What It’s Like Living in Penang

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The blend of history, culture and nature makes Penang Island an interesting destination to visit. A former outpost of the British Empire, the state of Penang in Malaysia’s north-west consists of Penang Island (home to the state’s capital and UNESCO World Heritage George Town) and Seberang Perai (the largest and most well-known place here is Butterworth).

Travellers seeking a tropical island holiday often choose Penang for its beautiful beaches and quirky culture. And in recent years, living in Penang has become a popular choice for retirees and those seeking a lifestyle change. Here are some thoughts about life in Penang from Kirsten Raccuia (Sand in my Curls).  

Living in Penang

By Kirsten Raccuia

I: Why We Were Attracted To Living In Penang 

living in penang
Admiring a street art display in Penang.

I have a bit of an expat history.

In my 20’s as a single woman, I lived in London, Cape Town, and Brazil but I always ended up going back to Chicago, my hometown.

In 2001, on one of the first dates with my husband, we discussed living overseas.

A decade went by, and we were still talking about it.

It wasn’t until December of 2012, on vacation to Malaysia, that my husband and I decided to move to Penang, a little island off the west coast.

I didn’t want to move so far away, but after visiting Penang, we fell in love, and it just felt right.

However, I was dreading returning to Chicago to tell my small, tight-knit family that I was moving across the planet.

They knew we wanted to move overseas, but thought it would be closer, like Costa Rica.

Wrapping their minds around Malaysia wasn’t easy for them.

We went home in January and sold everything, including two businesses and by September of 2013, we had moved to Penang.

life in penang
Life in Penang is never boring and there’s always a new place to explore.

The island had us at hello, but it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that drew us in. 

It was a feeling we got while strolling around.

Walking around Penang’s capital, George Town is like walking through another era.

In 2007, the city was listed as a UNESCO heritage area, so it’s been historically and architecturally preserved.

Georgetown is historical yet modern at the same time, which makes it so fascinating.

Centuries-old shophouses have been lovingly restored to modern boutiques or small hotels.

There are ancient crumbling walls with new street art painted on them.

It’s a very exciting blend that is unique to most places.

II: What It’s Like Living In Penang As An Expat

living in penang mosque, chinese lantern, street art
Walking around at night in Penang.

Besides the old-school but modern feel of the island, the Malaysian culture is an incredibly crazy concoction of Muslim Malays, Buddhist and Taoist Chinese and Hindu Indians.

That blend makes daily life here exotic, exhilarating and quirky.

You can walk down any street and see a mosque in front of you, a Buddhist temple to the right and a Hindu temple across the street.

I’ve been standing in a Chinese temple, smelling the sandalwood incense from the Hindu temple next door and listening to the call to prayer.

It’s mind-blowing.

There are so many things to do in Penang, we are never bored.

Besides the intoxicating culture, one of the most significant benefits of living in Penang is that almost everyone speaks English.

It makes it very easy to adapt and eases any culture shock. I never had the frustrations of a language barrier, which makes adjusting pretty easy.

Plus, the locals are so warm and friendly.

When we first moved here, we didn’t know what half the vegetables and fruits were at the market.

We were always asking the stall owner, what they were, and how to cook them.

If it was good to eat raw, they’d cut off a hunk and offer it to us.

If it was better cooked, they’d tell us their fave method to cook it and then other locals standing nearby would join the convo, telling me their fave way and what restaurant to try it at.

living at penang
Being able to eat a tropical fruit is one of the joys of living in Penang.

I’ve always felt extremely welcomed by the locals.

Another benefit of living in Penang is the open-armed expat community.

There are a lot of expats on this small island and there is always something social going on.

There are loads of expats coming and going on work contracts but there is also a considerable group of expat retirees.

Our friends range from 20-somethings having kids to fabulous 70 somethings having the time of their lives.

There are expats from around the world here, which makes dinner parties fascinating.

We have friends from Zimbabwe, Germany, Australia, Scotland, Philippines, Canada and the US.

In Chicago, we had American friends, yes they had different backgrounds, but they were all American.

I have grown as a person by having friends from around the globe.

It changes your perspective and opens your mind.

Our social life is far busier in Penang than it ever was in Chicago.

Maybe because the lifestyle is different here but also because going out is more affordable and no one stays home unless they are having a party.

Since living in Penang, several Facebook groups have popped up that are an incredible resource for expats.

Ask any question about living here, moving here, or anything about life in Penang, and you’ll get a zillion answers.

There are three coffee morning meet-ups every week, which is a great way to start meeting people.

However, I always suggest getting into the online Facebook groups before you even get here.

Start reaching out and making connections, so when you arrive, you already have a bit of help from a friendly face.

III: Cost of Living in Penang

lifestyle in penang
Living in Penang is like going on vacation every day.

The cost of living in Penang is pretty cheap.

Not including travel, we spend between USD$1600 to 1833 a month but we could easily spend more and probably spend less if we were careful to stick to a budget. 

Cost of Accommodation in Penang

There is a cluster of neighbourhoods with similar amenities, all within 10 to 20 minutes from George Town:

  • Tanjung Tokong
  • Tanjung Bungah
  • Pulau Tikus

If you rent in those areas, you really can’t go wrong.

We would have loved to live in George Town as there is so much going on there but there aren’t many condos with ocean views.

No way we were going to move across the globe to an island and not be near the ocean.

We chose Tanjung Bungah, which is only 20 minutes from George Town and has a great mix of expat and locals, which was very important to us.

It has a local wet market where we get most of our produce, fish, chicken and pork. And it’s close to the international grocery stores.

We rent a three-bedroom, four-bathroom condo overlooking the ocean for US$641.

It’s 2300 square feet (213 sqm) and came fully furnished.

We have views to die for from every room, mostly ocean and coastline, with plenty of jungle.

We see all sorts of wildlife from our condo including monitor lizards, two kinds of monkeys, sea eagles and bats, which is pretty unique considering we live in a modern high-rise, not in some hut in the rainforest.

The building we live in is older, so the amenities aren’t the best.

We do have a small pool but our gym is from 1995, so we joined a gym for US$27 a month.

Our gym is super-modern with all the classes and equipment you need.

Going to the gym is also a great way to meet people and get out of the condo, especially since I work from home.

Cost of Food in Penang

penang laksa
Famous for a dish called Penang laksa, food in Penang is tasty and affordable.

Penang is known for its excellent street food, which is so good, it’s won awards.

Because it’s crazy cheap, we eat half our meals out.

It is actually less expensive to eat out than to cook at home and many condos don’t have well-equipped kitchens.

It’s just as easy to eat a $2 plate of noodles as it is to have a $30 steak.

What is expensive is alcohol and drinks at a bar or restaurant will easily triple your bill, even beer.

A glass of house wine is usually $5.75 and dinner can be half of that.

Same for beer, a large bottle of local Tiger is $4.15, so while you save money on food, you can quickly spend it on booze.

IV: Other Things To Know About Living In Penang

Visa For Living in Penang

Penang is an island that is attracting droves of expats.

There are a few different visa options in Malaysia. We are on a 10-year renewable visa called an MM2H – Malaysia My Second Home.

People think of it as a retirement visa because you are not allowed to work and if you apply for it before you are 50 years old, the monetary requirements double.

The first year we were here, we were on tourist visas (Americans get 90 days), which is not ideal because you have to leave for a few days and reapply to come back in.

The Penang authorities are starting to crack down on the whole visa run thing so you can’t get pop over the border to Thailand for a few hours.

These days, you need to leave for at least a few days or a week.

Then we had an offshore business visa for two years, which wasn’t worth the headache.

So as soon as Mark turned 50, we applied for the MM2H.

It certainly is the best visa for us since we work online and get 10 years without having to worry about it.

MM2H is one of the best in Southeast Asia if you are looking for a long-term visa program.

Medical Facilities For Expats Living in Penang

penang lifestyles
Nature is not that far away when you’re living in Penang.

One thing that people don’t know about Malaysia is that it is a medical tourism destination.

We get five-star health care, every bit as good as we had in Chicago, for a fraction of the price.

A lot of expats don’t take out insurance and choose to pay out of pocket, however, a requirement of the MM2H visa is you must have health insurance.

Our Malaysian policy covers us if we are hospitalised and there is no deductible. It costs $939 a year for both of us.

We paid more than $1100 a month in Chicago, with a $7500 deductible per person, and now we have far better coverage.

A few years ago, before we had any insurance, I had sinus surgery. I was in a private hospital room for three days and received excellent care.

The whole bill cost me under $1800, which is incredible as I couldn’t even get a series of lab tests done for that in Chicago.

Transport in Penang

penang living
There’s always something to see when you live in Penang.

Most expats buy a car or a scooter here, although the Penang drivers are notoriously crazy.

Driving in Penang is a bit like playing a Frogger arcade game.

Scooters go one way down the wrong way, they drive on the sidewalks and through the red lights.

There are road rules in Penang but no one obeys them.

That being said, we have a car and a scooter and have gotten used to the no-rules-road-rules.

You can buy a car from a local dealer, or better yet, buy it from an expat who is leaving.

The locals tend to wait until there is a problem to fix it and sometimes the dealers aren’t always the most ethical.

We went to help a friend buy a car at a used car lot.

We told the dealer the car had too many kilometres on it.

His reply to us?

“Oh, you tell me how many kilometres you want, and I change it for you!”

If you aren’t up for driving yourself, the buses are very clean, super cheap and always freezing.

The cost of a ticket depends on the length of your ride, but generally, it will cost you ¢.32-.92.

We also have Grab, which is our version of Uber, and definitely better than the taxis.

Actually, avoid taking cabs if you can because they are over-priced. Calling a Grab should only cost you a few dollars unless it’s a long ride.

House Hunting Tip

Finding a home here is best done in person. I know a lot of people want to get here and move right in but that isn’t the best idea.

There are property sites here but often the pictures aren’t of the actual unit and sometimes the images are only of the outside of the building.

I suggest finding temporary affordable accommodations for the first few weeks and do your search once you’re on the ground.

Nothing is worse than choosing and being stuck with the wrong apartment because you wanted to get settled quickly.

Overall, I’d have to say that living in Penang is pretty easy and becoming part of the community makes for a lot of happy expats.

*All prices are in USD

Kirsten Raccuia is a Chicago girl living in Penang, Malaysia, with her husband, Mark. In 2013, they were sick of the rat race and decided to rewire their lives by turning it upside down and moving across the planet. On her blog, Sand in my Curls, she writes about the realities of expat life. It’s no vacation – it’s insane, absurd, and laughable, and the best thing she’s ever done. Check it out for info on expat life, a unique perspective on living abroad, and practical travel guides.

Living in Penang
Living in Penang