Should You Retire in Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia?

Today I ask the question … should you retire in Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia? You need to know where you love your life most.

Cost of Living Should Not Decide

The cost of living in Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia is much cheaper than Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, etc., for most expats.

It is also a fact that living in rural areas of any of these countries in SE Asia is cheaper than living in the larger cities. So, finding the absolute lowest cost of living would be more influenced by your ability to thrive in rural areas. Locals in rural areas just don’t have the higher-paying jobs that push prices up in the larger cities. So rural means cheaper in SE Asia (and all over the world).

Conversely, if you prefer to live in rural areas, you generally won’t find as many people that speak your language, English or whatever. So you will need to work harder to integrate into a rural area. You will have to pick up the language or hope the Internet data is strong enough to use google translate.

If you aren’t sure whether you will be able to learn the local language, then you might consider settling in the Philippines or Malaysia. Those two countries teach English in school.

Without the language barrier, you can achieve the lowest cost of living more quickly in rural areas of the Philippines and Malaysia. Why? Because you will be able to have more nuanced conversations with people when you are trying to find out where to get things and negotiate once you find them.

In the cities of Vietnam and Cambodia, there is almost always someone near you that speaks some English, but when you go into rural areas, that is not always true. You will have a harder time achieving the lowest cost of living. That is why the Philippines or Malaysia might be better for some people. But that never stops me from pulling out google translate in rural areas of Vietnam and Cambodia.

All four of these countries are so cheap, the cost of living should not decide which of the four you decide to establish as your base in SE Asia. So if the cost of living will not be determinative for most people, what should they be considering?

Each person looking to retire internationally is going to be weighting various factors differently than others, such as healthcare, crime rates, infrastructure, language barriers, local food choices, visa considerations, Internet, walkability, expat populations, beauty and availability of nature, cost of roundtrip tickets to their home country, foreigner acceptance, and many other factors.

But one factor that we all have that is hard to articulate and measure is, “How you feel while you are living there.”

You Love Life Again When You Are Living There

Even if all the other factors are rated highly for you somewhere, you might pick another place that doesn’t rate as high on paper, if you love life again when you are living there.

I remember how I felt the first few times I walked down a white sand beach in Thailand. The turquoise blue water, the palm trees, the thatched roof huts selling $2 rice curries and 50 cent beers. Everything was so cheap and easy. I just loved every moment while I was living there.

It was so cheap and easy in Thailand 20 years ago, I actually calculated how long I could last if I emailed my boss and quit that day.

I wasn’t worried about burning cash at every turn. The thatched-roof huts selling $2 curries and 50 cent beers were family-owned. If they made $50 that day, they were ahead of the game.

Things were just different in Hawaii, Florida, or California. It was beautiful no doubt, but not so carefree. You had to keep your mind on your money and your money on your mind.

The restaurants there need to charge $15 for meals and $5 for beers, because they have to spend thousands of dollars every month in rent, employee taxes, zoning codes, fire safety, income tax, walk-in refrigerators, stainless steel food preparation counters, sidewalks, parking, etc.

Not only was the food three times as much, but so was my rent, my car, my health insurance, you name it. The thought of easy retirement never occurred to me in a realistic way when I visited Florida, Hawaii, or California. I never thought once t email my boss and quit my job. Everyone around me was so stressed. They were all doing there best to play the game. Only the rock stars and multi-millionaires were relaxing. That wasn’t me.

I never really melted into a beach towel under a palm tree in the USA like I do in SE Asia.

But things have changed for me since I fell in love with Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is still an amazing place to start your self-discovery. But as time passes, you may find you prefer places like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia. That is where I get the feeling to say screw it. I am staying. But the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia are just so different from each other.

Let me see if I can explain how they feel different from each other. In the end I will ask you which one feels like home to you based upon my descriptions. Okay, don’t listen now, it is time to feel.

The Philippines

The Philippines is for nature lovers. There are 7000 islands in the Philippines and many islands have a volcano in the middle with a waterfall or two. Most people in the Philipines are less than 20 minutes from water they can swim or fish in, both oceans and rivers.

The most pristine white-sand beaches with turquoise-blue water are visited less frequently and are more of a celebration. Those pristine beaches you see on Instagram are more often on smaller islands, one or more ferry rides from where most people live. There are few exceptions such as Boracay and Panglao, so they end up being packed with tourists.

With remote pristine beaches and waterfalls being infrequent celebrations for most areas of the Philippines, most cities revolve around local markets and mall life. People love to go people-watching in the mall, shopping in local traditional markets, and walking in city and waterfront parks.

The Philippines is not a place for international foodies. They have their local food favorites but very few people go to the Philippines specifically for food experiences. Plus, there is not a large selection of vegetarian or vegan restaurants in most midsized or small cities.


Cambodia is an undeveloped blast from the past that has maintained a historic elegance. The national psyche is still recovering from the reign of the Khmer Rouge which killed all the educated or successful people. The pace of life here is as easy as it gets. The pace seemed as slow as Myanmar or Laos. It is wide open like Laos but dryer and not as green. Land mines that filled the countryside for decades have kept natural tourism in check.

Siem Reap was built and maintained to support the tourism passing through Angkor Wat. If you have only been to Siem Reap, you don’t really know what Cambodia feels like.

Kampot is a great place if you like to smoke weed, drink $1 beers on river-side houseboats, and eat excellent ($5 USD) food prepared by Europeans that have moved there. There is also cheap food ($1 USD) available in locally-owned restaurants. Kayak lovers will love Kampot. Kep is a short bus ride from Kampot for a day at the beach. Battambang is quaint colonial-era town even slower-paced than Kampot.

Cambodia is the path less taken.


Vietnam is a place for ancient culture and traditions. There is a deep respect for family and elders. The Vietnamese are a proud people that will serve you respectfully but do not pander for tourist dollars. If you give respect it will be returned in abundance. Over the centuries, they have sent the Chinese, the French, and the Americans packing. They know and respect their traditions. They have watched one government after another come and go and have even survived civil wars for centuries. Their culture survives even when their government does not.

When you are in Vietnam, you are a guest interested in their culture, you are not the centerpiece. It is a lovely place to be because you are seeing authentic traditions through their eyes. The Vietnamese are interested in sharing their culture. They know its value and have little interest or desire to become homogenized in global ideals.

They embrace the future on their own terms. If you enjoy learning about other cultures rather than expecting your host to adapt to your culture, you will love Vietnam. If you come to teach Vietnam your better way, you will feel out of place. But if you come as a cultural student, you will feel at home here.

The food in Vietnam is as good as anywhere in the world. Again, come as a student and you will learn this. If you are Vegetarian or Vegan, there will be restaurants in almost every town to feed you. Just find a Buddhist Temple, and then look for the word “Chay” in the restaurant name.


Malaysia is a place for foodies. Because of centuries of British and Dutch colonial rule during the spice trade, food would always be its calling card. That has remained true. Malaysia remains an integration of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures, and that makes it a special place.

Thankfully, Islamophobia has kept some of the blatant globalization found in Thailand at bay in Malaysia over the last few decades. During that time, there has been an integration of the existing three populations in Malaysia that will maintain a greater influence on Malaysia’s character going forward.

That fear may have been what kept other westerners from competing with me for Qiang Hui’s attention.

The next generation of integrated Malaysian’s know who they are. They are better prepared to embrace the world without losing their soul. They are casting off their grandparent’s fear of the other.

Most people in the west now have at least one Muslim friend they love, unless they live in flyover country. So the world is ready to embrace this country that has much to teach about life.

Malaysia has one of the highest capita incomes in SE Asia, other than Singapore and Brunei. But a glut of high-end luxury high-rise condos has kept rents low in the three hot spots for expats–Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

But don’t forget to visit the northern part of Borneo while you are in Malaysia. Make sure you also see the Perhentian Islands, Cameron Highlands, and Langkawi.

The healthcare, the organization, and the general overall cleanliness and lack of chaos in Malaysia may cause you to forget you are in SE Asia.


Okay, I promised to ask you a question at the end. Which one feels like home to you?

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6 thoughts on “Should You Retire in Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia?”

  1. That is a great story Konstantinos. The Filipinos are great bunch of people. Glad you had a good experience here. Best, Dan

  2. Very nice description, without any Persistence, only acceptance and understanding. I am sure you have to visit and go around on places on those three countries as you did. I have been in Philippines once, to baptize the first child of a colleague, he asked me and I replied, never regretted, we are still friends and we talk regularly. I stayed in Manila, it was different then but it was nice to see and talk with friendly people.
    I will go again, as retired now, hoping to go visit also other countries of SE Asia having in mind your description.
    Thanks again.

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