Latin America is attracting big and growing numbers of American retirees looking for low-cost retirement options. But the world's most inexpensive places to retire well are in Southeast Asia.
Asia is much farther away and is generally considered a much more exotic lifestyle choice than retirement in Central and South America. Moving to any new country, you expect cultural differences. But for most of us, Southeast Asia seems a vastly different world from our own, home to people speaking incomprehensible languages who often eat strange and unrecognizable foods.
However, many Westerners have overlooked or overcome these concerns and reinvented their lives in retirement in such far-flung places as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. While there are differences between life in Southeast Asia and life in the West, this part of the world is more accessible and less foreign than you might think.
Understanding verbal and non-verbal communication and conveying respect in a culturally appropriate manner can be challenging for Westerners in Southeast Asia. Americans tend to be outspoken and verbally expressive. We are informal in our terms of address, using first names and saying "please" and "thank you" effusively. We look people straight in the eye when we talk to them.
In the Far East, a smile can be used to convey many different emotions, from happiness and amusement to embarrassment or even anger. "Please" and "thank you" are commonly expressed using smiles or slight bows. Living in this part of the world, you would want to learn to smile more and talk less. You will need to use formal greetings including missus, mister and miss. And you should learn to limit direct eye contact, which is considered aggressive. To show respect, you should look down and slightly away when speaking with your new neighbors.
If you're a Christian, you likely wouldn't be in the majority in this region. Most of your neighbors are likely to be Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu or Muslim. Some cities, such as Nha Trang, Vietnam, and Hua Hin, Thailand, have large numbers of practicing Christians. Other places, such as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, have significant Christian minorities. Jewish people make up only a tiny percentage of the population in this part of the world.
Food is different than in the West. It's generally fresher and healthier, and the distance it travels from farm to table is usually much shorter. Meat makes up a smaller percentage of the diet than in a typically Western diet. Most Asian main dishes are stir-fried or grilled, rather than baked or deep-fried, and are served with assorted fruits and vegetables.
Savory flavors are more prevalent than sweet. Rice and noodles are available everywhere, but rarely potatoes. However, restaurants catering to Western tastes are more prevalent all the time, and McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut are common throughout the region. Living in Southeast Asia, you could choose to go local or continue to eat western foods.
People in Southeast Asia live closer together than people in the west, and large, multi-generational homes are common. Big, sprawling yards are unusual. The architecture and building materials are different and suited to the climate. Newer buildings are made from fire- and insect-resistant concrete and brick. Older homes were constructed with jungle hardwoods, such as teak. Most houses are at least two stories tall to take advantage of cooling breezes, and many are four or five stories high. Most residences have the same amenities and services as their counterparts in the west.
The infrastructure in Singapore and Malaysia is of a western standard or better, and throughout Southeast Asia you find multi-lane controlled-access highways. However, you will see more little motorbikes on the road in this part of the world than cars. Motorbikes cost less than automobiles and are more fuel-efficient. However, you also see plenty of Fords, Chevys and SUVs. Trains are used more for public transportation than they are in the Western Hemisphere and tend to be clean, safe and efficient.
Shopping at the market is a part of daily life. Living in this part of the world, regular trips to the market would be a good opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture. Bargaining is the norm in Southeast Asia, and knowing a little of the local language can be a big benefit when it comes to shopping. However, many non-bilingual foreigners have gone to the market armed with nothing more than a calculator and a smile and still managed to purchase enough to eat.
In the markets, you will discover locally grown vegetables you may never have encountered before, such as bok choy and kai lan, and delicious fruits including dragon fruits and mangoes. When you compare prices with imported produce, such as apples or iceberg lettuce, you will likely develop a taste for these much less costly alternatives. Of course, there are also plenty of Western-style supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores where you could shop for groceries if you prefer that style of shopping.
Developing friendships and becoming a part of the community is the same in Southeast Asia as anywhere in the world. People in Southeast Asia enjoy getting together for dinner, dancing, watching TV and playing cards. Most people work during the day and relax at night, just like everywhere else.
Retiring to Southeast Asia is very different from retiring to Latin America or Europe in many ways, but, in some fundamental ways, life in this part of the world is very similar to life anywhere. Asia seems exotic because it is so far away, but this meant much more 30 years ago, before the Internet made the world so much smaller.
Asia is increasingly welcoming of foreigners, including foreign retirees. New residency programs make it possible for foreign retirees to settle down full time without having to resort to border runs or other visa workarounds. Countries in this part of the world are lifting and loosening restrictions on foreign ownership of property, too.
If you're in the market for a friendly, safe place to retire well on a very modest budget, don't take Southeast Asia off your list categorically. Retirement in this affordable region is a more realistic and less complicated idea than it's ever been.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group .
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