Live Large for Less on This Exotic Island in Malaysia

We’re sitting on top of a massive boulder, watching the once blue cloudless sky turn pink. The behemoth stone has been polished by the wind and sea over the centuries, and it’s a perfect place for a sunset picnic. We’ve brought a bottle of wine, some cheese, and a little prosciutto. Below us, a fat-bellied monitor lizard is floating in the water searching for a smaller rock to perch upon. There are only two other people on the crescent shaped beach, so it feels like a secret island getaway, and in a way, it is.

After more than three years living in Penang, Malaysia we still find secret places that surprise us. Our lives here are incredible, but not in the way that I’d imagined. I knew life would be more affordable here, but I never expected to really “have it all.” Here we live a lavish lifestyle on a small budget. Our 2,300-square-foot modern condo has a 15-foot wall of sliding glass doors that open to a balcony overlooking the Straits of Malacca. Every morning we wake up, open the sliders and let the sun bathe our home with warmth. Every room offers striking views; the water, the jungle filled with monkeys and birds, and the lush green hills where a few high rises are scattered. A place like this back home would cost us at least $4,500 a month; here it’s only $630.

Want to spend the day on a small secluded beach? For $18 you can hire a boat for up to 10 people to head off to Turtle Beach. It is part of the Penang National Park and where turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. There is also a turtle sanctuary there to get up close to the little creatures. Or go to Monkey Beach and have a picnic with some of the island’s native furry inhabitants, but beware, these monkeys aren’t afraid of you and have no problem stealing your sunglasses or cheese. Never the less, it’s a fun adventure.

Feel like throwing out all the stops? You could charter a 39-foot luxury catamaran for you and 11 of your closest friends. For $14 an hour you can drink champagne and lounge on your own private sailboat. Back home, it would cost me more than that to park my car for two hours in a Chicago lot.

Luxuries like massages and pedicures used to be a treat, but here they are part of our routine. In Chicago, a 60-minute massage is $100. Here we have a woman come to our home for two hours, and it only costs us $22.50, which includes a generous tip. (There isn’t a tipping culture here, but she is fantastic, so we choose to.) Similarly, a pedicure would be $40 back home, but here it is only $11.25.

Then there are the everyday luxuries like great restaurants that cost little to nothing. The local food starts at $1 for the island’s favorite noodle dish, Char Kway Teow. But there are tons of international restaurants here, and most cost less than a few dollars per plate. The best and most authentic Italian food on the island is at Via Pre, where you can get a bowl of homemade pappardelle smothered in a mouthwatering wild boar, sausage, and wild mushroom ragu for $6. Or a large thin pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella, parma ham, parmesan, cherry tomatoes, arugula, and drizzled with earthy extra virgin olive oil for $8. Eating out here is a culinary adventure that will leave you with a full stomach and a full wallet.

Being able to indulge in these types of luxuries is just one of the many reasons we love our lives in Penang. There are endless opportunities for fun and adventure that would never have been available to us back home. Whether it’s a day out on a chartered yacht, or simply enjoying the sunset with a glass of wine, you’ll find it all in Penang.

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