Penang is an island on the west coast of Malaysia, two hours from the Thailand border. Once an important shipping port in the spice trade between east and west, the Penang of today is a fascinating blend of old and new. Luxury condominiums the size of small palaces line the foreshores, while just a few streets away in the capital Georgetown historic Chinese shop houses sit jumbled together on narrow streets.
With its diverse mix of cultures, eclectic cuisine and beach-city status, Penang has a lot to recommend it as a great location for families. Penang offers great infrastructure, good education, and a range of entertainment and lifestyle options such as sporting teams, hiking, cinemas, family friendly beach-side bars. The cost of living is low while the standard of living is extremely high.
Penang isn't quite a tropical paradise. Here's the nicest beach ... which is several kilometers walk from the nearest town.
Most of the island is heavily populated, although there's lots of jungle covered mountains, pockets of nature and undeveloped coastline. It has peak hour problems, although no where near as bad as most cities. The ocean isn't exactly pristine and rapid development is spoiling some areas, but there are still a lot of small friendly suburbs with green places.
We came here for a week last year and ended up staying 5 months. At the end of that five months we decided to spend the next few years in Penang, living here half the year and travelling the rest. While there are cheaper places to live in South East Asia, for us it offered everything we wanted: a high standard of living at a low price, easy access to facilities like healthcare and entertainment, good schooling and educational facilities (great bookstores, interesting outtings), a diverse culture to learn about, a nice balance of nature/beaches and city lifestyle ... and possibly most importantly for us - lots of other families hang out with.
In case you're considering moving to Penang, here's a break down of our costs. These costs are based on a family of 4, with two young children.
FYI: Prices are quoted in ringgits, which is roughly RM3 = 1USD or 1AUD or RM5=1 UK pound
Just a note: since we're holidaying here in Penang, we're not working. So I'm not providing details on the cost of work visas, shipping, taxation rates etc. This is just a daily living guide.
Housing & Utilities
The cost of rent in Penang is all about location, location, location! The closer you are to Georgetown or the bridge to the mainland, the more expensive the rental prices.
Expats tend to be scattered all over the island. Many live out near the beaches closer to the international schools. Others live in Georgetown, near the airport or the bridge to the mainland, for work reasons. There's no bad place to live, it just depends on the needs of your family.
The best way to find a place to stay is to come to Penang and stay in a guesthouse or hotel while you look. Generally, places advertised online will be more expensive. A week is more than sufficient time to find an apartment, but allow a month if you are looking for a house. Try to set some time aside and search for Penang hotels online. This might not seem like a huge issue, especially if this is an endeavor you’ve been saving for, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much money you can save by going this route. All it takes is a few clicks on a high-profile website like Expedia, and you’ll be able to find a great room for a low price. You can usually book a number of last minute hotels as well, so don’t feel as though it’s too late to check and see what’s available.
Penang is a relatively safe place to live, but break-ins are not unheard of. Many people choose to live in apartment complexes for this reason, but houses are perfectly safe provided you have good locks, grills and a decent fence.
It's worth noting in Malaysia, unfurnished can mean an empty shell - no kitchens, lights or hot water. Semi-furnished usually refers to the place having a kitchen, hot water, lighting and possibly AC. Fully furnished means everything you'll need, except perhaps an oven and installed hot water (although ask nicely and your landlord will probably provide these things if you are staying more than a few months).
Furniture and applicances are a little cheaper than back home, while other household items like plates, cutlery, curtains, linen are at least 30% cheaper than you'd pay back home if you know where to shop.
If you're just coming to Penang for a few months, a furnished apartment is your best choice. It is hard to find a furnished house on a short-term lease.
The cost of renting an apartment varies depending on location, size, age, furnished or unfurnished, quality of furnishing, length of rental agreement and the facilities the complex has.
For a furnished apartment in a nice complex with a pool expect to pay RM1800-5000 per month, depending on location and the length of your lease.
For an unfurnished apartment on a 12month+ lease with a pool, the price will be between RM800-3000. You can rent a lot cheaper than this but you will be in an older apartment block without facilities or security, and the apartments will often be quite small.
We rented for 4 months in Miami Green, a really nice apartment complex near the beach with several pools, squash courts, gym and security.
- 3 bedroom Apartment: RM2200/month for a 4-6 month lease. RM2500-2800 per month on a shorter lease.
- Electricity: RM200/month (use of AC overnight and for a few hours during hottest part of day)
- Gas (for stove): RM5/month
- Water: RM8/month
- Cable television: RM49/month for basic package plus childrens channels and western news channels.
- Cleaning: House cleaner 2x weekly RM300/month
- Internet: RM18/week for a USB modem with sim card
You can rent large, modern houses for RM1200-3000 per month unfurnished or RM3000-5000 per month furnished.
It's almost impossible to rent a house for anything less than a 12 month lease.
Houses within gated communities are also an option, although they're definitely at the higher end of the rental spectrum.
We're currently renting an unfurnished 5-bedroom house with a yard on a two year lease 20km from Georgetown in a small tourist suburb. Our house is 7mins walk to the beach in a quiet street.
- Rent: RM1200/month
- Electricty: RM200/month
- Gas (for oven and stove):RM5/month
- Water: RM8/month
- Cable television: RM50 for basic or RM125/month for full package with HD and recording
- House Cleaner: RM12 per hour, or 5x weekly RM500/month
- Internet: RM100 per month for ADSL
Buses in Penang are modern, comfortable and cheap. They have AC and some even have free WIFI. The bus network is relatively comprehensive and some people just get around using this.
Having a car definitely makes life easier though, particularly for families. Cars are expensive to buy in Malaysia, but relatively cheap to rent on a monthly basis.
To buy a car, looks for cars over 12 years old. Cars older than 12 years can't be financed in Malaysia so they drop dramatically in price. Also, the engine capacity determines the yearly registration. A 1.6L car costs RM90 per year to register, a 2L around RM400. We were quoted RM9000 for a 4.6L 4WD ... a huge difference.
For a reliable car with AC over 13 years old, expect to pay RM15000-30000.
Motorbikes are another option, although traffic is faster here than in other Asian cities and the roads are winding. People do it but there are a lot of motorbike accidents here so think carefully.
- 5-year-old sedan: RM1200/month with additional excess, free services and repairs
- Newer car: RM2000/month
- Petrol: RM70-90/week (RM1.90 per litre)
- Less than 14km: RM2/adult
- 14km-21km: RM2.70/adult
- Monthly ticket (unlimited): RM75/adult, RM35/student/concession
- Children under 6 are free, children over 6 are half price.
Food & Groceries
If you want to live cheaply in Penang, shop where the locals do. Find out where your nearest wet markets are, discover local butchers and importers for meat, cheese, yogurts and for those things you just can't find in local stores find out where the nearest Tescos is.
Assuming you are cooking simple meals or local dishes, not eating expensive steaks every day and eating out 2-3 nights a week, then groceries for a family should be no more than RM300 per week.
Loaf of bread: RM3
1L of milk: RM7
Apple: RM1.50 for large imported apple
4 bananas: RM2
Navel Orange: RM1.50 per piece
4 carrots: RM2
1KG chicken breast: RM9
1KG beef mince: RM16
1KG nice steak: RM30
Nescafe instant coffee (small): RM10
250g Honey/Nutella/Jam(good quality): RM10
250 Jam (cheap): RM3
2L bottled water: RM2
Can of beer: RM6
Can of coke: RM1.50
500g pasta: RM5
1kg rice: RM2
Shampoo: RM5-20 depending on brand
Diapers: RM35 for pack of 30
Eating out in Penang is inexpensive. If you are happy to eat where the locals do you'll only pay a few ringget more than you would cooking at home.
Hawker Markets and small local restaurants will offer the cheapest food, whereas the tourist restaurants in Batu Ferringhi and Georgetown will blow your budget (even if they are quite cheap in comparison to what you would pay back home in the west in a good restaurant).
You'd be forgiven for thinking that eating out is the favourite passtime of locals. Most eat out at least once a day, including us. We will usually eat breakfast out a few times a week and dinner out at least 3 times per week.
At a Hawker Market or local eatery, for a family (of 4) expect to pay:
Breakfast with tea and water: RM10-15
Dinner or lunch with local iced drink: RM15-25
Dinner with beer and juices: RM45-60
At a local restaurant
Dinner with just water or iced local drinks: RM30-40
Dinner with beer and fresh juices: RM55-80
Home delivered Pizza
Daycare & Schooling
Primary and Secondary Schooling
There are a lot of great International Schools in Penang. St Christopher's Elementary School is the cheapest and has a fantastic reputation. Dalat, Tenby and Uplands are more expensive but very good schools and your best option with high-school aged children.
Enrolment in a local school is an option, but some schools won't accept students if your only here short term on a tourist visa and the quality of schools varies greatly. Formal schooling in Penang doesn't start until 7 years of age. Like the rest of Asia, Malaysia is very focused on education. Discipline is strict and a lot of homework is given. In and around Georgetown there are some great locals schools though - you just need to do your research.
For an international school, expect to pay RM12000-18000 per year including fees for primary school, while secondary school ranges from RM18000-RM40000 including fees.
Childcare and Daycare
Daycare in Penang is commonly available for children aged 2.5yrs-7yrs. For younger children, it's harder to find childcare outside of a local nanny.
Daycares in Malaysia generally follow a very Asian education model so it can be hard to find play-based learning for younger children if this is what you are used to. Most have children over 4 years doing mini-school work. Play-based centres do exist but you may have to pay more and drive further! Taska Lin and Cherie Hearts both have a great reputation for a more play based approach, however their prices are double the costs quoted below.
Daycares commonly offer three options 5 half days per week, 5 full days per week or a mix of both (for example three half days and two full days).
RM180-350 / month for 5 half days, including lunch and morning tea.
RM250-450 / month for 5 full days, including morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea.
RM200 / year once off fee for books, craft materials, uniform.
After School Tuition and Sports
After school tuition in anything from reading and maths to music and karate is widely available in Penang. Almost every suburb will have a couple of tuition centres, and at least one organisation running some type of weekend sport.
Expect to pay anything from RM20-60 per month for one hour of tuition per week, and a similar price for children's sport.
Homeschooling is legal in Malaysia, although if your a resident you may be required to register with the government. The bookstores here have an amazing range of children's books, from textbooks to leveled readers and novels, making it a very easy country to homeschool in. And of course with all the temples, cultural diversity, national parks and local lifestyles to explore it's not hard to find great homeschooling excursions!
The Dalat International School has a distance education and homeschooling department. For RM600 per year a family can access the schools library, homeschooling resources and afterschool sporting activities. Assistance with curriculum and testing is also available for an additional fee.
Cinema: RM40 (two adults, two kids, two drinks, two popcorns)
Doctor's consult: RM20 at a local hospital, RM50 at a private clinic
Emergency consult with xray: RM70
Parking: RM1 per three hours on weekdays, RM3 per three hours on weekends.
Cost of living series
We're aiming to build up a cost of living series focusing on great places around the world for families to stop for a while ... be it a month or two for a rest during your travels or living long term. If there's somewhere you've stopped that you've loved and you can give us a breakdown of the costs, we'd love to add it to the series.