I’ll always be American but Penang, Malaysia is my latest home.  Is it my forever home? Who knows? It is for now, and we love it here.  But no country is perfect. Here are my pros and cons of being an expatriate in Malaysia.

Pros of Being an Expatriate in Malaysia

These far exceed any negatives that we have found here. When we moved here in 2013, we planned to stay a year and figure it out. If we didn’t like it, we’d go somewhere else. The first move is the hardest. But the second, third, fourth move gets easier; you know what to expect and how to live overseas.

We never felt like we had to stay in Penang. And we don’t know how long we will be here. For now, it works, but if tomorrow it doesn’t, watch out Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Belize, wherever, we are moving on.

Most Significant Lifestyle Advantages

1.    Everything is cheap

You can lead a more luxurious life. Got champagne tastes with a beer budget? Move to Penang. You can indulge in weekly manicures, pedicures, massages, and a small shopping spree, and still spend less than the cost of a 1-hour massage in Chicago.

2.    Safety

People don’t own guns here. Yes, there is petty crime, but nothing like the crime in the US, let alone in Chicago.

3.    Malaysia has a world-class infrastructure:

    • The highways easily rival those in America.
    • Cell phone plans are cheap and great. I pay RM69 ($16.75) for 13GB of  4G data, which I hardly use because….
    • Wifi is everywhere. We have fiber optic internet in our home, which is better and faster than we ever had in Chicago. I can’t remember the last time I had to “reset” the router here. Not everyone in Penang has fiber optics yet, but the internet is still fast and reliable.

4.    Almost everyone speaks English

Many locals speak 3-4 languages. The Brits ruled the country until 1957 so English was taught in the schools. Some speak it better than others, but it’s definitely better than my Bahasa, Hokkien, Tamil or Hindi.

5.    Cost of living

We live in a three-bedroom condo overlooking the Straits of Malacca. It is 2300 square feet and has four full bathrooms. We pay RM2800, which is $680. This same apartment would be thousands of dollars in Chicago. The dollar really stretches here.

Our bedroom

6.    It’s multicultural

In Chicago, I could go to Little Italy, China Town, Little India for a few hours, but you don’t get immersed in the culture. Living in Malaysia plunges you into other cultures, and it makes daily life fascinating.

Indian Malaysian woman with her baby

7.    The locals are so friendly.

They welcome us with open arms and want to teach us about their culture. I have never once felt anything but welcome in their country.

8.    Large expat society.

At last count, more than 10,000 expats were living in Penang. They are a very active group of people from all around the globe and also welcome newbies with arms wide open.

9.    Excellent healthcare.

Not only is healthcare every bit as good as it is in the US, no joke, but it’s also a fraction of the price. So is dental care. Literally pennies on the dollar.

10.   Climate

Ocean view from our condo. Expatriate in Malaysia

It is always sunny and hot here. We have bright blue skies almost all year around.

Everyday Lifestyle Advantages of Being an Expat in Malaysia

11.    Delivery everything

Need propane for cooking? Eggs? Chicken? Vodka? If you don’t want to leave your house, it comes to you. Usually on a scooter, which makes it all the more fun.

Egg delivery via scooter

12.    Eating local foods

There is a wonderful fruit man at the bottom of my street. Every day he sells local fruit directly from the farms. My sweet egg lady at the market sells local eggs fresh from the farms. I may not be eating organically, but I am eating locally, which means I’m supporting local families.

Our fruit man with all of his fruits

13.    Travel is cheap

I can go for a weekend and play with elephants in Chiang Mai,

Me hugging an elephant-Expatriate Malaysia

go surfing in Indonesia or marvel at the architecture in Singapore.Singapore Skyline Expat in Malaysia

In under 4 hours, I can fly to Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Borneo. We rarely spend more than $200 for a ticket, and it’s normal to find flights for under $100. Accommodations, when we aren’t doing a home exchange, are always under $50.

14.    Clean water

You can drink the water directly from the tap. Outside of first world countries, there aren’t that many nations where that is possible.

15.    Never have to cook again

Malaysia is known for its cheap and incredible street food. It is cheaper to go out than to cook at home, and that is what most Malaysians and expats do.

Busy Food Court in Malaysia

16.    It’s a nature lovers paradise

The wildlife viewing is incredible. From our condo, we can see monitor lizards, two types of monkeys, bright-colored birds, and the occasional otter. Mark even saw dolphins the other day during dragon boating.

Dusky leaf monkey face in tree

17.    Monthly celebrations

Malaysians love a good festival, and everyone is welcome to join. This month we had: Georgetown Festival, Bon Odori Japanese Festival, St. Anne’s Church Festival, and a Durian Festival.


Read more: Why we moved to Malaysia instead of Cota Rica. The real truth about being an expat.


Cons of Being an Expatriate in Malaysia

There are some serious frustrations for every expatriate in Malaysia. I’m not going to gloss over them and make you think life is flawless here. It isn’t. Does it mean you shouldn’t consider it as a possible place to live? I can only answer that for myself. And you know my answer.

But these are things you should know. They might be a deal-breaker for you. I have learned to deal with them, like it or not. It is part of my experience. And for me, they don’t outweigh the excellent benefits of living in this stunning country.

Serious Frustrations of Living in Malaysia

1.    Beaches really suck in Penang

It’s not just the litter.

Garbage on the beach Expatriate in Malaysia

From what I hear, the water used to be crystal clear, but now it’s a murky mess. It’s a major trade route and a cruise port, so the waters here aren’t clear like the rest of the region. For that, we have to fly to the nearby islands, like Langkawi (a 20-minute flight) or Phuket (a one hour flight).

2.    Toilets are repulsive

They deserve another blog post, so I can clearly explain the situation here, but suffice to say it is not pretty. In some places, you can choose from a western toilet or a squatty potty (aka a hole in the ground). But without getting too graphic, they are wet, sloppy and often paperless. I’ll save the rest of my rant for an upcoming post.

3.    What is extremely important in many western countries isn’t that important in Malaysia

    • Environment: Littering is common here, no one cares, and they assume someone else will pick it up. And the war on plastic isn’t being fought here. They think all liquids should come in a plastic bag with a straw. If you want coffee-to-go from a local place, it comes like this…Coffee to go in Malaysia. Expatriate in Malaysia
    • Safety: Even though there are seat belt laws here, they aren’t enforced. It is normal to see toddlers standing up in between grammas legs in the front seat of a car. And rarely do you see children wearing helmets while standing in the front basket of a scooter.Kids without helmet on a scooter

4. Poor/non-existent customer service

Staff in most stores haven’t a clue what they are selling. No one works on commission, and no one is trained. They follow you around the store just in case you want to buy something, not because they can actually help you with information. Worse is when you ask them a question, and they make up the answer because they don’t want to lose face or be embarrassed by not knowing the answer.

Minor annoyances of Living in Malaysia

5.    There are no one-stop shops

To get my weekly groceries, I have to go to the wet market for all the fresh foods, a dry goods store and a big box grocery store. It is time-consuming and can be annoying.

6.    Booze is expensive

Liquor bottles

No one can pour a decent drink, let alone a martini. Not sure how Mark and I, who have been known to imbibe a little…ok, a lot, ended up in a country where booze has a sin tax and is marked up beyond any reasonable price. But here we are.

7.    Climate

It’s friggin hot…always. Usually with 75%+ humidity levels. No such thing as a good hair day ladies, so get used to it. I live in a constant state of sweat unless I turn on the AC. Sometimes you just want a break from the sweltering heat. But I can assure you, when I was freezing my ass off in the Greek Islands this April, I was praying for scorching hot weather.

8.    Driving is a lot like frogger. Here are the rules of the road:

    • Those lines painted on the street are merely suggestions.
    • Red lights are something you look twice at before you going through it.
    • Turn signals, what are those?
    • Rearview mirrors are useless because Malaysians love to put stuffed animals in their back window so they can’t see out of them anyway.
    • You can go the wrong way down a one-way street because you’re still only going one way.
    • Sidewalks aren’t just for pedestrians; your scooter fits on them for a reason. The pedestrians will move.
      Busy street traffic

9.    Time difference

We are 12-15 hours ahead of all of our family and friends.

10.    Distance

It’s so far not that many people come to visit.

11.    Mold

Things you never thought could mold, will. Did you know cotton could mold? Nope, me neither. Leather, yes that too. Wood, believe it or not.

The take-away…

As you can see, there are some incredible advantages to living in Malaysia. For us, the wonderful perks outweigh the negative ones. It’s not because we ignore the problems here, it’s just that we don’t focus on them. We can’t. If we did, how could we ever find a place to live?

There is no country without fault. That certainly includes the US.

The question you have to ask yourself is if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In my case, the answer is a resounding YES. And while I may not like the dreadful aspects of life here, I’ve come to accept it. It forces me to recognize that my viewpoint isn’t the only perspective, nor is it THE correct one.

Are you an expatriate in Malaysia? What do you think of my list? What did I miss?

What are some of the pros and cons of your country? Comment below.

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