Penang with Kids: Our Pros and Cons

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Peranakan Mansion: Penang With Kids
So much has happened to us since the new year that this blog had begun to atrophy from neglect. I’m really not sure where to begin.

No, I think I’ll hold off on looking back. Instead, let me tell you what’s happening right now: we’ve returned to Penang, and this time for an entire year. We’ll use the island as a springboard for other trips — both within Malaysia and the region.

As early readers may recall, we spent November and December 2013 in Penang. We all enjoyed tour time here very much, but to be honest, after two months, Keiko and I were ready to move on to somewhere new. So why return?

The island certainly has amazing food and a fascinating cultural history, but for us it was more than that. Simply put, we needed a place to slow down and regroup. Penang will be good for that. Here’s why.

Penang with Kids: Our Pros and Cons

Like many places in Southeast Asia, you can find some pretty sweet apartments without spending much — especially if you’re willing to stay for a while. We’ve just rented a beautiful, spacious, fully-furnished apartment with a pool for around USD $600/ JPY ¥61,000 a month. That’s with signing a year lease, though:  you probably won’t find short-term prices that cheap for places this nice.

It’s cheap

Look at this view from our balcony.

Our Balcony View in Penang: Penang with Kids

The price of just about everything here is significantly lower than what you’d pay in Japan or the West. All four of us gorge ourselves on hawker stall delicacies for less than one cocktail at a Tokyo bar, and dinner somewhere nice is still a fraction of what we were accustomed to shelling out. Cooking at home is even cheaper, but food is not the only item that goes for cheaper. Four tickets to a movie at a high-end cinema cost around USD $10/JPY ¥1,100, and Felicia’s guitar lessons are about USD $8/JPY ¥850 and hour. We’re renting a car long-term for a little more than USD $10/JPY ¥1100 a day (renting also means they cover maintenance, help us if an accident occurs, etc).

Lots of opportunities to learn and play

PenangPAC. Things to do in Penang with Kids

There is much to do in Penang with kids. You’ve probably read about attractions like the Tropical Spice Garden, the Butterfly Farm (update 2016: now called “Entopia”)and Escape, but we’ve also found lots of other short- and long-term activities for the kids to get into.

S is now playing soccer at Soccer Experience’s new location, as well as at Basic Touch Academy, and we’re considering several locations that offer reasonably-priced classes in Mandarin, computers and robotics. The Penang Performing Art Center offers drama and music classes, as does (the unfortunately-named) Jammin’ Senzation, where M may go for voice lessons. Then there’s the Distance Learning Program at Dalat International School, which allows the kids to use the library, join after-school clubs and hang out on campus where they make friends. M is taking gymnastics and chess. S is taking soccer and swimming.

It’s easy to meet people

Penang with Kids

More than anywhere we’ve been so far, we’ve found more opportunities for all four of us to socialize with locals, ex-pats, fellow travelers *and* their children. We’ve met lots of cool people in Penang with kids. It probably helps that English is spoken everywhere, and that both Malaysians and non-Malaysians here are pretty laid back. Of course we are doing our part to make sure the kids make friends — that’s one of fundamental reasons for all the activities they’re involved in — but we’ve met people just as easily at the beach or in the grocery store.

There’s a lot of great things to say about Penang, but it’s far from perfect. Some of the island’s characteristics are downright irritating. Since I’ve mentioned pros, here are a few cons as I see them now:

The car culture

The people of Penang don’t walk much, and the city infrastructure reflects that. Sidewalks are rare, and even when you find them, they end suddenly or have such large bushes or trees planted in them that you are forced to walk into the street to get around them. Everyone drives, and most of that driving for us is on the same 15 kilometers of road. Buses are clean and comfortable, but always seem to be late when I have to get one kid somewhere at a specific time and I’m running late. There are plenty of taxis, too, but it’s much cheaper to just drive yourself. Perhaps my 13 years in Tokyo have spoiled me, but I can’t stand having to drive everywhere for everything. Sure, traffic can be crazy and there is much to be said for how the locals drive, but to be honest, that irritates me much less than the fact that walking and bicycles are almost never an option. If I want a bottle of water, I have to get in my car, navigate wild-west traffic, battle for a parking space and then re-enter traffic to return home. It feels a bit like South Florida driving with added chaos, and because of all the aforementioned kid’s activities, we are in and out of the car three or four times a day. This will wear on me.

The smells

If you’ve read about the incredible food culture here, then you know that the air in Penang is full of delectable aromas. But there are other aromas, as well. Thanks to a sub-standard sewer system, you are occasionally assaulted by noxious, knee-buckling odors. Smells that are the olfactory equivalent of a punch in the nose. Now that we’re out of Georgetown and up on a hill, we don’t experience it that often, but for all of Penang’s cosmopolitan aspirations, a modern sewage infrastructure seems like a worthy investment.

Booze is expensive

Well, relatively so. One big bottle of Heineken, Tiger or other sub-standard lager costs about USD $7/JPY ¥720. That’s almost as much as I spent on everyone’s dinner that night. Oh well. Easier to drink less, I guess.

The (lack of) scene…maybe

For all of Penang’s learning and cultural opportunities, the massive shopping malls seem to be thoroughly replacing the town square. I’m not completely anti-mall, but I don’t want my life revolving around it, either. We’re still looking for the charming bazaar or night market, and I’ll be happy to eat my words once we find it. There isn’t really a thriving bar, coffee house or livehouse scene here, either, which is fine, but I had at least hoped to find a place to watch some soccer games with Jamie, since that’s what he wants. Penang does have many events going on, large and small, and I’ve recently met a painter who said that the gallery scene is picking up, so this may be less of a complaint than statement of purpose: discover Penang’s creative underbelly.

Right Place, Right Time

Family Portrait on Penang Doc. Penang with Kids.

Despite minor drawbacks, the pros dramatically outweigh the cons for us. Penang is the right place right now. Our kids have lots of opportunities to learn and meet other kids, and we can all truly unpack for the first time in a while. There’s a lot of work and family obligations to catch up on, and having a home to do them it will hopefully expedite the process. Besides, Penang is mighty close to many places we’d like to see: Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and half a dozen places in Indonesia, for starters, as well as Malaysia itself. Hope to fill you in on more very soon.


  1. Not sure when you wrote this or if you are still in Malaysia, but I agree with what you said about the car culture and traffic. However, my solution has been to get a scooter. It’s way better than getting in and out of a car and getting stuck in traffic, and it’s really not unsafe. My kids like it too, and often prefer to go on the scooter rather than in a car. It’s especially good for short hops to the store or nearby restaurants.

    • Thanks for this. We considered scooters & motorcycles, but our first place was near Batu Ferringhi and we didn’t feel comfortable riding that narrow 2-lane road in the rainy season. By then we had a car rental and never looked back. We did loads of road trips across the Peninsula so it worked out for the best.

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