Penang For Digital Nomads: Your Next Home Away From Home?

Penang has long been an underrated destination for digital nomads. Let me give you 10 reasons why you should consider putting it on top of your bucket list!

Working remotely is a privilege only few humans get to enjoy – although the numbers are steadily increasing. The freelance workforce is growing more than three times faster than the US workforce overall, according to an annual report by Upwork and the Freelancers Union.

Today, the numbers of freelancers stands at 57.3 million in the US alone! And some of them prefer to take their work abroad and sit somewhere in sunny South East Asia rather than their home office in New York or Berlin Kreuzberg.

Freelancers and digital entrepreneurs are planning for the future of work faster than anyone else.

So where are you thinking to set up your next office?

Famous digital nomads such as Matt Kepnes from Nomadic Matt or Conni Biesalski make their money from locations such as Chiang Mai and Ubud. One might think, there are only few options in between these two – if you are going for Asia.

I did the same mistake and was sitting infront of the open browser window for hours, going through one review and blog post after the other. But it didn’t help much. I had to see for myself before I could make a decision.

After two years of location independence, it came down to a few things I am looking for: Easy to obtain and cheap visa, low cost of living, fast internet, cute coffeeshops with spotless wifi, easy accessible co-working spaces, delicious vegan food, enough fun stuff to do after work including a nice gym maybe even yoga classes, friendly locals (and tourists) and easy ways to get there and around… I know it is quite a list.

BUT… When I came through Malaysia, everything fell into place.

About George Town on Penang, Malaysia

George Town, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, is located at the north eastern tip of the island. It is Malaysia's secondlargest city, with 708 127 inhabitants as of 2010.

Penang island was “founded” in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. The city of George Town is the busy centre of the island life, including a UNESCO heritage zone with old trading and banking houses beautifully lining up one on the other. The town attracts many hundred-thousands of tourist every year, coming from both the inland and abroad.

What makes George Town a great home base for digital nomads?

If you check nomadlist.com – a useful tool many digital nomads rely on during their search, you’ll read that George Town makes it to a Nomad Score of 3,43/5. Which doesn’t tell you much about what it is actually like to live and work there.

Your next nomad hub: George Town, Penang!

And here are my 10 reasons why that is a fantastic idea!

Visa

Getting into Malaysia is too easy! Simply arrive to the airport of Kuala Lumpur or Penang, show your passport and get a pretty stamp that will allow you to stay for 3 months. No annoying visa runs, no expensive extension fees. YAY!

Cost of Living

I have been living quite comfortably, eating out twice a day, going to the gym, got a membership at the co-working, am buying up to three coffees a day (I know, I know…), driving around in Uber, etc. you get it.

Saving some money on accommodation, I am currently staying in a 4-bed-dorm in one of the many nice hostels in town. The week costs me $70 which includes breakfast and free flow of coffee, great travel advice and wisdom all day. You can certainly find cheaper dorms, but I like it calm and well designed, so I went with The Frame Hostel.

I also stayed at Queens Hostel for another week and can highly recommend it to you, for its prime location and awesomeness of the staff. It is truly “queens only”, so guys will not be able to indulge in the simple luxury of staying in one of the canopies that hostel-owner Rachel set up in the dorm. All without ever visiting a hostel herself. Which is probably the reason why every guest says: “It is just not like other hostels. It is so much better!” 

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What to expect when checking into Queens!

Would I be staying another week or even month, I’d probably get an AirBnb or Homestay for piece of mind (and because I am an introvert at heart). Prices start at $300 for the month.

Doing the math, I’d say I am spending about $230 per week, not including flights or extra expanses.

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Keep your eyes peeled, street art is everywhere!

Internet

Honestly, Internet can be spotty, depending on where you are at. I found it a bit tricky to get online in cafes and hostels, but that’s what the co-working is for. I’ll also suggest a couple of coffeeshops with reliable wifi further down.

There is supposed to be a free network in George Town. You’ll stumble upon it at some point. Never worked for me though, so I can’t recommend to rely on that.

Safe the hassle and get data right after arrival. They sell SIM cards in almost every shop and supermarket, starting at $10. Works wonderfully, is damn cheap and if you are lucky, you’ll have someone in the shop setting everything up for you.

Co-Working

Coworking Penang
Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

One of the first things I did when coming into town, was signing up at Scoopoint Co-Working. It is easy accessible, cheap, the location right on the waterfront is great (the view!), the people are super friendly and the interior brand new.

I payed $35 for a 10-day pass, but they just lowered the prices to 10 MYR per day. Damnit.

There is another co-working very close by. I’ve heard a lot about it but didn’t make it there: CAT. If you know more about it, let me know and I’ll add the info!

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Your two best co-working options: Scoopoint and CAT

Coffeeshops

Here is a list of great places with more or less reliable wifi. This list is by all means far from complete, so let me know if you have additions to make!

The Mugshot Café: Bagels and coffee, what more do I need to say. Cafe and Bakery in one, this place is warm and welcoming. I love their iced soy lattes and the smoothies, which they also make with soy milk instead of yogurt (upon request). But watch out, wifi can be spotty. Has soy milk.
Address: 302, Lebuh Chulia, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Open 8am – 12am (daily)

Wheeler’s: Best wifi of all coffeeshops in town. Seriously, it never let me down. They have great coffee, soy milk, do breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever your heart desires. Open late as well, which is another big plus.
Address: 67, Lorong Love, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Open 9am – 12am (daily)

Awesome Canteen: Order a slice of gluten-free quinoa or tofu “cheese” cake accompanied by a nutmeg-lemon-juice and get comfy in the old warehouse. The shop’s menu caters to a paleo diet, so clean eaters will love it. Doesn’t have soy milk.

Address: 164A-B, Lebuh Victoria, Georgetown, 10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Open 11 am – 10 pm (closed Tues)

Black Kettle: Bakery style coffeeshop serving products ranging from pastries, cakes, desserts, coffee beans & coffee, breakfast, lunch & dinner. Has soy milk. The wifi is only medium great.

Address: 105, Beach St, Georgetown, 10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Open 11 am – 11.30 pm

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Me doing my thing at Black Kettle.

Lunabar: Bright and beautiful, this bar is the preferred hangout for Penang’s young and artistic folk. Serving hand-crafted coffee, this might just be the office of the day, you’ve been looking for. They also have great matcha latte and a yummy chocolate drink, if you are not into coffee (get outta here!!! 😀 )
Address: 10d, Jalan Clove Hall, George Town, 10050 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Open 1pm to 7pm (Thurs – Tues)

Food

Hands down. The food in George Town is damn cheap and really good. It has never been easier to find a great meal. In two weeks I’ve never left a place unsatisfied. And if I wasn’t 100% happy, then just because I wished I had a bigger stomach. With an average price of $3 dollars per meal you’ll feel like one lucky human.

Fresh juices and smoothies start at $1 and there are plenty vegan food options. Definitely try one of the many street hawkers, if you are feeling adventurous. I heard, some people come to Penang for the food alone. I believe it.

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Coffee and Cake at Wholey Wonder (all vegan)
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Don’t miss out on Shia’s Granola!
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I could eat at the vegan Sushi Kitchen every damn day and never get tired.

Activities

Visit the Khoo Kongsi Clan House on Cannon Square, try a few types of hawker specialties, walk up and down Armenian Street or enjoy a cold beer at Farquhar’s Bar. There are so many things to do here.

If you are into outdoor activities, you may visit the national park or get an Uber to the beach.

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Should you not fancy exploring by trishaw or Shank’s pony, you could rent a LinkBike for the day and explore the town on two wheels be yourself. Just download the app, find the closest station, pick a bike and ride away. It is fun and cheap, plus the bikes are in a great condition.

Insider Tip: Visit the Hin Bus Depot, workshop and exhibition space, with regular events, concerts and loads of fantastic street art. They also hold a super fun pop up market every Sunday. And while you are there, get lunch or snacks at Wholey Wonder Café next door or pop in for a yoga class!

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Impressions from Hin Bus Depot

People

People in Penang are great and humble. The pace of life is very suitable for those looking for a great work-life-balance. Almost everyone here speaks English, which is a pleasant surprise after the challenges I faced in Thailand. But Penangites are very proud of their unique Hokkien dialect, so try saying “ho chiak” (delicious) after trying yummy street food and the hawker will be your new fan!

Travel

Weekend trip destinations such as Langkawi or Kuala Lumpur or other destinations are easy accessible. Get on a ferry, bus, boat or even flight and you will see a different landscape in now time.

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Workout

If you have been following my journey for a while, you’ll know that I am into all things that make me break a sweat: Salsa classes in Habana, surfing in Costa Rica, basketball in Brooklyn, vegan gym in Berlin, Crossfit in Brighton – I’ll try it all!

This is what got my heartbeat up in George Town (and burned all the street food calories):

Yoga at Wholey Wonder

Nestled in the artsy space of Hin Bus Depot, Wholey Wonder is not just an excellent choice for vegetarian and vegan foodies, but also has a dedicated yoga space with daily classes for no more than 25 MYR.

Great gym’s I have tried in George Town

Ultimate Fitness Center Penang:  Had I come here first, I would probably not have tried another gym. The former dance club has all you could wish for in a gym, incl. 5 MYR classes such as yoga and Zumba, TRX equipment, clean and modern equipment and plenty of cardio machines, a nice and never crowded free weight area etc.

It is located in the center of George Town, which makes it easy accessible.

Per day: 25 MYR

Jatomi Fitness: On the fancier side of the spectrum, Jatomi left quite an impression on me. I immediately liked this place on the top floor of the Plaza Guerney Shopping Center. Covering impressive 25,000 square feet with state-of-the-art equipment, sprint tracks, spacious training areas and an impressive number of fitness programs including the infamous LesMills, there is little left to wish for.

Free one-day trial (sign up here), then 50 MYR per day

Penang Fitness:

Very basic gym with few cardio machines, but all in all, does the job! Wasn’t too crowed although I showed up on Monday night.

~ 18 MYR per day incl. protein shake

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Let’s be frank: There are also downsides

Not everything can always be rosy. So to be fair, I want to mention a couple of challenges I encountered when living and working in Penang.

Lack of a well functioning public transport infrastructure… A bus schedule? What is that?… There are buses that will get you from one point to the other, but don’t rely on them being punctual when your schedule is tight. On a positive note, Uber and Grab are pretty damn cheap in Penang and take you from the North of George Town to the very South for 8 MYR, wich is about $2.

The airport doesn’t cater many destinations in comparison to Kuala Lumpur. But then again, flights to the capital’s airport start at $24.

It is a small community of tech talents and start-ups, but then that mustn’t necessarily be a bad thing and can soon change… A talent pool is definitely here, as many people from the northern regions of Malaysia come here if they don’t go to Kuala Lumpur.

Wifi in many coffeeshops can be spotty. That is why I got your back with a list of places, that have a reliable connection. For those important Skype calls and YouTube Uploads…So make sure you get yourself a good data provider, just in case…

Women: Discrimination of gender and sexuality is a big issue in the fairly conservative and conformist Malaysia. Though allowances are made for foreigners, until you acquire some familiarity with where the limits lie, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

I found this article on culture and etiquette to be a pretty handy guide.

The beaches are not as white and on spot as you might expect. If you have been around a bit, you will have seen a couple nice beaches before. Beaches are good enough for most sports, but other than that I wasn’t too impressed.


I hope this article helps you to find your next destination! Should you have any questions, additions or criticism (it happens) then please, leave a comment below or send me an email!

Cheers and safe travels,

Jen May

Digital Nomad Penang

Featured Image by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash

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