Drinking ain’t cheap in Malaysia. After Cambodia’s $0.50 or $1 bargain local beers and 60 baht ($1.80) large bottles in Thailand, we were rocked by sticker shock when we saw that most domestic beers cost a whopping 10 ringgit ($2.80) a pop in the shops, and even more at the bars.
But there is a cheaper way. In the heart of Georgetown, and just a couple of blocks away from Penang’s supposedly vibrant nightlife zones, are inconspicuous little watering holes where it’s possible to get very dronk very cheaply, together with a colourful group of locals and foreigners. There is no music or laser lights, and there are no women teetering around in bodycon dresses, but the conversation flows as freely as the booze and you’ll wake up the next day with a few ringgit still in your wallet (hopefully).
Tuak is a traditional homemade palm wine produced in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia from palm sap, yeast and sugar. It’s cheap to produce and a favourite of old dudes who like to drink during the day, and you can buy it at a few little shops around town called “Kedai Tuak”.
A kedai tuak could look a little foreboding to enter, but the tuak lovers (read: old dudes) hanging around are friendly, and in Georgetown they spoke okay English, which should give anyone the confidence to rock up, buy a few glasses and hang around. Our nearest little shop was open only until 8pm, but the tuak is of course available for takeaway, and at $0.60 for a 500ml bottle, you can’t go wrong!! The stuff is only 5 percent, which means the chances of getting methanol poisoning are low.
Who knows if this place has a real name, but we called it “The Elbow” because of its location on a concave bend in the road. The Elbow is like a local off license, though the license part is questionable. Inside the shop there are self-serve coolers full of beverages, ranging from things like Tiger beer to a surprisingly large selection of domestic wine coolers. You pick, pay, and go. Outside of the shop are loads of tables and chairs for patrons to enjoy their purchases, and you’re free to use the toilet in the back of the shop.
On the Friday night we visited, after about 11pm the place really filled up with a fantastic mix of locals (mostly guys), backpackers, and visa runners who live in Thailand. We landed with a crowd of Indian travel agents and Thailand farang, and after The Elbow shut at 1am we continued drinking in the street for what was a fuzzy night that turned into a solid hangover the next day.
Booze at The Elbow is cheap: three wine coolers for 10 ringgit ($2.80); 5 ringgit for a beer; a small bottle of local whiskey for 11 ringgit. It’s definitely not going to put a big dent in your wallet, and the crowd here is almost guaranteed to be better than anything else Georgetown has to offer. If you really want to get into the local scene, there’s an even dodgier-looking place next door that runs the same scheme.
Georgetown is awesome
Penang’s Georgetown is one of those places that looks great on Instagram, with its charming old European architecture, its retro East and South Asian flair, its hawker food, its trendy cafes, and its street art. The place has an un-rushed vibe of a tropical island but the beaches aren’t the big draw so there’s few obnoxious beachgoers and both the tourists and the locals are chill.
The big fact is that there’s not a lot to actually do on Penang but eat, drink, relax, and look at stuff. And—surprise, surprise—we loved it. It was just the kind of refresher we needed after Thailand, and we’re looking forward to going back on our way up the peninsula.