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Expat Interview: Living as an Expat Family in Malaysia

Welcome to the Expat Interview Series! I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place. Check out the archive of Expat Interviews for more!

I love reading stories about families who have broken from the norm and are finding alternative ways to live thier family life around the world! Dawn from 5 Lost Together has lived abroad with children in multiple destinations, and agreed to share their unique experience of living in Malaysia with me! 

Tell me about yourself

I am a Canadian mum of 3 kids that has been dragging my kids around the world since they were born. In fact, my youngest child was born in Malaysia while we were living there and he identifies as Malaysian! We are currently living in Melbourne, Australia on our second overseas placement.

When I was 14, my Dad was laid off from his job and instead of jumping right back into the rat race, we went sailing to the Bahamas for two years. This is where my wanderlust developed and where I realized that there were alternative ways to live your life.

Expat life Malaysia

What made you decide to move to Malaysia?

In our 20s we had done a lot of traveling, including a 6-month RTW trip. The idea of living overseas was always appealing and seemed a natural extension of our love of travel. When a work opportunity came up for my husband in Ipoh, Malaysia, we jumped at it. We loved Asia and the opportunity to spend more time there, travel and enjoy the low cost of living there.

While my husband was in Malaysia signing the contract, we unexpectantly found out we were pregnant with our third child. That definitely threw a wrench into the plan and we debating pulling out of the arrangement. In the end, we figured people have children all over the world and why should that stop us from this move.

Living in Malaysia

Tell me about the cost of living in Malaysia

While we have always been backpacker, independent travellers, we moved to Malaysia on an expat package. Suddenly we got to fly business class, have our housing taken care of and employ household help. We lived in a wealthy golf course community, the kids went to a private, international school and we suddenly had friends from all over the world.

Since Malaysia is one of the more developed countries in Asia, the cost of living is higher then neighboring countries like Thailand and Indonesia. However, you can still live very well on a lot less then in a western country.

We paid 4000 MYR/month ($1000 USD) in rent for a 3-bedroom townhouse in a gated golf course community in Ipoh, although I am sure you can pay much less. Due to high import costs, buying a vehicle in Malaysia is quite expensive. We bought a very old mini-van for 30,000 MYR. Fortunately, petrol prices are very low (2 MYR/L).

If you purchased local foods from the market, they were much cheaper then you would encounter at home. However, if you purchased western foods from the supermarket, they were much more expensive. I remember being really excited to find products like Goldfish crackers, but of course, you paid a premium. Eating at the local hawker food courts was incredibly cheap (3-9 MYR/dish) and restaurants were very reasonable.

Expat in Malaysia

Some things that were more expensive were beer, liquor, and pork products since Malaysia is a Muslim country. A case of beer would set us back 150+ MYR. To buy pork products, we would have to go into a separate enclosed area of the grocery store, pay for it and then carry it out (putting it in the trolley was a big no-no).

It is very common to employ domestic help when living in Malaysia and while this was awkward in the beginning, it was a really nice treat. For 15 MYR/hour, we had a lovely Indonesian woman that came to our house each day and helped with the cleaning, laundry and childcare. She ended up becoming a part of our family while we were there and it is one of the relationships I value the most from our time in Malaysia.

How do you make a living abroad?

My husband is an engineer and works for a US-based company and he transferred to their Malaysian office. So fortunately, that was all sorted out before we left Canada.

There were definitely lots of differences in work culture for him to get used to. Simple things like wearing a uniform (he is an office employee) to having to work Saturdays were expected. Others like managing foreign workers, using a more direct communication style and being called “Sir” by local workers, took longer to adapt to.

Living in Malaysia with family

Do you need a visa to live in Malaysia?

Yes, we needed a visa to work in Malaysia, but were lucky in that the company sorted all of that our for us.

What’s the social scene like? How easy is it to make friends?

Since there wasn’t a lot of expats in Ipoh, you were instantly adopted into the small expat group there. This actually made it really easy to get to know people and you could share common experiences and challenges living in Malaysia. Since I was pregnant with two young kids, it was great to connect with other expat families. However, one of my regrets about our time in Malaysia was that we didn’t make strong connections with local people. I wish we had made more of an effort to get to know Malaysians.

What’s the best thing about living in Malaysia?

The two best things about living in Malaysia was the low-cost of living and the opportunity to travel in Asia. It was amazing to be able to get to Thailand on a long weekend or fly to Bali for a week. We also loved experiencing the three cultures of Malaysia. We got to experience new celebrations like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Diwali.

Moving to Malaysia with Family

What’s the hardest thing about living in Malaysia?

I think the heat and humidity was one of the hardest things about living in Malaysia. While we definitely appreciated the tropical weather, I found that it was often too hot to be outside. We did adapt to the humidity, but I would have preferred a flat 25 degrees.

How is your new home different from your old one?

There are so many differences between living in Canada and living in Asia and although sometimes the differences can be frustrating, it is also what draws us to expat life. Some of the differences in our housing was not having hot water in the kitchen, which meant boiling water for dishes and was hard to get used to. We continually had geckos and cockroaches in the house and monkeys in our backyard.

The concept of saving face is integral to life in Asia. Asking for assistance in a store would be excruciatingly frustrating as I was ushered on a wild goose chase because no one would tell me they didn’t know where X was.

Expat Family in Malaysia

If we had just one day in Ipoh what should we not miss?

Ipoh is known for its food and you definitely want to sample some of the hawker fare. Bean Sprout Chicken with the plumpest bean sprouts is a specialty. You also should try curry mee and of course Ipoh famous white coffee. Ipoh is also well known for its heritage buildings and increasingly for its street art. You don’t want to miss the cave temples in and around Ipoh, set in the limestone cliffs.

Life in Malaysia

Can you share your best local/insider tip about where you live?

Avoid the huge malls on the weekends! This is where every one goes to stay cool and they are incredibly busy.

If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in Malaysia what would it be?

Embrace the differences! Sometimes it can be frustrating to jump through four hoops to pick up a package and it can be frustrating to drive on the busy roads where anything goes. But if you step outside of your comfort zone and are open to new experiences, you will get the most out of living in Malaysia.

Dawn Nicholson loves traveling and blogging about her adventures traveling and living overseas with her three kids (ages 5, 7 and 9 years old) at 5 Lost Together. Dawn and family are currently living in Melbourne, Australia on their second expat placement.

You can follow her adventures and musings on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

9 thoughts on “Expat Interview: Living as an Expat Family in Malaysia

  1. Ryan Biddulph says:

    Great stuff Sonja, learning of Dawn and her family’s life in Malaysia. Neat too; just yesterday my wife and I were chatting about how few expat stories we heard of Malaysia. We hear expat stuff all the time in neighboring Thailand with its low cost of living and ease of staying. One of my Malaysian clients is in Ipoh. He raves about his home town and how you see beautiful surrounding areas a quick car ride away.


  2. Khai says:

    It is interesting to hear your take on Malaysia, especially Ipoh. It is true – most expats are concentrated in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and Georgetown. Ipoh, though a city, still retain the laid-back lifestyle and the expat community must be very small there.

    Anyway, it is interesting to know that in Canada, there is hot water in the kitchen! Many Malaysians now install water dispenser/purifier in the kitchen with hot and cold water to make it easier to get hot/cold water. Otherwise, it would be quite a hassle to boil water everyday!

    Finally, nice knowing you and enjoyed reading your post. I am a travel blogger too, from Malaysia! 🙂

    Hope that your family will have a great time anywhere you are. Let me know if you return to Malaysia! I am willing to show you other parts of the country and to try other food as well! ‘Makan’ is a big thing in Malaysia, right?! 😀

  3. Uk123 says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Im from the UK and My boyfriend has just started a job in Ipoh and if he likes we will plan for me to join him.

    I am mostly nervous about the work opportunities for myself in IPOH and know about the visa issues too.

  4. Patrick Yu says:

    Hi, I am from HK and considering to live in Ipoh. It is quite pleasurable to read your experience and comment, I am curious to know how could i join the mentioned expat group?

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Hi Patrick! Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t know these groups myself, although I can recommend searching for Facebook groups as a first step. I would contact Dawn through her blog or social links (in the post) and she may be able to help you further. Good luck!

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