Michele Chan-Thomson on life as an expat in Malaysia’s Penang

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Meet Michele Chan-Thomson, a home-maker and a blogger by choice as she speaks to us in an exclusive interview about life as an expat in Penang, one of the leading tourist destinations in South-east Asia.

The interview…

Please tell us something about your background – personal and professional.
I’m a Chinese-American who was born and raised in the United States. My husband and I have three kids, and I’ve been staying at home with them since our oldest was born. This is the first time that any of us have lived outside of United States.

Tell us something about your blog, Malaysian Meanders. When did you start it?
I started my blog in June 2011, about a month before we moved overseas. In the beginning, it was a way to keep my friends and family up-to-date on our adventures. Then, I decided it would be a good way to educate others about life as an expat in Penang. Before we moved, I had a hard time finding information on what life in Penang was like, and I wanted to be a resource for others considering the move.

When did you decide to settle in Penang? What went through your mind while taking this decision?
My husband’s company offered him a position in Penang and facilitated our move to Malaysia, handling most of the details. I actually had a hard time making the decision because it was so unexpected and obviously, a very big change for us. Now that we’ve been here for a year, I’m so glad that we accepted the offer.

How would you rate Penang as a tourist destination? How would you compare it with other tourist destination in Malaysia?
Penang is a wonderful tourist destination! Its mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures with a British colonial background has made this town a very interesting place to explore. You can see the multi-cultural influence in the architecture, food and many festivals we celebrate throughout the year. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that no visit to Malaysia is complete without stopping by Penang.

For a visitor coming to Penang what are the places he can visit and the activities he can participate here?
Historic George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with many shop-houses, temples and a fort dating back to colonial days. Penang’s street food is among the best in the world, and some vacationers arrive with dining as their #1 priority. With a beautiful national park and numerous beaches, Penang is a haven for nature lovers. You can also take the funicular up to the top of Penang Hill for scenic views all the way across the straits and slightly cooler temperatures. As for shopping, there’s everything from traditional, handmade crafts at street markets to upscale malls offering Coach and Rolex stores.

How is the nightlife of Penang? Where do you ideally hangout during the weekends?
As mother to three young children, I’m afraid that I don’t get out much after dark. However, I have friends who do, and it definitely sounds like they have fun! Upper Penang Street near the E&O Hotel has numerous bars. The QE II at the Church Street Pier is built on stilts over the water. A restaurant by day, it turns into an outdoor dance club at night. Shopping malls and beaches seem to be the most popular weekend spots in the daytime.

What about restaurants? Are there any good restaurants/ pubs you can recommend?
Penang has a long history of attracting visitors with their street food and hawker stalls. In recent years, the restaurant scene has really blossomed. Teksen Restaurant on Carnavon Street is the best place to try authentic Chinese-Malay food in Penang. I recommend the Fried Crispy Roast Pork (Char Siu Bak). China House on Beach Street is very popular with expats, offering Western-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its art gallery and music lounge extend its appeal until late at night. Armenien Street has both Amelie Café, a charmingly rustic, 4-table restaurant and Edelweiss Café which offers Swiss cuisine. Straits Quay, a seafront retail marina, has a large collection of restaurants and pubs.

Do you see a lot of expats settling in Penang? What is their average age group?
With its tropical climate, cheap cost of living, and English being widely spoken, Penang is a very popular place with expats. The Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) program has attracted many retirees while the free industrial zone on the southern end of the island has brought over many working expats of all ages.  I see everyone from young adults to families to retirees around the city.

Is Penang more of a retirement destination or you get to see young working expats settling here?
It’s a pretty even split between the two groups.

What is the current real estate activity in Penang? Are there good developments/ developers in the area?
Many super-condos located around the island attract foreign investors and expats. Landed property (houses) is a more affordable alternative for families. Restoring a shop-house in historic George Town is another alternative that adventurous expats sometimes decide to do.

How is the banking system of Penang? Can you term it as expat-friendly? For an expat how difficult or easy is it to open an account here?
As an expat with a Work Visa, opening up a bank account in Malaysia was very easy. Some of my friends have opted to not open an account here and rely on ATM withdrawals from their foreign bank accounts.

What about the law-and-order situation of Penang?
Overall, Penang seems to be very safe. I don’t mind walking alone along streets. It does have its incidents of purse-snatching, but I think that’s a worldwide problem. With its harsh penalties for illicit drug possession, I think that Malaysia has a much lower crime rate than many other countries.

For an expat wanting to retire in Penang, what are the basic things he should look out for?
The Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) visa is a 10-year, renewable Social Visit Pass with Multiple Entries permitted. It is available for qualified individuals of all ages, but seems to be primarily utilized by retirees. Participants may own property and automobiles as well as invest and participate in business.

Can you briefly tell our readers the rules of expats wanting settle in Penang?
Many expats who are not eligible for Work Visas, Student Visas or Dependent Passes make a “border run” every few months to renew their Tourist Visas. For a more permanent solution, obtain the Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) visa. In order to qualify, expats must meet certain financial criteria, have valid medical insurance, and submit a medical report.

Also can you please tell us about the rules of expat property ownership in Malaysia?
I’m not sure about the exact rules, but I do know that expat property ownership is definitely permitted.

Any tips for expats wanting to settle in Malaysia in general and Penang in particular?
I think people expect for the culture to be different, but the everlasting heat and humidity come as a surprise to many. Otherwise, Penang is a delightful place for expats. I’ve been here for a year and still feel that there are so many places left to explore.