This is Dan of Vagabond Awake, the Youtube Channel for Vagabond Buddha. This report ranks what I believe are the top 10 places to retire in SE Asia in 2020. I have spent the last 13 years touring all over the world, 65 countries so far.
But today I am focusing on the top 10 places to retire in SE Asia. For purposes of comparison, I define SE Asia as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
I have spent more time in more countries in SE Asia over the last 13 years, than any other part of the world including my home country, the USA. That is because I often spend 6 to 12 months every time I come to SE Asia.
I am here now. On this trip, I have been in SE Asia for 14 months. During those 14 months, I have spent a month or more in each of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, then and the Philippines. I have been to all of the countries in SE Asia and now I will rank my favorite places to retire for cheap in SE Asia.
But my travels are not all fun and games. While I travel and live in these countries, I gathering data about (1) the cost of living there, (2) the pros and cons of living there, (3) the quality of food and life, (4) rents and food costs, (5) internet speeds, (6) the best tours and fun things to do, many other factors, and (7) the overall desirability score of each place I visit. And now I will tell you my top 10 places to retire in SE Asia.
Top 10 Places to Retire in SE Asia
First, I will rank my top 10 favorites based on my overall desire to move and live there today. After that, I will rank the top places using other criteria since you might have different priorities than me. I will explain that after this “overall desire” ranking.
Okay, here I go. I am going to start with the least desirable and move up to the most desirable, to build suspense.
#10 Dalat, Vietnam (Full Report): Because of the higher elevation, Dalat is one of the coolest places in Vietnam. This would be great if you like smaller mountain towns with cooler weather and lots of nature around you. The city is surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills, tea plantations, and many beautiful serene temples. There is a beautiful lake in the middle of the town. The year-round temperate weather provides ideal agriculture opportunities. You will find a rich diversity of fruits and vegetables in the markets and locals selling fresh berries on street corners. Dalat is famous for strawberries and local wine. The French governor created this highland town in 1907, so the wealthy could spend cool summers here. Personally, I would prefer to live near the beach in Hoi An or Nha Trang and just visit Dalat for a few of the hottest months of the year.
#9 Camiguin Island, Philippines (Full Report): This place is amazing if you are a small town nature lover. There is hiking, biking, swimming, snorkeling, running, boating, fishing, and scuba diving. You may run out of things to do if you are more of a city lover. You are a short boat ride from two of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the Philippines. There are amazing reefs off the coast with beautiful colorful fish and even an underwater (human) graveyard created by an active volcano. There are steep mountain trails and waterfalls calling your name. The island is famous for the lanzones and the Lanzones Annual Festival. The festival is in the third week of October. This is a very slow easy pace so might not be for everyone.
#8 Chiang Mai, Thailand (Full Report): This is a charming city surrounded by beautiful mountains. You can ride bikes, hike, do Yoga, study kick-boxing, learn Thai massage, learn Thai cooking or language, people watch, read and write books, drink too much, and visit surrounding cities and natural beauty. You can fly internationally from the airport or down to the Thai islands. Chiang Mai is lacking only in the most specialized cultural expression like the opera, orchestra, symphony, etc. so you will need to enjoy that on Netflix or fly to Bangkok. There was a time not long ago when this was my favorite place in SE Asia to retire cheap. But has taken a fall from grace recently and feels a little too western for my taste. Chiang Mai has been the capital of foreign influence outside Bangkok for a decade. All of that foreign buying power has supported a bunch of restaurants serving foreign cuisine that could not have survived in another city of this size. But you will still find 40 Baht ($1.20 USD) meals outside the tourist areas (see our suggested restaurants). This town is still second only to Bangkok in terms of the cultural experiences, but make sure you have enough money to leave during the burn season (February) when farmers burn their fields instead of till their soil.
#7 Bangkok, Thailand (Full Report): Almost every nationality of food is in Bangkok. The famous brands worldwide are in Bangkok malls. Many wealthy people from around the world come here for having fun, for shopping, and for medical and dental. You can spend money here like a drunken sailor without much effort at all. But there is almost always a cheaper version of anything you could want, sometimes with even better quality. Bangkok has an active symphony, a somewhat active live theatre community, and even some opera. International pop, jazz, hip-hop, and techno music entertainers circulate through Bangkok. There are dance clubs galore that come in fashion on a moment’s notice, so you’ll need to Google that when you are ready to go. You can even visit a Lady-Boy Cabaret style show if the mood strikes. Bangkok is the paid sex capital of the world but stay away from that. I am not judging anyone, but life can feel empty if you start to see the world through that lens. If you are single, there are beautiful people all over Bangkok living less risky lives that are looking for authentic relationships. You won’t have any trouble finding physical activities like bicycling, yoga, gyms, or other sports. Whatever your thing is, just Google it with the word “Bangkok” and you might be surprised. Expats have been living here for decades, so you have both Thai and foreign cultures.
#6 Penang, Malaysia (Full Report): We found a bunch of odds and ends happening in the Time Out Magazine for Penang. There are art galleries listed, things to do, music and nightlife, and arts and entertainment. The Canteen in China House Restaurant is still listed as the premier live music forum, the same as my last visit. The China House is listed in the 50 Things to Do in Penang. Of course, you are on an island with jungles and surrounded by water full of fish and all that implies. The number one attraction here is finding the best Mama’s restaurant in town for a $2 USD meal. Once you taste the amazing local foods, you will have a hard time convincing yourself to pay $8 to $10 USD in the tourist restaurants. As a former British colony, people are still required to speak English in many schools here. There are three major ethnic groups here, Malay, Chinese, and Indian. All three speak their ethnic languages and most speak at least some English. The people are very friendly and nice.
#5 Hoi An, Vietnam (Full Report): Hoi An is a walk back in time before the 16th century when Europeans arrived in sailing vessels to trade with the far east. The architecture and foods reflect an integration of east meets west and the best of each rubbed off and called this home. There are tree-lined two-lane streets with flowers hanging from second-floor balconies and open street markets overflowing with fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Young Vietnamese entrepreneurs grab a spot of the sidewalk and barbeque octopus and frog legs on wood-fired grills while people from all over the world line up with money in hand. People can try flavors that cost 5 times as much and are not as fresh in their home country. If the crowds bother you in the old town, you can live a few blocks away or in An Bang beach just 5 km (3 miles) away. Plus, Da Nang is just a 30-minute bus ride away if you want to go into the big city.
#4 Bali, Indonesia: This is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. It was, of course, beautiful; the landscape, the beaches, the people. The joys of this relatively small island are spread out everywhere. So you will need to have a vehicle or rent a scooter like most people. Ubud is a beautiful traditional village in the mountains where many people love to stay and eat in many of the healthy international food restaurants. Make sure to ride your scooter to Utuwala on the southern tip of Bali to see the fisherman boats, the local fish market and children dressed in their school uniforms. Also, take the ferry over to Lembongan for the weekend and visit the famous cliff beaches and umbrella graveyards. Finally, bring your camera with you when you visit the terraced rice fields when they are in full green before harvest.
#3 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Full Report): This is a world-class city with better malls than anywhere in the world with delicious healthy food courts and large movie theatres. The park in front of the Petronas Towers has one of the best running tracks in the world. There are above-ground air-conditioned paths between some of the best parts of town plus a public transportation system that is clean and beautiful. Foods of the world are here plus there are cheap local family-owned restaurants and grocery stores with imported products you won’t see in other parts of SE Asia. The real estate is overpriced here but that is okay because the rents are cheap. It is a city with some beautiful parks but in general, you will need to travel to get deep into nature. This is a city.
#2 Dumaguete, Philippines (Full Report): Dumaguete has a small-town feel to it. The people are friendly and live a relaxed easy-going life here. I ran into a group of retired Americans at the McDonald’s fast-food. I asked them if they had been to other towns in the Philippines and one jokingly said, “All of them.” I asked what town they would retire in today if they moved to the Philippines today. All 6 agreed that they would retire in Dumaguete if they moved to the Philippines today. It was still their favorite place. None of them wanted to move back to America. It is cheap to live here. There are several universities in the area so the town is alive and dynamic. There are several beautiful islands full of white sand beaches, colorful coral reefs and turtles just a ferry ride away for weekend trips. There are mountains to climb and waterfalls to play in. There is scuba, fishing, snorkeling, turtle watching, whale shark watching, and beautiful locals. We love it so much we decided to stay here instead of flying home during the coronavirus.
#1 Nha Trang, Vietnam (Full Report): Nha Trang is a well-known beach town in Vietnam. It has a beautiful beach right in front of the city and more private ones north and south. It is one of the best places in the world to enjoy a beautiful beach with a city behind it that has delicious cheap food and accommodations. Sure, you can pay an arm and a leg here if you want, but once you try my best cheap food places at side-walk restaurants you won’t except on special occasions. Plus, there are proper vegan and vegetarian restaurants with many kinds of meat substitute dishes that are delicious. And we stayed in a beautiful 1 bedroom apartment 1 block from the beach for $15 per night with equipped kitchen, wifi, and balcony. I loved running on the beach every morning and walking along the ocean at night. There is nothing like a world-class city on the beach, but cheap living too? Are you kidding me?
Three Different Ways to Rank Top Places
Your favorite place in SE Asia might be different from mine. What attracts me to one place may not be interesting to you.
For example, I am more of a city guy that loves culture. I like museums, art galleries, live music, international foods, street art, youth culture, the university atmosphere, and public transportation. I prefer to live in areas where cultural experiences are walkable. I call someone like me a cultural explorer.
Other people prefer action sports like mountain/rock climbing, surfing, riding horses, and zip lines, snowboarding/skiing or skydiving. I call someone like that an action adventurer.
Other people enjoy growing their own food, living in rural areas with some distance from their nearest neighbor, and studying survivalist techniques. I call this rural self-reliance.
We are not all the same. So I am providing the following three additional lists to help you find your own best personal place in SE Asia.
Top Places to Retire in SE Asia for Cultural Explorers
There are many interesting places in SE Asia to explore culturally. But these 8 also seem to have some of the other things people will need to retire so it might be worth exploring to see if they will fulfill all of your personal needs for day to day living.
Top Places to Retire in SE Asia for Active Adventurers
Best Place to Retire in SE Asia for Rural Self Reliance
#6 Sa Pa, Vietnam:
If you want to know how I was able to travel the world for 13 years, watch this Youtube video.
This is Dan of Vagabond Buddha. Thank you for stopping by. The world is your home. What time will you be home for dinner?