Retire To George Town, Penang, Malaysia

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A Foodie’s Dream Retirement

It’s hard to think of George Town, Malaysia, without thinking about food. Few other places in the world do you find cuisine so varied, food so fresh, or prices so low. In 2013, CNN Travel named George Town among the “Top Ten Street Food Cities in Asia,” and, this year, Robin Barton, commissioning editor for Lonely Planet, announced that Penang has been chosen as the top food destination in the world.

Penang is one of our top picks in Asia and, indeed, the world, too—not for eating (that’s not our beat) but for expat living and retirement.

Penang in general and George Town in particular have a great deal to offer the would-be expat and foreign retiree. The natural surroundings are beautiful, and you have many options for how to spend your time (beyond eating!). In addition, Malaysian immigration laws are welcoming, including for retirees. For these reasons, thousands of foreigners, both working and retired, have settled in the area, creating a network of support for others who’d like to follow in their footsteps.

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 exploit a thriving opium market. Commerce prospered and, by the 19th century, George Town had developed a busy financial district, an active seaport, and scores of wholesale shops. Immigrants flooded the town hoping to improve their fortunes.

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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