Retire Early on $915 USD per month in Sabah Malaysia

Could I Retire Early on $915 USD per month in Sabah Malaysia?

Our early retirement world tour continues today in Borneo. Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world. Sabah Malaysia occupies the northeast corner of the island of Borneo. Sabah is one of the 13 states that together are within the territory of Malaysia.

During our exploration of Sabah, we visited Semporna, Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu. If we retired in Sabah Malaysia we would most likely live in Kota Kinabalu. It seemed to be the best fit for our personalities and desired lifestyles. More on that is below.

Yet, this video and report include information about all three locations since they would presumably help keep you entertained if you decided to retire here.

If you are curious about the four other places in Malaysia I have already visited and reported, you can watch my YouTube Malaysia Playlist (39 Videos) or visit our VagabondBuddha.com Malaysia Reports Page. We have retire-cheap reports for Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, and the Perhentian Islands. Next, we go to the Sarawak State of Malaysia.

My name is Dan and I left the USA in 2007 and started traveling the world. I have been to 67 countries and I make videos and write reports about the best places and tips and tricks to retire inexpensively overseas.

Overall, you don’t see as many ex-pats living in Malaysia as in other parts of SE Asia. There are many potential reasons for that. I have not surveyed the ex-pats living in Malaysia but here are a few I have heard multiple times chatting with the ex-pats.

First, I would say that Malaysia has decided to limit the number of retiree ex-pats they allow to retire here. They limit the number of retirees by requiring higher proof of income and asset levels to obtain a retirement visa. So it is just harder to get a retirement visa here. More on that in the visa paragraph below.

Second, some westerners that have never been to Malaysia have Islama Phobia. They are afraid of Muslims. There are parts of the world where people scare me, but Malaysia is not one of them. The people of Malaysia have been very kind to me no matter their choice of religion.

Sabah’s population is about 25% Christian and you see churches everywhere. We were here during Christmas and there were thousands of people, both Muslims and Christians celebrating Christmas together.

Third, Malaysia is not a big party place like other parts of SE Asia. Westerners tend to vacation where they can party and have a good time. Those early impressions familiarize them with a country so when they think about an overseas life, they don’t have Malaysian familiarity.

Malaysia is a nice quiet place with great infrastructure which some retirees prefer. Plus, Malaysia is an easy place to come and stay for 90 days for many western nations without getting a visa before entry. So when you are in SE Asia you can get a cheap flight here and check it out for yourself very easily.

This report and video share my favorite markets, restaurants, and things to do in and around Sabah and Kota Kinabalu along with my retirement desirability factors and overall retirement desirability score.

My Favorite Markets and Restaurants on Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu Markets

Local Fruits Market: This place is a covered public market. Take time to walk around this area (100 meters in both directions) and you will see fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh fish, and other meats. There are also dried foods here. Location and times are listed at the link.

Gaya Street Sunday Market: This market has food carts, clothing, and tourist souvenirs. It is a lovely place to walk about and people-watch. Despite its name, it is not limited to Sundays. The hours for each day are listed in Google.

Ex-Pat Grocery Stores: You will find ex-pat grocery stores in most western-style malls in Sabah. See below.

Suria Sabah Shopping Mall: Multilevel western-style shopping mall. There is a western style grocery store in the basement here.

Imago Shopping Mall: Highend multilevel western-style shopping mall. There is an expensive high-end western-style grocery store in the basement here.

Kota Kinabalu (KK) Restaurants

Favorites are bubbled to the top:

Gaya Vegetarian Restaurant: This is the best-tasting Chinese-style vegetarian restaurant that we found in KK. Our meals averaged $1.50 to $1.70 USD here.

Sri Latha Curry House: Qiang had a great fish curry here and I had a great vegetarian curry. This palace is amazing. Just sorry we didn’t find it until the last day.

Living Seed Vegetarian: $2-5 USD Vegetarian meals second floor of the mall. This is on the second floor of a mall with an ocean view.

Vege Garden: This is a decent Chinese-style vegetarian restaurant. Our meals averaged $2.00 USD here.

Kedai Kopi Melanian: Qiang had a pork noodle dish here that she really loved for $3.50 USD.

Gaya Coconut Shake: Qiang had a fisk laksa here and a coconut ice cream shack. She loved both for $5 USD.

El Centro: If you have an urge for Mexican food and cocktails this is a great choice. Delicious and creative. The prices are higher of course because this is foreign food in Malaysia.

Mamasita: The Mexican food here is almost as good as El Centro above.

Todak Waterfront Hawker Center: I rarely tell people where they should not eat. Qiang had a lobster here and said it was way overpriced and mediocre at best. Tourists eat here at this Hawker center because it is on the waterfront.

Kota Kinabalu Nightlife

There are a few spots downtown Kota Kinabalu where you will see people playing pool or watching sports and snacking on bar food while they have a few adult beverages. The below map is for those kinds of places (western feeling) The more common and less expensive local way to have a few beers with friends in public areas is the various “Kopitiams” around town. Just look for people in small restaurants with beers on the table often with some form of the word “Kopi” in the title.

For the more western style nightlife (expensive), just walk the below map and listen for the music you love.

Kota Kinabalu Best Beaches (Boat Tour)

There are three stunning white sand beach islands about a 10-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu. It costs 45 RM ($10 USD) per person for the 2 island group tour. Just go to this pier at around 8:30 AM to buy your tickets and go the same day. You will have to pay an additional environmental fee of about 20 RM ($5 USD) per person upon island arrival which is good for both islands. Our favorite 2 islands are shown in the video at the top of this post.

Headhunters Cultural Tour

Headhunting is illegal in Borneo these days. But there was a time when it was part of life in Borneo. If you would like to learn the cultural heritage of the original people of Borneo including traditions such as food, dance, clothing, and headhunting, then you should check this place out.

This cultural information is being provided to you about a headhunter with 40 heads to his credit and about his village/tribe. It cost 45 RM for Malaysians and 55 for foreigners ($10 or $12 USD). Plus the Grab taxi out there cost us about $8 USD. The link is here.

Our Estimated Cost of Living in Koh Phangan

Here is our estimated cost of living converted into US dollars if the two of us were to Retire Early on $915 USD per month in Sabah Malaysia on a tight budget. But we are all different, so you will have to put your feet on the ground in Kota Kinabalu to determine your cost of living based on where you would live, what you would eat, and how you would entertain yourself. The below exchange rate was about 4.4 Malaysian Ringgit (RM) to $1 USD when we were there but that varies so check the current exchange rate.

Rents: You will see furnished 1 bedroom apartments in the range of about 1500 RM to 2000 RM ($340 to $455 USD) per month if we were willing to sign a lease for a year or more. Here is an example of one we found on https://homes.mitula.my/ while we were in town.

By walking neighborhoods, I can usually find cheaper ones than by searching on the internet, but we will use 1500 RM ($340 USD) per month for this estimate. Be sure to read my report on how I find perfect apartments around the world so you will know why I would expect to get better deals with my feet on the ground.

Utilities: Kota Kinabalu is at sea level, so, we would need to run our air conditioner many nights and during midday on warm days. Electricity would cost about 160 RM ($36 USD monthly). Gas and water would be another $15 per month so about $51 USD per month for our estimated utilities per month.

Groceries: Based on our time here and the money we spent on groceries, we estimate about $280 USD per month on groceries for the two of us. But that only works if you shop at the open-air public markets for fresh foods. If you like going to air-conditioned supermarkets you could easily pay $100 more per month. If you want to buy imported goods like foreign wines and cheeses, you could easily add another $100. We would shop mostly in the public market where the vegetables, fruits, rice, and meats are cheaper, and only go to the more expensive supermarkets to get what we could not find in the public market.

Restaurants: If we went out to eat twice per week, once for date night and once for a lunch somewhere, plus some street food, we would spend around $35 per week or $140 per month in restaurants for the two of us. We would eat mostly in mom-and-pop-style restaurants rather than the expensive expat-style restaurants.

Cell Phone Data: The cost to recharge our prepaid service is 60 RM $14 per month. My android phone will act as a hotspot so we can both be on the internet at the same time when we are out of the house together.

Laundry: Many apartments here have washing machines but you will see coin-operated laundries around also. We would rent a place with a clothes washing machine so we would only spend another 20 RM ($5 USD) on detergent.

Water: We would spend about $18 per month on drinking water. They have water packages of 15 bottles for 120 RM ($27 USD) which includes the hot/cold water dispenser. The bottles are about 5 gallons each. Each package would last us about 1.5 months. So we would spend about $18 per month on RO water including delivery.

Internet: Our home Internet service would be about $28 per month for 60 MBPS wifi.

Transportation: The fun areas around Kota Kinabalu are tightly packed in the city center but public transportation is really non-existent. So everyone just rides scooters around it seems. So if we moved here we would just pay cash for a used scooter and two helmets for around $1000 USD. We would spend around $30 USD per month on fuel. Your other option would be to just pay another few hundred in rent to live close in and walk everywhere. That would also be a great option.

Alcohol (Optional): This is where Malaysia gets expensive. A Tiger beer regular size is about 6-7 RM ($1.60 USD) in the market. You could easily double that in bars and restaurants. So for the two of us, we estimate about $150 USD per month since we would drink more at home than in bars.

Entertainment (Optional): We would budget about $100 per month for entertainment for the two of us.

Retire Early on $915 USD per month in Sabah Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu

Expense (USD)

Rent

349

Groceries

280

Utilities

51

Restaurants

140

Cell Data

14

Laundry

5

Water

18

Internet

28

Transportation

30

Recurring Total

$915

 

 

Alcohol (Optional)

150

Optional Total

$1065

 

 

Entertainment (Optional)

100

Optional Total

$1165

Not all of your potential expenses are listed in the above table. Visit Numbeo for Kota Kinabalu and add anything you spend money on in your home country each month that is not mentioned in the above table. This is our estimated cost of living if the two of us moved to Kota Kinabalu on a tight budget. To fully understand what it would cost you to live here, you must do an exploratory visit and put your feet on the ground. Our costs of living are generally much lower than a new traveler’s because we are great bargain hunters but there are a few people that live cheaper than we do.

Never move anywhere until you have visited first personally to verify the living costs for your lifestyle and needs. I am not guaranteeing these prices. These are just my notes and estimates from the time of my visit and this post. Your costs will likely be drastically different depending on your lifestyle and the time since this post.

More typical ex-pat living costs in Kota Kinabalu range from about $1500 to $3000 per month. But people spending that much often have higher incomes or pensions. They often report spending more on entertainment, eating out, and alcohol. Many also have more expensive cars, houses, or apartments.

Many of you will likely be unable to retire on so little here. I give example reasons why in this report: Understanding Why Overseas Living Costs Vary Widley. Several other reports you should read include How to NOT FAIL at Retiring Cheap Overseas and the Two Biggest Risks of Retiring Early for Cheap Offshore, which explain why you should have emergency funds available for unexpected large expenses. Links to those are provided below.

Where We Stayed

Semporna: Seastar Resort (Shown in the above video. Included one island tour and airport transfer.)

Sandakan: Sepilok Jungle Resort,

Kota Kinabalu: We stayed in this Airbnb for about $31 USD per night.

Here is the street it is on in Google Maps.

 

If you decide to live or retire in Malaysia for a year or more, and, you will be trying to live within the budget we are estimating in this report. you are going to have to put your feet on the ground and look for more local less expensive long-term accommodations. Here is our process for finding places as we slow travel: How to find great apartments around the world.

Traveling in Sabah Malaysia

We flew from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia to Tawau Sabah ($100 USD per person) and took the one-hour taxi to Semporna, our first stop in Sabah. Our luxury hotel in Semporna shown in the above video (Seastar Resort) included pick up and return from the airport in Tawau. Book directly with them to save a little money.

We took the bus from Semporna to Sandakan. Just go to the bus station here the day before you want to travel and ask them what times the buses run the next day to Sandakan. Return about 30 minutes early the next day and take the bus to Sandakan.

When you board the bus, tell the driver you want to be dropped off at the Sepilok Junction. The bus will drop you on Route 22 about 2 KM north of Sepilok Jungle Resort where we stayed. The resort is about 2 KM south of route 22. Ask the resort if they can pick you up at the junction.

We arrived too late for the pickup time. You can walk the 2 KM or … the custom in that area of Sabah is hitchhiking. If you wave at people they are likely to pick you up and drive you to where you are going. Just start walking towards the resort (south) and wave at cars driving by. If one picks you up, pay them about 10 RM ($2.50 USD) per person when they drop you at the resort.

I know it sounds crazy, but we did it no problem.

When you transfer to Kota Kinabalu from Sandakan, the Sepilok Jungle Resort will book your bus for you and drive you up to the same junction about one hour before your bus to Kota Kinabalu.

Livability Factors and Retirement Desirability Score

Here are the factors I think about when I consider a place for early retirement potential. After I discuss each factor, I will assign an overall retirement desirability score.

Walkability: High Desirability. I love living in walkable areas of the world where you can walk to restaurants, grocery stores, nightlife, and other interesting things to do. If I decided to retire in Kota Kinabalu central, it would be a completely walkable area. The only thing we used a Grab Taxi for when we were in town was to go to the Headhunter Cultural Center discussed above.

Internet: 60 MBPS. The internet can be spotty around much of Sabah. But you should be fine in Kota Kinabalu. Just make sure to get your own Wifi Router.

Food: High. The food choices in Kota Kinabalu are respectable for a town this size. There is Malaysian, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Korean, Indian, and many vegetarian restaurants.

Transportation: Low public transportation. We like living in walkable neighborhoods, and Kota Kinabalu central is very walkable, so we would probably live in central and just use a Grab taxi a few times per month to get outside Central.

Weather: Medium. Here is the weather in Kota Kinabalu. The average daily temperatures range very little from average highs of 87F, 31C, in December to the average highs of 90F, 3275C, in April. The nightly lows also range very little from 75F, 24C, in December to 77F, 25C, in May. The most rain falls from June through November, with the wettest month being October.

Things to Do: High. Golfing, night markets, cooking, yoga, scuba, snorkeling, mountain biking, martial arts, gyms, restaurants, bar hopping, island hopping, live music, running, coffee shops, street food, mall, standup boarding, volleyball, jet skiing, sailing, and relaxing on the beach.

Healthcare: Medium. There are two hospitals in Kota Kinabalu that can handle most problems that may come up in retirement. Gleneagles, and Queen Elizabeth. Plus, Kuala Lumpur on mainland Malaysia is getting to be known as a fairly great medical tourism destination, for price and quality. So if you get an odd disease of sorts that needs a specialist, you are just a 2-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Expats: Medium. There are two Facebook pages dedicated to ex-pats in Lota Kinabalu: Kota Kinabalu Expats, and Expats in KK. Between the two, they are averaging about 10 posts per day. Those messages may not be only from ex-pats, but there may be enough activity from experienced ex-pats to answer common questions that potential new ex-pats may have. Just make sure to search recent posts on the FB page to make sure that question was not asked and answered in the last year or so. People tend to ignore those kinds of questions. Make sure to make friends with both locals and ex-pats for a richer experience living here. I explain why in my report, The Top 10 Mistakes International Retirees Make.

Real Estate: Medium. Foreigners can buy property in Sabah in their own name with certain limitations. But I never recommend buying real estate overseas until you have lived somewhere for at least 2 years and I would probably never buy for the reasons I state here: Why Retired Expats Should not Buy Real Estate Overseas. Make sure to read that before deciding to buy real estate overseas. Almost everyone else is going to try to get you to buy so read at least one contrary source.  

Visa: Medium. Sabah has set the below retirement visa rules.  Even if you don’t qualify for the below rules, you should understand that there are ex-pats that have spent years in Sabah (lawfully) without even applying for a retirement visa. You may just have to get (lawfully) creative if you want to stay here but do not qualify for the following retirement visa rules. You may also consider applying under slightly easier rules in Sarawak Malaysia which we will post next Saturday. The following rules (and further requirements) are found at this link.

Main applicant below and above 50 years are both required to show proof offshore income of RM10,000 per month.

Main applicant below 50 years old is required to show liquid assets worth a minimum of RM500,000 and above 50 years old is RM350,000.

Main applicant is required to open a RM150,000 fixed deposit in Sabah for those aged >50 years / RM300, 000 for those aged <50 years for 10 years after MM2H approval.

On second year, MM2H holder may withdraw up to RM50,000 for those aged >50 years / RM150,000 for those aged <50 years for approved expenses related to house purchase, car, education for children and medical purposes from Fixed Deposit.

Kota Kinabalu Overall Retirement Desirability Score: High. I am ranking Kota Kinabalu as having high desirability. I personally like the lifestyle and attitudes of the people there. Plus it has a more laid-back feeling than many other parts of Malaysia. Your feeling about a place is one of the most important factors. So you will need to put your feet on the ground here to determine that for yourself.

Kota Kinabalu Guest Star  (Katie)

When we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, we met our Airbnb host, Katie, and we learned that she was from the state of Colorado in the USA.  We interviewed Katie twice because she was such a wealth of knowledge. 

Katie has multiple properties on Airbnb and she owns the following two restaurants in the best part of Kota Kinabalu:  Airbnb 1, Airbnb 2, El Centro Restaurant, and the deli next door to El Centro.  

Katie’s first Youtube interview is about her travels and why she picked Kota Kinabalu as her home for the last 20 years after extensive travels.   

Katie’s second YouTube interview will be posted in 7 days on February 1st, 2023, and will be about the pros and cons of starting a business in Kota Kinabalu.  When it is posted, it will appear below this sentence.  

Thanks for reviewing my report, Retire Early on $915 USD per month in Sabah Malaysia.

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