Penang: Good Food, Low Costs, and Deserted Beaches

Deserted white-sand beaches, lush jungle-covered mountains, and a bustling UNESCO-listed capital…welcome to the island of Penang.

I had heard that this was an island rich in tradition and culture…but it really does have to be seen to be believed. As I wandered around the bustling market streets of the capital George Town, I saw the melting-pot heritage that Penang is famous for.

This led to the most wonderful culinary adventure I’d ever been on. I checked out a local hawker market and enjoyed chicken satay, and fresh seafood. A plate costs $1.50 and they have it down to a science making over 500 plates a day.

Good food at affordable prices is only the tip of the iceberg when you start to explore Penang, the cost of living is low too. A couple can live here comfortably on $1,300 a month and that’s including rent. Shop at the local markets and a big bag of fresh fruit will cost about $4, reliable high-speed internet is $30 a month, and you can hire a maid for four hours a week for just $12.

Buying real estate is also relatively easy with few restrictions for foreigners. You can buy apartments, land, residential and commercial properties freehold and there is no limit to how many you can own as a foreign real estate buyer. However, there is a minimum purchase price for expats who want to buy property in Malaysia. Each state sets its own minimum price and Penang has set it in line with the federal limit—MYR 1 million ($247,917 at the time of writing).

For those here on the MM2H visa (a government program that grants residence visas to retirees) the minimum purchase price for an apartment in Penang is just MYR 500,000 ($123,960).

I came across a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment right in the heart of the action in George Town for $195,295 near the hustle and bustle of markets, galleries, and top restaurants (check out China House on Victoria street for the best cake in Penang).

If you want something a little more westernized, head to one of the many expat neighborhoods stretching along the north coast from the center of George Town. One of my favorite expat communities in Penang is in Tanjung Bungah about a 25-minute drive from George Town. It’s still close to the night life and all the amenities of George Town but it’s also the gateway to the many hidden coves and beaches.
There’s a four-bedroom, five-bathroom apartment available in Tanjung Bungah for $294,249. This sea-view property is just five minutes from glittering Straits Quay and all of its amenities.

Tanjung Bungah Beach is one of the longest on the island and is popular with expats and locals alike. Nearby, you can find a three-bedroom, three-bathroom, 1,307-square-foot apartment available for $195,295 here.

Head to the south of the island and you will find deserted beaches, not only that but life runs much slower on this part of the island. It’s like entering a different time. The south of the island is much less developed than the north but it’s only a leisurely 35-minute drive from George Town. It’s the perfect place to go to get some quiet time. This area is largely Malay and there are traditional kampongs (villages) scattered everywhere.

Many of the hidden coves here don’t have a name which may be why they are such a well-kept secret. When you’re done relaxing on the white-sand beach while listening to the waves lap the sand, you can check out one of the many local restaurants along this coast.

My favorite is Restoran Khunthai where you can get a delicious chicken curry with rice for two people for less than $8—including drinks.

This 110-square-mile island is full of surprises, and as one of the oldest outposts of the British Empire, English is widely spoken. With friendly locals and modern amenities right on your doorstep, Penang should be calling your name as a retirement destination.

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