In sore need of a recharge, we’ve been hiding out in Penang, Malaysia. Penang is the urban lazy-day capital, and the combination of friendly locals, awesome food, Western amenities, and absolutely no blockbuster tourist attractions proved ultimately irresistible for us. After our first visit in February we knew we had to go back, so this time we locked ourselves down for two weeks of Getting Shit Done and Doing Nothing.
But we found the important stuff—accommodation, drinking, fast wifi—to be a bit hit-and-miss in Georgetown. Like any other tourist destination, there’s a lot of shit to sift through before you strike upon gold. Below are the results of two hard weeks of research: Our guide to Penang for digital nomads on a budget!!
Where to sleep
Accommodation in Georgetown is a mixed bag. We found most places to be some combination of overpriced, noisy, dingy, flat out dirty (with bedbugs!), have awful wifi, and/or have no windows. The places below tick as many of our boxes as possible.
Don’t judge this place by the faded signboard and ambiance-less cafe at the bottom, or its location at the far end of Chulia Street. The staff are lovely, the rooms upstairs are immaculately maintained, the wifi is fast, and it is one of the cheapest deals in town. Private singles with semi-aircon (but no windows) are RM40 ($11), while the doubles are just RM55 ($15) per night with fan, aircon and two windows!! They also do cheap scooter rental and have cans of Tiger for RM6 ($1.60) in the cafe.
Hutton Mansion Heritel
Our pick for solo travellers who want peace and quiet. This is a newer place built inside a heritage-style building, but without the creaky floorboards. Pass on the double rooms, which are spotless but only have windows into the corridors, and snag a bed in the capsule-style dormitory, with comfy mattresses and curtains for privacy. They’re a pretty good deal at 30RM ($8) per night, and the wifi is the fastest we’ve had.
Where to work
Much like the accommodation, cafes in Georgetown are often overpriced, crowded, and have terrible wifi. The focus is more on outrageous latte art than quality coffee, and they often take more from traditional Malaysian kopitam than Western coffeehouses in that food takes the centre stage. These are the cafes we’ve found with good wifi; try others at your own risk.
We stupidly passed this place loads of times before going in on our last day and discovering that it’s perfect. The coffee is good, they don’t serve food (aside from deserts), the vibe is relaxed, and the wifi is fast. There are loads of electrical outlets, and they’re open till late. What’s not to like?
Kopitan at Armenian St Heritage Hotel
More like a cafeteria than a cafe, Kopitan isn’t the usual environment you’d find us working in, but the wifi is some of the fastest we’ve seen in Penang, and the coffee is cheap. Staff are nice and don’t mind if you hang out for a while. There aren’t so many power outlets, so choose your seat wisely and enjoy!
Located in the Chime Heritage area at the far edge of Georgetown, this place is a bit of a hike from the main tourist drag and much less crowded because of it. The food and drink are all chemistry themed, and while the coffee isn’t cheap you can get a small bottle of Tiger beer for only RM10 ($2.70)—not a bad price. The vibe is a bit fancy but the staff are relaxed and, most importantly, the wifi works well and is fast!
Our runner-up choice; we stayed at the hostel upstairs and didn’t really like it, but the coffee was decent and the wifi worked pretty good most of the time. There’s lots of power outlets, and it’s never too crowded. The place is run by a group of young Ukrainians, so if you’re hankering for a Chicken Kiev and willing to fork out for it, this is your place.
Where to eat
There is no shortage of eating options in this foodie paradise, and there are loads of blogs dedicated to dining in Penang. But long story short, we were on a budget and didn’t want to travel far for food. These were the restaurants in Georgetown that kept us fat and happy for less than US$4 per meal (for two!).
Indian ranks number one in our favourite cuisines (right next to Turkish food), and Woodlands was our default go-to restaurant when we wanted to have the best motherfucking Indian food we’ve ever eaten. We usually ate here at least once per day. They have different menus for morning, afternoon, and evening, which spiced (ahaha) things up as far as selection goes. Don’t miss their rava dosai in the morning or evening, but definitely make it there for lunch and try one (or all) of their thali sets!! Absolutely delicious, only RM6 ($1.60), and enough to keep you fuelled for the rest of the day.
This place has a similar selection to Woodlands but without the time restrictions. The food is just as awesome, but on some days we might venture to say that the thali is even more delicious than what they serve at Woodlands. There’s a couple of different branches of this place on the same street that serve meat dishes as well, but the quality wasn’t quite as good and the service was surprisingly even worse. Stick with this one!
Sherlyn Economy Rice
An amazing concept, economy rice restaurants feature a dizzyingly large number of (usually) Chinese-style dishes laid out like a buffet. You grab a plate of rice and load it up with what you want, then pay based on the variety and quantity. Our favourite was Sherlyn Economy Rice on Chulia Street, which features 60 types of fresh, incredibly delicious choices. The turnover is high enough that the food never sits out too long, and a plate heaped full with veggie and chicken delights usually cost us around RM7 ($2) each. Bargain!
Where to drink
Check out our previous post on drinking in Georgetown! We’ve checked around; it doesn’t get any cheaper than that.
There’s not a lot of must-see-must-do in Penang, which is why we like it. But everyone needs a little recreation in between all the eating and eating. Here are our alternative picks of things to do that you won’t find in any guidebook.
Beyond Batu Ferringhi there is a small fishing village called Teluk Bahang. In Teluk Bahang there is a beach, with a big ol’ derelict hotel looming over it. This beach is probably the best place on Penang Island to check out the water monitor lizard in all its Godzilla-like majesty. The things are just out there, hiding under the concrete pier or sunning themselves in the sand. Morning and evening are good times to try and spot them. Despite their size they’re really fast, which unfortunately means it’s hard to get close. 🙁 Teluk Bahang is also home to a cat sanctuary and a dog shelter, both of which have open days every Sunday. Go hang out with some animals!
Air Itam Dam
This is a sweet jungley spot up in the mountains where shitloads of wild monkeys hang out. It’s great for a jog or a hike, and the view down into the city is fantastic. If you come up from Air Itam you’ll be forced to leave your scooter in the parking lot and walk up, but if you come through the “secret” back entrance at Balik Pulau, you can burn half a tank of petrol climbing steep slopes that weave through gardens full of exotic plants and nutmeg farms. Fill up and enjoy!
This isn’t in the food section because Junk Cafe serves amazing-looking burgers that are out of our budget, and they don’t have wifi. What a bummer.. right? Actually, this turns out to be a fantastic place just to hang and relax. The decor is reminiscent of a Budapest ruin pub, they serve beer, and they play awesome music. No wifi means you can go and socialise with the funky dudes who run the place without checking Facebook on your phone every five minutes.
Have any other recommendations for Penang?? Let us know in the comments!!