Penang – The Benchmark For Expats Living Abroad

Don’t let Lea near the Nuclear Launch Codes!

Well we’ve arrived in Penang, an island just off the North-western coast of Malaysia with a population of almost 2 million people, for the first chapter in our new adventure.

We had arranged accommodation through Airbnb and were very keen to get to the apartment. We had been scheduled for a four hour layover in Kuala Lumpur, but the flight had been delayed for an additional two hours. Ahh the joys of travel.

We finally arrived at the apartment after midnight and the next morning, the first day of our new lifestyle, found there was, horror of horror – NO COFFEE! OK you may think this is no big deal, but Lea doesn’t open her eyes in the morning without a coffee and I’m telling you, she’s not a nice person without at least one cup. I eventually got her out of bed and we trekked about one and a half kilometres down the street to a coffee shop and the first real view of our new neighborhood. Along the way we spied some very cheeky monkeys trying to break into a house to steal food by reaching through louver windows.

We found a nice coffee shop and with each sip, Lea became more and more human but I still wasn’t going to let her near any sharp objects or nuclear missile launch codes.

A second cup and the crisis averted we took in our surrounding and spied some ex-pat ladies enjoying their post work out coffees. After some encouragement, Lea spoke to them and was able to obtain a lot of information and excellent contacts. These included the Facebook groups Partners in Penang and Penang Expat Women. One of the things we were told about was a couple of festivals coming up over the next few days.

We decided to explore our new home for the next few months and we’re pretty impressed. A three bedroom unit on the 15th floor of a 38 floor apartment building. Great pool downstairs, well equipped gym with a study room above the gym boasting free Wi-Fi, nice views across to the water and some nice breezes. We had booked the apartment through AirBnB, paying about $45 Australian Dollars per day. As I said we had about a 1.5km walk to the local shopping centre which is OK because we like to walk. We could also walk to places like Straits Quay Marina which is surrounded by nice restaurants and bars.

The view from our apartment

Looking at boats keeps me happy! Straits Quay Marina

Pool and grounds always kept wonderfully clean

WOW and then WOW again

The first of these was a Hindu festival called Thaipusam.  It’s celebrated during the full moon of the 10th month in the Hindu calendar. Ok so you’re not too sure when that is. Well it’s normally the last week of January or the beginning of February each year and lasts for a few days.

We were told that it was a coming of age ritual for young men, who are put through a physical endurance examination of being skewered and pierced on the back and front of their bodies as an act of penance. You’re allowed to witness these piercings but it’s not for the faint hearted and we decided against it.

As part of the celebrations a silver chariot is pulled through the streets from one temple to another several kilometres away. Along the route, tents and marques are set up where people of the Hindi faith give away food and drink to all attending. There is thunderous noise made up of music and fireworks, lots of dancing and wonderful vibrant colours. We were fascinated.

Smashed coconuts cleanse the streets for the Silver Chariot

As the chariot makes its way through the streets, people smash hundreds of thousands of coconuts in front of it to cleanse the streets. This happens every 50 metres and everyone is encouraged to grab coconuts and smash them onto the road. What amused us though was that the smashed coconuts soon piled up and had to be cleared away by a backhoe that came through and pushed the carnage to the sides of the road.

Later we spoke to a Hindi Uber driver who explained that he donates 101 coconuts each year. This was because his son, who loved to play soccer was always getting injuries until the year that the father first donated the magical 101 coconuts. Good omen.

Just Millions and Millions of Lights

Penang has a rich Chinese history over the period of Chinese New Year so we organised another Uber and headed for the Kek Lok Si Temple.

The name translates to Temple of Supreme Bliss in the Hokkien dialect. The poor Uber driver, who admitted he had never been to the temple, didn’t know what he had gotten himself into. We endured a huge traffic jam so took more than 90 minutes to reach the actual temple, but once we were there WOW and WOW again.

The temple and grounds, which are massive and on several levels, were lit up by literally millions of brilliant multi-coloured lights making for a spectacular sight. Along with Lea and I, thousands had made the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain to see the temple and the vast majority of them were using the obligatory selfie-sticks. We felt left out without one.

The amount of lights was just amazing!  Must have taken months to set up.

We were blown away by the colour, the amount of lights and the work it must have taken to set it all up. It’s awesome and nothing like we have ever seen before.

So, two absolutely magical festivals in the first week of being in Penang.  What’s next?

Songkram the Thai water festival

The day started off bleak with threatening clouds and predictions of rain, so we were in two  minds about whether we would bother attending another cultural festival, this time being the Thai Songkram Festival where water is sprayed and splashed on people to cleanse their spirit. I was reminded however that we do need content for this blog so off we went. So glad we did.

The rain stayed away but we still got plenty wet at the festival where kids, big and small, set about dousing everyone with water either via water guns or buckets. Lea got well into the spirit and for a while gave a good account of herself before becoming the target of every water gun in the area.


A Culture Of Food

Penang is well known for its wonderful food and we’ve certainly been spoilt by the choices available here. We’re travelling on a budget, so most nights we availed ourselves of the numerous great Hawker Markets that are all over the island. Our favourites however, in no particular order are, the Goodall Market at Tanjung Tokong, The Northam Beach Market, Batu Feranghi at the northern end of the island, Hawker Street in the centre of the capital Georgetown and Gurney Hawker Market. These places offer a variety of foods from local to western, Japanese and Chinese and each time we visited, which was often we came away fully satisfied for under $10 Australian.

Hawker Food Market

About twice a week we visited more traditional restaurants and found the Indian restaurant at Precinct 10 a real winner.

The highlight for us however was the Nyonya cuisine. We were taken to My Nyonya Favourites a little restaurant in central Georgetown by an expat who promised us a feast and he really delivered. It’s hard to describe the flavours except to say delicious. I just went hungry thinking about it. If you are in the area, do yourself a favour and try. We went back again, ordered four dishes plus rice and gorged until we couldn’t fit another bite and the bill came to 53 ringgits or about $18 Oz dollars.

Fatty Loh Chicken Rice

The variety, flavours and quality of the food in Penang makes this place a winner.

Getting Around

We found that every time we hailed a cab the driver refused to turn on the meter, instead throwing out a figure for our destination. We ended up refusing to use the local taxi’s and instead used either Uber or Grab (both apps can be downloaded to your phone).

It depends on the availability of drivers, but in most instances trips into Georgetown (7 kms) would cost about 9 ringgits or $3. We also enjoyed walking around the town and most days walked at least 12-15 kilometres. Rapid Penang is the local bus option but you need the correct change and when there is two of you then Uber or Grab are better options.

Watch out for the traffic though. Not a day went by when we didn’t come across several people deliberately running red lights. The worst offenders are the motorcycles but cars, trucks and even buses often decided that red lights didn’t apply to them.

Be careful and make sure you always look both ways, even in one way streets.

It is wonderful seeing whole families out on the motor scooters (including the family pooch).

No helmet hair for this puppy!

The Highlights

We adored Georgetown, the food, the people, the street art, the wonderful old British colonial buildings and the hustle and bustle of the city. There is a lot of fantastic history here including the Dutch and British East India Companies, Chinese immigration to the island, the colonial past and Japanese occupation during World War II.

We also loved the festivals and celebrations including those from all different religions because one of the truly wonderful aspects of Penang is how everyone seems to get on and respect each other’s cultures.

The value proposition of Penang is a real winner. Dining out here seems to be cheaper than purchasing groceries and preparing a dinner at home. Penang is the best value place we have come across to date. As documented earlier, we could eat a great meal in Penang for less than $10 where the same meal in Kuala Lumpur was just under $25.

Another highlight was the trek to Monkey Beach. We set off early via Uber and travelled to Penang National Park where we registered to let the local authorities know we were heading off and then started the trek. We followed a track around a small bay, spying fishing villages through the trees.

It was hot and humid but we had frozen a couple of water bottles the previous night so were able to keep ourselves hydrated. Some people powered past us but we took our time and spent time appreciating the beauty of the rainforest and the views out to sea. Lots of bird life here as well. We saw several monkeys along the way and even encountered a very grumpy monkey on a bridge. I took his photo and he seemed to want payment for it, barred his teeth and was a bit threatening. Luckily a local gent arrived who advised us not to have eye contact with the monkey and just walk past at a steady pace. A few of these bridges wouldn’t have passed a workplace safety audit which made the 90-minute trip even more interesting.

Monkey Beach itself is no Bondi or Mooloolaba and if anyone out there is interested in starting a plastic bottle recycling centre then this would be a great place to start, but it was an interesting place and lots of Chinese and Japanese visitors were out enjoying being in the water. You can continue the walk for another 30 minutes up to a lighthouse with amazing views up and down the coast or just relax on the beach if you can tune out the noise of the jet skis. Some Euro Backpackers had set up a camp on the Northern end of the beach and named it the Lazy Boys Café and they certainly seem able to tune out.

Recycling anyone?

Interesting trek

A speed boat back to the start of the trek costs 50 ringgits so five of us shared the 5-minute trip back and split the cost making it very reasonable.

Selamat Tinggal

It’s time for us to say Selamat Tinggal or Goodbye to Penang. We will certainly miss this place and wouldn’t hesitate to come back again later in our travels.

We will use Penang as the benchmark to rate other cities for their “liveability” so stay tuned to see how other places stack up.