Pros & Cons of Living in Penang
Penang has a special place in our hearts. We were married here 21 years ago, and returned 10 years later during a trip through SE Asia to celebrate our anniversary. It was an obvious choice for us to try our new Lifehopping style of travel, where we situate ourselves somewhere for a period of time to discover how we enjoy living there. We are kind of dating places, planning at some point in the future to settle on a location as a home base for our ongoing traveling life.
So how did it work out? Well, as with anywhere there are pros and cons. I'll get to those in a minute. But I will say that for us, three months was too long to commit to being in a single place. In the future we plan to stay somewhere for a just a few weeks or a month before committing to anything longer term. It's not that we didn't like it here, we really did, but we started to get itchy feet and wanted to go experience other places mid way through our stay. We did take a trip to Bali during our three month stint, but apart from that it was Penang all the time.
Here our our thoughts about living in Penang, based on our three month stay.
Language: Living here is easy. Because Malaysia is a multilingual country with Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures as well as a British colonial influence. English is a common language that almost everyone uses. It is very rare to find things not written in English, or people who don't speak it.
Not too touristy: Also because westerners have always been a part of the fabric of life here, you don't stand out like a tourist. No one really hassles you and you are not constantly hounded to buy stuff or take taxi rides. In many other Asian countries your Caucasian face can look like an open wallet to the locals and everywhere you go you are hassled or ripped off. Not so in Penang.
Food: The food is varied and plentiful. While I am not sure it lived up to the hyperbolic enthusiasm there is good quality inexpensive eats to be had everywhere. The street food is famous, but actually we found some of the small family restaurants to be the best choices. In particular we had fantastic Indian food.
Relatively few bugs: I am one of those unlucky people who always gets bitten by mosquitoes. The apartment building where we stayed had mosquito abatement, but even elsewhere in the city I was relatively unbothered by bites compared to Thailand and Bali.
Inexpensive cost of living: Most things in Malaysia are very inexpensive compared to the US. Food, both groceries and eating out, transportation, going to the movies, cellphone data plans are all significantly cheaper here. The only things that cost about the same as in the US are coffee shops and alcohol.
Good healthcare: We had healthcare screening while in Penang, and I had to have treatment for a sprained ankle. We visited a private hospital and found everything to be super efficient and affordable.
The people: In our experience Malaysian people are very friendly. In Penang especially people seem relaxed, happy and open. They welcome visitors warmly without cynicism and seem positive about their future and proud of their home. The service in restaurants and stores is better than we have experienced in other SE Asian countries we have visited. Special thanks to the wonderful owner of the apartment we rented who has since become a friend. She spent many hours taking us around and showing us parts of the island we would not have known otherwise.
Multiculturalism: It's difficult to articulate why this is a pro, but the mixture of cultures here, Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western; Hindu, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity creates an eclectic mix of festivals, architecture and food. All these cultures seem to co-exist effortlessly and that seems to be to the benefit of all.
Hot Hot Hot!: We were there at the hottest time of the year and the locals told us that the last few years in particular have been hotter than usual. In other seasons it is still very warm and seems relentless. It doesn't cool down much at night so opening up the windows to get fresh air isn't an option. We adjusted our schedule to make sure we avoided the main heat of day, but it's difficult to imagine living in a place long term where you have to rely on air-conditioning so much.
Choice and cost of alcohol: It's not surprising in a predominantly Muslim country that alcohol is highly taxed. Wine, beer and liquor are all at least as expensive as in the US if not more, and the affordable choices, although widely available, are mediocre at best.
Lack of vibrancy: We like cities and we want to live in one for a reason. We are not nightlife people in the traditional sense. We don't want rowdy bars and clubs, but we do like to go out and feel part of a vibrant culture and visit bars and restaurants with a lively atmosphere. We found the culture in Penang to be a little quiet. Across a lot of SE Asia we have found the same thing. Nightlife seems to be geared mainly toward westerners and there lacks a local scene.
Development and construction: From our condo building we could see at least another 10 high rise construction projects and the same is true is all over the island. The amount of development is unbelievable. City planners have just approved the process of creating a new island opposite Gurney Drive to build even more stuff. It would be very difficult to find a place to stay long term that wasn't disrupted by construction and noise.
Litter: The casual disregard for preserving the beauty of the environment seems to extend to the general surroundings everywhere. The litter is pretty awful, even around some of the most beautiful sights, like the Kek Lok Si Temple
We love Penang and Georgetown is a great city that we grew to like more during the time we spent there. It's a great base to explore from and the living is easy. Could it be a long term home, the heat and the lack of vibrancy are significant negatives, who knows? Not to worry, we'll have fun exploring new places and maybe at some point we'll be ready to marry one.