As the phrase ‘digital nomad’ enters common parlance, certain cities, particularly in Asia, have cashed in on this. You can’t go to Chiang Mai in Thailand without bumping into a MacBook-wielding freelancer and Bali has become a victim of its own digital nomad success, with co-working spaces shooting up everywhere you look. But there are still some under-the-radar cities that provide remote workers with plenty of co-working options, cheap rent, and super-fast WiFi.
Penang in Malaysia is one of these elusive places, particularly the capital city of Georgetown. It might be better known as a street food hotspot or for its highly Instagrammable street art, however, slowly but surely it’s also making a name for itself as a destination for digital nomads. So whether you’re travelling the world as a freelancer, taking a working holiday, or are looking to relocate to somewhere, here is everything you need to know about digital nomad living in Penang, Malaysia.
It’s cheap. Like, really cheap.
The cost of living in Penang is astoundingly cheap. For rent, eating, and working in a purpose-built space, you’re looking at roughly $7,000 a month.
If you eat with the locals, an average dinner from one of the hawker centres will set you back about $8–$10. That will get you a bowl of noodles or char kway teow. $15 will get you a large beer.
Renting an apartment for a month with a rooftop swimming pool, gym, security guards, and parking will cost roughly $5,000. If you’re staying for a shorter period of time, a room in a guesthouse can be about $300 a night.
A desk in a co-working space in the centre of Georgetown can cost as little as $500 a month. Cafés that welcome freelancers tend to charge slightly more for their coffee and juices, but you’re still only looking at about $10 for a latte.
There a few co-working spaces in Georgetown, as well as a number of cafés that welcome freelancers. Here are some of the best.
Located in a covered Hawker Centre in New World Park, Urban CEO is a co-working space without bells and whistles, but the WiFi is fast, the aircon is strong, and the room is quiet. For just $50 a day, you can work here in peace and quiet. The crowd is slightly more corporate than some of the other places on the list and many of the members are local to Malaysia instead of digital nomads. So if you want to chat with like-minded people, this might not be the best, but we like how straightforward it is.
Before there was We Work, there was Regus. The original co-working space is mainly used by large corporations to rent office space, but there are also single desk spaces for digital nomads. Located at the most luxurious mall in Georgetown—Gurney Plaza—it’s one of the smartest office spaces on the island and will feel more like you’re working for Google than for yourself. On your lunch break, you’ll be spoilt for choice with a huge food hall in the basement of the mall.
For the equivalent of $45 a day, you can work in the trendy Settlements co-working space. And if you book for a week or a month, the price per day will go down considerably. The space is open 24/7 and you’ll get continuous access with your card. If you’re launching a small business and have some people working for you, then it’s also possible to rent an office space within Settlements.
More of an ‘innovation hub’ than a co-working space in the traditional sense, @CAT Penang is an incubator for local start-ups. With advice available from local business people and workshops on offer, it’s the place to go if you’re thinking of launching a business in Georgetown.
Love Lane is the backpacking heart of Georgetown and in the evenings the streets are lined with crowds of drinkers. But if you’re staying in the area, and need to work hard before you play hard, then head to Wheeler’s. The chic and cheerful café takes its cue from the cafés of Melbourne, with avocado on toast and green smoothies reigning supreme here. The downstairs area is quite buzzy—ask for a seat upstairs where it’s a lot quieter. Settle in a corner near an electric socket and be fuelled by iced lattes.
This café is just on the border of Little India and is worth seeking out. Coffee Addict is never full and you’ll always get a seat by a free socket. The decor is a hipster’s dream, all bare walls and upcycled furniture. Try one of their spiked coffees to skip that dreaded afternoon slump.
The Hin Bus Depot in Penang is the creative centre for a new wave of artistic locals and Bricklin is where they get their coffee. A coffee shop for real caffeine connoisseurs, you can try different beans, blends, and strains as you tap away at your laptop. The staff are friendly, you’ll never feel rushed, and there are plenty of places to plug in and recharge.
Also at the Hin Bus Depot is this vegan restaurant and yoga studio which doubles up as a great place to get some work done. Sip on a refreshing juice at Wholey Wonder as you clock up your hours and then unwind after a day at your screen with a yoga class upstairs.
When you step into this multi-purpose space, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just stumbled into a café in Brooklyn, New York. The stylish interiors and decidedly international cuisine at Black Kettle will make a welcome break from the chaos of the surrounding streets. Sit at one of the high tables that have rows of electric sockets in the middle and order an espresso.
If you want somewhere quiet where you won’t be bothered and can easily work for hours without raising a single eyebrow, then China House probably isn’t right for you. But if you want to shoot off some emails, or get a quick bit of admin done with fast WiFi then you’ll be just fine here. The China House is on the tourist trail as the ‘longest building in Georgetown’ and serves some of the best cake in the city. For just a short bit of work, this place is great.
You might have noticed that digital nomads tend to flock to the same places in every city, so if you want to meet some like-minded freelancers, or even network to get some more clients, then it’s likely you’ll find them in some of the above locations. Many of them run networking events and social events where you can socialise with other nomads, so keep an eye on their Facebook pages for upcoming events.
Georgetown, and Penang in general, are on the rise. So get in there early before the rents soar and the co-working spaces hike up their prices.