Postcard from Penang


We have written a lot of how affordable places like Penang can be.  When it comes to food there are so many choices it is sometimes hard to quantify.  Yes, going to a Western restaurant with white table cloth service, a nice wine list and a foreign chef can cost you serious money.  That is true everywhere.  That said, there are still places to go where Western food is inexpensive and the wine list not bad. Many places will allow you to bring your own wine for a very mall corkage fee, if they charge at all.  That can take a very nice dinner for two down to RM100 (Malaysia Ringgit), or less than USD$30.

However, those days of the week where you eat with the locals can be a pleasant surprise and very easy on the wallet.

Case in point.  Last night we went to a beachfront restaurant in Tanjung Bungah with the rather ominous name 'Tsunami village'.  The 2004 tsunami did hit Penang and several died but not nearly the toll on the beaches of Indonesia and Thailand.  As you look out to sea the floating mosque is on your left and the jazzy condos off the beach on your right. On the beach in front of you fishermen are mending their nets.  This odd little place is reached by wandering through a repair shop of outboard motors.  Just when you think this might have been a very bad idea a charming little patio over the water is revealed.  There is no wine served (but, you can bring your own at no charge) and the beer is served ice cold with frosty, chilled glasses.  The food, kind of a fusion of Malay/Chinese, is for sharing and we sure did.  Our group of seven ordered at least nine dishes including crispy chicken, stir fried rice, deep fried prawns, etc.  We supplemented that with six quart bottles of Heineken brought to us in an enormous ice bucket

The food was excellent, the sunset over the water only adding to the experience.  When all was said and done the bill was RM218 (Malaysian Ringgit).  That is AUD$77, CAD$76 or just a shade over $10 dollars a piece.  No tipping required here and while we tackled the food with gusto, we couldn't eat it all. 

Expats in Penang don't eat at local spots every day.  However, it just adds to the fun when a large group can have a great big meal on the beach for very little money.


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Planet Boomer has travelled all over Southeast Asia for years in search of peaceful, pristine beaches and crystal clear waters.  A combination that can prove surprisingly difficult to find.  It certainly exists in Thailand but it can be crazy busy and expensive.  It can be found on the Eastern coast of Vietnam as well with a range of accommodation and services for most every ones needs. But, it can be punishingly hot there in the summer, prone to vicious typhoons in the fall and rainy and dreary in the winter. Bali can deliver the above trio in some places, but with over 10 million tourists arriving a year, your Robinson Crusoe beach moment is shared with discarded plastic bottles and a bunch of hairy Russian guys.  In truth, these are all viable destinations depending on the season, your budget and personal tastes. But, for our retiree audience the best news is that while nothing is perfect, there are always options to consider.

Since arriving on Penang Island 8 months ago we have been disappointed with the local beaches and waters.  For a place with so much going for it, clear waters and pristine beaches completely fail to make the grade. We have found no beaches where the water is clean enough to swim; despite the pretty sunset shots of sand and surf we all take.  However, our friends have been raving about another place in Malaysia just a 50-minute flight away. Powder white sand, crystal clear waters, gorgeous coral gardens, cheap accommodations and fresh caught Tiger Prawns grilled over charcoal.  Count us in.

The Perhentians are off the east coast of Malaysia.  The two islands are named Kecil and Besur but that really just means ‘ Big’ and ‘Small’.  There are a variety of hotel properties, all 3-4 stars, one of the best being the ‘The Tuna Bay Resort’.  Their cottages were fully booked so we choose ‘New Cocohut and Cozy Chalet’, a 5-minute walk down the beach.  Our groups rooms are on the second floor of a small building over the beach; a bit Spartan but with a nice balcony, air conditioning and a very welcome mini fridge. Donning masks and snorkels we are immediately in the water.  Nothing special but the good part is yet to come.

We have dinner at Tuna Bay, considerably depleting the Tiger Prawn population, and book a snorkeling trip for the next morning.  With four different sites to visit over 6 hours, we begin at the aptly named Shark Point.  The water is clear, the coral is nice and soon enough 7 Black Tip Reef Sharks who circle lazily 5-10 meters below us join us. Not at all dangerous to swimmers these boys do have a reputation for ankle biting people wading in the surf line. They do look the part though. Too much Discovery Channel Shark Week viewing does drive a couple of people back into the boat.  Next up are the spectacular Coral Gardens with thousands and thousands of tropical fish.  The coral is healthy, the colours fantastic and we hate to leave.  After a beach lunch we then move on to Tuna Bay (down the coast from the resort) where we swim with loggerhead turtles the size of coffee tables that glide gracefully across the sandy bottom.

Our last stop finally fulfills our Robinson Crusoe beach quest.  Around the headland from Turtle Bay is Turtle Beach.  White powder sand runs 10-15 meters from the surf stopping abruptly at a wall of green jungle. As the hot sand fries our toes we look left and right for hundreds of meters and there is nothing.  No people, no boats but out own.  The water is crystal clear, the bottom the same white sand as the beach.  It is late afternoon, our backs and legs are fried from snorkeling and there is no man Friday to bring us cold drinks and a grilled Tiger Prawn on a stick.  Reluctantly, we head back in search of shade and a cold beer.

We are fortunate that our Canadian friends in Penang shared this special place with us.  There are other islands with 5 star resorts further south like Tioman Island or Redang Island, but I wonder if they have the rustic charms of the Perhentians.  We will just have to go and find out.  Our three day island weekend for two cost us just over $450 USD all in for flights, taxis, speedboat to the island, accommodation, food and our snorkeling trip. Firefly Airlines flies to Kota Bahru Airport from Penang and from Singapore direct as well. The island weather cooperates from June to October but both islands shut down almost entirely to tourists due to monsoon November to May.


If you like the thought of living in a peaceful Buddhist country; living by a long sandy beach where the water is the temperature of melted chocolate; living without a winter; living in a town with great restaurants, bars and hotels and living just 2 ½ hours drive south of Bangkok, then Hua Hin is your place.

It is also a golfers heaven and offers beachside living or a lifestyle a few kilometres away from the coast on a golf course. It offers luxury villas at a cost of $500,000 plus or simple rented accommodation at less than $1000 a month.

And it is safe, very well policed and orderly yet it has a cool vibe.

You don’t expect to meet a single, highly intelligent, 70-year-old ‘English rose’ in Chiang Mai, a northern city of Thailand. Nor do you expect to meet a gentle, conservative couple from Portland, Oregon in the ‘cool’ resort coastal town of Hua Hin, a short distance south of Bangkok, Thailand.

That’s because blokes, sex and Thailand are almost synonymous in the minds of many people.

But Thailand is changing and changing fast. Sure there’s plenty of sex, but that exists in Kings Cross Sydney as well.

No place better represents this change than the beautiful seaside resort town of Hua Hin.

Hua Hin is where the King now lives and, as a consequence, is a well-regulated, well-policed and orderly place. But it is still a resort town, studded with restaurants and bars and great hotels. Its beautiful golden beaches stretch for miles and the area hosts more than ten golf courses.

Sunsets are stunning when you are sitting in the garden of a hotel and looking out to sea or dining in a restaurant that is right on the beach. You hear the lapping of the water.

Robert, who moved to Hua Hin from California to retire more than a decade ago, said that he instantly found it a ‘fabulous’ place to live.

‘The street food here is spectacular, the fruits and vegetables are fabulous. You go on the street; you can live off of nothing. You can buy a delicious plate of pad thai for 20 baht (70 cents).

And he said, ‘I felt safe. There are no guns here. There are no guys getting beat up.’

Robert lives in a two-bedroom duplex with a garden and covered parking.

It a comfortable condominium, that is near the beach. It costs him just B7000 ($230) a month. I have a laundry service that does my laundry for about twenty dollars a month, they fluff and fold, pick it up from the house and deliver it back.’

He has a great Internet feed and watches NBC and other news via his computer.

He still banks with Citibank via the net and there are ATMs all over Hua Hin. Robert finds it easy to manage his funds.

And like most of Thailand and indeed Southeast Asia, Hua Hin is a wonderful place for single women. It is gentle and the Buddhist culture is inclusive.

Anne also moved to Hua Hin. Like a number of women we interviewed in Thailand, she finds Thailand a very comfortable place to live for a mature, single woman. Anne is 70 and an artist.

‘Thailand definitely works for me as a single woman because I have affordable access to staff and help. That is a big benefit for me that I would not have been able to take advantage of in the US. I am 70, you know, I need the help in the house. It is time.

‘I knew I wanted to come here and be in the culture and live within it. I had no preconceived ideas about meeting guys and I still don’t.

The primary reason Anne came to Thailand was the aesthetic, not the cheaper cost of living. ‘I fell in love with it 15 years ago with the country, the freedom, the ease of life. Then when I got here it was even better for me financially.

‘I always felt more comfortable living in an Asian country. The aesthetic is different. They pay attention to different things, like an artist would. Sensibilities are more aesthetic.’

Anne bought a house in 2006 near the beach. She runs a bespoke tourism business from the house. And she finds Thailand a perfect hub from which to travel the region.

Anne had been living on and off in the US for many years. However she returned in 2000 for five years.

‘When I returned to the US I had a very good creative experience. I was living on Maui and was writing and directing plays for the Hunter River Symphony. Creatively it was great, but I just didn’t see myself living, living there.’

Anne has no security concerns. In fact she said she feels safer in Hua Hin than in Maui.

‘I think the important thing is that you give the place time to embrace you. It is not easy. You need to give it time to brew. But you also need to be careful not to be too detached. Many Ferang can waste their lives here.’

Hua Hin, understandably, is popular with foreign retirees, like Robert.

We met Robert Baker at Springfield Golf Course, just a short distance out of the town of Hua Hin.  

‘I came out here on a vacation in 1999; an unlimited golf vacation’, said Robert. He had no thought of relocating to Thailand at that time.

He had no idea about Asia so he threw some darts at a wall map and decides to golf in Bali and in Thailand.

‘When I first got here to the Springfield Golf Club, it was right after playing in Bali and the course there was right on the ocean. It was unbelievable. I wasn't that impressed with this Springfield Golf Club, when I got here. Then after a couple of days here, I started falling in love with the place.  Back then, there was nobody here. You could buy a lifetime golf membership for 150,000 baht. (back then less than $4000).’

So Robert starting to investigate just what life would be like in Thailand.

‘I found out the cost of living here was a lot cheaper than Bali. A game of golf was so easy, especially compared to Los Angeles where, to try to get a tee time in municipal golf course, you have to travel through hoops make phone calls at six in the morning.

‘I wasn't a rich guy, I was a real estate loan officer in Los Angeles, I did home loans. I said to myself, you really could live here for fifteen or sixteen thousand dollars a year and live like a king.

It got Robert thinking about his life. Robert’s trip was in April. ‘I went home, sold everything and moved here in September.’

Then he travelled about Thailand for three months to determine where it would be best to settle. ‘I went Chiang Mai, then to Phuket, then to Pattaya, all over the place. Everywhere has its good and bad points. Of course, this place (Hua Hin) had the golf, it was quiet, had beautiful beaches and it was on the sea. 

Robert was just 45 when he moved to Thailand. He is now 62. He said he fitted in right away.

‘After I arrived, joined this group called the Hua Hin golf society.’ That really helped his transition he said.

But what about the politics in Thailand?

There have been 11 successful and nine attempted coup efforts in the 20th century for a total of 20. That scares people. But Thai coups are peaceful affairs – if you can say that about a coup. They are certainly very Thai. Lots of smiles, lots of patience and no blood.

As Robert said, ‘A lot of people in America will say, there has just been a military coup in Thailand. How can you live there, it is too unsafe.

‘The big joke is, I am not even a coup virgin anymore. This is my second coup.  If you are driving around Hua Hin, you don't know a coup is underway.

Robert does not have a US pension and lives off his savings. As he says,

‘I spend principle every day.

But the cost of living is low. ‘Years ago, I tried to live off of $15,000 dollars year. Today you have to live off of 24,000 to $26,000 a year, as a minimalist. Most guys are living off of $36,000 dollars a year and living like a king. And that includes rent.

Robert believes he chose wisely when he decided Hua Hin was the place for him in Thailand. ‘Hua Hin is a spectacular fishing village. Hua Hin is between Cha'am and Pranburi. These are three towns along the coast. They have beautiful beaches, some beautiful national parks. You can go to Pala U Waterfall, and see wild monkeys, see wild elephants. Climb the falls and see the fish.’

‘My life here is spectacular. The Thai people are wonderful people. They embrace you. Even if you speak a little bit of Thai, they embrace you. You can say hello. If you have conversations with them, they are kind of surprised.

Robert lives with great financial care and his rent is low. Like anywhere, Hua Hin has its expensive areas and properties.         

Paul and Adrienne, who are a young couple from the US and wanted to escape the rat race, started a real estate business in Hua Hin. They said, ‘The cost of a land lease and house in central Hua Hin can range from 5 million baht ($150,000) to 10 million baht ($300,000) per rai (1600 square metres).

‘I think a lot of newcomers make the mistake of thinking they can only be in Hua Hin. But there are some really great areas just outside. In some ways a lot nicer.

The rental market in parts of Hua Hin and for upmarket properties is also high. Again Paul said, ‘Most of our properties generally start at about 30,000 baht per month ($1000/month). This would be a one-bedroom condo.

For a two bedroom condo (200 sq. m) rent would be 65000 baht per month or more ($2000/month).

Hua Hin real estate is comparable to Bangkok. More expensive than Pattaya, cheaper than Phuket.


Malaysia’s MM2H visa program

In our book and on our website we extoll the virtues of Malaysia’s MM2H (My Malaysian Second Home) retirement visa. Of all the defined programs for retirees in Southeast Asia, MM2H is the benchmark for a well thought out, consistent, user friendly, benefit rich, long term visa.

Recently, Planet-Boomers, Jim Herrler and Ellen Ma (Canadians), went through the application process and just received their visa last week.  The details of the application process, financial requirements, etc. are in our book and on our website. Here, Jim and Ellen describe their experience.

“Our application for MM2H went in August 29th, 2014.  We used an agent as is recommended.  Although you can apply yourself, the details are such that a fixed fee agent is easier, and, do-it-yourselfers have to post a bond anyway.

The application covered our work histories, details of all our financial/property assets, and a ‘ letter of good conduct ‘ from Canadian police.  Fortunately, we were going to be in Canada in August and it was easy to order the letter on-line in advance. In truth it was all pretty straightforward but for one small issue.  We were required to place RM300,000($101,000 CAD) into a fixed deposit account and provide documentation of that for the application.  We didn’t specify that account had to be rolled over every 30 days and we did have to do that delaying us for a week.

The application process is, according to the website, supposed to take 60-90 days.  By Christmas we were wondering about our status.  It seems there is a backlog of applications and a new dual review, one of financials and one of the overall application.  Our financial people advised us they were contacted by the MM2H authorities to provide a confirming letter in December and our agent advised us by letter of our tentative approval January 28th. About 5 months in total.

From the date of tentative approval you have six months to complete the requirements for your visa.  On approval we collapsed our RM300,000 fixed deposit and transferred RM150,000 ( $50,000 CAD ) to a Malaysian bank as a fixed deposit to be kept, with 3.4% interest tax free, for the duration of our stay in Malaysia.  The amount can be reduced by RM50,000 by claiming medical expenses, education costs or a car purchase after one year from the visa grant date. The balance, RM100,000, must be kept in the fixed deposit account for as long as you hold the visa. The second requirement is a medical checkup performed in Malaysia.  There is a specific MM2H form to fill in that doctors and hospitals are well aware of. Finally, you need to submit proof of medical insurance for a period of one year.  If you are over 60 and can’t get medical insurance , the MM2H people will waive this requirement.

In early April we went to Kuala Lumpur to pick up our visas.  Our agent met us at our hotel and drove us an hour out of KL to government offices in Putrajaya. There, we made sure we had photocopies of all our required documents and took a number in a modern waiting room.  In an hour we were done with a new visa in our passports.  Next up for us is a Malay drivers license and then a little wheeling and dealing to enable us to use MM2H funds to buy a car within the one year time constraint. Not sure if that is doable but worth a try. 

Is One Million Dollars Enough To Retire On?

Well, the answer to that question is pretty depressing. At current interest rates, savings of $1 million will earn you about $33,000 a year. If you are lucky.

Jeremy Cooper, a superannuation expert and retirement chairman at Challenger in Sydney, is the latest to enter the debate on how much you really need for a comfortable retirement.

Cooper’s argument in the Australian Financial Review this week is that everyone thinks about their retirement savings in terms of a lump sum and not in terms of the income it will generate for the rest of their lives. His startling conclusion is that at current interest rates, a million dollars in super will only generate the same weekly amount as the current age pension for a couple.

We all know that even if you own your own home, you are not going to have much fun on $635 a week. And after you have paid out for electricity, council rates and health insurance, you are really looking at about $500 a week. If you run a car and use toll roads, the money you have left over to pay for food and, god forbid, medicines, is even less.

That is why so many Australians (Americans, Canadians, British and Germans) are retiring to Southeast Asia. They want a better life at lower cost.

At Planet Boomer we have interviewed dozens of these retirees throughout Asia.

Read more Real Stories.