This was our 2nd stop in Malaysia and our 3rd stop in SE Asia after traveling to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. We stayed in George Town for 9 nights. We were still in the process of adjusting to Malaysia and SE Asia overall, and we were determined to really find our rhythm in George Town.
To get a general idea for what things cost in George Town I compared the cost of living to our previous hometown of Seattle. Below is that comparison of George Town and Seattle from numbeo.com. And since this is our 2nd city in Malaysia, I figured it would also be interesting to have an idea for the difference in cost of living between KL and George Town. This second comparison included below was especially useful since we didn’t do a great job of playing Money Crush in KL and we were determined to do better in George Town. I assumed costs would be cheaper in KL since it’s the big city, but it turns out George Town is even more affordable than KL. Good to know!
What we spent
At the end of our trip to George Town Alison played her Money Crush game and found that we had stayed there for 9 nights for only $28.42 per person per day (PPPD). That’s pretty awesome! We only spent $19.77 PPPD on housing, $6.80 PPPD on food, and $1.83 PPPD on transportation. Success!
The graphic below shows what we spent in George Town in US Dollars. This does not include costs for our fixed expenses, such as annual medical insurance. It also does not include regional travel costs. To reach George Town we took a 5 hour train from KL for $21.42 per person. Then we walked over to the pier and bought tickets for the ferry for $0.29 per person. Seriously, that’s not a typo! We used to pay insanely high ferry prices for our rides to our old family home on Galiano Island in Canada, and I’m pretty sure our Galiano friends will faint when they see the $0.29 ferry price for Penang Island! Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to skew our in-city costs by adding travel costs for getting to a city, but heck, I think we might as well throw those 2 ferry ticket into our Money Crush table this time (bahahahahahaha)!!!!
Our housing options as full-time travelers range from a hotel booked with points or dollars, an Airbnb, or a house sit. For our stay in George Town I booked an Airbnb. We were in hotels for our first 2 stays in SE Asia, so we were on our own for the first time in George Town with an Airbnb where we could cook for ourselves as much as we wanted. We loved the building we were in, and we certainly loved our water view. Morning coffee on the balcony was a fabulous way to start the day. We also loved having a pool that was big enough to swim laps in.
The Airbnb owner for this property takes his role as host very seriously, so we appreciated that he provided a ton of details about all sorts of places we could walk to near the apartment. This was truly one of our best Airbnb experiences. We even rearranged the furniture to really make it work for us while we were there (shhhh, don’t tell the owner).
We didn’t want to stay in a super touristy area. We were looking for a place in a blended neighborhood with locals and expats and tourists. Our Airbnb was in the Jelutong neighborhood. We had read online that this is an area where the locals are mostly a mix of Malay and Chinese, there’s a larger than average expat population here, and the housing options are more affordable because this neighborhood has new apartment buildings and also lots of old traditional wooden homes. We had a view of that reality from our balcony. We had fabulous views of the water, the skyline, the bridge, and to the far right we could also see a shanty town and a dump!
So we succeeded in finding a place that was not bedazzled to impress tourists, while also being very comfortable. We had Buddhist neighbors across the hall and we heard the sounds of meditation and chanting almost around the clock through our door. And we could hear the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day from our windows and balcony. When we moved on from Penang we really missed those peaceful sounds in our routine.
Cooking at home
At long last we had our own apartment in SE Asia, with a great grocery store in walking distance, plus two convenience stores in the pedestal of our building. We were cooking fish, chicken, rice, and vegetables every day. We also had plenty of fresh fruit and eggs for breakfast. We did enough cooking to explore what the locals were using in their pantries and stumbled upon a must-have seasoning that we are still using months later as we travel to new places.
Amazing street food
George Town is known as one of Asia’s top street food cities, and we can see why. The options were delicious and varied, with lots of veggies, fruit, fish, and meat. And we were thrilled to have an excellent night market only a couple of blocks away from our place, with plenty of yummy Malay and Chinese food dishes. So we did just fine on our street food goal in this location.
And when we left our neighborhood there were hawker stalls and street food options at every place we visited. We bought a lot of fresh coconuts so we could watch people whack at them with machetes and axes (and then drank the coconut water since its nature’s best endurance drink). At the hawker stalls we found near the Botanic Garden we had Roti pancakes with vegetables, and then we had the best desert of our lives.
1. Botanic Garden
The Penang Botanic Gardens are pretty fabulous. We knew we would love that place and it was as amazing as we had hoped it would be. The gardens were built in an old granite quarry site that the British redeveloped when they were holding Penang in 1884. Walking through the gardens you get a feel for how beloved this deep jungle valley is today. The paths are all very lush and beautiful. We met some proud Malaysians strolling around getting their daily exercise and excited to talk with us about this special place. Their greenhouses keep the gardens growing and they also sell native heritage plants to the public. Next time we visit Penang we hope to find an Airbnb very close by so we can join the locals in walking this park as often as possible. The monkeys were pretty cute too.
2. Hiking Penang Hill
For our first hike up Penang Hill we decided to stick to the paved route. There are tons of options for different paths but the locals we met encouraged us to use this trail “since it has fewer snakes and scorpions.” ACK! The paved route is very steep but you’re more likely to meet people on the road instead of creatures that walk on more than 2 legs or slither, so that worked for us. The guy we were taking local advice from asked if we would rather just take the funicular train to the top to snap a few photos, and then hop back on the train to get down again. NO! We wanted to hike the steep trail and enjoy the workout and the views along the way. We were there to see sunrise, and spent around 2.5 hours hiking UP the 4.5 miles to around 2,700 feet above sea level. That hike was very steep! At some point we took a nice long break to rest and guzzle water in a nice shady spot and we met some funny local guys along the way. We need to stay there long enough next time to do that hike more often!
3. Street Art
Over the last 10 years the street art scene in Penang has become world class as well as diverse, so we were really excited to check it out. It’s a great blend of murals and mixed media, and wrought iron pieces from local artists as well as internationally famous artists. Sponsorships for the street are come from all sorts of people, as well as commercial businesses and even the government. We spent a full day searching for street art during our visit, and we found a ton of it but there was so much more on our list that we didn’t have time to see. Another good reason to return!
4. Chew Jetty
We stumbled upon Chew Jetty when one of the local guys we met pointed towards the water and said we should head over in that direction to look for a mural that he loves. Before we found the mural we noticed a sign designating the clan jetties site as having Unesco world heritage status. This historic pier community grew up along the waterfront around 1882 or so when a Chinese clan began building stilt houses there, and today a very small number of families still remain from the once bustling seafront fishing village. We wandered along this series of stilt houses, shacks, and sheds sitting on narrow old wooden piers. One thing we noticed was that a bunch of the houses had buckets of concrete stacked from below water level to above as braces for the old wooden structures. These homes as some of the oldest Chinese settlements still standing in Malaysia.
The Chew Jetty piers were once much more plentiful and crowded with Chinese fishermen, oyster harvesters, and fortune tellers. The jetties survived both world wars as well as the British rule and Japanese occupation, and then developers actually took quite a few of them. The Unesco status has stopped developers and preserved what still stands of the pier community. But Unesco status has also caused a huge increase in tourism in a place that can’t easily accommodate them (us). Tourism in this endangered neighborhood is clearly a challenge for the residents. But we are grateful we found this place and exchanged some smiles and well wishes with the residents. If you decide to visit it seems fair to trade a few photos for a few purchases and be extra considerate while you are there. We did our best to respect their need for privacy, while also honoring their unique long history and steadfastness. This is an amazing place, very worthy of a respectful look and admiration.
Islam is the official religion of Penang State, but George Town is diverse in religious practice. The best place to experience that diversity is known as the Street of Harmony. It was named Pitt Street by British colonizers and later renamed as Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. We took a 20 minute walk on the Street of Harmony and saw temples and churches for Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, and Christians.
Unfortunately George Town is really not hitting the mark in being a pedestrian friendly area. Yet. When we were there towards the end of January 2019 we would not call it a walkable city. It’s a place that has a lot of “curb appeal” that attracts tourists as well as locals to want to walk and bike within neighborhoods and between neighborhoods. But since the bus system doesn’t quite link areas with enough convenience, most people still travel by car and scooter. And pedestrian walkways are often blocked by cars and scooters which means we were out trying to walk in some pretty unsafe conditions at times. My hunch is that 5 years from now George Town will truly be a walkable city. We shall see!
The island is not currently a transit rich destination. They do have a bus system, which we did not use. I looked at using it once and found that it could take us about 2 hours to go about 2 miles from our Airbnb to the touristy part of “downtown.” And we would need to do some extra walking “in traffic” to make it work. The bus system appeared from my perspective to be one that’s not quite complete yet. When we return we will probably stay in a different area and who knows, maybe it will work better for us next time.
The only transit we used was the old “Penang Hill Railway.” We didn’t take it up Penang Hill because we wanted a big hike that day, but we did take it down. The views from the funicular are amazing. The rail system first opened in 1923 and is currently running as a one section funicular railway. Ridership is mostly driven by tourism with lots of tourists riding the system to enjoy the views at the top of Penang Hill. But on our ride down what caught our eye was that there are a couple of stops along the way that are small neighborhood rail stops which you can only enter and exit at if you are a resident. So it turns out it’s not just a goofy tourist train, local people are using the funicular as their transit system for getting to and from their homes. That made it twice as interesting for us!
We ended up using a lot of Grab cars to get around Penang Island. The rides were cheap and cars showed up within a couple of minutes every time we requested one. Even though we used Grab cars pretty much every day, we only spent $25.23 on Grab cars in 10 days/9 nights.
Where We Spent Our Time
Money Crush Score: Excellent, way under budget
Our Money Crush score does not factor in how much we liked the city, it’s focused on whether we made good financial choices and stuck to our budget. Our average daily spending goal for 2019 is $115 per day. That’s total dollars spent for the two of us.
Our actual daily spending in George Town averaged out to $56.84 for the two of us or 28.42 PPPD, which is only 49% of our average daily budget. That is a great score! And compared to how we did in KL we were even more thrilled with our cost of living during our stay in George Town.
Travel Score: Loved it, we want to return
Our overall travel score is essentially a rating for how happy we were in this city, which is 100% variable based on tons of factors. This does not factor in what we spent. It’s based mostly on whether we want to return for a longer stay in the future.
The bottom line for now is that we really loved our first trip to George Town. The pace was slow, and we saw plenty of green space and heard birds chirping every day. During our visit to George Town we met some incredibly welcoming and friendly local people and enjoyed ourselves completely. We loved our first trip to George Town and we would return for a full month or more in the future.
LGBTQ Score: Malaysia is very closeted and fairly dangerous
Malaysia is officially a secular state, but there are some hateful beliefs within the local culture about homosexuality as well as laws, provisions, and fatwas that criminalize homosexual behavior. To be clear, homosexual activity is illegal in Malaysia and violence against LGBTQ people occurs fairly regularly in this country. Two women were convicted of “attempting to have lesbian sex in a car” and on September 3, 2018, they were each caned 6 times within the Sharia High Court in the state of Terengganu in Malaysia as punishment for homosexual acts.
Sharia laws in Malaysia make it illegal for “a man to dress or act like a woman,” which means Trans women can be beaten and jailed for wearing women’s clothing. Since Trans people cannot change the sex on their IDs they face discrimination in any situation where ID is asked for, such as interviewing for a job and opening or accessing a bank account. According to LGBTQ activists in Malaysia, LGBTQ people live in a constant state of fear and danger in their country.
If you think issues relating to discrimination would not affect tourists keep in mind there is a provision that prohibits all acts of “public indecency” which allows for broad judgement and punishment of public behaviors by citizens as well as travelers in Malaysia. Perhaps the simplest and most important thing to remember when visiting Malaysia, is that touching in general and all forms of public displays of affection are taboo.
Other Stuff We Think is Interesting
How Big is this Island?
Penang Island is not very big! Penang Island is about 113 square miles in size (293 square kilometers). It’s only the fourth-largest island in Malaysia. I compared it to Singapore for example, since we were just there a few weeks earlier. The main island of Singapore is only 276 square miles (716 square kilometers) in size, and that’s more than double the size of Penang Island. The population of Penang Island is around 708,127 people and the City of Singapore has a population of 3.5 million people.
George Town, the capital city of the State of Penang, is located at the north-eastern tip of Penang Island. It is Malaysia’s second largest city. The historical core of George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The northwestern suburbs are more upscale and more expensive to live in. To the west of George Town the suburbs are more rural and have more farmland. We stayed in one of the southern suburbs, in Jelutong, which has a more industrial makeup and more blended housing with new high rises and rundown shanties.
The Free Port
The British developed George Town as a free port, attracting traders without the requirement to pay taxes or duties. According to historical records George Town’s port welcomed 85 ships in 1786 and with free port status that grew to 3,569 ships in 1802. Major trade items included Penang Island farmed spices such as pepper, nutmeg, and clove, as well as other spices from all over SE Asia. And once tin mining became a major industry driven by the British on the Malay Peninsula, the port was also used as a major tin-exporting port.
During WWII the Port of Penang was a major submarine port used at various points by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Navy of Nazi Germany, and the Navy of the Kingdom of Italy.
After the end of colonialism the Malaysian federal government revoked George Town’s free port status, which caused massive unemployment in the city and the end of the old George Town port-focused economy.
Silicon Island / Silicon Valley of the East
When Penang Island lost its status as a free port in 1967 and the local economy crashed, the government instead created a modern high tech “free zone” as a solution — a free industrial zone. The Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone was created in 1971 with the goal of launching an economic boom on Penang Island. The Free Trade Zones Act succeeded in attracting multinational tech companies and in creating a new economy with pioneer tax incentives and a new culture that places a primary value on work-life balance. The Bayan Lepas system includes training, mentoring, and support for entrepreneurs, and a focused system of providing angel investors for startups. Penang Island engineers enjoy an affordable cost of living and a university system that is highly subsidized by the government.
When we hiked Penang Hill we shared a water and shade break with two local engineers who both work for Intel. They were excited that we had come from Seattle, another booming tech hub. They know the Silicon Valley rise to fame story well. They also explained that there’s a huge pride in Penang Island as a tech hub and work-life balance island. We asked them if they were at all tempted to transfer to Seattle or Silicon Valley, and they said no. They can get all of the training and mentoring they need in George Town for free. They think George Town is a better space for startups and especially for hardware manufacturing. And they know that the tech hubs of America are “work you to death” cultures. Why leave a tropical island tech hub that has a slower pace of life, a creative and artistic culture, combined with all of the perks of a multinational tech industry culture? These guys have no plans to leave. Silicon Island companies include Intel, AMD, Sanyo, Sony, Western Digital, Hewlett Packard, Clarion, National Semiconductor, Hitachi, Osram, Bosch, Motorola, and Dell.
We will not limit ourselves to traveling only to countries where everything is perfect — since there are no countries where everything is perfect. But we do want to be safe and feel comfortable when we travel. There are plenty of countries we refuse to visit because of the discrimination and lack of protections for LGBTQ people. Since there are many countries that follow discriminatory laws, practices, or traditions we try to learn as much as we can about the politics and taboos in the countries we visit. And we pay especially close attention to the laws and taboos relating to women and LGBTQ people. As a reminder, there are still states in the US that tolerate or even promote racist and homophobic discrimination.
In Malaysia, social attitudes towards LGBTQ people are certainly influenced and tainted by elements of Islam, the official religion. With Sharia laws in place, it is basically illegal to be openly gay in Malaysia. And there are many who say Malaysia is one of many countries today that is experiencing a cultural shift towards conservative thinking and is becoming increasingly conservative in their laws and practices over time. The Malaysian states that are the most conservative and strictly Islamic are Kelantan and Terengganu. The city of Kuala Lumpur is considered to be the most liberal place in Malaysia. A number of Malaysian government officials and religious leaders also work to encourage hatred and violence against LGBTQ people, such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak who declared that LGBTQ people are enemies of Islam.
And by the way, it’s too simplistic to focus on the fact that Malaysia is an Islamic State — because the sodomy law in Malaysia is actually a remnant of a colonial law so you can also thank the British Empire for that. Like so many other cultural and political issues, this one is complicated. We hope to see this government and culture continue to evolve in a positive direction so that LGBTQ people do not continue to experience such terrible discrimination in Malaysia in the future.
Expats welcome — but not LGBTQ people
Malaysia is very interested in drawing expats and their money to retire in their country. They have created the “Malaysia My Second Home” program, or MM2H as they call it, to grow their expat community. Malaysia’s largest expat community is in Kuala Lumpur, and their second largest is in George Town. With low cost of living, quality health care, and plenty of entertainment and recreation options, Malaysia is an appealing retirement destination. And George Town’s island city lifestyle is appealing.
Just for fun I got in touch with a couple of agents to discuss the MM2H application filing process. I thought it would be interesting to discuss the fact that I am a lesbian from America who is married to a woman, and then ask if we would have a chance of being approved in the MM2H program. The guidelines for approval are focused on financial requirements that we could easily meet. But knowing the laws and taboos in Malaysia relating to homosexuals, there are other things to consider. To clarify, Alison and I are not looking to live in Malaysia. I’m just having fun researching everything I can think of about every country we visit, including this MM2H program.
The first guy I talked to said it would be highly unlikely that MM2H would grant approval “for my spouse.” But if we just “apply individually” and hide our marriage that would be fine. The second guy I talked to basically said the same thing, if we just apply as individual cases, then there’s no issue. When pressed both of these guys were clear that we could not apply as a lesbian couple and be approved.
George Town’s population was around 738,500 people as of the last census. It’s the 2nd largest city in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur. But George Town is not a densely populated city in relative terms. George Town has a majority of Chinese people within the population, at about 53% ethnic Chinese compared to 23% ethnic Chinese in the overall population in Malaysia, and around 43% ethnic Chinese in KL. Malays are about 31% of the population in George Town and Indians are about 9%.
George Town is only 374 miles from the equator and has a tropical rainforest climate. That means relatively consistent temperatures throughout the year, with an average high of about 90°F (32°C) and an average low of 70°F (21°C). Penang Island gets a lot of rainfall, though it got zero rain while we were there at the end of January, because January is the driest month.
October is the wettest month. Annual rainfall in George Town is around 98 inches (2,477 millimeters). For comparison, everyone complains about how much rain there is in Seattle when in reality there isn’t all that much — Seattle only averages about 37 inches of rain a year.
While we were there the high of the day was between 85 and 95°F and at the lows overnight dipped to around 75°F, but I always add the “real feel” and that typically adds another 10 or 15 degrees depending on the time of day/amount of sunshine and the actual humidity at the moment. It was hot but we were often in garden areas or near water, and in those areas with just the slightest breeze and bit of shade we are ok. But the days we spent adventuring around old town surrounded by concrete and asphalt we got overheated and cranky which meant we had to head for the air conditioning much earlier than we wanted.
Our trip to SE Asia has added a ton of books to my reading list since I’m looking for fiction and non-fiction books set in each location we visit. I love recommendations from others by the way, so feel free to let me know if you have a favorite book I need to add to my list. For our first trip to Malaysia I picked “The Gift of Rain.”
The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Ang
I started this book in KL and I finished it in George Town. It was the perfect book for our stay in Malaysia because it dives into local history, politics, and the challenges between the prominent ethnic groups in Malaysia. It also digs deep into the specific kinds of issues George Town experienced during WWII by the Chinese and Malay population, and the British colonial families who were influencing the culture and driving the economy, and then the Japanese invasion on top of all that. That is some serious drama and heartache! I could not put this book down and I would recommend it to anyone, whether you are visiting Malaysia or not.