Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
As a kid, I was in awe of skyscrapers. Even at four years old, I would count the windows from ground level to top floor. And of all the buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers were my favorite.
To this day, there’s still something striking about descending upon these magnificent twin towers. First, you see the glass and metal base, formed into a shape to honor the Islamic influence in Malaysia. Then, you see the skybridge connecting both towers. Then, you see the spires.
Now fifteen years old, the Petronas Towers have come to symbolize the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The amazing thing is that Kuala Lumpur isn’t the region’s largest city — far from it. Yet, it has commanded a sense of respect that comes with having your own record-setting skyscrapers.
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While some say Malaysia has become an expensive country to live in, the reality is that you can live relatively cheaply by Western standards, or you can choose to have a low-tax home and spend as much as you like.
Kuala Lumpur: Southeast Asia’s hidden gem
For those that agree with me that Asia will own the twenty-first century — and who want to be here to take part in that — living in Asia is an exciting thing. The exotic culture, fantastic foods and interesting people all seem a world away from the Western world… because, of course, they are.
However, finding the perfect place to live in Asia can be tough.
I’ve long spoken highly of the Philippines. In addition to their being one of the great economic reformers of the modern day, plenty of people there speak excellent English. Plus, the Philippines offers more Western-style amenities than other Asian countries, such as more familiar-looking kitchen appliances.
However, some find the Philippines too laid-back. And then there’s the weather.
Vietnam isn’t a bad place to live if you bunk in Ho Chi Minh City. There’s plenty of green along with a workforce that’s ready to get their hands dirty. The alphabet isn’t even as difficult to discern as in neighboring China. (Don’t compare anything in Vietnam to China.) However, overall English ability is weak and the place still feels like it’s sitting in China’s shadow.
And you know my thoughts on Bangkok. While it’s the best served airport for world travel, I can’t stand the place. If the Soviet Union had had beaches, they would have called it “Thailand”.
Kuala Lumpur is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked cities in Asia for quality of life without breaking the bank. While it doesn’t have Hong Kong’s glorious, never-ending skyline along the water, or Singapore’s tony street of never-ending shops, it offers a lot to the Asia expat who doesn’t want to spend $5,000 a month to live in a centrally-located broom closet.
Housing in Kuala Lumpur
If you’re used to living in the West, you’re probably used to your space. While I’ve come to learn that the five-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot suburban pads are vastly overrated, I also understand your desire to avoid the 200-square-foot modern day huts that comprise the entry-level rental market in some Asian cities.
I’ve actually been in 21-square-meter (220 sq ft) condos in Makati, Manila’s central business district. You might as well just get a hotel. In Bangkok, 40-45 square meter apartments seem to be the starting point.
In Kuala Lumpur, apartments are larger. In some cases, much larger. I looked at one building near the Raja Chulan monorail stop, just a five minute walk from the luxury shopping and foodie excitement of Bukit Bintang. The smallest unit in the entire building was about 700 square feet, rented for around $750 unfurnished, and sold for about $200,000.
Meanwhile, units in that building went up to 1,000 square feet. In neighboring buildings, units were as large as 1,600 square feet with three large bedrooms. Not bad for a condo. Open the newspaper here and you’ll see plenty of 2,000 and even 3,000 square foot apartments for sale and rent.
While I’m always cautious about markets where people proclaim “you should buy; real estate here never goes down,” property prices in Kuala Lumpur aren’t as out of whack as you might expect.
However, if you want to buy property here, you might need to hurry. Restrictions on foreigners buying property currently include a 500,000 Malaysian ringgit (roughly US$160,000) minimum purchase price. In 2014, that minimum will double to 1 million Malaysian ringgit. And that purchase price can’t be spread around more than one property; each property you buy will have to cost 1 million Malaysian ringgit unless you have a Malaysian spouse.
Quality of Life in Kuala Lumpur
I once called Thailand the “United States of Asia”. It wasn’t a complement. However, Kuala Lumpur offers the good sides of the United States (yes, there are a few).
Malaysia itself resembles the United States in that it has very modern areas like Kuala Lumpur, and less progressive areas as well. There are still a few provincial areas where adherence to Islam is intense.
However, the capital city is about as straightforward as any other. I suspect some Americans would have a bit of an issue living in Malaysia considering there are women here who wear the Islamic head dress, and even a few in the full burqa.
Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot, though. In addition to the local Malay population, there’s a substantial population of (Malaysian) Chinese, Indians, Middle Easterners, and Western expats. If you move here to conduct business, I believe you’ll have an easier time adapting.
To say that Kuala Lumpur is a “Muslim city”, however, would be quite a stretch. Every weekend, you’ll find clubs, bars, and pubs filled with locals and expats alike imbibing the night away. And while many food products here are halal, you can easily find pork products.
Yes, alcohol is a bit expensive here. However, compare Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and you’ll quickly realize it’s not as expensive as it’s made out to be. Crappy bottles of wine can be had for as little as about $12 at an upscale supermarket. Mixed drinks in tony bars like Skybar at the Trader’s Hotel (overlooking the Petronas Towers) run about $9.
My costliest drink of all time was and still is the $61 concoction I had with some bankers along Singapore’s Collyer Quay.
Travel in Kuala Lumpur
Getting around Kuala Lumpur is easy. The city has more of a civilized feel than many others in the region, in part thanks to a relatively extensive public transportation network. Getting to and from the airport — while a rather lengthy journey — is an easy route from the main areas where you’d consider living.
Cars in Malaysia, like so many other places in Southeast Asia, are expensive thanks to import duties. I imagine you’d need a car to conduct full-scale local business, but not to merely live here.
Kuala Lumpur is also an emerging global transit hub. As the Nomad Capitalist, easy access to international flights is important to me. I don’t want to have to connect four times to get somewhere.
While long-distance travel isn’t as easy as it is from Hong Kong or even Singapore, it’s becoming easier. Malaysia Airlines is a well-respected airline, even if it is part of my least favorite airline alliance, OneWorld. Airlines like Etihad and Emirates offer frequent service to anywhere in Europe through their Middle Eastern hubs. And if you’re looking to enjoy the art of mediocrity, KLM has plenty of flights into Europe, as well.
Closer to home, Kuala Lumpur is the international hub for discount carrier Air Asia. While Air Asia has gone downhill a bit, it was long ranked the world’s best low cost carrier. They now fly pretty much anywhere you could want to go in Asia or Australia — all for really cheap if you’re willing to forego bringing your own food on board (and willing to endure the extra bus ride to their separate Low Cost Terminal at the airport).
Living in Kuala Lumpur: Southeast Asia’s hidden gem
I think that, in pure terms of luxury versus cost, Kuala Lumpur offers the best value opportunity in all of Asia.
It is, in my opinion, one of the world’s best food cities. It’s got luxury malls like Suria KLCC and Pavilion Mall that offer access to the world’s best brands (although import costs make such goods expensive compared to Europe). And it’s got enough greenery and things to do to make it a really livable city.
If you’re looking into Kuala Lumpur, consider expat-friendly areas like Bukit Bintang, Imbi, and Raja Chulan. The increasingly popular “Beverly Hills of Malaysia”, Mont Kiara, is a bit of a drive and requires a car to get there. Avoid areas like Chow Kit known for prostitution and crime.
Where else in Asia can you live in a world-class city near Western-friendly amenities for less than $1,000 a month in rent? Compared to some Asian markets, Malaysians enjoy incredible access to capital at reasonable prices. At 6% over 25-35 years, that same rental apartment wouldn’t cost you much more to buy once you’re ready to take the plunge and start living in Kuala Lumpur.
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