Let’s Go Exploring! Malaysia: 4 Star Experience. 2 Star Price Tag.

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Before coming to South East Asia, the last time I spent $50 CAD/night for a hotel room was in Niagara Falls. The 2-star hotel we stayed in boasted such impressive amenities as a clogged toilet, a broken window, broken heaters, stained carpets, and something that looked suspiciously like a dead body floating facedown in the outdoor pool. It even included a complimentary wake up call at 3am with some dude screaming profanities as he was handcuffed and dragged off by the cops.

Good times.

So you can see what my thoughts were when I booked a $50 CAD/night hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Turns out I was wrong. Malaysia was about to destroy what constituted as a good deal in my mind forever.

Because this is what $50/night got us in Malaysia:

Rooftop Infinity Pool, Kuala Lumpur

 

Ground floor pool, Kuala Lumpur

 

Condo pool on Langkawi island

And then later, I realized how extravagant my $50/night price point was when I found this condo for $29/night:

Condo pool, Penang, Malaysia

And since this was South East Asia, you couldn’t swing a purse without hitting a food stall. And so we ate.

Penang Curry Mee with fishballs, shrimp, and tofu

And ate.

Grilled chicken skewers with peanut sauce dip

And ate.

Chendol shaved ice dessert

For a measly $20 per day.

The only thing that wasn’t cheap was alcohol. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, the government adds taxes to alcohol, jacking up the price. The only place you could get tax-free alcohol is on Langkawi island, which we immediately added to our itinerary.

But since we already had overpriced, highly-taxed booze in Canada, we barely noticed.

While we were in Europe, I constantly flexed my deal-hunting muscle and fiddled with our budget to make sure we were on track. But in South East Asia, that muscle completely atrophied. Even though I felt like I was spraying money everywhere, every time I checked my spreadsheet, the numbers barely moved.

With the CAD dollar trading at 3 to 1 Malaysia ringgits, we were seriously contemplating staying here forever. Good thing there were enough things to do to keep us busy.

Things like:

The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur:

This attraction was completely FREE! Except for this one area called “the Dark Caves”, which is basically a deep dark cave filled with spiders.

Wanderer’s reaction to this was: “GAH! Spiders!” *runs away*

Mine was: “GAH! Admission!” *runs away*

Clearly we know where our priorities lie.

The Langkawi suspension bridge:

If you’re not a fan of heights, this bridge will likely scare the crap out of you, as they have little windows every few steps to see where you would land if you fell and plunged to your death. But if you’re brave, the view is breathtaking.

The Seven Wells waterfall in Langkawi:

As much as we loved swimming in the ocean, nothing beats jumping into a waterfall after a long day of hiking. This one perfectly formed seven little pools of fresh water, appropriately named “the Seven Wells”.

The Pregnant Maiden Lake in Langkawi:

This lake gets its weird name from the mountain surrounding it, which, if you squinted hard enough supposedly looks like a pregnant lady. Apparently, legend has it that the water will help you get pregnant. Um, I can only think of one thing that will get you pregnant. So instead of jumping in the water, I sat on the deck with my eyes, mouth, and one other thing very VERY tightly closed.

Tea in Cameron Highlands:

Visiting the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands made us realize just how much effort goes into making a good cup of tea. Apparently it takes a whole army of people to collect, process, dry, and package these damned things. Yeesh.

BOH Tea Plantation in Cameron Highlands:

Me, drinking tea all badass-like.

 

From big, shiny metropolitan cities like Kuala Lumpur (the “Toronto of Malaysia” as I like to call it, but without the crazy price tag), to Penang (a foodie paradise), to Langkawi (tropical paradise with tax-free alcohol), to the Cameron Highlands (misty, green, and lush), Malaysia is a wonderful mix of different climates, cultures (Malay, Indian, and Chinese) and delicious food.

As soon as I set foot in Kuala Lumpur, my wallet became the fattest it’s ever been. And despite it being hot as hell, we barely noticed since we spent most of our time lounging in 4-star hotel pools with 2-star price tags and hanging out at the beach.

Here’s a breakdown of our spending:

Category Cost/couple/day (CAD) Thoughts
Accommodations $40 AirBnbs ranged from $29-$50 for a fancy condo with pool. This is when I started to think: hey I could SO live here.
Food $24.80 Food was even cheaper than Singapore but because of taxes beer is a bit pricey.
Attractions $2.20 The Batu caves in KL were completely FREE to visit, as well as the Seven Well waterfall and beaches in Langkawi. So the only costs over the month were the cable car ride ($12.50CAD/person), half day lake tour ($10.50CAD/person), and the tea plantation/mossy forest tour in Cameron Highlands (only 50 riggits/person for a half day tour- or $15CAD/person).
Transportation $6 This includes the cost of train, boat, subway, and taxis rides in KL, Penang, Langkawi island, and Cameroon Highlands over the month.
Total $73

4/5 Waterfalls

Because everything was so cheap, our costs quickly dropped to only $73 per day. At this point, we realized that we could live like ROYALTY in South East Asia for only $2200 per month or $26,000 per year. At a safe withdrawal rate of only 2.6%, this would actually be below our dividend yield! So somehow, just by travelling around South East Asia, we could MAKE money by beach hopping and stuffing our faces all day?

The original plan of moving back to Canada after our 1 victory lap around the world was looking less and less appealing at this point. In South East Asia, we’d get sun all year round and a 4 star lifestyle. What’s not to love?

And now that we’re travel hacking experts, we could easily pay for the flights back and forth to visit family without spending extra money.

No wonder so many startups are bootstrapped overseas. It made perfect sense. This is what people mean when they say travel isn’t expensive. We’ve just been trained to believe that only Europe and North America are places worth travelling to. But instead, here’s this entire paradise where we could live a much higher quality of life for only 30% of the cost back home.

And with that in mind, I couldn’t wait for our next destination. The land of a thousand smiles.  The country with the most visited city in the whole world.  I had no idea I would fall head over heels for this place and I was about to find out.

47 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Malaysia: 4 Star Experience. 2 Star Price Tag.”

  1. Many years ago I spent a month in Malaysia (Sarawak) with a UK school friend, staying with his expat family.

    The cost of living is so much more affordable out there – they were an ordinary middle income family but had a housekeeper/cook as well as a house near the beach, things that would be impossible on a similar income in Europe.

    3 bed apartments in KL with an infinity pool on the roof go for the same price as the absolute cheapest one bed property in the worst area locally in SE UK!

    1. I know, right? And the food there is SO much better too. I think it’s because in Canada we have to have our food imported during the winter so it doesn’t taste as fresh. In SE Asia, the food is grown right there.

      So much better quality of life for a tiny cost.

    1. That’s why we travel hack (accumulate frequent flyer miles by signing up for credit cards) so we can fly for free! Here’s an article I wrote about it: https://www.millennial-revolution.com/freedom/how-to-fly-for-free-using-aeroplan-miles/

      It’s actually even better for Americans than Canadians, because you guys have WAY better credit card deals than us. Here’s an article from MadFIentist on travel hacking for Americans: http://www.madfientist.com/travel-hacking-and-slow-travel/

  2. At this point, we realize that we could live like ROYALTY in South East Asia for only $2200 per month or $26,000 per year. At a safe withdrawal rate of only 2.6%, this would actually be below our dividend yield!

    —————

    This kind of life style is good for healthy people without children.
    Once you have medical needs, then it is much harder to do this.

    (Just curious, does anyone know how much it is for a routine dental cleaning or teeth whitening in Kuala Lumpur?)

    1. I didn’t do any dental cleaning in KL, but my AirBnB host said one of his guests had to go to the emergency room and it cost him…$30. So medical costs in SE Asia are actually much much LOWER than the US. Check out this article: http://nomadcapitalist.com/2013/11/12/expat-health-care-how-getting-sick-outside-the-us-saved-me-2000-dollars/

      And I have seen expat families happily living in SE Asia with kids. Their kids go to international schools.

    2. I regularly go to the dentist in Penang and I must say the quality is far better then anything I have ever received in Canada. generally its $25-$50 for a cleaning and the same amount for a cavity.
      I had $900 worth of work done for $100 with less pain and soreness.
      My Dentist in Penang studied in Australia and had an amazing “new” technology 5 years ago where they fix your cavity with a laser rather then an injection and drill, I’ve yet to see this in Canada

  3. Oh, you’re such a tease FireCracker! You sell us on Malaysia (it looks like paradise), and then leave us wanting more by saying “the next place is even better”.

    ARGHH! Just tell me where the best place is. Clearly the food looks fantastic in Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysia wins when it comes to lodging prices… They both look like tropical paradises. What more is there?

    Seriously though, great post. Loved all the pictures. It seems like this is one of the top destinations.

    I’ll ask my usual question: Would you go back again?

    1. That’s what I thought initially too! I was like “holy shit, Malaysia’s the best! How can it get any better?”

      Apparently it can….*cue suspense music*

      And yes, I would definitely go back. Probably to Penang because the food is even better than Singapore! KL is awesome for food as well.

  4. I don’t mean for this to be offensive, but I think a lot of people don’t travel to the likes of SE Asia (and many other countries) because of the cultural difference, the language barrier and lack of knowledge of these places. Many people are uncomfortable in foreign cultures they are not familiar with, often times they are put off because they aren’t sure these places are safe.

    People like to stick to what they know. They know Hawaii, they know Mexican resorts, they know other US/Canadian cities, they know Cuba and to an extent they know Europe (from what they see on the news/media).

    They don’t know Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Phillipines and they feel out of their depth and uncomfortable in these places. They don’t want to leave their comfort zone when traveling and stick to what they know. If you ask me which of these countries are safe and which aren’t, I’d have no idea. Is Cambodia safe? No idea. Is Vietnam safe? No idea. Is Cancun safe? Yes.

    Unfortunately this means people live in their own bubble their entire lives and never experience the diversity of the world. Travel really does open your eyes, you just have to research and push yourself to do it, even if you are a bit uncomfortable about the idea. The world is an amazing place to explore, but sadly many people hardly even step out of their home country.

    I do think, though, that you are overselling the ease of which you can travel hack on a constant basis to places like SE Asia. Two people flying to Malaysia and back is 180,000 miles on Aeroplan. We would need to open probably 8-10 new credit cards to obtain that many miles in sign up bonuses, so 4-5 per person. Can you do this once? Sure, with a lot of hassle you could. Can you rinse and repeat this yearly? HELL NO! Credit card companies won’t just allow you to keep opening 4-5 cards per year, only to close the account, then open them again every single year. Travel hacking is something that might be good for a few free trips around the US/Canada or one free trip across the world, but it’s not something you can just do forever. You’d at least need a good couple of years off before starting up again.

    Especially in Canada, there are basically 4 or 5 credit cards in Canada you can travel hack that total about 75,000 miles. So that only gets you 150,000 miles per year per couple. I KNOW the Amex card doesn’t allow you to repeat the hack, so that’s 50,000 miles gone after one use, reducing you to 100,000 miles per year IF the TD/CIBC cards allow a rinse and repeat. So at BEST, you could get one person a return flight to SE Asia from Canada per year and at worst TD and CIBC would refuse your application for a new card eventually. I’m also noticing some cards are now requiring you to keep the card for 1+ year before you get some of the points, thus forcing you to take on the second year fee (TD Bank). This also reduces how often you can rinse and repeat to once every two years.

    1. As another example, the 50,000 bonus points for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card is only available to those who have not had the card in the past *24* months.

    2. “If you ask me which of these countries are safe and which aren’t, I’d have no idea. Is Cambodia safe? No idea. Is Vietnam safe? No idea. Is Cancun safe? Yes.”

      Cancun is actually quite UNsafe for tourists: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/mexico-nightclub-shooting-1.3937245

      I agree with your general point about people staying in their comfort zones when it comes to travel. I’ve traveled SE Asia quite extensively and was puzzled but my in-laws’ concerns about our safety… it’s VERY safe there – I’ve felt less safe walking around Vancouver late at night (and c’mon, this is a really safe city). The reality is that thinking comes entirely from a place of ignorance… they have no awareness of the non-confrontational culture in that part of the world and simply assume different = more dangerous. And in some ways I’m selfishly okay with this simply because it means less tourists to contend with. If people would rather go to Maui ever year than explore cheap and much more interesting Bali, their loss, my gain!

    3. Okay, so my response to the 3 challenges you mentioned:

      1) Getting outside your comfort zone will be difficult for some people, but it comes from a place of ignorance. The worry about the cultural shock or inability to speak the language is actually less of a problem in SE Asia than Mexico. And Canadians and Americans regularly flock there even if they don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak Malay, Thai, or Vietnamese, and never had problems communicating in these countries. They are very used to tourists and many speak English. Just book an AirBnB and chances are you’ll met an expat who can show you around.

      2) Safety in SE Asia: I find it funny that someone would consider SE Asia dangerous or unsafe but not bat an eye when they go to Chicago or NY city. In fact, looking at the crime index for Chiang Mai, Thailand, it’s actually LOWER than Toronto. Many of the cities SE Asia are actually safer than US cities, where you could be robbed in daylight.

      3) Ease of Travel Hacking: Waiting 6 months before applying again for the same card has worked out well for us. We used to do this for the American Express cards too until they put in the recent restriction. The trick is to stage the cards so if one card has a time period restriction, you apply for a different card in the meantime. And yes, we do have to keep track of more than 10 cards at a time and space it out, but since we’ll only need to fly back and forth between Canada and SE Asia once a year, it’s not really an issue. And in addition to SE Asia, there’s also the option of spending some years in Mexico and South America. Then while we’re waiting for our cards to be available again, we can pay out of pocket for flights Mexico to Canada, which only costs $200/person.

      And if tracking hacking becomes more restrictive in the future, we can also look for flight deals Europe and Canada (saw a flight recently from Canada to Portugal for only $325CAD!), stay there for a while, and then look for cheap flights to SE Asia.

      When you’re no longer working, it’s really easy to find cheap flights because the calendar is WIDE open 🙂 So lots of options to split our time between SE Asia, Central/South America, and Europe.

    1. Land of a Thousand Smiles is Thailand indeed.

      But there is some debate on which is the most visited city in the world: Bangkok or Hong King.

  5. Oh my gosh, this looks so awesome! I haven’t been to Malaysia yet, but after this I’d like to add it to my “To Travel” list. 🙂 That food looks soooo good. And I like how it isn’t overpriced like many European places so often are.

    1. Man, going to SE Asia after Europe was a dream! I just bought everything without even bothering with the prices most of the time. Everything is so easy on the wallet.

  6. Ah Thailand….love the place. Bangkok is absolutely amazing. The royal palace is like nothing else I have seen….and I have seen alot. The floating market, the train market…the list goes on…I loved my trip there. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts. Did you also make it to Cambodia and Ankor Wat? Another fabulous destination…

    1. Completely agree. And yes, we did make it to Cambodia…loved it! Will do a write up on that as well. We can compare notes.

    1. Kuala Lumpur was for the entire apartment. Penang and Langkawi was for the room. I actually liked Penang and Langkawi better because our awesome hosts drove us around the city and pointed out things we would’ve never known about ourselves.

      For KL, we stayed at the “Regalia Residence” (entire apartment)
      George Town, Penang: 1 room at the “Times Square Condo”
      Kuah, Langkawi: 1 room with private bathroom at “Chogm Villa Apartments”

  7. Hi,

    The life expenses in Southeast Asia are indeed lower than that of the Cananda. Maybe you can consider staying in SE Asia longer.

  8. Looks great. I’m going to Malaysia soon, Kuala Lumpur then langkawi. Just wondering how long you spent at each of the different places and based on experience would you have liked to have stayed a bit longer in certain places and shorter in others?

    1. Awesome! Hope you enjoy it!

      We spent around 1-2 weeks in each city and here are our thoughts:

      KL: recommend 3-4 days. Big metropolitan city. Good shopping, nice hotels, great food markets. Not as much interesting stuff to see as other places.

      Penang: recommend 1 week. I would stay in Penang longer than KL. More to see and best food we’ve ever had in Malaysia.

      Langkawi: recommend 1 week. So many fun things to do–waterfalls, beaches, hiking, cable bridge, parks. Beer is so cheap too! Food not as good as KL or Penang, but still decent

      Cameron Highlands: 3-4 days. Weather is a bit chilly. Go on a tour to see the tea plantations and be at one with nature. Loved the tea and biscuits but food was just okay.

  9. Malaysia must be such a beautiful country. It is definitely on my boot list. I could easily spend months there. Maybe next year. We even have some miles to spend, even though we have way less travel hacking options with credit cards in NL like you guys in Canada.

  10. Ah, Malaysia is one of my favorite, favorite places ever. Food is amazing, and perhaps the best in the world. Did you go to Jalan Alor in KL street food btw? Chicken fish, satay, belachan, awesome!

    I lived in Malaysia for 4 years and went back last year. Definitely a great place to set up digital nomad life.

    There is a “Malaysia My Second Home” program if folks want to look into it.

    Sam

    1. Oh I’m obsessed with Jalan Alor. Went there to eat everyday for a whole week. LOVE LOVE LOVE it.

      Didn’t know you lived in Malaysia for 4 years! That’s awesome. Did you go there to work? What kind of visa did you need to stay there?

      I’ll have to check out “Malaysia My Second Home” if we decided to home base it there.

        1. Interesting! Do you think moving around is bad for kids because they “need stability”? Because in your case, I think that made you more extroverted and adaptable!

  11. You really like swimming, do you? 🐟 It is inspiring to read these adventure stories. In each picture, it seems like you are both having so much fun. These posts give me the strength to keep working hard just a few more years, knowing that what awaits afterwards will be exilerating. Here is a small request for Wanderer from a faithful reader: may we please find out more about you? Were you born in Toronto or China? What kind of upbringing did you have and does your family support your choice to retire early? Now that you’ve reached FI, do you have any other projects for the future? I’m sorry if this is too personal and it’s cool if you don’t want to share, I just notice that we learned a lot about FireCracker but not so much about you, so I’m curious to find out more. Thanks for all the inspirong posts.

    1. What? Nobody cares about me 🙂

      Seriously though, you know a lot more about FireCracker because her story is so much more interesting than mine. Born in Toronto, grew up in a middle-class family, entered a career I actually liked, and my family is super supportive. Yawn. So boring. Who wants to hear about that?

  12. Great post FireCracker. I love Malaysia, Thailand and India. Each place is diverse but filled with culture and friendly people but all share one common attribute – they are all cheap! I know families with 1-2 kids living a comfortable life for $2000 US a month in these countries. For those with a $1 million diversified portfolio, dividends alone will cover these living costs easily! But cultural adaptation and acceptance of developing world issues (which may bother some on long stays) is critical. It’s not a garden path though. You need an open mind and a willingness to ‘go with the flow’ to plan a retirement in those places. I have an article on this coming up in a couple of days.

    1. “For those with a $1 million diversified portfolio, dividends alone will cover these living costs easily!”

      Yup, that’s why it’s easier to make money in retirement by travelling rather than staying home. But yes, I do agree that some adjustment is needed…at least in the beginning. I have met lots of expats who took time getting used to the culture, but now feel more at home in SE Asia than in North America or Europe.

      The thing that surprised me the most is the comforts of home that I was able to find in SE Asia. Basically you had all the amenities, better transit (KL’s subway covered way more of the city than Toronto’s, was cheaper, cleaner, and more technologically advanced) and better food!

  13. Love your entire website, I’ve been a fan since a year ago. Just now workin’ on making my first investment. My wife and I gotta’ get our money up. Have you guys ever considered a Whole Starch Low Fat lifestyle? It is definitely a revolution in its time, especially for Health. Chex out Dr. McDougall or T. Colin Campbell. Read the Healthiest Diet on the Planet by McDougall.

  14. Wow that’s crazy!! My husband’s college roommate is from Malaysia and moved back there after college! Maybe we’ll stop by sometime haha next time I get some vacation…

    1. Nice! I think you would enjoy it. Lots of good food, nice climate, and tons of fun things to do. Very easy on the wallet.

  15. Loving those food pics! The one with the shaved ice and beans and the green “worms” is interesting. The green worm one is a traditional Thai/Laos dish called “lok son” that we’ve attempted to make a time or two (very hard without specialized equipment). In Thailand/Laos/Cambodia they serve it in a soup of coconut milk and palm sugar (melted into solution). Delicious.

    1. Green worms…I’m sure that one will be hit with the kiddos 🙂 Yeah, I wouldn’t try to make it myself but love buying it in Asia. So tasty!

  16. Can I ask the names of those hotels? I’m looking to book accommodation for a 3 day trip in May, and would love to find out your reasonably priced options with pools.

  17. Hey Firecracker,

    I just wanted to say thanks for this site! I am currently in my 4th year Mech Eng at Waterloo and came across your interview on BNN a year ago. I have been investing money I made through coop’s in individual stocks and mutual funds before you started the investment workshop. The concept of sticking to the modern portfolio and using etf’s instead of stocks is definitely the way to go!

    I grew up in Malaysia and came to Canada for University, I’m glad you enjoyed your time in the country especially the time spent eating! Even for Malaysians it is cheaper to eat out in Malaysia than cook a meal at home.

    Again thanks a lot for sharing all this knowledge!

    1. Welcome, Manoj! It’s nice to see a fellow Waterloo Engineer on the blog. I’m so impressed that you are saving you co-op money and investing it–that makes you LIGHT YEARS ahead of us. We had no idea what an etf even was back then. You’re going to be come FI in no time!

      Yeah, I noticed that a couple of the airBnBs we stayed in in Malaysia didn’t have stoves in the kitchen, just microwave. I guess it makes sense not to bother cooking with so much good, cheap food around. I miss Malaysia already!

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