Plan a Long-Term Stay in Southeast Asia
You know the drill: when politics goes pear-shaped back home, that’s the cue for people to start grumbling about moving to Canada.
We understand the temptation, but not so much the choice. Canada may have a common border with the US, universal health care, an English-speaking population (mostly), and poutine – but the long, cold winters may not be easy to adjust to.
Besides, wouldn’t you rather spend the next four years somewhere… sunny? Somewhere cheap? Somewhere where you can forget the last elections actually happened?
In the next few pages, travel bloggers make the case for their favorite places in Southeast Asia. These places are perfect for long-staying Americans, whether you plan to retire or just wait till the next election rolls around.
Cheap food, cheap accommodations, a simpler way of life, and immediate access to Southeast Asia’s most ancient temples: what’s not to love about a long-term stay in Cambodia?
For Jennifer Ryder Joslin, Phnom Penh-based expat and co-creator of travel blog Two Can Travel, these and a few other factors made Cambodia an ideal base for their work and travels.
“My partner, Stevo, and I have been visiting Cambodia as volunteers and travelers since 2009,” Joslin explains. “The people, the food, and the constant feeling of adventure whenever we are in the country are what we fell in love with, and we have come back many times.”
Stevo and Jennifer gave up the frigid smogginess of China for the cheerier Cambodia climate, and have been happily based in the nation’s capital since 2015. “Phnom Penh is certainly not most travelers’ favorite city, however, we quickly grew to love living here,” explains Joslin. “It is convenient to do just about anything, the food scene is amazing and growing, and we are certainly never bored!”
Drawing into her long experience as a Cambodia traveler and current expat, Jennifer Ryder Joslin was able to give an enlightening thumbnail view of the cost and benefits of a long-term stay in the Kingdom.
Live large on less. The low cost of living in Cambodia allows expats to live large on what would be a small income in the West. “I would say a safe monthly budget for one person to live comfortably is $1000USD per month,” says Joslin. “This would include a room in a nice furnished apartment, eating out several times a week, and traveling in the country on weekends.”
Their article The Cost of Living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia drills down to the pennies: local coffee costs about 75 US cents, and an average local meal costs about $2. If you want to splurge, a five-star international restaurant meal costs about $100 or so.
“Cambodia offers a range of possibilities for how to live, depending on how you choose to spend your money,” explains Joslin.
Work hard for the money. Jen and Stevo work as teachers, but Phnom Penh is a magnet for talented expats of all stripes. “Although English teaching is popular in Cambodia, there are many other sectors expats work in,” Joslin explains. “The NGO field is huge, especially for human rights-related organizations. Journalism, tech, marketing, hospitality, and tourism are other popular areas.”
If you’re loath to be bossed around, Cambodia has that covered too. “Cambodian laws also make it a relatively easy place to start a business, which many expats move here to do,” explains Joslin.
Getting around – easier. “Traveling around Cambodia is getting easier every year with improved roads between highly frequently cities, a few recently reopened train lines, and better equipped (not to mention safer) bus companies opening,” explains Joslin. “International flights throughout the region are also available from the airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville.”
It’s not perfect, though: Cambodia has some way to go before it matches Singapore where reliability is concerned. As Joslin advises, “A healthy dose of patience and a go-with-the-flow attitude is recommended to maintain your sanity!”
Arranging a Cambodia visa for a long-term stay. “Cambodia is one of the easiest countries for most nationalities to get a visa,” explains Joslin. “It is possible to get a one-month (E) Visa on arrival and extend it for 1, 3, 6, or 12 months.” (Their blog explains the visa process in great detail, in articles about How to Get a Cambodia Visaand How to Extend Your Cambodia Visa.)
Dealing with the Cambodia immigration authorities is worth it, says Joslin – their situation allows them to experience the country much more intimately than when they were just tourists.
“Living here long term has given us a better appreciation of the country,” she concludes. “We have had opportunities to get to know locals and develop relationships with people that have made our experience richer than if we were just passing through.”
“Chiang Mai, or Thailand in general, should be high on the list for anyone considering making the move abroad and becoming an expat,” Nathan tells us. “Chiang Mai is an excellent choice for expats, because of the combination of a low cost of living and high quality of life.”
It’s a bold claim, so let’s parse it:
Low cost. An informal study reveals that prices for basic goods in Chiang Mai are 60 percent lower than comparable costs in Boston, Massachusetts. Nathan confirms it: “Many expats are living very well in Chiang Mai for around $1000 USD per month,” he says, explaining that all that includes housing, food, and related costs.
Low prices notwithstanding, your standard of living won’t take a hit. “I appreciate living in Chiang Mai because although I have access to every Western convenience, I also still feel as if I’m getting an authentic Thai experience living here,” Nathan says.
Affordable healthcare. Your dollar also goes a long way in the emergency room, insurance or no insurance.
“Thailand is well known for having advanced medical care at a fraction of the cost you would pay back home,” Nathan says. “Many people travel to Thailand just to have major surgeries; the cost of the procedure and recovering in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, including airfare, is less than what you would pay at home.”
Cheap and delicious Thai food. If you’re eating Thai food all the time, you’ll save big in Chiang Mai. “It costs the same or less to go out to eat than it does to cook at home [in Chiang Mai],” Nathan tells us. “A delicious, fresh cooked Thai meal averages $1-1.50 USD. To splurge and go out for a Western-style, organic, farm-fresh meal is about $6. A large local beer is $2.”
(Nathan’s article about brunching in Chiang Mai will drive the point home.)
Arranging a Thai visa for a long-term stay. If you’re determined to make Thailand your home base till the next elections, consider your visa options. Many younger long-term travelers take a “B” work visa, usually taking jobs as English teachers in Thai schools.
Baby-boomer travelers can secure a non-immigrant “O-A” visa designed for retirees. This visa has a year-long validity, and can be extended indefinitely, but applies only to travelers aged 50 and above.
It’s profoundly multicultural. Its capital is a showcase for modern architecture. And the street food is unbelievably delicious. Malaysia is becoming one of Southeast Asia’s biggest long-stay draws, and no wonder: the country feels tailor-made for that category.
Just ask Kathleen Poon, a Malaysian citizen, and blogger in charge of Kat Pegi Mana: Where is Kat Going?. “Malaysia is becoming one of the top choices of countries in South-East Asia for expats – the primary reasons are tropical weather and affordability,” Kat explains.
It’s, like, different countries in one place. Malaysia isn’t a single cultural experience, it’s several. Inhabited by a hodge-podge of ethnic communities, Malaysia allows you to mingle with a variety of cultures, while still making yourself understood, says Kat.
“Malaysia is a melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, a diverse mix that makes living in Malaysia enjoyable and interesting,” Kat explains. “English is widely spoken, thus mingling with the locals and adapting to life in Malaysia will be easier.”
Awesome beaches. Malaysia’s islands don’t get a lot of attention – all the better for tourists who want their sun and sand without the crowds of Phuket.
“We have the islands of Langkawi and Pangkor on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and Redang and Perhentian on the east coast,” Kat explains. “The diving spots such as Sipadan are across the South China Sea in Sabah of Borneo.”
Thanks to Malaysia’s equatorial location, travelers get good beach weather almost all year round. “Our weather is warm and pleasant with temperatures ranging from 27-34 degrees Celsius,” Kat tells us.
Low cost. Travelers will find their money going a long, long way in Malaysia. “Cost of living in Malaysia has been increasing these past few years, [but] it’s still relatively cheap by Western standards,” Kat says.
Case in point: Malaysian food is extremely good and cheap, to judge by the street food scene in Penang, costing no more than $3-5 per meal. Your money in Malaysia goes a long, long way in Penang food streets like Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Kimberley.
Arranging a Malaysian visa for a long-term stay. The “Malaysia, my Second Home” program (MM2H) offers a way in for long-term visitors to the country: a renewable ten-year, multiple-entry visa for foreigners who meet certain criteria.
Unlike other visas, the MM2H program permits holders to bring in their spouses and unmarried children below 21 years of age.
“The program is open to applicants of countries recognized by Malaysia, regardless of age, religion or gender,” Kat explains. “Majority of expats settle in Kuala Lumpur and Penang as there are organizations available to assist foreigners to relocate, especially those who intend to live in Malaysia for an extended period of time.
“For instance, Alter Domus is a licensed organization with MM2H, has helped many expats with the visa application, relocation, and home management services,” Kat tells us.
“Home is where we are most comfortable – choosing a home outside your own country is a difficult task considering the emotional and physical shift,” says travel blogger Nisha Jha, writer of Lemonicks. “There are several factors to consider before deciding it – cost of living, ease of life, warmth and acceptance of people, crime rate, and educational facilities are the major ones.”
The country that most fits the bill, Nisha believes, is Indonesia – “I find it an amazing place,” Nisha says. “Besides the above-mentioned factors, it is full of natural wonders, has scenic beaches & mountains, lots of activities to do.”
Bang for your buck. Expats looking to put down roots in Indonesia will find surprisingly accommodating soil: Jakarta welcomes expats, and Bali is particularly appealing for retirees: International Living estimates that a foreign couple living in Bali can live off of a $1,410 monthly budget.
One day you can be exploring a traditional Sasak village in Lombok, the next you can be sunning on the beaches of the Gili Islands. From shopping at Bandung’s clothes outlets, you can go and check out the cultural treasures of the royal city of Yogyakarta.
Arranging an Indonesia visa for a long-term stay. You can enter Indonesia on a 30-day tourist visa, then extend it at least twice at an Immigration office in-country. A longer-term stay requires that you find suitable employment within Indonesia and apply for a VITAS or temporary stay visa for workers. Travelers over the age of 55 qualify for a retirement visa.
While the bureaucracy can be a little opaque, Indonesia’s attractions more than make up for the trouble. “I know a few expats who have chosen Indonesia as their home and are happy about their decision,” says Nisha.
With the Vietnam War still within living memory, this booming nation in Southeast Asia might not be an American’s first choice for a long-term stay, but its merits are obvious to anyone who cares to take a deeper look.
Just ask Edwina Dendler, the blogger behind the Traveling German. “Vietnam has a bit of everything,” Edwina tells us. “Stunning beaches, remote mountain villages, bustling cities or quaint river towns, whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it in Vietnam.”
Big bonus for foodies: Edwina raves about Vietnam’s excellent and affordable food scene – “I could spend a year (or four, really) just eating my way through Saigon’s food stalls and roadside restaurants, and learning everything there is about Vietnam’s cuisine,” she tells us:
Vietnam has one of the best cuisines in the world. Stews that are being cooked for hours, topped with piles of fresh herbs and served with crispy baguettes. Saigon is known for its many street food stalls, where soups like the famous Pho and Vietnam’s popular Banh Mi sandwiches can be had for just 1-2 US Dollars.
And for some evening entertainment, just head to one of the city’s busy streets and find a road side bar that sells Bia Hoi, a light draft beer that’s brewed fresh daily and will set you back a mere 20 to 50 cents per glass.
Edwina has found Ho Chi Minh City to be an excellent base for exploring outward – “The Mekong Delta can be explored easily on a weekend trip and is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon,” Edwina says. “Go on a river cruise, bike around one of the little Mekong islands, and enjoy some coconut candy from the local factories.”
The best beaches for less. The advent of budget airlines has driven domestic airfares down, opening up Vietnam’s peripheries to travelers. “Flights within Vietnam are very reasonably priced if booked in advance, as are hotels and the many boutique guesthouses,” Edwina explains. “Weekend trips to the beach are affordable even if you’re on a more moderate budget.”
For Edwina, the beaches are one of Vietnam’s most underrated stops:
Vietnam isn’t known for its beaches the way Thailand is, but that just makes it better: many of Vietnam’s beaches are still untouched and you can have them all to yourself during the day – the locals prefer to stay out of the sun.
Phu Quoc and Con Dao are stunning islands offering picture perfect beaches and great snorkeling and diving. If you’re looking for a party town, you may enjoy Nha Trang; for world class kite surfing, head to Mui Ne or Phan Rang.
Arranging a Vietnam visa for a long-term stay. A three-month multiple-entry tourist visa is the best any tourist can hope for in Vietnam. For a longer-term stay, you’ll need to hook a work permit, which has a maximum term of three years.
You can visit Vietnam on a tourist visa, then once you find employment (most commonly as an English teacher), you can trade in your visa for the proper work permit.
“If you’re looking to work in Vietnam, the internet is reliable enough in most places to allow you to work remotely,” Edwina says. “And if you’re looking for local work, English teachers are highly sought after in most larger towns and cities.”
As a former American colony, the Philippines has a cultural affinity with the U.S. that no other country in the region shares. Philippine cities consume American fast food, watch American TV shows, speak American-style English, and drive on right-side roads that American drivers know so well!
Welcoming to foreigners. Cebu is the Philippines’ second city – less congested than Manila and close to the country’s best beaches, dive sites and other natural wonders. From Cebu you can take a short flight to Siargao, the Philippines’ top surfing island and a laid-back community so pleasant, many foreign visitors end up staying for good!
Wherever you end up going, you’ll find a community welcoming you with open arms – the Filipinos are famously accommodating to foreigners. Just do as the locals do – eating Filipino food with your hands, playing basketball on the street, or wolfing down balut – and you’re in like Flynn.
Arranging a Philippines visa for a long-term stay. Travelers to the Philippines can pick a visa that suits their circumstances:
If you’re planning to just stay for less than a year, the Long-Stay Visitor Visa Extension (LSVVE) program permits you to extend your tourist visa by up to six months;
The Special Investor’s Resident Visa (SIRV) permits an indefinite stay to visitors willing to invest at least $75,000 in the Philippines, either in a business or by purchasing a property.
The Special Resident Retiree’s Visa (SRRV) permits baby-boomer visitors to stay indefinitely, with multiple entry and exit rights and incentives for setting up a business in the country.