Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

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Where would you say the best city in Southeast Asia is for a family traveler? I’ve met several families traveling through Southeast Asia. They often follow a similar route through the region, stopping at places like Hanoi, Bali and Phuket, to name a few.

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

Two of the most popular places for families are Penang (Malaysia) and Chiang Mai (Thailand). So we spent two months in each, with the idea of settling for a while in whichever one we preferred. After carefully considering both, we chose Penang. This is not only because Chiang Mai now stirs some bad (however unrelated) memories. There were other factors at play, and I feel compelled to elaborate on them here.

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids

First off, let me say that both places are worth your time, whether you go with children or not. We just felt that Penang was a better fit for us if we stayed for a year or longer.

And to be clear: I am not foolish enough to believe that our experience is in any way representative of all traveling family experiences. Timing and the smallest chance encounters can alter one’s experience exponentially. Also, for every person who loves a particular city, there is someone else who can’t wait to get out of the place. It may not be the best city in Southeast Asia for you. So please understand that this is just one family’s experience. Take it or leave it.

Activities and Educational Opportunities

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

Both cities have plenty to do, and plenty of places where kids can learn and play.  In Chiang Mai, we found great art and drama lessons for our girl, and both local and expat soccer teams for our boy. We enjoyed hiking, fishing, ziplining and fruit carving. Our cooking class rocked.

What made Penang to be the best city in Southeast Asia for us, however, are bazaars and other cultural events that was happening all the time. There is a varied and rich multicultural population and history surrounding the city. There are computer classes, theater workshops, guitar lessons, and other reasonably-priced tutoring programs for more subjects than we could ever make time for.

Then there are soccer opportunities for the boy. He is taking advantage of three now, and is debating a fourth had to drop one team to make time for another one he liked better. We can’t forget to mention that there is the Distance Learning Program at a local International School, which we have taken advantage of. Our girl is learning chess and gymnastics there, while our boy swims and plays soccer with kids his age.  Advantage: Penang

Computing and telecommuting needs

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai wins by a landslide. High-speed wifi is available in places all over town, and Blade-Runner-like shopping malls sell any router, mouse, hard drive or headset you might need. Penang supposedly has free, island-wide wifi, but it’s garbage.

SIM cards for smart devices work fairly well, though. In our experience, Cellcom works great in Penang, but is crap on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The concept of wifi — fast, ubiquitous and dependable wifi — is well-understood in Chiang Mai, but not so much in Penang. Not yet, anyways.

We had high-speed wifi installed (at our own expense) in the apartment we’re now renting. Finding a stable internet connection for my laptop around town, however, has been a dubious endeavor, so I just stick to iPhone/iPad when we’re out. Advantage: Chiang Mai

Food & Dining

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

Both places have great grub — from cheap & delicious street food to proper restaurant dining. It’s harder to avoid spicy dishes in Thailand, however, as everyone eats chili peppers all the time. Also, northern Thailand had less variety than Penang when it comes to street food.

Malaysian food is everywhere in Georgetown, of course, but so is Chinese and Indian dishes from nearly every region. Japanese, Korean and Western food are also easy to come by. Both kids have discovered a love for roti, dosa, saag aloo, naan, as well as other Indian dishes that are less prevalent in Thailand.

We all *loved* the Chiang Mai’s prevalent Burmese cuisine (especially pennywort salad), and personally, I really liked the local, Northern Thai (Lanna) food, but the kids were always wary of biting into a pepper.

Overall, the fresh markets in Chiang Mai were superior, but the convenience to fill a fridge via Penang’s grocery shopping and morning markets won us over. Fresh fruit in both places is divine. Advantage: Penang

Safety and overall treatment of children

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

In this aspect, Chiang Mai and Penang are fairly close in my estimation. Kids are treated sweetly by old ladies on the street, and ignored (not a bad thing) by many others. People smoke everywhere in both places, however, and they’ll light up right next to your newborn, so brace yourself for that.

Penang may have a slight edge here, not because of their treatment of kids, but more because of their treatment of tourists and expats in general. Many Thais are jaded when it comes to travelers in their lands, and a select few locals try to squeeze a few extra coins out of people when they can.

Not everyone, mind you, but enough that we felt the need to keep our guard up here and there. You need your guard up in many of my favorite places to travel, but I almost never feel that way in Penang. Advantage: Penang

Cost of Living

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?Both places are cheap by Western & Japanese standards. Monthly rent, a ticket to a movie, a new t-shirt or pair of flip flops — all cheap. If you want higher-end products, there are places for that, too, but Chiang Mai definitely gives you more for your money in both accommodation and food.

For around USD $2/JPY ¥210, you can have a filling lunch with fruit for desert, and not just at that one hard-to-find place. You can find that all over. Dinners can be nearly as cheap on the street, or you can have nicer food for a few dollars more.

Penang offers something similar with its thousands of hawker stall complexes. They’re a little more money (and also higher quality/more variety), but the price of beer in Malaysia is completely disproportional to everything else on the table. One big bottle of Tiger or Heineken costs more than my dinner and Keiko’s dinner combined. I know that has nothing to do with family travel directly, but as a long-term beer fan, I must deduct double-points from Penang for this crime against all things good and decent. Advantage: Chiang Mai

People, Social Interactions & Opportunities

Best City in Southeast Asia with Kids: Penang or Chiang Mai?

So much of your travel experience hinges on the people you meet, and we’ve met great people in both places: locals, travelers and resident expats alike. However, we found it easier to meet people in Penang. Please keep in mind that the language barrier surely plays a large role here.

Chiang Mai locals often speak only Thai. The ones who do speak English (or German or Japanese for that matter) speak it because it’s their livelihood: they’re trying to sell something to tourists. In Penang, however, almost everyone speaks English, so you can strike up conversations on the street or in the shops.

As for fellow traveling families, we’ve had great luck in both places, but with expats, Penang was the clear winner. There is a large expat community in Chiang Mai, but we left with the impression that most of them live at the edge of town in small gated communities.

We weren’t interested in living that way — perhaps if we tried it, we would have felt differently, but we chose not to. Aside from occasional run-ins at kids classes and soccer teams, we rarely bumped into families that actually lived there and wanted to socialize. That said, I should mention that both kids were just starting to see a few possible friendships begin to form right as we were leaving. Everything could have been different if we’d only stayed another month.

Travelers in Chiang Mai

Where Chiang Mai lost us long-term, however, had very little to do with the locals or most expats. Instead it was travelers, and the traveler culture in Chiang Mai in general. I don’t have a problem with backpackers — hell, I love backpackers. Those are my people.

But Thailand is a magnet for certain types of backpackers and other travelers that I prefer to avoid. Sex tourists are one type, obviously. While Chiang Mai has nowhere near the amount you’d see in a scuzzy sleaze-center like Pattaya, they’re around. You see enough crusty, chain-smoking geezers with a combover, a scowl and a young Thai woman on their arm.

Inconsiderate travelers

Some of these older-gentlemen/young-local-lady relationships are, I think, based on something more than prostitution…or gradually turn into something more meaningful. But many, if not most, of these pairings do not, and I didn’t like seeing that every day. I also didn’t like explaining that to the kids (they ask).

The real nuisance, however, isn’t a sparse population of silver-haired pervs. No. Instead it’s the throngs of profoundly inconsiderate travelers that seem to gravitate to Thailand. They come from all walks of life, and vary in age and nationality, but there is one common thread that all of them share. The reason why they come to Thailand is to go wild.

They get wasted and stagger down the middle of the street singing their football club’s fight song. They drive recklessly through traffic. They shout at waiters and talk shit about local women. They show zero respect for the people whose country they are visiting.

I can’t stand being near these jackasses and their ridiculous conversations. I can’t stand my kids hearing them talk, either. This isn’t something we encountered every day, but it happened enough over two months that I was ready to be away from it.

Penang is more family friendly

I simply haven’t seen that here in Penang. I am not a fan of Malaysia’s theocratic approach to governance, but it damn sure helps keep out bad-seed tourists. At least it makes them behave a little better while they’re here.

Those hell-bent on sowing mayhem have all of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to wreck. However, they think twice in places like Singapore and Malaysia. Sure, that means less adventure in our day-to-day routine in Penang. However, if you’re trying to instill some structure into life for your kids’ sake, less adventure is actually a good thing.

To a certain extent, I enjoy the wild-west vibe that you get in certain parts of Southeast Asia. When choosing a place to stay for a year and sort out future work, travel and education plans, however, Penang seemed like the way to go for us.

Comments

  1. Hi, Jason, We’ve been traveling through SE Asia for almost 8 months now and we have only one more country on our current agenda to visit: Malaysia. We are growing weary, however, of moving around so much and wanted to find a single place to hang for a while and we thought Penang might be that place, so your write-up here is perfect timing for us! We’ve been to Chaing Mai and can picture what you’ve written about that, but not to Penang, so this is helpful! And I completely relate with what you say about the geezer-young Thai women match ups (I am open-minded, but nevertheless, that scene, in general, has always bothered me; although we do have a good expat friend of advanced age married to a young Thai, and, hey, it appears to work for them). I was laughing out loud about what you said re: the cost of beer in Penang. My husband would feel the same way. I’ll have to warn him. Thanks for this insightful write-up!

    • Yes, alas, the price of beer is vastly disproportionate to the price of nearly every thing else on the island. Still affordable, but just wish it was as cheap as it is in neighboring countries! And it goes so well with so many Malaysian foods (oooh, we miss the food in Penang). Will be curious to hear what you think of the place. I was ready to move on when we left, but have many fond memories there.

  2. Jason, hi it’s also Jason. Do you have any problems with renting apartments there? I have lived in SEA for 3 years. No issues renting in Thai, Cambo, Phils, Viet, etc. But, when I visited Penang a couple years back (several times)….I remember 2 things.

    First, they are very picky on race…for instance, I couldn’t rent a house in a Chinese neighborhood, I was told Chinese won’t rent to me. This can bee seen also in adverts online and in papers (Muslim only, single Chinese only, etc.

    Secondly, I found that many apartments kind of wanted ‘official’ papers, like working papers. Well, I work online. I flew back to Thailand frustrated.

    But, there are some great apartments there, and I’m thinking of returning (I would LOVE an office, I’m a bit sick of Thai style studios with 1 room). But I guess my question is…..any problems renting on a 90 day stamp? I could deal with flying to see friends every 3 months, not an issue, as long as I could easily rent there these days!

    Thanks,

    Jay

    • Hi Jason. We had no problems renting, and no one asked us about work papers, and we dealt with 3 different realtors. Granted, we basically looked at apartments in high-rises, but I know of several families that have lived in houses that may or not have the official paperwork sorted [Disclaimer: I’m just speculating]. For perspective, we pay approx USD $600/month, and have a beautiful 3BR apartment overlooking the sea. And we had cable/high-speed wifi installed as well. This wasn’t the only place — there were other options within our range. We were not looking at neighborhood bungalows, however, and that may be a different story.

      Having said that, on our last return to Penang a few weeks ago, the immigration officer looked at our passports more tenaciously than before, noticing our many returns to the country after traveling in the SEA region. She then asked to see our onward ticket out of the Malaysia. We showed her an iPad screenshot, and the final visas we were given were *not* for a full 90 days, but rather until the exact day of our onward ticket. We were here a full year, basically. Don’t know if that means anything. Just an FYI.

  3. I wish I had seen this a few months ago when we were deciding between these two places! We picked Penang which thankfully you have backed up 🙂 Although mostly for reasons that you haven’t listed here, mainly that we don’t need a visa for Malaysia so all of that will be easier and smoother, and that we struggled to find a child care in Chiang Mai that was recommended, not ridiculously expensive and that didn’t give two year olds homework. I still can’t imagine what our two year old could possibly do for homework, and I don’t want to find out (well part of me does out of curiousity!).

    • Hi Sharon. Yes, it’s fairly smooth sailing here in Penang. To the point of being a bit too predictable, but that’s what we needed for a while. I7m sure you’ll be able to find some child care you’re happy with here, and as you probably know, there’s plenty to do with kids in Penang!

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