First off, I should say that I am a huge fan of both countries and have travelled and lived in both for some time. I have been a resident of Malaysia for over 3 years now; it was a natural choice as my wife is Malaysian Chinese.
I am very fond of Thailand though and lived there for 10 months in 2004. All in all, I have lived in Thailand for a duration of more than 2 years on and off during the last 20 years.
I have recently met a few digital nomads and the issue of Visas and where is most advantageous to live in terms of quality of life and geo arbitrage.
Please keep in mind that this is my personal opinion and that I am writing this from the perspective of being married to a Malaysian Chinese woman, having two-kids, that I work online, and I am in my forties (very much relevant as I will explain later).
With the recent chatter about visa issues in Thailand, the popularity of working online, and that I think many digital entrepreneurs overlook Malaysia as a destination I thought of writing this post. Let me explain why I believe Malaysia is a better option for residency.
Malaysia vs Thailand Overview
Before I start comparing Malaysia and Thailand let’s have a quick look at the demographic data on both countries.
- Population: 32.6 million
- Capital: Kuala Lumpur (KL)
- Currency: Ringgit
- Religion: Islam, Buddhist and traditional Chinese religions
- Language: Malay, English, Chinese
- Population: 69 million
- Capital: Bangkok
- Currency: Baht
- Religion: Mostly Buddhist
- Language: Thai
Cost of Living (COL)
Living in either Malaysia or Thailand is certainly cheaper than where I lived in the UK (London).
Thailand is home to many bootstrapping digital nomads and is a popular choice as it bridges the gap between backpacking and working online. It’s cheap and you don’t need a lot of money to get by.
I remember the first time I visited Thailand when the exchange rate ended up at 90 Baht to the pound. My friends and I really couldn’t believe how cheap it was travelling in 1998 in Thailand.
Of course, the main reason was due to the recent Asian financial crisis that saw currencies plummet against the USD, Euro and GBP.
Over the years the Thai Baht has gone from strength to strength. When I live in Chiang Mai in 2004 the exchange was 65 Baht to the pound, on recent trips I was getting 38 Baht to the pound. Many long-term residents are complaining now of the cost of living being simply too high in Thailand and are considering other options.
That said, there are many people in Thailand that enjoy a better standard of living there than in their home countries.
How about Malaysia’s cost of living?
Our standard of living is way higher than when we lived in London. The size of the property (and the fact with having a huge pool), utility bills, cost of running car, school fees and eating out, is way cheaper than the equivalent cost in the UK or even Western Europe altogether. I would imagine this is the same as most of the big towns in the US too.
This doesn’t mean living in Malaysia is dirt cheap though.
Many family and friends were surprised at this, who automatically assumed we were living here for a fraction of the cost in the UK. This is not entirely true as if you eat out at the shopping mall, buy western goods and have kids at International school the costs do mount up.
To live a very good standard of living in Malaysia as an expat you can easily spend $4k USD per month and more. If you want to live more modestly you certainly can but your lifestyle will be less expat and more local.
When taking into account factors like schooling (I talk about this a bit later) then I believe Malaysia offers a better value for money for families. If you have no kids then Thailand may be cheaper in terms of living costs.
Important observation on the Cost of Living
It’s important to highlight that the cost of living in both Malaysia or Thailand really does depend on where you live in these countries and your lifestyle.
You can really live it up big time in either Thailand or Malaysia living in huge apartments and buying luxury western brands. So, it really depends on how “local” you want to get.
For us as a family we enjoy a mixture of both local and expat living, but if I was being honest more like 60% expat living and 40% local. We have a VERY comfortable lifestyle, and this does come at a cost.
To get the same lifestyle we have in Malaysia back in the UK it would cost us 4-5 times what we spend. Even our apartment alone at 2,500 sqft would be several thousand pounds instead of the £1000 we spend here.
Long-stay Visa and Residency
The visa situation in Thailand worked well and does to a degree now if you’re planning to spend one-two years living there. If you want to be resident, then the cost of a longer-stay visa jumps up to $15k USD plus for the likes of the Thai Elite Visa.
The visa situation is very fluid, and I know that Thailand, in particular, changes the rules on this frequently and so please fact check information for yourself on visa rules and regulations.
If you make a reasonable living online and want to stay in Thailand, then the Elite Visa looks to be the best way to stay without the nervous visa runs.
In contrast, I find Malaysia is more for established digital entrepreneurs who have an existing business that actually generates decent revenue. If that’s the case, then you go apply for Malaysia as a Second Home visa as you should be more easily qualify.
This long-stay 10-year social visa is ideal for anyone with a business outside of Malaysia and who meets the requirements. Again, if you have a relatively successful business you should easily meet the financial requirements.
Even though my wife is Malaysian Chinese I decided to apply for the MM2H as this gives 10-years of residency in Malaysia with no requirements to enter or leave.
MM2H Requirements (at the time I applied)
When I applied two-years ago the requirement was to have 500,000 ringgits ($120k USD) in liquid assets (basic cash in the bank or shares) and to be earning the equivalent of 10,000 ringgit per month ($2,500 USD). Once accepted you need to deposit 300,000 ringgits ($73k USD) into a Fixed Deposit (FD) for the duration of the visa. You can withdraw 150,000 ringgits after one-year by showing suitable expenses, for example, kids’ education or purchase of a car.
A big bonus with the MM2H is the fact you not only get bank interest on your fixed deposit but that you can withdraw this once you wish to move and cancel your visa. So, it’s basically a savings plan that you simply leave and forgot.
Please check the conditions now as this may have changed since I applied and received my MM2H.
When living abroad as an expat with family then education becomes a focal point. We hit the jackpot when we first moved to Malaysia as we’re lucky enough to get our kids into an International school straight away.
Not only that, but it’s a school with a great atmosphere with a great mix of expat teachers and pupils. We really like that local and expat kids are enrolled in the school too.
I don’t know much about International schools in Thailand only from three families I have met who now lives in Malaysia. Their feedback was that International schools in Thailand are way more expensive than Malaysia and the quality of education on par, if not better here.
It helps educationally that Malaysia was once a British colony as the level of English here is much higher than Thailand. Most people speak a reasonable amount of English here, especially if they work in white-collar jobs.
In terms of cost, we pay less than the cost of one child in a full-time nursery in the UK for two-kids at International school and day-care for my younger son in the afternoons.
On top of this, we have the chance to have extra-curricular lessons for Piano and Chinese classes. We pay $8 USD per hour for Piano classes compared to $50 USD in the UK. I am not sure of the cost of private lessons in Thailand.
Based on the discussions with other expats on the cost and quality of education in Thailand, then it is, of course, a foregone conclusion that Malaysia wins on the education front.
This is a tough one actually as I absolutely love Thai food and find that I rarely eat it in Malaysia. I do miss a decent Thai meal and still, have fond memories of eating my Phad Seu Gai and Yen Ta Fo “pink noodle soup” at the local market.
It’s hard to beat eating the amazing tastes of Thai market food that costs less than $1!
Even still the bonus for Malaysia is the rich mixture of the three nationalities of Chinese, Indian and Malay dishes.
Part of the reason for me stacking on 6-7 kilos during the first year in Malaysia is due to the tasty food here. I have written before about why eating Roti Canai and Won ton mee are some of the reasons for my weight gain and why I attempted to lose 6 kg last year.
Both countries have a good selection of Western food too. Each week in Malaysia I still enjoy a steak Guinness pie, fish and chips or pizza, alongside mostly traditional Chinese and Malay dishes.
Overall though if I had to choose between Thailand and Malaysia for food, I would pick Thailand.
Malaysia is closer to the equator and so is overall hotter than Thailand. You can feel it with the higher humidity too. There is no big difference between seasons too, which means the weather is fairly consistent year-round.
There are slight differences that can see around Chinese New Year (February most years) getting hotter with later in the year getting more rain.
This is different to Thailand, which experiences a cold, hot and rainy season each year.
The weather in Chiang Mai can actually be fairly cool around November-December time that you may even consider a long T-shirt or shirt in the evening. You wouldn’t even consider this in Malaysia unless you were spending a long time in the shopping mall or cinema 😉
In South-East Asia though the rainy season doesn’t mean you get 24/7 rain but often tropical downpours that last for a few hours and then out comes the sun.
Before living in Malaysia, I really disliked the rain but now it’s refreshing and cleans up the air making everything feel refreshed again. Of course, this is only nice if you’re inside and don’t have to venture out!
With the weather in mind the best time to visit Malaysia is most from March to October avoiding the heat of Chinese New Year and the rains of November. The best time of year to visit Thailand is between November and March when there is less rain.
I really enjoy the hot weather and don’t miss the UK weather at all. That said, the differing temperatures in Thailand is nice and overall, I would prefer it.
Entertainment and Fun
The vibe in Thailand is certainly more liberal and as a consequence more fun. That’s not to say that Malaysia isn’t, but it’s more restrained.
Anyone who likes to drink may be shocked by the prices of alcohol in Malaysia. This is because of the tax on alcohol, which means that drinks can be expensive, especially if out on a big night out. That said, it can be costly paying for drinks on average to upscale places in Thailand. Before I quit drinking alcohol it was fairly common for me to pay 150-180 Baht for a JD coke, prices you would see in London pubs.
Mention Thailand nightlife and soon the conversation veers to the infamous go-go bars and clubs in Thailand. The fact is this occupies a few well-known streets and areas in Bangkok, but you can often find them in other towns too but don’t tend to be everywhere you look. There is no need to go into details on this post about this, if you haven’t experienced this yourself then you can easily find this information online.
Needless to say, in Malaysia, you don’t see any obvious go-go bars or dodgy massage parlours. There are surely going to be some, as there are in most countries and cities around the world.
Anyone who knows me, or spent enough time in a few of my posts, will know – I am certainly no prude, but as a family man I wouldn’t want my kids to see what’s on display in some places in Thailand.
The word to consider here is in “some places”. It really does depend on where you go in Thailand but it’s certainly very more prominent than most countries. Basically some streets you would need to avoid with family in toe.
The party and clubbing scene is much more vibrant in Thailand. Only recently I got the opportunity to go to Neon Countdown in Bangkok for New Year to see my favourite DJ Armin van Buuren. This event was awesome and the epitome of a well-organised event in Thailand, where there a number of festivals each year.
Ultimately, it’s very difficult the beat the party vibe that exists in Thailand.
Things to Do and Places to See
They are fair more sights and sounds to explore in Thailand than Malaysia and many more places to visit.
Although Malaysia has jungles, beaches, shopping malls and heritage streets and buildings, Thailand has many more places that are worth visiting.
I have spent most of my time in Northern Thailand in Chiang Mai as I preferred the vibe up there. But the south is home to a number of great islands with amazing scenery, most notably those in the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun and the Leonardo Decaprio film, The Beach.
The beaches in Malaysia are simply not as varied and as good as in Thailand.
At the end of the day, you could spend months visiting and doing stuff in Thailand but feel that in one month you could have done most of Malaysia’s sights.
I would highlight that one of the nicest places to hang out for a few days is in the Heritage part of Penang called Georgetown. The buildings really are amazing and there are many quirky places to visit and what are called “speakeasy” hidden bars that come alive at night.
How about personal safety in Thailand and Malaysia?
Personally, I have found both countries to be fairly safe.
Infrastructure wise for roads and pavements its much better in Malaysia. You can actually walk along the pavements without fear of falling down holes or knocking into low hanging electricity cables as you see in Thailand.
How anyone with kids in a stroller navigates the pavements in Thailand I really don’t know!
The roads in Malaysia are great too and are akin to what I would see back in the UK.
Now in terms of driving that’s another matter. Both Thailand and Malaysia can be a super maniac when it comes to driving and is pretty much on a par with each other – as in BOTH CAN BE SUPER CRAZY.
Motorbikes will travel up and down pavements when blocked on the main road from traffic. They will beep their horn to warn pedestrians walking on the pavement they are coming close, crazy I know!
In terms of personal safety from robbery or violence, I have thankfully never had any issues in either Thailand or Malaysia. That said, I have heard of a lot of shakedowns by overzealous police in Thailand often in areas of Bangkok. (Thai bloggers have mentioned this on numerous occasions).
The stop and search issues in Thailand as apparently got out of hand at times, causing expats to avoid certain areas. Again, this is second-hand information as I have not personally experienced this.
In Malaysia, there seems to none of these issues with the police and the issues of bribes has never come up. In contrast to Thailand where I have had to pay once or twice when riding a motorbike. I should admit once for good reason as I wasn’t wearing a helmet (silly I know) but the second time I was.
On balance I would say Malaysia is safer in my opinion.
Verdict: Malaysia vs Thailand
So what’s the verdict for the best country for residency, Thailand or Malaysia?[table id=16 /]
It’s a draw? Read my conclusion below to find out if Thailand or Malaysia is best for residency for expat families.
Politics and Religion
I have kept Politics and Religion out of this comparison to avoid offending anyone. As an expat I have found that both politics and religion have not played a significant factor in my life and/or decisions to live in either Malaysia or Thailand.
One thing is for sure, both countries have a LOT of public holidays!
This has been a much longer post than I had originally intended. I just kept thinking of more aspects that I wanted to compare to give as much of a comparison between Malaysia and Thailand as I could.
If I quick tally up the winners for each of the sections here is the result: Thailand 4 vs Malaysia 4. A draw.
But he is the fact, I am a huge fan of Thailand as a tourist and living there then Malaysia the better option for LifeHacker Guy.
As to which country works best for you depends on your personal situation and where you are in life.
For me having a family, great and affordable International schooling, closeness to my in-laws, with all the benefits of the much cheaper cost of living for what is really a great standard of living – Malaysia is the best choice for us.
If you’re bootstrapping and at the early stages of the digital nomad journey, or are single and looking for wild parties, then clearly Thailand may be a better choice. Just consider that as veterans of Thailand will testify to, the cost of living is certainly rising.
Nowhere is perfect, and even though both places are spectacular, more wallet friendlier than most western countries, there are downsides that overtime can be frustrating – to be honest just like living anywhere.
I am interested in your opinion. I am very much a fan of both Thailand and Malaysia, certainly over the alternative of living in the UK or Europe. Where do you prefer to be based in Malaysia or Thailand? Or do you split your time between the two?
Disclaimer: Whilst I try to ensure the facts in this post are as accurate as possible there is the chance of a mistake on my part. If so, please in a polite and courteous manner let me know in the comments below. This post is not about bashing either Thailand or Malaysia but my personal viewpoint having spent a number of years in both countries. Even still I aim to give a balanced view and very much welcome sensible debate.