My husband Mark and I chose to move to the Malaysian island of Penang for lots of reasons. The low costs mean we can enjoy a great lifestyle for just a quarter of what we paid back home. We live in a bright, spacious, three-bedroom apartment in a complex with ocean and jungle views and our rent is just $655 a month. And little luxuries here don’t cost the earth either, I can indulge in an hour-long massage for $14 or a pedicure for $10.
Penang is a small but flourishing island where you’ll find every modern convenience from easy-to-access, top-notch healthcare—you can see a specialist for just $14—to international grocery stores and high-end shopping centres. The modern and traditional blend seamlessly here. You can stroll from a glittering designer boutique to grab a $2 lunch at a street food stall without batting an eyelid.
With everything we need so close at hand, it can be easy to forget we live on an island paradise made for exploring and packed with opportunities for fun and adventure. That’s why, every once in a while, Mark and I will take a trip around Penang in search of hidden gems.
We live in in Tanjung Bungah, a coastal area popular among the thriving expat community here. It’s a 15-minute drive from the rich, cultural delights of Penang’s capital, George Town, and just 20 minutes from Batu Ferringhi where you’ll find a bustling market and some of the island’s best beaches. But take a trip to the other side of the island and a whole new world awaits…
Here, lush jungle and verdant rice paddies line the streets and run right up to the beachfront, which is usually deserted save for a lone fisherman hoping to catch dinner. Cows graze lazily along the dirt roads, stopping to watch us pass as we turn down winding roads just to see where they lead. It’s easy to forget I’m still in Penang.
Even though we’ve been here for four years now, we never fail to make a new discovery on our road trips. There’s always something new to find…a friendly fisherman eager to show off his catch of a long and skinny eel or a temple that I could have sworn wasn’t there last time were it not for its darkened walls coloured from years of candles and incense burning inside.
Just the other day we were out on our trusty scooter, cruising along the road that winds its way around the island when I saw a break in the guardrail. In Penang, this means one thing…a path to a hidden beach. You won’t see any big signs or even a faded arrow hanging here, but a break in the guardrail is always worth exploring. We pulled over and headed down the narrow path…
All across the island you’ll find tiny, hidden beaches just waiting to be discovered. And most of them, you’ll have all to yourself. Sometimes we’re joined by a family having a picnic or a fat monitor lizard warming himself in the sun and we’re always happy to share our secret with friendly newcomers.
As we reached the clearing at the end of the path we found all the usual delights…golden sands, swaying palm trees, and boats bobbing out on the shimmering ocean…but we hadn’t been expecting to discover a little cafe, tucked away on the far corner of the beach.
It was high tide so making our way across the beach required some careful timing to avoid the waves but after a few minutes we spotted a small stairway that led us off the wet sand and up to the cafe. We settled in at a table draped in a sun-bleached pink tablecloth and shaded by a leaf-laden trellis, the ideal spot for a leisurely lunch.
A perfectly-chilled bomber of Tiger beer and a plate of fried rice for under $10 was too tempting to resist. The rice, loaded with prawns and egg and topped with shredded lettuce and crispy fried shallots, came with a side of soy-sauce soaked chillies for extra spice.
While enjoying our meal, a couple of otters popped up on a rock jutting out in the middle of the ocean. We sat there watching these playful little creatures flop around in the sunshine. It was as if they were posing for us. One in particular kept rolling onto its back and shimmying. Right when he rolled back over, he’d stare at us as if to make sure we were paying attention. I could have watched him for days, but he grew tired of the game before I did and with one last glance back at us, plopped back into the water and swam away.
Kicking back after our meal with nothing but ocean and blue-sky views before us, I couldn’t help but smile at our latest discovery on our beloved island home…