Why Malaysia is a great haven for Digital Nomads

Kuala Lumpur

I have been reading some discussions and experience of digital nomads travelling to Malaysia. Overall, there seemed to be some misconceptions which I hope to clear in this article. As a Malaysian, I would know if some of the things mentioned are accurate or not. And I know how a digital nomad want because I’ve experienced it before…. living in Thailand when I was a blogger, and later having to connect with my colleagues even though I am travelling.

What are Digital Nomads?

The definition is for the benefit of those who do not know what is digital nomads- because I just randomly asked a few people and they do not know what it is.

Digital nomads are those who choose to work from any location in the world. There is a growing trend where digital nomads choose to work to fund their travelling. Many come from developed countries with high cost of living- where they choose to travel and work from wherever they are. Compared to tourists, they tend to stay longer at a certain location so that they can do work, as well as travel slowly.

South East Asia is very popular with digital nomads and the favourites are Thailand (Chiang Mai), Indonesia (Bali) and Philippines due to a low cost of living. For some reasons, Malaysia tend to be considered merely as a stopover- while trying to apply to tourist visa to reenter Thailand. Therefore in Malaysia, they would probably consider Kuala Lumpur and Penang where the Royal Thai Embassy is located and stay for probably 2 weeks or less.

But the fact is, Malaysia does make a wonderful haven for digital nomads. In this article, I would explain why I believe Malaysia will make a great place for a digital nomad:

1. Lodging
Airbnb is a great place to find good rentals. There are new condos and apartments being build all the time and it seemed that supply has exceeded demand. Some places are fully furnished with Wifi facilities.

If you know a Malaysian friend, you can also try to get your friend’s help to source a room with Wifi access for you. For example, when my childhood friend (migrated to Canada) came back to visit Malaysia, I looked around my neighborhood for rooms to rent and managed to find a place for her for RM650 per month, furnished with Wifi access. Actually the owner is going for long term rental but he happened to have a few rooms that were not rented out so he allowed my friend to rent for a month. When my friend came back to Malaysia for the second time, I approached the owner again and from the first positive experience, and so happened he also had an extra room, he rented out again to my friend for a month.

2. Internet and Wifi access
Fast internet speed is very important for a digital nomad who need to Skye or work on videos.
I’ve seen a number of reviews about slow or no Wifi service in Malaysia by some nomads. Well, this may be true few years ago but technology is certainly changing very fast here.

First, most of the homes today install the Unifi package under Telekom Malaysia. Even at the cheapest package, it can allow concurrently 10 devices to access with reasonable speed. Malaysians are into movie streaming now and many have switched to Android box instead of cable TV (Astro). Android box requires fast speed internet to be able to view the shows and movies. I know, service outrages does happen but they would try to rectify it as soon as possible as for sure customers would complaint.

For commercial establishment, they realized that having fast Wifi service is a necessity because there would always be customers who ask them for the Wifi password. Anyway, even if they sign up a normal Unifi package, it can really support a number of multiple devices and the speed is reasonable.

But nowadays, mobile internet packages are also very competitive. So many Malaysians are having mobile data plan more than they can use…so they would not ‘fight’ with you to hog the Wifi service. Like a friend of mine who have a data plan of 30 GB at RM80 per month. She can’t even finish her data plan so folks like her will not use the Wifi at public places. It is the same for me.

Nice ambiance at a cafe in Taipan USJ- nice coffee too, Rach Desserts

We have many cafes with nice ambiance that mushroomed over the years. You don’t need to stick to Starbucks, Gloria Jeans or Coffee Bean. You can go to comfortable cafe chains like Old Town Kopitiam and Pappa Rich which have a wide variety of food and comfortable ambiance.

It is important for me to clarify that even though Malaysians may not be familiar with the term ‘digital nomads’, but we surely are familiar with freelancers. There are many Malaysians who are freelancers (graphic design, web developer, copy writer) and agents (real estate and mutual funds) who for some unknown reasons, seemed to love to spend time doing their work at a cafe instead of the comfort of their own home.

So cafe owners are used to customers going to their cafes not only for the food, but also the free Wifi.

I used to frequent Old Town kopitiam when they started business more than 10 years ago. Even then, I would always see someone who would be working on their laptop for hours. Sometimes they work alone, sometimes they have a companion with them. They would just order a drink, and sometimes food, then would be working on their laptop. Once, more than 10 years ago, I remember chatting with a friend for 5 hours- and there was this person who sat on his laptop when we arrived and he was still there when we left.

My advice is to avoid busy restaurants…. you know the overcrowded or non air-con restaurants – you would probably find the environment too noisy for you to work on them anyway. And if you get to a cafe that you like, ask them upfront if their Wifi services is available before ordering. If not, you can always move on to another place because there are so many eating places available in Malaysia.

3. Co-working office
Hmm… personally even when I was in Thailand, I did not fancy working in a co-working office. Maybe because most of my work is either blogging (personal) or replying emails from my workplace. But since having a co-working place is important for many digital nomads, I want to state that there are many co-working places available in Kuala Lumpur and its nearby towns such as Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya.

Again, this is first set up not really for digital nomads but for Malaysian freelancers who even though have their own home, they still prefer to work at another place. Co working space is really the trend here because most of the time, a freelancer or small business owner cannot afford to rent an entire office but needed a place to do work, hold meetings or meet clients. Or simply so that they can focus away from the demands of family and distractions.

For example, when I google about co-working place in Petaling Jaya (an adjacent town to Kuala Lumpur where I stay and that you can easily go to via the LRT train services and buses), there are many places available. There are also some available in Penang.

So I really do not understand why some popular digital nomaders say that there are very few co working space available?

4. Places of interest
I saw in a few digital nomaders mentioned that there is nothing much to see in Kuala Lumpur except Petronas Twin Towers, the bird park, museum, Batu Caves or shopping complexes. It makes me quite sad to hear that because it is simply not true.

Actually, it really depends on what kind of things that you wish to see when you are visiting Kuala Lumpur. Usually for travellers, it is also pretty much the same anywhere… going to shopping complex, theme parks, some historical buildings or walking around and staring at buildings and snapping photos. After a while, it gets pretty boring regardless of which part of the world you are at.

Let me switch for a while to offer my perspective as a tourist. One of my most memorable experience is staying in the remote area of Mae Hong Son in Northern Thailand. I actually spent a few months there in 2009, in the jungle by the river and teaching English to the hill tribes kids and helping in a building project. There was no internet. We do not even have electricity where I stayed. Our water source was from the rain and river. We bathed at the river, cooked food by building a fire. Our usual food consists of rice, cabbage and canned sardines.  I slept in a tent inside a cave. At night, I would stare up the beautiful clear skies with stars, hear the gushing of the waters from the river and watch fireflies flew by. You may have thought this to be super boring- but for a person who just resigned from an extremely stressful corporate job and trying to ‘find the meaning of life’, I came to appreciate the simple joys of living, right there.  I came back with scars on my calves that stayed for months after bitten by sandflies.

I believe a person who truly enjoy travelling is to experience and live the way a local does. At least it has been for me when I stayed in Thailand and Penang which was away from my home. I have this silly habit- when I wanted to explore a new place and did not have money, I would hop into a bus, pay till the last stop and let the bus takes me all over the place. I observe the locals, observe the streets, buildings, expressions that people have. When I see a place I like, I would get down and explore further. Eventually when I could afford a car, I drove around, sometimes aimlessly to explore the local place. You can do it now by taking the train- and identifying places of interest along the train stops that you may want to explore.

When I just randomly jumped into a bus in the past, I did not have a Smartphone and could not Google where I was. I have done it when I was in Bangkok all alone. If you don’t want to do that for fear of being lost, you can stick to the train lines in the city. Actually, our trains (LRT, MRT, monorail and KTM Komuter) are pretty integrated and cover a lot of places. So you don’t really need to use Grab all the time (by the way, there is no more Uber in Malaysia).

But do note through, train services ends before Cindrella timing (before 12 midnight) at some stops. Make sure you don’t run too late that you ended up missing the last train- if not you would need to take a Grab.

Note: In Petaling Jaya- we even have free bus service. Look out for the green buses. Just hop into one and go for a free tour, then hop into another one back.

Some things that we all agree:

1. Food- oh delicious
We have seriously a huge selection of food available. From the daily sustenance of the Chinese economy rice stalls, to Malay, Indian and Western cuisine, the choices are unlimited. Everywhere you go there would be food available.

And the best of all, our street food is cheap. We have lots of places to eat at night- at eateries and pasar malam that are scattered all over (night market).

There are some eateries that are opened 24 hours a day. If there is not one near you, there are 24 hours convenient stores all over the place: KK Supermart, 7 Eleven and Family Mart (but not all Family Mart are opened 24 hours but if they food is really delicious). Buy your everyday snacks from Speedmart 99– their prices are affordable.

2. Literally no language barrier 

Wherever you are, you can always find someone who is able to converse in English. Malaysians are usually a friendly lot.

Let’s visit Malaysia

I do sincerely hope that you would consider giving Malaysia a try for your next country to visit as part of your digital nomad journey. I am not saying this just because I am a Malaysian but I truly believe this country have so much to offer.

I do feature a number of places of interest in this blog and would be writing more in future articles. Some mentions:

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