Low-Cost Luxury on an Island Paradise

As a soft breeze gently moves the palms around me, I gaze out across a sea of green, perfectly-kept lawn tennis courts. In the distance, where the grass courts end and the playing field begins, there’s an early morning cricket match kicking off—a gentle reminder of this tropical island’s rich colonial history.

My thoughts are interrupted when an immaculately dressed waiter brings my drink, fresh apple juice, and two coconuts that I’ll take with me to enjoy later—all for just $2.40. All things considered, kicking back in a five-star sports club isn’t a bad way to start the day.

I’m in Malaysia, on Penang Island. My wife, Lisa, and I moved here just over seven years ago in search of laidback living, great weather and low-cost luxury. Penang certainly has all that in spades but there’s more to this island paradise than first meets the eye. It boasts some of the best street food in the country—maybe the world—and has become something of a foodie haven because of it. Miles of pristine beaches trim the coast, with crystal-clear, tropical waters lapping against pure white sand. Plus, there’s a country club and outdoor lifestyle that’s second to none. Hiking, biking, tennis and golf are all popular here due to an average year-round temperature in the 20s C.

We live in George Town—Penang’s capital city—in a green, tree-filled neighbourhood called Pulau Tikus, which is just over three kilometres from the centre of the island’s historic UNESCO world heritage site. We’ve lived in a few different neighbourhoods over the years, but I like this area in particular because it’s quiet and, from our bedroom window, we have a spectacular view of the jungle-covered hill resort that rises above the island’s capital. Just five minutes’ drive away are the botanic gardens where I enjoy my daily hike—home to 40 different walking trails, a 91-metre waterfall, exotic birdlife and lush, verdant jungle. And just 10 minutes’ down the road is a white-sand beach, fringed with palm trees, stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Despite all that, you can still find comfortable, low-cost rentals in this neighbourhood. For $1,032 a month you can get a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 203-square-metre apartment, just a short walk from cafes, great shopping and restaurants. We love to cook but the truth is that it’s almost cheaper to eat out here. You can, and I know people who do, eat out locally seven nights a week because it’s so low cost—and a lot less effort.

One of the unsung benefits of living in a multicultural society like this one is that everyone speaks English, so there’s no need to learn another language. It may seem like a small thing, but being able to chat with folks as soon as you step off the plane goes a long way to making you feel at home. The fact that the cost of living is about half of that back home and the expat community is so large (there are over 40 different expat nationalities living and working here), is icing on the cake.

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