Southeast Asia is a hotspot for digital nomads – and rightfully so.
There is a lot to love about the region with its numerous historic tourist draws, and exotic culture and customs. Additionally, and possibly most important, cheap rent and inexpensive food allow nomads to survive on a fraction of the income they need back home.
At the moment two stand-out destinations for remote working are Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia. There are large communities of digital nomads, and plenty of chances to build support networks here. If you want something a bit different, or just want a change of scenery, then I believe Malaysia will be a good choice for you.
Malaysia has a number of qualities that make it stand out as a great place for remote workers.
Expect to find a wide range of available dining options.
The food in Malaysia is heavily influenced by three main groups:
This diverse mix of cultural influence is amazing from a foodie’s point of view. You can enjoy something new and delicious every night of the week and never run out of options! The Brittish influence also means that there is an abundance of western food. That’s important because you will be able to easily satisfy any sudden cravings.
The food you find in Malaysia will depend a bit on the location. Some regions have stronger cultural influence than others. Because of this, any prospective digital nomad should do a bit of research before moving to Malaysia. In our experience Penang, Malaysia has offered the best balance between Malay, Indian, and Chinese food.
If you are tired of the restaurant fare, you can always spice it up at one of Malaysia’s many night markets. Here you will find hoards of vendors selling delicious, but fattening, snacks that come in all shapes and sizes.
Learning the local language is one of the fun things about living overseas. While it may be fun, dealing with a language barrier is often overwhelming for many ex-pats. Diving headlong into a country with a population that speaks a different language can often be quite stressful.
Thankfully, you won’t need to worry about miscommunication in Malaysia.
An overwhelming majority of the population speaks English fluently, or close to it. So you will be able to get around with English when you visit or live here. Relocating to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a very easy task due to the use of English. You won’t have much trouble renting an apartment in KL, getting a sim card, or anything else needed to integrate into Malaysian society.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Malaysia is pretty low. A reasonable lifestyle can be maintained at $1,000 or less – and that’s in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur! As you move away from the capital cost of living decreases and quality of life increases. The cities of Penang and Kota Kinabalu are both great choices for a digital nomad looking to get out of the capital city.
The best part for many is the reasonable price of accommodation. In many cities luxurious, modern apartments can be had for a couple of hundred per month!
Malaysia is home to some of the cheapest places to live as a digital nomad. And the good thing is that you won’t be stuck in sub-par locations with bad food and bad weather. A budget-friendly lifestyle can be had in Malaysia’s cities, islands, and beaches. Not having to compromise is what makes Malaysia such a great place to live on a budget.
Malaysian Cities To Live In
These are our favorite Malaysian cities for ex-pats. For the past few years, we have talked seriously about settling down in Malaysia. During this time we have done loads of research, purchased guidebooks, talked with locals and ex-pats, and of course – made countless trips to various destinations around Malaysia. For research purposes of course (ok, and also for fun). Looking at the multiple pages of passport stamps we have collected over the years I think it’s safe to say that we have fallen in love with the country!
Penang – George Town
Penang, also called George Town, is a charming island on the Malaysian peninsula. It is located north of KL and is easily accessible by either plane or bus. The city is widely known for its street art and tantalizing cuisine. The food in Penang is a mix of Malay, Chinese, and European tastes – the availability of western food will certainly help with sudden food cravings! Another reason to love Penang is for its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. For all of its quaintness, it is important to remember that Penang is a major metropolitan area with close to 2 million residents.
KL is the largest city in Malaysia and the seat of its national government. This is where you will find the greatest number of ex-pats in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has everything you would expect to find in an international city. English is spoken widely, a diverse selection of international cuisine is available around the clock, and friendly locals and foreigners to chat with.
If your work relies heavily on your internet connection KL will likely be your best bet as higher market competition has led to better internet speeds. Additionally, Kuala Lumpur has the widest range of budget flights for those looking to get out and explore South East Asia.
If you’re looking for a relaxing, chilled-out place to stay – look no further than Kota Kinabalu. The city is home to half a million residents and is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah located in Northern Borneo. Expect to find a wide range of restaurants here ranging from popular western chains to Chinese and ethnic diners.
For an in-depth look, check out our guide to Borneo.
There is a lot to do outside of the city as well. Take an island hopping tour in Sabah while you’re here – snorkeling or scuba diving will give you a break from the digital nomad life. If you want to keep your feet on the solid ground you should head East for numerous jungle excursions. Whitewater rafting, orangutan spotting, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro are only a small taste of what Borneo has to offer.
A stay at Malaysia’s honeymoon capital might not be a good choice for a long stay, but I should mention it anyway. Langkawi is a short flight from Penang, think 30-minutes, which makes short stays very accessible. There are also ferry services that dart back and forth between the island and the mainland. All considered Langkawi is an easy place to visit from anywhere in Malaysia.
Why spend time in Langkawi? First, it has a more relaxed vibe than many of Malaysia’s larger cities. This is going to be great for anyone looking to unwind and de-stress for a bit. Managing stress and taking care of one’s mental health can be a challenge for digital nomads, especially for those with a high drive to succeed. Langkawi will offer a DN’s a chance to take a day off and experience hiking, island hopping tours, or even a spa day.
A couple days here should be enough to recharge the gas tank.
Cheap Flights Around Asia
A great reason to live in Malaysia is to take advantage of the low flight prices offered by AirAsia. The airline, which is often considered to be the standard-bearer of low-cost airlines, is based out of Kuala Lumpur.
If you live in Malaysia you can find dirt cheap flights at any time of the year. We were lucky enough to book the first 3 months of our honeymoon during Air Asia’s free flight promotion. But good fares can be found even if you’re booking last minute flights.
Yes, even last minute flights!
And best of all – the deals are not even exclusive to Kuala Lumpur. Last year when we were traveling around Borneo we booked a ticket from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. It’s a short flight that clocked in at a whopping 12 MYR.
That’s $3 for the chance to avoid a 7-hour bus ride!
I don’t need to tell you how happy I was to book that ticket. You will love Malaysia if you travel frequently like us.
Check out Air Asia’s official website for current fares and promotions.
Find a Sunny Beach House in the Summer (or Winter)
Malaysia is great if you’re looking for a sunny place to escape to. The country is made up of hundreds of islands – meaning you are never far from the coastline. Unless you’re in the capital. Kuala Lumpur is literally the only place I wouldn’t recommend if you want to experience beach life.
Life of the islands is laid back, warm, and cheap!
There are a lot of resources available to ex-pats regardless of where you want to live in Malaysia.
My favorite websites for accommodation and home rentals are:
The latter has a massive amount of property listings scattered around Malaysia’s various states and regions.
The prices on the sites are quoted in MYR. For USD conversions just divide by 4. You can check current conversion rates here.
As of 2018 1 USD = 4 MYR.
Digital Nomad Resources
If you are planning to relocate to Malaysia the most important thing to do is study as much as you can. Moving abroad can be a stressful, tiring ordeal. Thankfully there are plenty of resources that can make the transition easier.
InnerNations – I like to refer to this site for general ex-pat tips and advice. The site contains an expansive listing of articles covering topics related to living abroad.
Expat Exchange – Expat Exchange is another great website that offers informational post to aid you in your life abroad. They also have a community for expats to engage in discussions related to living in Malaysia.
Nomadlist – A top-tier tool for evaluating potential destinations. It comes with a listing of typical monthly costs, as well as a detailed breakdown of the quality of life in the city/country.
XE – My go-to for all things currency conversion related. Take a look at this site whenever you plan on visiting a foreign country.
Meetup – The best way to meet and connect with others when you’re new to a city.
I hope this article inspired you to move to Malaysia, or at least to see more of this beautiful country.
If you have lived in Malaysia I’d love to hear from you. Let us know what your experience was like – and whether you loved it or hated it!
For everyone else, I’d like to close with a question:
Would you ever consider moving to Malaysia?
Why or why not?