I am no stranger to expat life. I’ve lived in London, Cape Town, and Brazil. But in December of 2012, on holiday to Penang, something drew me in and grabbed hold of me.
By September 2013, my husband and I had sold everything and were living in Penang — an island off the west coast of Malaysia.
What exactly drew me in is challenging to pinpoint, but what has kept me here is easy to explain.
Walking around George Town (the capital city of Penang) is like stepping back in time. It was listed as a UNESCO heritage area to preserve the bygone era and architecture.
Centuries-old shophouses are still in use today but with a trendy new boutique hotel just a few doors down. It’s both historical and modern. Its crumbling walls give way to contemporary street art murals. It’s this mashup that makes it so exciting!
When you are sick of the hustle and bustle of George Town, take a quick ride to the Botanical gardens. Besides all the trails, you’ll come across monkeys, sea eagles, and monitor lizards. It feels like I’m living in a National Geographic magazine.
Living in Penang affords all the modern comforts needed for a home, but it’s still raw enough to keep it interesting. In this guide, I’ll share everything you need to know about being an expat in Malaysia and living in Penang.
What’s It Like To Be An Expat in Malaysia?
My everyday life is much the same as it was in Chicago. I still have to work (albeit, remotely from home), I still have to do the laundry, the grocery shopping, and the cooking. You know, the usual stuff that makes up our daily lives.
But the backdrop has changed considerably.
My life is exotic in ways that have become intrinsic to me now. I often have to remind myself of how different I used to be.
Just today, as I was sucking the juice out of a prawn head (sorry vegans), I commented to my hubs that I would never have done that while living in Chicago.
These days, we won’t buy prawns unless the heads are on, it’s the best part. And it’s how everyone eats them here in Malaysia.
It is our new normal. And it couldn’t be further from our old normal. Those are the kinds of little things that make being an expat in Malaysia exciting. It’s pushed me to grow.
I’ve never felt anything but welcomed by the locals, and I feel like I’ve become part of a community.
Since everyone speaks English here, it has been easy to adapt to my adopted home. I never had the frustrations of getting lost or feeling out of place because I could just ask someone for help.
I think that played a large part it settling down without too much culture shock.
The Best Areas to Live in Penang
There are a few places to live in Penang, but some are more desirable for expats than others. Here are my recommended areas to live:
George Town is the heart and soul of the island and the reason people travel to Penang.
It is definitely my first choice for any digital nomad living in Penang. It’s also where most of the co-working spaces will be.
The town has an eclectic mix of highrises and temples, street food stalls, and white table cloth restaurants.
It’s listed as a UNESCO heritage area, so wandering around the streets feels like you are in a living museum, one where you get to appease all of your senses.
Everything is within walking distance in George Town, so you won’t have the added expense of transportation.
This is another popular area full of apartments in Penang. It’s a 15-minute drive north from the heart of George Town. But this neighbourhood is all about shopping and modern-Western conveniences.
It’s where there are two major shopping malls — Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon. Aside from stores like H&M, Top Shop, Sephora, and Mango, there are little boutiques, grocery stores, gyms, and movie theatres.
This is a super modern area, without the charm of George Town. If amenities are what you are after, this is a good area to live in Penang. But if you want to be a part of the allure of George Town, you’ll need to take a bus or a Grab car into town.
Tanjung Tokong & Tanjung Bungah
These two areas are about 20-25 minutes north of Geroge Town. Both areas are packed with locals and expats living in Penang. They are neighbouring towns and are often intertwined.
It’s located right in between George Town and the beaches of Batu Ferringhi, which is why we chose to live here. It’s really the first suburb of George Town with walkable beaches.
There is only one co-working space in the area, but if you can work from home, this is one of the best areas for living in Penang.
This area is real-life Penang. There are only a few beachside hotels, so it’s not a very touristy area. It is a bit sleepy, especially at night. There are plenty of restaurants but no real nightlife to speak of.
Batu Ferringhi is another beach area in Penang and definitely the most touristy one. There are bunches of restaurants and high-end beachfront hotels, but not a lot of conveniences for living. There is no major grocery store and only a small market.
This area is the furthest from George Town and has no co-working spaces. You will need transportation to get into town and it will take about 30 minutes.
If you are going to be living in Penang for a few months, Batu Ferringhi might be too far from George Town unless you plan to have transportation.
The Cost of Living in Penang
The low cost of living in Penang is one of the biggest draws for many digital nomads. Few places have all the modern comforts needed for a digital nomad lifestyle with such incredible affordability.
In other words, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Let’s start with housing…
Accommodation Costs in Penang
This is where you’ll spend most of your budget. Albeit still a small amount.
Depending on your style, location, view, and the amenities of the building, you can find rents starting from RM2000-6000 ($450-1380 USD).
A lot of the apartments in Penang have large spaces, gyms, and pools, which adds to the cost.
If that isn’t important to you, you can find accommodation on the lower end of the price spectrum. Older buildings with the same amenities also are cheaper than the shiny new highrises that are all over town.
Food Costs in Penang
Penang is known for its cheap street food. Not just because it’s cheap, but because it’s crazy good. Legendary.
It’s just as easy to find a RM5 ($1.15 USD ) plate of delicious noodles as it is to eat a lobster buffet for hundreds. It is cheaper to eat out than cook at home, so most locals eat out almost all of their meals.
Food is very cheap, but alcohol is not. We spend way more money on booze than we do food when we eat out.
Street food prices:
- Char kway teow – a famous local noodle dish is RM5 ($1.15 USD)
- Assam laksa – fish-based sour noodle soup dish RM5 ($1.15 USD)
- Chicken Rice – a big hearty dish of rice mounded with chicken, all covered with garlic chilli sauce. It comes with soup. RM7 ($1.60 USD)
- Satay – marinated chick on skewers cooked over charcoal 10 skewers for RM12 ($2.75 USD)
- Chicken – RM17 ($3.90 USD) per kilo
- Pork – RM17 ($3.90 USD) per kilo
- Large bag of fresh veg from the market – RM25 ($ 5.75 USD)
- Bottle of wine – RM45 ($10 USD) Booze is expensive here
- Can of local beer – RM8 ($1.83 USD)
Transportation Costs in Penang
Public buses cover the whole island and range from RM1.40-4.00 ($0.32 – $0.92) depending on the length of your ride. However, if you stay in George Town, you’ll only need them if you decide to go to another area of the island.
You can also rent a bike, scooter, or car if you plan to stay elsewhere.
Grab (Malaysia’s version of Uber) is by far the best way to get around the island. It is more expensive than buses, but it is faster and way easier. They are still very cheap. From our condo to the airport is a 1-hour drive, and it only costs around RM35 ($8 USD).
Best Restaurants in Penang
When living in Penang, street food is a must. It takes on a few different looks here.
There is the general street-side stall that they push into place right before mealtime, but there are also hawker centres or food courts.
Not like the food court you’d find in a North American mall with McDonald’s, KFC, and Sbarro Pizza. Here they are packed with food being cooked to order using recipes handed down from generation to generation.
A hawker centre is where you can go to find 30 or more different “restaurants” or stalls under one roof. It’s where the locals go and where you will likely spend most of your time stuffing your face with all the local dishes.
This is my favourite hawker centre. It’s in the heart of George Town and where Anthony Bourdain ate when he filmed here. It’s one of the biggest in town, so you’ll be able to try everything your heart desires.
However, if you get overwhelmed easily, don’t worry – the locals are super friendly and love talking food.
If you see someone eating a dish that looks good, go ahead and ask them what it is. They’ll tell you what it is and happily help you make some good choices. Click here to find Red Garden on the map.
By day, Kimberly Street is any normal road in town, but at night, street food stalls are pushed into place, and it starts humming.
There aren’t as many choices as at Red Garden, so it might be a great place to start without getting overwhelmed. Click here to find Kimberly Street on the map.
After eating street food for so long, once in a while, we want something a little nicer. We don’t go here every week, but for special occasions, Kebaya is the best.
It is located inside the 7 Terraces Boutique Hotel. From the antique plates to the food, the attention to detail is incredible. This is Nyonya food at it’s finest. The kind of food that has 25 ingredients to each dish yet tastes like your auntie made it. It has soul.
They serve a price fixed, four-course meal. You can pick your courses from a long list of options that has something for everyone. The price is RM128 ($29.50 USD), which is an incredible bargain for what you are getting.
You can’t even get two martinis for that price in a nice restaurant in Chicago where I’m from.
How to Find Apartments in Penang
Finding short term rentals used to be very challenging. Nowadays, more and more are cropping up, especially in George Town and Tanjung Tokong/Tanjung Bungah.
However, the shorter the term, the higher the price.
Airbnb is ubiquitous on the island and one of the best ways to source apartments in Penang.
Another option is Agoda. They showcase condos and homes for rent. Some hotels offer long stay promos so it’s worth checking into that as well.
In the last few years, the number of serviced apartments has increased as well. Serviced apartments always have housekeeping and a kitchen so it’s homier than a room in a shared apartment.
Whichever route you choose, negotiate your rent. It is very common here, and the longer you stay, the more negotiating power you have.
What’s The WiFi And Data Like?
Believe it or not, we have faster internet here than we did in the US. A lot of areas on the island have a fiber optic system, which makes the internet lightning fast.
We’ve had Digi since we moved here and found it to be the best overall internet service on the island. You can buy a Digi Sim card at the airport.
A lot of the apartments in Penang have free WiFi. As do the cafes, restaurants, and every co-working space. Keep that in mind when buying a SIM card.
No matter how much data you buy, you can always top it up at a 7/11 or local convenience store.
Digital Nomad Groups and Co-Working Spaces
As a digital nomad living in Malaysia, work is part of your everyday life. There are almost a dozen co-working spaces in George Town to choose from. Here is a list to get you started.
Scoopoint has a very laidback vibe. They have a nap room, a hammock, a party, and a play area. But it’s not all play and no work, they just believe in balance. It is a space geared toward creatives with hot desks and dedicated desks. Monthly hotdesk rentals got for RM280 ($64.45 USD). Click here for details.
@CAT has a totally different vibe than Scoopoint. It is geared toward tech entrepreneurs and start-ups. The goal is to make Penang even more innovative and start-up friendly. Monthly fees are RM300 ($69 USD) for a fixed desk. Click here for details.
MSOGO is inside Prangin Mall in George Town. The space is massive, so it will be easy to find a quiet spot. It’s bright and extremely colourful. If you like a zen-like working atmosphere, head elsewhere. There are various seating areas throughout the space as well as a kitchen and a game area. Monthly hot desks are RM300 ($69 USD). Learn more here.
If you arent looking for a co-working space but still want a sense of community, check out the Penang Digital Nomads Facebook group for all things digital nomad.
Pros and Cons of Living in Penang
Since I’ve been an expat in Malaysia, I can honestly say there are more advantages than disadvantages. But no place is perfect. Here is my list of the biggest pros and cons of living in Malaysia.
- Low cost of living
- Almost everyone speaks English
- It’s very safe
- The healthcare is excellent
- Locals are very friendly
- The food is delicious
- Affordable travel anywhere in the region
- It’s multicultural
- There is a large expat society
We chose to move to Penang so clearly for us there are a lot of pros. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some cons as well. Here is my list of the most significant disadvantages of living in Malaysia.
- The public toilets are pretty gross
- Not a lot of care for the environment – people litter because “someone else” will pick it up.
- Driving is pretty insane
- No such thing as customer service
- Booze is expensive
- It’s really far away from my family in the USA
Things To Do in Penang
There are so many sites and things to do in Penang that I’m still discovering new things, even after 7 years. These are some of the must-see places while you are living in Penang.
This place is my favourite Chinese temple and Clan House hidden away in the heart of George Town. It dates back to the mid-19th century but has been painstakingly restored over the years.
It is incredibly ornate with its mosaic dragons on the roof, black and white drawings of mythical creatures, gold-gilded doors, and carved windows. It brings you back to opulent times.
Kek Lok Si
As one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, it is a must-see while living in Penang.
This temple has instagramable nooks around every corner and over a million images of Buddha within its complex. They started building it in 1885 and are still constructing new parts today.
The 36-metre bronze Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statue was the latest addition. There are gardens to stroll through, and a turtle pond on the grounds.
The temple is a bit outside of George Town, so you’ll need to take a Grab or a bus there, but it’s worth it.
The Habitat on Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the highest peak in Penang. If you are struggling with the heat and humidity of the island, take the funicular to the top and get a drone’s view of the whole island.
On a clear day, you can see the island of Langkawi, and Thailand.
The Habitat is an eco-tourism site with a canopy bridge and walk, a nature trail, and a zipline. But the focal point is the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk. An oval-shaped walkway on top of the trees.
Penang is renowned for its ever-evolving street art. There are maps for it, festivals around it, and new pieces popping up daily. The best thing to do is wander the streets of town and find it as you go. Half the fun is hunting it down.
Some are tiny little scenes in the back of a dilapidated alley. Others are welded iron and tell the story of Penang’s history.
There is something for everyone in Penang. It has nature, art, food, history, and culture. And for expats and digital nomads, it has the extra important things — fast internet, friendly locals and a low cost of living.
It is easy to fall in love with Penang. More and more digital nomads are calling this little gem of an island a temporary home.
Most people don’t stay here long enough to get the full effect. But if you stay a month or three, you’ll discover it is a perfect concoction for nomads and anyone else looking for a new adventure.
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