Category Archives: Malaysia

Reasons I LOVED Living in Penang (& you will too!) | The Freelance Explorer image 2

Reasons I LOVED Living in Penang (& you will too!)

Have you been contemplating a visit, or perhaps even living in Penang, Malaysia? In this excerpt from my latest travel guide, ‘A Nomad’s Guide to Living in Penang’ I will introduce you to the basics of this delicious island state.

Simply the word Penang conjures up images of fiery laska and plates laden with Char Koay Teow. But this vibrant island-state of the north western coast of Malaysia is much more than simply a self-professed foodie haven. Technically covering both the island as well as a strip of mainland Malaysia known as Seberang Perai,  We will leave mainland Seberang Perai for another day.

penang-1298828_1280A Small Island with a Large History

Penang boasts a rich multicultural history that dates back to the 18th century when the British arrived and colonised the island. If looks are anything to go by, we can assume they arrived brandishing boatloads of candy-coloured paints and exuberant plans for colonial mansions.

As well as the very clear influence of the British, Penang is also made up of a large number of ethnic Chinese, Indian and Malay people. In fact, Penang is the only state in Malaysia where ethnic Chinese are the majority.

Thanks to the incredible blend of cultural diversity, Penang has some form of celebration, festival or religious gathering almost every week!

World Famous for Incredible Food

It takes a special cocktail of tropical weather, abundant oceans and a melting pot of ethnic diversity to create the smorgasbord of culinary delights that is Penang.

You’ll find overflowing platters of colourful tropical fruit, fish-head curry made from the day’s local catch and an array of mouth-watering Indian curries served up on a fresh banana leaf here, not to mention the timeless Malay delights of delicious satay, sour assam laksa and bright and cheery icy cendol.

Penang has been known throughout the land as Malaysia’s food paradise for a long time, but the name is catching on and Penang’s diverse and delicious cuisine is becoming recognised across Asia and the world.

An Island Destination for Sun, Sand and Sea

It doesn’t matter where on the island you are, you’re never too far from the ocean. Thanks to the compact size of Penang and it’s excellent bus network the shorelines are accessible and delightful.

Compared to some of Malaysia’s famed east coast beaches, Penang is somewhat lacking. However the sandy shores and coconut palms are still very much here, and although the oceans aren’t ideal for a dip they make for a beautiful backdrop for an island sunset, a wonderful sandy-spot to indulge in some reading and a great jump-off point to catch a boat out for some sailing, snorkeling, or a visit to Langkawi.


Georgetown: Colonial England, but in Asia

The capital city of Penang Island is Georgetown. A city named after King George III of Great Britain and one that is dotted with decrepit and decaying (yet deliciously coloured) colonial buildings. Wandering the streets of Georgetown is an experience like no other.

Boasting one of the most authentic little India’s outside of the Indian subcontinent and a China town that sprawls for blocks, Georgetown’s diversity is truly incredible. Mosques sit majestically amongst decayed colonial facades and Hindu’s come to prey in gloriously ornate shrines that sit just down the road from Buddhist monasteries and marvelous Thai temples.

Living in Penang: Hot, Wet or Both

Penang is rather close to the equator and the climate of the island is considered a tropical rain forest climate, bordering on a tropical monsoon climate. The title in itself gives much away about the meteorological tendencies of Penang. The year-round average temperature is a steady 30 – 32˚C during the daytime and 23 – 25˚C during the night, the variable that changes is rainfall.

Penang enjoys two wet seasons each year, the wettest months are September and October, with August and November receiving a far dash of rain as well. From March until May you can expect a wet season that isn’t quite as severe and the worst of the rainfall happening in April.

The monsoon and wet seasons aren’t necessarily bad, however, and you can often get glorious sunshine in the mornings and early afternoons, giving way to cracking thunderstorms and torrential rain bearing down in the afternoons and through the night.

Up-and-Coming Malaysian City

Penang is economically one of the most important states in Malaysia, a popular tourist destination and has the third-highest human development index in Malaysia. Thanks to a healthy and highly diverse range of cultures and a growing tourist-trade, Penang is becoming a popular destination for ex-pats, retirees, remote worker and start-ups.

The trend in remote workers, digital nomads and start-ups is starting to take root, and in return Penang is beginning to see an exciting new development of co-working spaces and startup accelerators blossoming on the island.

Want to Know More About Living in Penang?

Check out some of my other Penang-related blog posts: Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad,  9 Penang Cafes You’ll LOVE (for Free WiFi), Cost of Living in PenangWhat’s it REALLY like to spend a month in Penang? To get a feel for the wonderful Island of Penang.




Johor Bahru | The Freelance Explorer

Johor Bahru

This is a short piece of observational writing from our short time spent in Johor Bahru in April this year. It was our final Malaysian stop before heading back to New Zealand for a couple of months.

The heaving bus shuddered as streaks of lightning fissured above us. My nausea was momentarily eased by the tap tap tap of greasy water leaking out through the window seal above my rested cheek on the window. Our six month journey was coming to a close, the sense of adventure was waning. Each crack of lightning bringing us closer to home, something I had been dreading.. Asia had become familiar to me,  a comforting landscape pulling me into it’s humid and sweaty arms with the promise of tropical fruits, sambal drenched buffets and broken footpaths. Malaysia has gotten under my skin,  somewhere along the journey this semi-renovated, suffocatingly hot country won my heart.

Muggy storm clouds bobbed over top of Johor Bahru as our inter city bus made its final approach. This was to be our final Malaysian home for the coming week.

Ambling down the narrow steps of the coach, we were assured that the rain pelts down like this about the same time every day. Not that this, of course, eased any hesitations about rifling through the undercarriage to find our baggage.

Johor Bahru was a strikingly industrial city, swarming with a rainy haze and worn out high-rises. We were unceremoniously dumped under a crowded walkway leading into the comparable termina,l seasoned with the bullying calls of salesman and leering stares of local men. The smell of hot, wet asphalt intermingled with the sting of chilis as we teetered into our taxi. Peering out the window for toward an hour of rush-hour traffic, It became apparent that the scenery was in no rush to improve. Johor Bahru is the home to Malaysians wanting to earn the big dollars across the bridge in Singapore, but not wanting to pay their inflated living expenses.

Our time spent here was concise and entirely work focused, hiding behind hotel doors and completing a number of unfinished projects.

“Do you need a lift?” he queried, almost accusingly. After a few days spent in this local suburb of town I had grown accustomed to looking out of place here. We were standing outside of the only decent local eatery we had discovered, feeling disenchanted with the idea of eating our eleventh meal in a row here. He stared incredulous when we answered him, “A whole week? here?”.  A Johor Bahru local, he had been out and explored the world, then returned. The idea of a tourist spending more than a day in transit in this grey, transit city was unheard of to him. After numbers were exchanged, tour of the area given and directions to return home once we were down browsing explained, he pulled off in his weary, old, Japanese import.

The time spent lingering in this transit city was unexpected, intercepted by acts kindness found in the most unexpected places, to a backdrop of tyre shops and discount stores. My dwindling expectations were occasionally refuted by the kindness of people we met.

Eventually I exited over the causeway en-route to Singapore Airport, not before posing for a series of photographs with our hotel’s exuberant owner and staff (JSL Hotel, In case you ever find yourself in Johor Bahru in need of a clean and friendly, albeit out of the way, hotel).


Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad | The Freelance Explorer

Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad

Where to live as a Digital Nomad is a frequent hot topic around the net at the moment, with everybody having their say on the ideal location to get your business off the ground. So when put to the test, where was my ideal Digital Nomad spot? Penang vs Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is one of the most common Digital Nomad hotspots in Asia, with destinations in Vietnam , Cambodia and the Thai Islands coming a closer runner up. I think, however, that when it comes to choosing your ideal spot it’s more important to work out what factors are most important to you. Of course cheap living and a good climate are at the top of most people’s lists, but what comes after that?

For me, the priorities may have been a little different than your run-of-the-mill digital nomad, but then again – who’s aren’t? We all have our own unique desires and hobbies to fufil.

Penang might not be for everybody, but it certainly was an excellent spot for me. Curious? here’s a blow by blow, Penang vs Chiang Mai comparison between the two, based entirely off my own opinions and experiences of these two uniquely brilliant Southeast Asian cities.

First and Foremost –  Penang vs Chiang Mai, The Food:

Some people bond with Thai food in a way that I didn’t. Given that it’s been almost 6 months since I was last in Thailand and I’m still craving a good Tom Yam, but that’s the exception. I still hold a glimmer of hope in the suggestion that maybe I just prefer Southern Thai food, and the Northern style stuff isn’t my thing. Regardless of personal taste, the variety of foods available in Penang well exceeds Chiang Mai, as well as the availability & price of nutritious food loaded with vegetables.

Sure, you can pick up a taste khao soi or Pork on rice for a couple of bucks, but in Penang’s Indian areas you can spend the same and get a banana leaf loaded with 3 different verge curries, dhals, pickles and rice. Often all you can eat too.

Result? Penang Wins for quality & variety of food for same price.


 Penang vs Chiang Mai on Quality of Internet

Unfortunately, this is one of the big let-downs of Penang for digital nomads. Some cafes provide Wifi, but finding anything hi-speed can be a challenge. Even the internet cafes provide severely limited connections. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is built for digital nomad. High speed internet is readily available in cafes and co-working spaces all around, you can even get it connected to your condo on a no-contract, month by month basis and the speeds (and price) are excellent.

And the winner.. Chiang Mai wins easily for speed & general availability

Who has the best Cultural Experience?

Thai culture can be fascinating, it has a ton of history and an endless supply of beautiful temples and monuments to support it. Anywhere in Asia, in fact, provides a fantastic cultural experience if you’re visiting from the Western world.

Penang has an edge in it’s huge diversity. In Penang, and across most of Malaysia in fact, you’ll find a blend of ethnic Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western ex-pats. You’ll find a vibrant hindu temple just blocks away from a palatial mosque, the diversity is just amazing. This mish-mash of heritage brings so many layers to the Culture that is unrivalled by Chiang Mai.

Penang Wins for blend of interesting cultures, and different areas

Exotic and Exciting Places to Explore

Both Penang & Chiang Mai are beautiful and interesting places to visit, and if you’re really into the tourist attractions  then Chiang Mai is the place to go. Chiang Mai also has a gorgeous old city surrounded by moat and old city walls. Hidden away within the old city walls is a plethora of temples and wandering orange robed monks. However, the old city has become a bit of a haven for the new-age tourist, and at times can all feel a little contrived. Think over-priced lattes and westerner run yoga retreats around every corner.

If you’re happy to rent a car, motorbikes or even a driver for the day, there’s plenty of interesting spots to visit outside of Chiang Mai, But if you’re looking for more diversity yet in a small area, check out Penang. On the island alone you can explore lush jungles, durian and rubber farmed hillsides, snake temples, quaint fishing villages, palm fringed beaches and unesco heritage zoned George Town.

Penang wins again for its great variety – big city, hilltops, jungles, suburbs, western beaches & fishing villages, simply because I like untouched local things to explore. Chiang Mai certainly has its merits too, so this was a super close call.


Let’s Not Forget Massage

For a few months there message became a part of my daily routine. I absolutely fell in love with Thai massage and its amazing after effects, not to mention its ridiculously affordable price. It was probably the thing I missed most (and still do) after leaving Thailand. I once heard somebody refer to it as ‘lazy mans yoga’, an apt analogy.

Chiang Mai wins hands down. Penang massage is far and few between, and double the price.


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Climate & Weather:

Climate preferences are SO subjective, so I am speaking here entirely on behalf of myself. I love hot, love love love it. To be honest though, at times Penang was just too hot. In saying that, I was in Chiang Mai over Christmas (their winter time) and although I would never consider it officially cold, it certainly wasn’t as warm as I like things. Hard choice really, I think I would prefer something in the middle of the two.

It’s a draw! If you love the kind of heat & humid only being that close to the equator can bring, go with Penang. Otherwise maybe Chiang Mai will do it for you.


Digital Nomad Culture:

Chiang Mai is totally set up for Digital Nomads, and rightly so – It’s one of the top digital nomad hotspots of the world. Penang doesn’t have much of a ‘start-up culture’ yet, and finding other likeminded individuals can be a bit tricky, although not entirely impossible. Places such as co-working spaces are hard to find – in fact, we never found any.  If you’re particularly set on a co-working space office and a large group of DN friends ready and easy to meet, then Chiang Mai wins.

An easy win for Chiang Mai 

Accommodation & Condos:

Penang condos can be pretty amazing, often providing stunning beachfront views that Chiang Mai can’t, the prices are about the same as Chiang Mai too. There are a few things that let Penang down on the condo front though, the standard condo in Penang is 3 bedrooms, which can be a bit of a pain if you’re traveling alone, or as the two of you. I asked around plenty, and the general consensus is that all Penang condos are the standard 3 bedroom, it’s just how things are. The other big difference is the length – most landlords and agencies will not accept tenants for less than 6-12 months. In Chiang Mai, it’s incredibly easy to score yourself a studio apartment, fully furnished, and on a single month by month basis.

Another win for Chiang Mai on this one


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Local People

Sorry Thailand, I know you are the ‘Land of Smiles’, however on the friendliness scale it was all a bit of a let down. So much so, in fact, that we wondered if the nickname was given by an ironic, pissed off tourist. Penang on the other hand was one of the most friendly, accommodating cities I have ever visited. Full of smiling, happy people offering us lifts, helping us out and even frequently yelling “welcome to Malaysia!” out the window on the days we happened to be wandering around with out backpacks.

Penangites won our hearts 

Penang vs Chiang Mai: Overall Score? A Draw. 

Both spots have some fantastic things about them, just as both are missing something. When broken down like this, I find both cities draw. Personally, In the moment I prefer Penang. However, It totally depends on what your priorities are, and on a different day when Im seeking something else, the scales might tip in Chiang Mai’s favour.

Penang vs Chiang Mai points all, the best way to find your ideal spot is to just get out there and explore. We never would’ve ended up in Penang based on word-of-mouth alone, so the key really lies in getting out there and testing all the places! Have you got a particular digital nomad spot that you think is amazing or up and coming? Comment below!