Since Jessica and I decided to split our time between Italy and Malaysia, all of my readers, while waiting for their fourth to show up so they could tee off, wondered why we chose Kuala Lumpur as our other home. Well, here’s the answer.
After a couple of Pugliese winters, Jessica and I concluded that they weren’t for us. Granted, the short days of the year in southern Italy were more in keeping with our desire to not routinely trod through snow and daily don gloves and galoshes, but still they required coats and woolen things. And, since houses in Puglia are built of stone and not normally insulated, even at home we found ourselves swaddled and wishing we could find a Snuggie store in Puglia. Maybe, we thought, we could find a place to spend the worst part of the winter where we could dress less.
When we began considering places other than Puglia in which to spend the colder months, we sat down and made a list. It looked like this:
- A “one season-wardrobe” climate, specifically, a summer one.
- Good public transportation since we did not want to own a car any longer.
- Quick and easy access to an international airport.
- English speaking. (We never did learn how to speak Italian very well.)
- A relatively painless visa program so that we could come, go and stay as we pleased.
- A variety of cuisines so that Pugliese was not the only option.
- High quality wines at low quality cost.
- Nice beaches nearby.
Oh, and last but certainly not least,
An extensive search for warm winters in Europe resulted in disappointment for, while some more southern Mediterranean locations averaged warmer temperatures during the winter months, none guaranteed that we could rely only on our summer wardrobe and that was what we were looking for. It was then that we came across an article touting an island called Penang as one of the world’s best retirement havens. Jessica’s birthday was coming up so we decided to spend the two weeks before and after her birthday checking out this bastion of post-work denizens.
We arrived on Penang, an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia, and moved into our AirBnB apartment, but after a couple of days, we realized that the island was not a place that we could spend a lot of time. The climate is tropical and the temperatures are warm throughout the year but the beaches were not conducive to beaching and the capital of the island, George Town, while visually stimulating and justifiably a UNESCO heritage site, is not as pedestrian-friendly as we would like. Still, it has many virtues that deserve a separate post and one is coming soon but suffice it to say now that, if you have any inclination to experience Southeast Asian street food, Penang’s reputation is that it has the best in the world.
During the month of our time there, we decided to explore some nearby places, encouraged by the availability of AirAsia, one of the world’s best discount airlines. (Just ask them.) We spent a few days in Bangkok and found ourselves energized by the hustle and bustle of the city and stimulated by the temples, street scenes and diversity of the inhabitants. Indeed, Bangkok met all but one of our criteria (all but #5) but it struck us a bit too frenetic and raw to live there. The visit did, however, cause us to realize that we missed living in a city. We had moved to rural Italy from the downtown of an American city and it occurred to us that we took pleasure in knowing that we could walk to restaurants, theatres and shops, a benefit that only a city can provide. So, we thought, a city it is. But not Bangkok.
Our next stop on the tour was Singapore. Where Bangkok had rough edges, Singapore had sanded its down and polished them to the smoothness of a Kardashian’s complexion. The city was pristine, well-ordered and disciplined. High-rise buildings featuring spectacular architecture pierce the horizon and in between are public spaces that look to be maintained by a head greenskeeper afraid of losing his job. High-end shopping, clubs, bars and great dining, an efficient public transport system all told us that this would be a wonderful place to spend time. Unfortunately, two of our list of requirements were not met in Singapore. The first was the fact that Singapore does not offer long-stay visas to retirees. And, if that wasn’t enough of a buzzkill, it turns out that Singapore is, according to Mercers 2016 Cost of Living Index, the fourth most expensive city on the planet in which to take up residency. Ixnay on Ingaporesay.
The final survey was of Kuala Lumpur, the capital and largest city of Malaysia and the four days we spent there would change our lives. What we found when we arrived in KL was a vibrant place, a center for finance and oil & gas development that drew talented people from all over the world. High-end malls, five-star hotels, and world-class restaurants were all represented in the heart of the city, an area in and around Kuala Lumpur City Center (KLCC). So, how did KL stand against our nine-item wishlist?
- The tropical climate of KL means that the temperature varies only by a few degrees throughout the year. The high temperature on any given day is typically between 30° and 33°C (that’s 86° and 91° for you Fahrenheit fans) and the weather variation primarily involves wet versus dry. The rainy season (November to March) is typified by drenching afternoon or evening thunder showers but, once over, the rain is gone until the next day.
- Our apartment is in the heart of KL which gives us walking access to any goods or services we might need. Grocery stores, open-air markets, giant high-end malls, restaurants of all stripes, trendy bars are all within a twenty-minute walk. On those occasions when we want to travel beyond our walking range, we rely on Uber although KL had an extensive bus/train/underground/monorail public transport system that can easily and cheaply take us wherever we want to go. No longer owners of a car, we feel free of the burdens of navigating traffic, finding parking, and paying the costs of car ownership and the feeling is wonderful.
- Skytrax has rated AirAsia the Best Low-Cost airline in the world for eight years in a row. It flies routes all over Asia and one of its major hubs is Kuala Lumpur International Airport. A US$20 Uber ride and we are at the airport and off to wherever we might want to go in Asia on a direct flight at prices that we can hardly believe. For example, we recently flew from KL to Bali and from KL to Da Nang, Vietnam and back for around US$100 each. Couple this low cost of flying with the abundance of inexpensive places to stay in Southeast Asia destinations and it means that our lust for travel can be met within our budget.
- Praise the British! I know: Imperialism is a dirty word if you’re among the colonized, but the fact that the Brits came to Southeast Asia and maintained control over parts of the Malay Peninsula from the late-1700s until just after the end of WWII, means that English, though sometimes so heavily accented that it sounds like another language, is spoken throughout the region. We can do our own banking, transact business with utilities and even order in restaurants with a high degree of confidence that we’ll be served what we thought we had asked for. These are comforting things.
- Malaysia’s “Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H)” program is one of the most generous visa offerings in the world. The basic requirements for this ten-year, multiple entry visa are relatively easy to meet and the visa covers all dependents of the applicant, including parents and, according to the agency through which we worked to obtain our visas, even our maid. If only we had one to bring with us.
- The Klang Valley area, of which KL is the hub, has 7.2 million inhabitants, nearly 10% of which are foreigners. KL, with a population of nearly 2 million (46% Malay, 43% Chinese and 10% Indian) is also the 5th most visited city in the world (behind Paris, London, Bangkok and Singapore) according to Wikipedia so it’s no wonder that the city offers cuisines from all corners of the globe. (I didn’t think that a globe could have corners, but the cliché just fits too well.) The food scene stretches from international icons (Nobu has a restaurant next to the Petronas Twin Towers) to Jalan Alor, one of the most famous hawker streets in the world. Changkat Bukit Bintang is a street that features bar after bar, representing Australian, German, English, Spanish, Mexican, Thai, American, and other fare. And, with the local population of Chinese, Indian and Malay continuing their culinary traditions, these cuisines are abundant, cheap and genuine. Malaysia is also home to some of the most incredible, fruity delicious things that could ever grow on trees. The mangosteen, reported by some as being the most wonderful fruit on the planet, can only be found in Southeast Asia and the durian whose reputation and odor precedes it (most hotels will not permit guests to bring it into the establishment due to its “aroma”) is a creamy delectable treat once you toss out its spiny husk.
- On this point, KL fails utterly. Cheap wine is not good and good wine is not cheap. The least expensive-but-still-drinkable wine in Malaysia costs more than double what we spend in Italy and the quality of the Italian wines are still far superior. Blame for this is usually placed on the very high duties put on alcohol by the Islamic government to either discourage its consumption or to at least profit from it. Finding a decent wine that we could afford to drink in KL was really a problem until we were introduced to Mr. Kamal, procurer of alcohol to the expat community. I will not tempt fate to ask where or how he comes upon his merchandise but his weekly deliveries of affordable-yet-palatable wines are the only things that stand between us and temperance.
- Okay, depending on what your definition of “nearby” happens to be, KL could qualify or not. So, we can’t walk out of our apartment building and walk to a beach. It’s not even practical for us to do a two-hour Uber ride to the nearest beach. But, AirAsia has cheap flights to some beautiful beaches in Malaysia and Thailand. For example, as of this writing (I hate that phrase but it gets the point across.), you can fly from KL to Krabi in Thailand for less than US$100 roundtrip. From there you can transport to Koh Lanta or other Thai islands with fabulous white-sand beaches. (For more on Koh Lanta, go to http://worldwideeyed.com/sunset-on-koh-lanta/.) That’s good enough for us, so we can check this box.
- Our financial plan is to spend what we have to in order to have a comfortable life. Were we to choose to do this in, say, New York City or Singapore or Hong Kong, our lives had better be short ones since we would quickly run out of our retirement funds in such ultra-expensive places. What we wanted was an environment like those expensive ones but that was actually cheap. We found that in KL. Our apartment is in the heart of the center of KL in one of the premier apartment buildings in town. We have a 50-meter pool, gym, meeting space, a concierge and other amenities at our disposal. Our Ghurkha security team makes us feel safe and welcome when we return to the building. The apartment itself is a 4-bedroom, 3-1/2 bathroom (not including the maid’s quarters), 2,200 square foot unit on the 20th floor looking out at the famous KL Tower with a view of the Petronas Twin Towers. Helped by a luxury apartment market that is heavily over-built, we are able to fit the rent on this amazing place comfortably into our retirement budget. The bottom line here is that we have found a place where we can live a very comfortable life and still have money to enjoy the things that KL has to offer, including access to most of Asia. What’s not to like?
Well, here’s what’s not to like.
First of all, there are the ubiquitous motorbikes. The place is absolutely lousy with the things. They are everywhere and since the riders consider them to be neither automobile nor pedestrian, they grant themselves the privilege of using all paved surfaces as they choose. Sidewalks, crosswalks, parking lots are all fair game for a careening bike and traffic signals, while occasionally attended to by the drivers of automobiles (unless the automobile happens to be a taxi in which case red lights do not apply), are for others to take into account. Even crossing a street where all of the cars are stopped is not for the unwary as the motorbikes consider the spaces on either side of the traffic lanes to be their exclusive domain. Crossing busy streets in KL is right up there with javelin catching on the risk scale.
Second, some countries in Southeast Asia are pyromaniacal and they seem to get a real hoot out of setting flame to all sorts of agricultural leavings. The result is that, during parts of September and October a dense, gray haze wafts around the region like the smoke from a bad cigar in a small closet. Indonesia appears to be the major culprit and nations surrounding it have offered assistance in putting out the 150-or-so fires that might be burning at a given time but the Indonesian response to the offer is, “Thanks, but no thanks.” During this time, the air quality is helping me to become an even better asthmatic than I currently am.
Finally, there’s the “T” word. As a Muslim country, Malaysia is perpetually in the cross-hairs of extremists trying to make a point by blowing something up or doing severe bodily harm to some innocent tourists. We frequently receive messages from the US Embassy or from friends in the know to stay away from certain spots or gathering places and sometimes we comply. It should be said, however, that the Malaysian security forces seem to be very competent and the bad guys rarely get the opportunity to pull off their dastardly deeds before they are whisked off to some Malaysian gitmo, not to be heard from for a long time.
On balance, the wonderful lifestyle afforded us by KL far outweighs the inconveniences and, for the foreseeable future, this is homebase for us.
Okay, so now you know why KL and one of these days soon, we’ll get around to showing you some of the things you’ll want to do when you get here. And, if I knew any Malaysian Bahasa, I would close with that, but I don’t. So I won’t.
This entry was posted in Asia, Continents, Food & Wine, Malaysia, Uncategorized