Orangutans And Headhunters—Retire To Borneo?
“Just before returning to the United States for the Retire Overseas Conference in Orlando last month, my husband David and I were enjoying our second visit to Malaysian Borneo,” writes Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice.
“We had enjoyed the area immensely the last time we’d traveled here, particularly the charming city of Kuching, which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We also knew that the Malaysia My Second Home Program offers special incentives to foreigners who want to move to Sarawak, including a lower minimum purchase price for real estate than what is required elsewhere in Malaysia. So we wanted to get a sense of the livability of the region as a potential choice for retirement and investment.
“Although the mention of Borneo might conjure up images of wild men and headhunters, the reality is far tamer. Headhunting, which was a part of the indigenous culture of this region through the early half of the 20th century, is illegal now and no longer practiced. And those fearsome wild men of Borneo? They were an invention of P.T. Barnum. In the mid-1800s, he gave the name to two mentally handicapped brothers from Connecticut who toured with his circus.
“Borneo is still a wild land with creatures and plants that are not found anywhere else in the world. Proboscis monkeys, orangutans, giant raffelesia flowers that smell like rotting meat, and insects that look like sticks or leaves…these are just a few of the exotic delights awaiting intrepid explorers in this part of the world. But the people of Borneo? They are some of the most hospitable you will find anywhere, and foreigners are welcome here.
“Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and consists of three countries. The southernmost half of the island belongs to Indonesia. The northern part consists of the two semiautonomous Malaysian states of Sarawak, covering the western part of the island, and Sabah, to the east. The tiny, oil-rich nation of Brunei sits on the northern coast of the South China Sea between Sarawak and Sabah.
“Kuching is the fourth-largest city in Malaysia, with a population of just over a half-million. The name ‘Kuching’ means ‘cat’ in Malay, and Kuching is a great place for cat lovers. Statues of cats adorn sidewalks, traffic circles, and parks. Kuching city is modern and attractive, with a large Chinatown and a pretty riverside promenade. Central Kuching is small enough to explore on foot, and public transportation is available for trips to the suburbs and outlying areas.
“Kuching is also home to some of Malaysia’s best museums, including ones devoted to natural history, ethnology, Chinese history, natural sciences, and Islam. There is a fascinating cultural village and, of course, a delightful cat museum. Kuching is near to many of Sarawak’s 16 national parks, as well as gorgeous and remote beaches along the South China Sea.
“As elsewhere in Malaysia, the food in Kuching is as diverse as the people. Many restaurants offer excellent Chinese, Malay, and Indian menus, as well as Western food. Seafood lovers will be delighted at the abundant and inexpensive supply of ocean and freshwater fish and shrimp. Local specialties are unique and delicious. Try wild jungle ferns stir-fried with garlic. The taste is a cross between young asparagus and mild spinach, addictive to discerning palates! Kek lapis Sarawak is a popular and delicious cake served in traditional Malay celebrations. These are beautiful pound cakes that are delicately layered in artistic patterns and motifs almost (but not quite) too pretty to eat.
“The ethnic diversity that typifies all of Malaysia is readily apparent here. Twenty-seven different ethnic groups, many of them indigenous to the region, live in and around Kuching. The most populous groups in Sarawak, however, are the Chinese, the Malays, and the indigenous Iban.
“If you’re considering establishing full-time residency in this country under the Malaysia My Second Home Program, a home purchase in Kuching is an attractive option. In 2010, the minimum amount that a foreigner needs to spend on a home purchase in Malaysia to qualify for the MMSH program was increased from 250,000 RM to 500,000 RM (about US$160,000 at the current exchange rate). However, foreigners in Sarawak can purchase property for only 350,000 RM (about US$112,000) to qualify.
“If you’d rather rent first before buying (a wise idea), you have many options. As with the rest of Malaysia, there is no required minimum to spend when renting, and Kuching rentals are inexpensive by any standards. The average home here rents for around US$350 per month.
“English is widely spoken in Kuching. With so many ethnic groups each having its own language, English has become the bridge language.
“Getting to Kuching is easy. Air Asia, the region’s fantastic budget carrier, offers frequent promotional pricing from its hub in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s easy to find a flight for less than US$50. To see the rest of Sarawak, you can either rent a car or take one of the frequent intra-city buses on paved and well-maintained roads to all major towns and villages. When the roads run out, boat transportation thrives and can be found along all major rivers. Many remote areas host small airports, often served by Malaysia Airlines’ fleet of propeller planes. Whether you’re interested in a once-in-a-lifetime trip or seeking the perfect retirement haven, Kuching and the state of Sarawak are places well worth exploring.”