Why Do Expats Choose to Live in Penang?

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John and Janet have recently moved to Penang. You can catch up with Janet at one of the functions that the IWA holds – she has recently taken on the challenge of being the Editor of Expressions Magazine.

When we are away from Penang, the most vivid image we hold of it is the bustling early morning wet market at Pulau Tikus. It is a sensory feast of colour, noise, people, smells. We treat ourselves to a hawker breakfast there at least once a week.

We love lots of things about living in Penang but our top three would have to be the abundance and variety of fresh food, particularly the fruit and vegetables, the low cost of living, and the harmonious mix of cultures that makes the place so lively, interesting, and fun.  Our daughter, who is at Uplands International School, says that she loves the stray animals best (we have already adopted two orphaned kittens). We don’t enjoy the ramshackle footpaths, the littering, and the traffic (particularly in Georgetown with its maze of one-way streets).

When friends visit, our favourite places to take them are Penang Hill, the Pulau Tikus wet market, and Georgetown.  It goes without saying that we also love to take them to our favourite restaurants.  Top of our list is Idealite (formerly the Wellness Education Restaurant), located next to the Waterfall Hotel on Jalan Gottlieb. The food is so fresh, healthy and utterly delicious. Others are the Arati Villas Restaurant at Tanjung Bungah (opposite the Tanjung Bungah Beach Hotel) for banana leaf sets and roti canai; Siang Pin Seafood (opposite the bus depot at the Tanjung Bungah wet market) for fresh and delicious Chinese food; and the international buffet at the Spice Market Cafe (Rasa Sayang Hotel) on Monday and Tuesday evenings (when you get two for the price of one).

We currently rent a terrace house, although are moving at the end of the year. We miss having a garden and like the outdoor space that a semi-detached or bungalow offers. Renting here is incredibly good value. We may buy property here one day, but it would have to be a pretty special place to tempt us.

Friendships have been formed with an eclectic mix of both expats and Malaysians. Currently, the bias is towards other expats, although this may change as more time passes. We definitely find it easier to make friends with people of similar cultural backgrounds.

Although we have no plans to return permanently to Australia, we do miss some aspects of living there.  In particular, we miss family, our darling old Rhodesian Ridgeback (Elsa), the surf, the clean, uncrowded beaches, the diversity of wildlife, and the wide open spaces.  The only food we really miss there are the avocadoes – we used to eat them all day every day!


Making the move to Penang was a massive effort but we are so glad that we did it; we don’t regret the decision for an instant. We plan to stay in Penang for at least a decade while our daughter completes her schooling at Uplands. After that: who knows! Most people our age in Australia are planning their retirement into suburbia – we are only just getting into our stride.



Tana Litowski

Tana Litowski and her husband have been in Penang fi ve years. You can catch up with her at her language school (which specialises in teaching English and teacher training) myTesol, in Tanjong Tokong.

“You can choose anywhere in Asia to live” my husband’s employer told us. As prairie province Canadians, we strongly need to see sky – and lots of it – or we feel very claustrophobic, so an island like Penang is perfect; we can see open water in many directions. My husband’s job didn’t last but we stayed on in Penang and now, fi ve years later, have a lively business here.

My fi rst impression of Penang was that it was delightfully noisy. From our balcony we can often hear the gong and opera from the Chinese temple; squeaky horns, jangling bells, and soulful drums from the Hindu temple; and then the call to prayer from the mosque. The contradictions in Penang are so intoxicating for me. One of my favourite images is of a cow with a big ring through its nose and painted horns tied up in the front lawn of our luxury condo.
In Canada we are told never talk about religion, money, or politics. I was only in Penang for about 20 minutes before these life-long ideals were smashed forever. I love the openness of the discussions and the curiosity.

We usually take our guests to the Tuesday night market in Tanjong Bunga. We buy some corn in a cup, eat some steamed pandan noodles with coconut on the side, try on super cheap sandals and watches, and take lots of pictures near the fruit, durian, or cempedak stands. A nice end to the evening is to go for a cold beer at a nearby Chinese restaurant; simple pleasures!

Shortly after we arrived we purchased the best condo we could afford in Tanjung Bungah and jump-started our business (myTESOL). It was an expensive few months (the understatement of the year), but we have never regretted putting our money and our time into creating a life for ourselves here in Penang.


Unlike many culture groups, Canadians don’t feel a big need to fl ock with their own kind, so we are perfectly happy making friends with people from all different culture groups. The last dinner party we had included people from over 13 different countries!

I have learned some Bahasa Malaysia; just enough to get me into trouble. I said selamat parang (have a good war) instead of selamat petang (good afternoon) to a VIP once. People are forgiving, but still I can’t stop laughing at myself!

I do miss inexpensive wine sold in a box (I never pretended to be classy), Canadian bacon, and plentiful cheese choices. Predictably, I mostly miss my parents, children, friends and old neighbors. Penang doesn’t have everything …yet!



Phil and Bernadette Ackerman
Phil and Bernadette live in Malaysia on the MM2H programme. You can catch them walking Billy (their dog) around the Gurney area or on the beach.


Phil: We came to Penang after an exhaustive spreadsheet analysis of our personal circumstances, a detailed review of the Malaysian economy, and a deep assessment of the global political situation.

Bernadette: Pay no attention to him. We came because Malaysia has rabies under control, making it easier to take our dog, Billy, back to Australia if the need arises.

Phil: We’d visited Penang on vacation in the mid 1980s: George Town swirled in mist, half lit by ancient street lights. It reminded me of Jack the Ripper’s London or something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Naturally, I was keen to return.

Bernadette: We holidayed at an upmarket resort in Batu Ferringhi. It was hot. The food was good. Everyone seemed friendly enough. Perhaps we visited George Town. I vaguely remember a fi sh restaurant where we sat at an old Formica table patrolled by dogs with missing limbs.

Phil: Expat life in Penang is like living in a village. Everyone resides in the same thirty or so high rise apartment towers or a hundred or so houses, shops at the same supermarkets, dines at the same restaurants and gets their teeth drilled by the same dentists. We know jockeys, chefs, management consultants, high tech manufacturers, artists, orchestra conductors, scientists, captains of warships, and people who test computer hard drives to destruction. It’s much more fun than the lonely life in a big city where you nod coolly at the occasional neighbor.
Bernadette: Penang sizzles with social opportunity.

Phil: I don’t like the traffi c. People die at the rate of about thirty a day on the roads here. Stopping at red lights or driving on the correct side of the highway are more guidelines than hard and fast rules. On a more trivial level, restaurants don’t much care for the silly Western tradition of ensuring every guest gets their food at the same time.

Bernadette: I don’t like the way animals are treated, although there has been a defi nite improvement in attitude during the two years we have been here. This is good news for Billy, who has lived faithfully with us all over the world, and Steven (our Malaysian “monster” cat, rescued from a drain in Penang last Christmas).

Phil: The best thing about Penang is the faint sense something important might happen here one day.

Bernadette: The best thing about Penang are the valuable friendships and the heat. I never thought I would say that, but every time I return to Australia or New Zealand, I shiver and fi ght colds as lethal as bubonic plague. In Malaysia – touch wood – we rarely get sick.


Source: Penang International October-November 2012

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