Low-Cost Luxury in Penang, Malaysia

“I get to wake up in the mornings, have coffee on my balcony overlooking the ocean,” says Shane Cavilee. “And it never gets cold. I could be home doing the same type of job, but be cold and miserable in the winter time. Who needs that?”

For the last five years, Portland natives Shane and his wife Candace have called Penang their home. Boasting laidback beach living with cosmopolitan shopping options and a vibrant food scene, it’s easy to see the appeal.

For many expats, the abundance of low-cost luxury is one of the primary reasons to live in Penang. Shane and Candace regularly treat themselves to in-home, two-hour massages for less than $25—which includes a tip. Shane gets his haircut, complete with neck and shoulder massage, at a real barber for just $14. For a few bucks more, he could have a proper straight-razor shave as well. And Shane has his very own personal trainer who costs just $25 per one-and-a-half-hour session—a good thing too, considering all the affordable and delicious food here.

At work, Shane oversees the operations of the machining division at an international company. Life is so much more affordable here than in the U.S., which means their money goes a lot further. Currently, they live in a 6,000-square-foot modern condo that overlooks the ocean. With six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a massive pool and private beachfront access, their rent is only $1,800.

In his free time, Shane says socializing with friends and having fun takes precedence. “Not a weekend goes by where someone is not hosting a BBQ or other social function,” says Shane. “Or sometimes a big group of us ride motorcycles around the island to have noodles and cold beer on the beach. We have recently joined a dragon boat racing team that is made up of expats and locals. We meet on Thursdays after work, paddle our arms off, and then have some yummy local food and beers. What better way to spend a Thursday night?”

Living in Penang has afforded Shane and Candace incredible opportunities that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. “For me traveling to other exotic locations is the biggest benefit of living here,” says Shane. “It’s usually just a $100 flight to get to some of the most exciting destinations in the world. Some of my top experiences so far have been diving off the coast of the Similan Islands in Thailand, touring Western Australia, seeing Neuschwanstein castle (the one that inspired Walt Disney) in Schwangau, Germany, and spending a week in Bali exploring and diving.”

Penang is home to a peaceful blend of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian culture—but English is one of the primary languages. This is reflected in the diverse and thriving food scene. In recent years, this small island of just 750,000 people has made a name for itself as one of the top foodie destinations in the world.

“Whatever kind of food you want, it’s here, and it’s authentic,” says Shane. “Chinese, Malaysian, Indian…and fusions of the three that make the island’s food so unique. Hands down my favorite food is Indian—pretty much anything with chili and curry. At my favorite restaurant, I can get a fantastic chicken vindaloo with rice for less than $5.”

With secret recipes passed down through the generations, you’ll discover rare tastes and dishes you’ll find nowhere else—and often for just $1 or $2. Surprisingly, most of these famed dishes are made out of a small cart that is often pushed into place by a bicycle or scooter.

Even the more upscale, white-table-cloth restaurants are still affordable. “The other night, we went out to Basil, Le Bistro, where the chef was trained in France, and had an amazing dinner,” says Shane. “The total cost for my wife and I—for a full course dinner, pre-dinner cocktails, a bottle of wine, an aperitif, and a cappuccino—was less than $100. No way we could get off that cheap in any part of the U.S.”

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