Asia boasts the most cost-friendly places anywhere on Earth to call home.
Pockets of India, Vietnam, and Thailand, for example, can be absurdly cheap.
Living on this side of the planet, you’d also have access to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Your life would be full of the exotic, the unexpected, and the adventuresome.
Specifically, where should you be considering if you’re in the market for an exciting new life on an uber-modest budget?
Here are your 10 best lifestyle options in Asia in 2021:
– George Town, Malaysia
Penang isn’t just another lost-in-time outpost of the former British Empire. Combining all that’s appealing about island and city life, the “Pearl of the Orient” is one of Southeast Asia’s most livable destinations. Low costs are a big part of the appeal. In addition, health care is excellent, foreigners are welcome, and the country is safe and stable.
The population is a melting pot of Malay, Straits Chinese, Chinese, Burmese, Arab, Thai, Indonesian, and Indian. Thanks to its colonial past, English is the language that holds the ethnic stew together.
Life here is both traditional and 21st century, exotic and comfortable. Beyond the high-rise apartments of modern George Town is one of the best-preserved old cities in Asia, and almost on the city’s doorstep are stylish seaside settlements with palm-fringed sandy beaches and a backdrop of lush rainforest.
Malaysia is also one of the world’s most tax-friendly jurisdictions. As a resident of this country, you are taxed only on income derived from within the country, meaning that even income you remit to Malaysia is not taxed as long as it was earned somewhere else.
– Bali, Indonesia
Bali enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world. The jungle is lush, volcanoes rise into the clouds, and terraced rice fields cascade down the valleys. Multitiered Balinese temples adorn even the smallest villages.
The coastline is a picture postcard, and the ocean, never far away, offers world-class diving, surfing, snorkeling, parasailing, and all other manner of water sports.
In the city are bars, dancing, discotheques, and dining options from excellent street food for a pittance to white-glove and five-star. On the southwest side of Bali is the small town of Sanur, an unpretentious suburb of the larger city of Denpasar. Quiet and laid-back, Sanur feels far removed from the crowds of tourists who flock to Bali for vacations and honeymoons. Sanur can be a top choice for indulging in a five-star, luxury lifestyle on a three-star budget.
– Da Nang, Vietnam
For many, Vietnam conjures up images of a backward communist country, top-heavy with red tape, clogged with inefficiencies. This stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth in the country’s third-largest city Da Nang, which manages to be forward-thinking and provincial all at once. The roads and architecture are modern, but most of the businesses are still family-run, with almost no big international brand names, fast-food joints, or coffee shop chains to be found.
This is a fast-moving city of skyscrapers, bridges, and malls with a palpable entrepreneurial spirit, energy, and enthusiasm. Meantime, women ride sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes, legs dangling over the side, chauffeured by their colleagues or family.
Some don the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, the colorful two-piece outfit with the top extending to the ankles, a long slit down one side, long white pants underneath; others wear elbow-length gloves to add a bit of class while protecting against the elements. It can feel like an old movie is playing out in front of you.
– Udagamandalam (Ooty), India
When John Sullivan, agent of the East India Company and founder of Ootacamund, stumbled upon what is now popularly known as Ooty, he described it as more like Switzerland than any country in Europe. Cool weather, wooded hills, and plenty of freshwater prompted the establishment of a hill station, which served British officials as a summer resort during India’s colonial period.
Today, Ooty’s natural beauty continues to draw visitors. Perched at 6,000 feet above sea level, the average temperature here is 58 degrees—a refreshing contrast to the rest of steamy southern India. The town is endowed with botanical and rose gardens, parks, lakes, a golf course, and several historic buildings dating to the early 1800s.
The best way to get the lay of the land is to take a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which slices through the surrounding hills and offers a glimpse of terraced tea estates and the “English fruit” (strawberry, plum, and peach) cultivation the area is famous for. Ooty is a compelling option for a quiet hill-country retirement on a small budget.
– Chiang Mai, Thailand
Since the 1800s, the Thai city of Chiang Mai has been luring expats from the West with its uber-low cost of living, great weather (especially compared with elsewhere in Thailand), rich history, and distinct culture.
The heart of this city founded in 1296 lies within its old city walls where ancient and modern Buddhist temples coexist with residential and commercial neighborhoods. Modern Chiang Mai has grown beyond the ancient walls and offers mega malls, multinational grocery and department stores, and other trappings of 21st-century living.
The biggest advantage to life in Chiang Mai is its cost in general and of health care in particular. A couple can live here comfortably on as little as US$1,200 per month, and you can see an English-speaking doctor for US$20.
The biggest downside can be air pollution during the annual burning season, mid-February through mid-April, when local farmers burn their fields. Many expats travel outside the country during these months.
– Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo
Kota Kinabalu is one of the world’s most livable beach cities—civilized, safe, clean, peaceful, and organized. KK, as it’s known, with a population of 800,000, is also lively, vibrant, and modern with every amenity, brand name, food variety, and entertainment option you could want. You won’t find orangutans swinging from trees, and no one walks around with bones protruding from pierced nostrils.
KK is Pleasantville or Mayberry circa 1950s transplanted to Asia, and Westerners are welcome. Its biggest practical advantages are the low cost of living and the high standard (and low cost) of health care. Kota Kinabalu is small and walkable, less than 2 miles from end to end. Life revolves around the water and is lived out-of-doors. Living here, you’d fill your days snorkeling, diving, boating, and ferry-hopping from the city center to neighboring islands.
– Da Lat, Vietnam
Perched at 1,500 meters in the Lang Biang Plateau, Da Lat was discovered by 19th-century French colonists seeking respite from the heat and humidity of city life in Vietnam. Da Lat is abundantly green with lake views reminiscent of an Alpine ski town. The atmosphere is tranquil and contemplative.
French bourgeois architecture was imported in the form of grand hotels, villas, rose gardens, and churches to create a city that became known as Le Petit Paris, complete with its own miniature Eiffel Tower.
Today Da Lat is popular among Vietnamese tourists, especially newlyweds; this is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. The city’s greatest appeal can be its eternal spring climate; temperatures average 62 degrees year-round. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, and much of this comes from the Central Highlands around Da Lat.
– Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, in the heart of the Malaysian peninsula, is a city of contrasts. The shining stainless-steel Petronas Towers, two of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, anchor a signature skyline. Air-conditioned malls sell everything from handcrafted batik clothing to Tiffany jewelry.
In the shadows of this ultramodern setting, less than a 20-minute walk from the city center, life in the ancient Malay village of Kampung Baru carries on. Roosters roam freely and monkeys swing from tree to tree.
Foreigners are genuinely welcomed in this former British colony. The British are gone but left their mark in the form of British-colonial architecture and driving on the left. English is the language of commerce, required learning for all Malaysian children, and the primary spoken language for many Malaysians.
Health care is first-rate, public transportation is state-of-the-art and efficient, and the tap water is safe to drink. Beautiful beaches are a short drive or flight away, and cool mountain retreats can be reached in less than an hour. Racially and ethnically diverse, the population of KL is 38% Malay and indigenous, 43% Chinese, 10% Indian, and 9% foreign.
– Hua Hin, Thailand
Few places in Southeast Asia meet the requirements of a “developed” retirement haven. Popular seaside towns in the region can be crowded with young backpackers looking for the next party. Hua Hin, stretched along a sheltered beach on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, with good year-round weather and a large foreign community, is an important exception.
A retiree can afford a high standard of living—including days on the greens (the city is home to nine golf courses) and regular dinners out at first-class restaurants—on a modest budget. The standard of local medical care is good, and you’re less than three hours from Bangkok, which boasts some of the region’s top hospitals.
Housing options include modern condos, beachfront homes, and secure, modern gated communities. The big foreign community connects through reading clubs, festivals, cycling clubs, soccer leagues, wine tastings, and darts tournaments.
Hua Hin is such an inviting place that, since the 1920s, it has been the summer home of much of Thailand’s royal family.
– Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwan’s capital city is a hyper-efficient and high-tech Asian metropolis, building a reputation for innovation in everything from its award-winning Mass Rapid Transit and light rail systems to the touchless technology found throughout its public spaces and its approaches to tackling environmental issues.
At the same time, remnants of the past are everywhere. Architectural and cultural landmarks scattered around the city remind you of the island’s many phases of history. The best way to experience Taipei’s culture, though, is through its cuisine. From night markets bustling with food stalls to high-end eateries, Taipei is a culinary wonderland that impresses even the most pretentious foodie.
This safe, clean, well-organized, and interesting city has all the appeal, infrastructure, amenities, and comforts of the region’s A-list destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong—with one big difference. The cost of living in Taipei is within the reach of most retirees’ budgets.
Founding Publisher, Overseas Opportunity Letter