Retirement Options In Southeast Asia

“We’re Living Through The Asian Century, After All”

This week we’re talking about the world’s top havens, the best places on earth to think about spending time and money right now, from the Americas to the Continent to, today, Asia.

This is the approach we will be taking when Lief Simon and I convene in Scottsdale, Arizona, April 30 through May 2, with more than three-dozen expats, experts, friends, colleagues, and key contacts from all across the globe, for our 2012 Retire Overseas Conference. Over the three days of this event, we will introduce the assembled group to the world’s top choices for living, retiring, investing, or starting a business overseas.

Destinations in the Americas can be sunny and warm, nearby and accessible, friendly and welcoming, and, sometimes, above all, super-affordable.

Not everyone is up for life in the tropics or the developing world, though.

Top choices in Europe can be cultured and cosmopolitan, comfortable and convenient, beautiful and historic, boasting First World infrastructure and health care, and, sometimes, more affordable than you might think.

If, though, you’re looking for super-cheap and exotic, your best options lie in Asia. Here, I’m no expert. The time I’ve spent in this part of the world has been as a tourist. I can tell you of natural wonders and historic monuments of note from China to Vietnam, Thailand to India, but that kind of reporting does you little good if you’re considering starting a new life in any of those places.

However, I know four people who know this part of the world better than anyone else you’re likely to find anywhere, who know it from the point of view of the resident expat and retiree, and who have experienced this region over more than two decades. Paul and Vicki Terhorst and Wendy and David Justice are Asia expat pros, and they’ll all be joining Lief and me in Scottsdale next month to introduce the assembled group to the current best lifestyle and retirement options in the region.

Why in the world would anyone want to live or retire in Asia in the first place?

Because, again, it can be super-affordable. This region boasts a number of the most cost-friendly options anywhere. Pockets of Thailand, China, Vietnam, and India, for example, can be downright cheap.

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.

That is to say, the culture shock would be significant. For some, this reality is thrilling and invigorating…for others, intimidating, even terrifying.

In Asia, as well, you have an added challenge related to residency (though Asian Correspondent Wendy Justice recently reported on your best legal options for arranging to stay full-time and indefinitely in this part of the world).

The easy alternative can be not to approach Asia as a full-time choice but, instead, to create a retire-overseas plan that allows you to enjoy the benefits of Asia (super cheap and super exotic) part-time. Don’t worry about trying to organize permanent residency. Stay as long as you can as a tourist and then move on. How about three months in Chiang Mai, where your retirement budget would stretch far indeed, followed by a few months in the south of France?

This is the kind of strategizing that our team of Asia correspondents will help think through for the benefit of all those assembled with us in Scottsdale in April.

As Asia Correspondent Paul Terhorst puts it, “See Asia. See Asia now. We’re living through the Asian century, after all…”

If you’re considering this part of the world, where, specifically, should you be looking?

#1 Haven In Asia: Thailand

Thailand boasts both really cheap and more developed, more comfortable lifestyle choices. It is also, notably, one country in this part of the world that does offer formal options for long-term and retirement visas.

In Scottsdale, we’ll introduce you to current top choices in Thailand, including Hua Hin, a pretty coastal town with lovely beaches that is also friendly and welcoming to foreigners and home to a sizable population of retirees and expats.

Hua Hin is one of the very few classic retirement havens in Southeast Asia, complete with golf courses, factory outlets, and gated communities. Foreigners make up approximately 15% of that population, and most of them are retired. With 12 golf courses in operation and another 3 under construction, this is definitely the place to go if you’re a golfing enthusiast.

Hua Hin is one place where, if you were so inclined, you could live a “North American lifestyle” and never have to involve yourself more than superficially with the local Thai culture. Perhaps that is a plus or a minus for you, but it is worth noting when discussing options in this typically exotic part of the world.

#2 Haven In Asia: Vietnam

While Thailand is well-established as an interesting option for expats and foreign retirees, Vietnam is best described as an emerging choice. One, though, that we think is going to be getting a lot more attention in the coming few years.

In Scottsdale, we’ll focus your attention on Nha Trang, another pretty coastal towns in this part of the world. Nha Trang’s total population is more than 200,000; its expat population numbers about 1,000. This means you’re a pioneer. Unlike in certain places in Thailand, for example, you’ll find no organized activities for expats–no expat clubs or softball leagues…not yet. The lack of a big foreign population makes it easier to have meaningful interactions with the locals. Maybe this is what you’re looking for, or maybe not.

The major attraction in Nha Trang is its cost of living. If you’re a budget-minded retiree with an interest in Asia, this town should be top on your list.

#3 Haven In Asia: Malaysia

After Thailand, Malaysia is the easiest country to navigate in this part of the world.

The country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a city of contrasts, the old and the new, the traditional and the progressive, reminiscent of Panama City in many ways. The shining stainless steel Petronas Towers, two of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, anchor a startlingly beautiful skyline that is truly unique to this city. Modern, air-conditioned malls flourish, selling everything from beautifully handcrafted batik clothing to genuine Rolex watches and Tiffany jewelry. In the shadows of these ultra-modern buildings, the ancient Malay village of Kampung Baru still thrives, with free-roaming roosters and a slow pace of life generally found in rural villages. Less than a 20-minute walk from the city center, you can find yourself conversing with monkeys in the city-jungle surrounding one of the highest telecommunications towers in the world. A walk of less than 30 minutes leads you to Chinatown and Little India, where merchants offer their wares, foods, and culture in happy neighborhoods that showcase the amazing diversity of the city.

Unlike some places in Asia, foreigners are genuinely welcomed in Kuala Lumpur. Language isn’t a problem–almost everyone speaks adequate English. It is taught in the schools and is the primary spoken language for many Malaysians.

Immigration is easy, and it is possible to stay for an extended period with a simple tourist visa. Although KL is more expensive than rural Malaysia, it can be marvelously inexpensive by Western standards. You can realistically expect to cut your living expenses by a third and still enjoy a lifestyle comparable to what you are accustomed to now. Our Asia team will tell you more in Scottsdale.

#4 Haven In Asia: India

“Travelers sometimes tell us they have a love-hate relationship with India,” writes Asia Correspondent Vicki Terhorst. “They hate the crowds, traffic, noise, beggars, tourist prices, garbage, and touts. They love the food, scenery, friendly smiles, exotic and varied culture, ancient ruins, and bargain prices.

“Paul and I seem to spend more and more time in India. We try to look for ways to maximize what we love while minimizing what we don’t…”

India wouldn’t be for everyone, but it is an adventure-filled option that can also be sublimely affordable. Paul and Vicki will share colorful tales of their adventures in this country when we meet in Scottsdale.

#5 Haven In Asia: China

“A local hotel here advertises their bar as ‘a bridge, waterfall, sunshine, and piano–it could bring you to be a full, new human and nature developing boundary,'” wrote Asia Correspondent Paul Terhorst following a recent visit to China.

“With that kind of translation, you figure you’re in Asia. In this case, Tonghai, in China’s Yunnan province.

“Two years ago,” Paul continued, “I wrote about Yunnan province, suggesting that Kunming and/or Dali would be fine places to live part of the year. Now we’re back in the area. Look at a map, stick the point of a compass in Kunming, and draw a circle with a 300-kilometer radius, more or less.

“You’ve just circled what may be Asia’s best up-and-coming retirement area, call it central Yunnan. Besides Kunming and Dali, there’s Lijiang, Shangri-la, Tonghai (where we are right now), Jianshui, Geiju, Yuanyang, and more.

“Start with weather. Central Yunnan comes close to eternal spring. The area suffers none of the hot and sticky farther south or the cold and icy farther north.

“Move on to cost of living. Central Yunnan offers real bargains. Vicki and I routinely eat a Chinese breakfast for a buck or two, and a full splurge dinner for two with beer in a family-run restaurant is US$4 to US$7. Our center-city hotel, one of the priciest in Tonghai, costs US$10 a night for a double. The very best hotel in town, a ‘national four-star standard,’ has 17 floors, 15 restaurants/food areas, pool, bowling alley, night club, and so on, and costs US$30 a night. A cab across town costs a dollar or two, and a bus to Kunming (130 kilometers) about US$7.

“You can spend less if you work at it. You can also spend more, as the boom here offers more and more high-end choice.

“To come and spend part of the year in central Yunnan, you’ll have to be a pioneer. Vicki and I have been in Tonghai for a week now, and we have yet to see another Westerner. But I think the challenge might pay off. China looks to tomorrow, and it’s fun being around so much enthusiasm.”

One drawback to spending time in China is the language. As Paul explains:

“Two years ago when I spent time in Yunnan, I figured you’d have to learn to speak Chinese–tough to do, especially if you’re over 40–or wait until more Chinese learned English. We returned to central Yunnan more recently partly to find out if more English is spoken than before. Answer? Hard to say. Desk clerks in Chinese hotels (as opposed to international hotels), cab drivers, bus drivers, waiters, and sales clerks speak no English at all. Forget it. But, increasingly, students approach us to chat. And big wigs around town often speak English perfectly. You meet them at construction sites–engineers, I’d guess, or the developers themselves–or in the international hotels or on airplanes…”

Paul sees tremendous opportunity in China for the forward-thinking retiree.

He sees another opportunity, as well–associated with having a bank account in this country.

“I remember when a dollar bought around 400 Japanese yen. Back then Japan enjoyed high growth. Exports to the U.S. in the 1950s included flip flops, portable radios, and other low-end merchandise. But by the time I came of age, Japan sold well-built cars, cameras, and electronics. ‘Made in Japan’ stood for quality and design.

“And the yen went from 400 to 80, where it is today.

“I missed that upward movement of the yen, but we might now have another chance. I think the Chinese yuan could move up at a similar pace. A revaluation of the yuan amounts to as close to a sure thing as one finds in the financial world.

“The Chinese want to make the yuan fully convertible within two to five years. When that happens, the yuan will pop, perhaps from 6.4 to 4. I fully expect the yuan to reach parity with the dollar, 1 to 1, over the next few decades.”

A yuan bank account?

Paul will share complete details for what could be the most interesting currency play of our lifetimes when we convene in Scottsdale next month.

Kathleen Peddicord

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