early retirement

Langkawi – December 2012. Holidaying here. Retiring here?

One Malay word you should know if you are in Langkawi – “Pantai” = “Beach”.

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Tanjong Rhu beach – in the north of Langkawi

I wrote a blog about Langkawi after my visit in April 2012, and I have just returned from my third holiday in Langkawi in about four years. I will combine my previous blog with this, adding more information. The smaller photos are from April 2012, the larger from December 2012 – so you can tell


  • In August 2008 we drove up to Kuala Perlis and caught the ferry over to the main ferry terminal in Langkawi.  All we had to do was phone a contact who ran a parking lot, give an approximate arrival time, and he bought the ferry tickets.  When we arrived we could park undercover and he gave us the tickets, and pointed out where to catch the ferry.
  • In April we flew on Air Asia from Penang to Langkawi, which is about 25 minutes in the air, but from when we left home by taxi to when we were in our hotel room about four hours had elapsed.  Which was about the same amount of time as driving and catching the ferry, although the flight was less strenuous.


Langkawi – some observations from my latest visit. And could I retire here?

Tanjong Rhu Beach

I have just returned from my second holiday in Langkawi in about three and a half years. So, while I cannot claim any vast knowledge, I would like to make a few observations.

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  • In August 2008 we drove up to Kuala Perlis and caught the ferry over to the main ferry terminal in Langkawi.  All we had to do was phone a contact who ran a parking lot, give an approximate arrival time, and he bought the ferry tickets.  When we arrived we could park undercover and he gave us the tickets, and pointed out where to catch the ferry.
  • This time we flew on Air Asia from Penang to Langkawi, which is about 25 minutes in the air, but from when we left home by taxi to when we were in our hotel room about four hours had elapsed.  Which was about the same amount of time as driving and catching the ferry, although the flight was less strenuous.
  • There are other alternatives, such as a ferry from Penang to Langkawi, directly; or driving to Alor Setar, and catching a ferry from there.


  • High season is supposed to be between mid-November and mid-April, which corresponds to the dry season -but we got low season prices in early April, and rain didn’t bother us. As I mentioned, we’d previously visited in August, and again we had no problems with the weather.


  • Langkawi has changed quite a bit in the intervening three years. Now there is a vast range of accommodation available – from very cheap to very expensive (resorts), and many choices in between.  Cenang Beach is the mass tourism area.  There are a lot of motels now, homestays all over the island, and you can even stay in a caravan at a beach. Or you can camp at the government fruit farm, mentioned below.

You can rent this caravan at the beach


  • Car rental is cheap – from RM40 or so a day for an old car in poor condition, RM70 for a newish car in good condition, and motorcycle hire is also available.  It seems you can also rent bicycles.  If you rent a car, check the tyre condition before you drive off, too.  They will also give you a road map, most likely.  Of course, there are taxis; and buses exist, but I saw very few, so you’d need a lot of time.

This one year old Proton Saga cost RM70 a day to rent, and RM50 deposit.


  • The standard of driving in Langkawi is better than in Penang, and there are not so many cars on the road, so driving can be quite relaxing.  As Langkawi is quite small, it doesn’t take very long to get where you are going.  I think it took about 40 minutes to drive from the crocodile farm in the north-west, to Kuah, the main town,  in the south.
  • Petrol is slightly cheaper than the mainland, at 1.90 a litre.  In three nights / four days we used about RM40 of petrol for about 250KM – but put in RM50 as we didn’t want to be low on petrol on the other side of the island where there is no petrol station so near. (Yes, this happened to us last time.)
  • You are warned not to drive at night because of cows and water buffaloes on the road.  Cows are a tan colour, and not so hard to see, but water buffalo are black, and hard to spot.

cows wander the roads at night


  • As a tourist there are some nice things to do, and the airport tourist office has brochures and maps, of course.  I’ll just mention a few activities.
  • Our favourite beach is Tanjong Rhu in the north of the island – but there are some other nice beaches, too.  And there are no jellyfish – at least at this time of year – so you can swim in sea.  As you approach Tanjong Rhu there is an open manned barrier for some reason – just slow down and drive through.
  • You can  also swim in waterfall pools in the jungle.

waterfall pool – the wet season hasn’t yet started, so water level fairly low

  • When we were there we could walk off into the jungle and not get attacked by mosquitoes – much.  We did get the odd bite, but nothing like the jungle, or even anywhere outside,  in Penang.
  • The government agricultural research facility – Taman Agro-Teknologi is interesting. They take you on a bus within the grounds to eat the fruit in season, and then drive you around, stopping to show you different fruit trees and landscapes.

Dragon fruit plants at the Taman Agro-Teknologi

  • And the Bird Paradise and Wildlife Park is worth a visit if you like birds.  Many attractions charge tourists a higher price than Malaysians. I dislike this, so I asked if I could get the lower price as I was a resident; and I showed my Malaysian visa.  I was charged the lower price, which was RM15 instead of RM22.  The tickets we were given had printed on them that they were children’s tickets. This question is worth trying everywhere there is discriminatory pricing.

one of my favourites

and this is a friendly one

  • There is far less litter than much of Malaysia. It was so nice to see beaches and jungle paths with the only litter being leaf litter.  This is so different from elsewhere in Malaysia.


  • Food more expensive than Penang and it is much more expensive to eat out, and there is less variety.
  • Since we live in Penang we didn’t really see the point in spending a lot on food, so we had a big breakfast at the hotel, which was included, and ate fairly lightly later in the day.
  • The biggest variety of restaurants is in Cenang Beach. Kuah, the main town, of course has restaurants, too, as do the various malls. And there are the usual hawker centres and roadside stalls.
  • We enjoyed fish and chips on the north coast, however.

English style fish and chips

  • Of course, Langkawi is tax-free for at least alcohol and tobacco products.  There are many duty-free stores, but probably the cheapest are in Kuah.  It also means restaurants often charge a lot less for alcohol, too. A can of Royal Stout cost me RM1.80 in a store.  Sparkling wine costs RM30 and up, and champagne RM150 and up. For more, read this on Langkawi’s tax status.

this cost RM47 – the view somewhat more per night


  • I think it is too quiet for me to retire here, and too isolated – you can’t just drive onto the mainland and go somewhere.  And I would miss the variety and low price of food in Penang. Certainly the tax status of Langkawi is attractive, though.
  • A local Japanese lady we spoke to said that the two downsides of living in Langkawi are you really need to speak Bahasa, and for some hospital treatment you have to go to the mainland – Penang etc.
  • However, if you wanted a very quiet life, perhaps it would suit you, if you had no medical concerns. Bahasa doesn’t strike me as too difficult to learn.

Why retire to Malaysia?


Malaysia, particularly Penang,  is a great place to retire to.

A beach in Penang near where I once lived

I am often asked, either by locals in Malaysia, or other people when I am travelling, why we chose Malaysia.  Here are some of my criteria for choosing a country, in no particular order:

  • warm and sunny
  • close to the beach
  • affordable
  • retirement visa conditions reasonable
  • freedom
  • safe / low crime
  • convenient for travel abroad
  • easy for friends to visit
  • good food
  • language learnable or English widely understood
  • culture
  • health insurance / health system good
  • expat community

Malaysia rates well on most of them.   Some countries are obviously better for some categories, but on balance we chose Malaysia.  As for where in Malaysia – we thought the main choices were:

  • Langkawi-it’s duty-free – but apart from that and its beaches it doesn’t tick enough boxes;
  • Penang – a smallish tropical island seemed to be the best compromise;
  • Kuala Lumpur- quite good on some aspects, but no beaches, gridlock traffic and more expensive;
  • Melaka – nice but quite small;
  • and the east coast – much less developed, very Islamic to the extent you can’t even get  beer easily in many places, not much western culture, and not many expats.

So how is Penang with regards to those criteria? Sure, it’s warm, often hot, and often sunny, and when there are  few cool days it’s quite a relief.

There are certainly beaches, and it’s easy enough to live very close to one, but swim at your peril – I’m talking jellyfish and pollution.  A little effort would solve these problems, but none is made.  Beaches, however, if you choose the right ones, are nice to walk along, or relax on.  Choose the wrong one and you’re knee-deep in rubbish.

Life is affordable.  I suppose it costs about 20% of the cost of living in London. Cars and alcohol are highly taxed, however.  If you get a MM2H visa, you may buy or import one car duty-free, which eases the pain.

Condo facilities can be quite good

The Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) retirement visa is quite good – probably only the retirement visa for Panama is better.  There are good visa agents who will do all that is necessary so it is quite painless to apply.  However, the government is always tinkering with the details, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not, so it’s difficult to elaborate.

One feels more freedom than in western countries nowadays – but read the local newspapers and you may not be so sure.  So best stay away from the papers.

The main crime affecting expats is bag snatching – be aware of two people on motorbikes if you are walking.  The pillion passenger can snatch a bag and they make off.  The main danger here is simply the horrendous driving.  I do feel since I have been here drivers are becoming a little more courteous, however.

One can fly directly abroad from Penang, although it is often necessary to go via KL, Bangkok or Singapore for longer haul flights. The airport is small and fairly close, so travel is quite convenient.

Malaysia is somewhere in between Europe, Japan, and Australia, so it’s relatively easy to visit or be visited – those locations are important to us.

Food is good, cheap, and there is a huge variety due to the mix of races in this country. Best of all is the tropical fruit.

English is very widely understood so that learning any other language is unnecessary. The local languages are Bahasa, Hokkien Chinese, and Tamil.

As for culture, there is plenty of local culture and frequent festivals; western culture is much thinner on the ground.

Locally bought health insurance is affordable, and the standard of health care is good.   A visit to a doctor costs about GBP6, so there is little need to use insurance for this.

Penang has a quite a big expat community, and there are various associations one can join if one wishes.

After almost four years here, this is my list of good and bad things here:

Low cost of living
No tax on International income, or income originating abroad and brought to Malaysia
Relatively free
Not persecuted for driving, as one is in the UK, US, Australia
Tropical fruit
MM2H visa quite good
Low crime
Between Europe, Japan & Australia
Low cost of flights
Honesty and friendliness of people
English very widely spoken
Common law legal system
Political stability
Malaysia has oil and plenty of water

Many things not available to buy – but it is improving slowly
Information is hard to get locally
Slow internet
Appalling driving
No infrastructure for cycling/walking
Alcohol and cars expensive
Jellyfish and often pollution in sea means you wouldn’t want to swim
Littering seems to be a hobby for many

And where else did I consider? Thailand. The bad points were, inter alia: lack of political stability, civil law legal system, retirement visa not so good, and hard to buy freehold property.  Indonesia & Philipines: not as safe, and less developed. Panama, Ecuador, Uruguay – geographically not so convenient for me.

International Living magazine in 2012 rated Malaysia fourth best place to retire – behind Ecuador, Panama and Mexico (source The Expat). I subscribed to International Living  for many years, and it’s a good magazine, but it is slanted towards Americans, which may have influenced the ratings.

As a paying customer of the country, I can of course, move on if conditions deteriorate.  But in many respects I have noticed Penang is improving.  It has become a World Heritage site, and many rundown buildings have been renovated and spruced up, the variety of restaurants has increased, some footpaths are appearing enabling one to walk, a cycling path around the island is promised, a new bridge to the mainland is being built,  hygiene and English levels are improving, even some awareness of the health dangers of MSG in food is occurring.

It is actually much nicer living here than visiting as a tourist, so coming for a quick look, although necessary, can be deceptive.  It is easy to stay here and rent a condo on a tourist visa, making a short trip every three months to a nearby country, so that when you return you will have another three months visa.  Many people do this for years.  This way you can make little commitment and decide if it is for you. And you can travel the country and find your favourite location. You will also know what you should ship here if you decide to get the MM2H visa, and what you won’t need.

So, give it some thought.  You can afford to retire much earlier than you may have thought if you choose Malaysia.

View from condo balcony

Tropical Expat