Georgetown is currently listed for 1,400 ringgit (US$393) per month. For around US$100,000, you could purchase a spacious luxury condominium with an ocean view and all the amenities. Even in today’s depressed economy, home values in Malaysia continue to appreciate, and the resale market remains strong.

“Food is one of the best values in all of Malaysia. It can actually cost less to eat out than to prepare your meals at home. Hawkers set up their carts in neighborhoods, parks, and on street corners and sell deliciously prepared chicken, lamb, beef, and noodle dishes typically for US$3 a meal or less. An order of roti telur, a delectable hand-stretched flatbread and egg dish served with a savory sauce called dhal, costs about US$1.50 in a local kopitiam (coffee shop). A large serving of chicken tandoori, with rice, vegetables, and Indian bread, costs about US$3 in a local Indian restaurant. A large and satisfying freshly made Chinese steamed bun stuffed with red bean paste, pork, or other fillings (called pao) and a strong cup of local coffee (kopi) costs less than US$2 in any local Chinese eatery.

“A single person could live in Kuala Lumpur for less than US$800 per month. A couple could live comfortably on US$1,000 or US$1,100. Here’s how your budget would break down:

Rent or mortgage repayment and property taxes US$350
Electricity (depending on air-conditioning use) US$55
Gas for cooking US$12
Water US$7
Phone (cell, including four hours of overseas calls per month plus local calls) US$20
Cable TV (including HBO, Cinemax, Star, ESPN) US$25
Internet (unlimited use, 3-G technology) US$19
Transportation (train, monorail, bus, occasional taxi) US$60
Food (eating out six times weekly) plus meals at home US$200
Cost of movie tickets (twice monthly) US$22
Haircut (once monthly) US$10
Miscellaneous expenses US$200
Part-time maid (four hours once a week) US$45
Total US$1,025

“In truth, there are strategies for living here much less expensively. My favorite is to buy everything possible at one of the pasars; the local open-air markets common throughout Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Most fruits and vegetables are fresher and cost up to 50% less than the same items purchased at the supermarket. Many pasars also offer a variety of baked goods (fresh cake, bread, and unique confections made while you watch), and often there are vendors selling fresh seafood and chicken, as well.

“Note that, unlike many places in Asia, you don’t bargain at the pasar in Malaysia. Most prices are clearly marked. Become a regular shopper, recognized among the vendors, and you’ll enjoy special discounts. At my favorite market in KL, a fish vendor sells extremely fresh giant shrimp for about US$10 per kilogram (less than US$5 per pound), and he’d usually throw in a few choice giant tiger prawns at no charge because she knew we bought exclusively from her.

“Shopping this way, we could buy all our fruit, vegetables, bread, eggs, chicken, and fish for the week, more than enough to feed two people, for about US$25.

“If you crave imported foods, be prepared to pay the price. Shipping costs and duty charges can turn your favorite foods from back home into luxury items in Malaysia. Some multi-national corporations, like Kellogg’s, have factories in Thailand or Malaysia, so their items can be reasonably priced. However, this is an exception; typically, imported items can be much more expensive than the price back home. A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese costs around US$2, a one-pound package of Hormel frozen breakfast sausage links is around US$6, and a six-pack of Budweiser costs at least US$15!

“The good news is that you can find almost any product you can imagine in Malaysia. Grocery stores with an expat focus carry huge selections with imports from the US, UK, EU, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East. From southern grits to bagels and lox, if you search hard enough and you are willing to pay the premium prices, you can find whatever you are craving. And, often, you can find a Malaysian-produced equivalent for far less money.

“A fun way to keep costs down and to see one of Malaysia’s most beautiful islands at the same time is to head to Pulau Langkawi, in the northwest corner of the country, an hour or so from Georgetown and around six hours from KL. Langkawi is known for its stunning mountains and unspoiled coast, as well as being a duty-free zone. Items that are heavily taxed on the mainland, such as beer, alcohol, cigarettes, and chocolate, can be purchased here very reasonably. Many visitors buy inexpensive suitcases to carry back all the duty-free items they can’t resist buying in Langkawi!”

Kathleen Peddicord