When you’re travelling in Malaysia on a budget, every last ringgit counts. Penang makes a great budget destination as there's plenty of choice when it comes to affordable accommodation, a wide availability of excellent but cheap food, and fantastic culture, architecture and plenty of things to do that won’t cost you a penny. It's perfectly possible to get by on 50 ringgit a day, with a bit of change even left over for an evening beer.
Let’s start with accommodation, since this is going to take a significant chunk of your budget: up to 50 percent, in fact. Despite a recent mushrooming of new boutique-style flashpacker hostels, which charge flashier-than-average prices, there are still plenty of trusty, more established digs that are comfortable yet affordable.
You should have no trouble finding a dorm bed plus breakfast for 25 ringgit a night, which tends to be the going rate for standard hostels in Georgetown. Some even throw in air-conditioning for this price, including Red Inn Heritage Guest House and Muntri House, both of which are located on – or just off – trendy Lebuh Muntri. Our pick of the bunch, for simple but stylish air-conditioned dorms at the above price, is Guest Inn Muntri, which is every bit as good as some of the more expensive places.
However, for the best value rock bottom prices, check out Love Lane Inn. This is no-nonsense, no-frills accommodation, where a bed in a very basic dorm (fan only, no towels) will cost you 13 ringgit, including a simple breakfast of tea/coffee and toast. It is nothing to get excited about, but staying here will only cost you a quarter of your 50 ringgit budget, which is a definite plus.
After filling up on breakfast at your hostel, you don’t need to spend very much on food to keep your hunger locked up until dinner. If you plan to stay in Georgetown over lunchtime, you can find excellent roadside stalls serving up Penang specialities such as char kway teow and won ton mee for between three and five ringgit. Lebuh Chulia has plenty of options, especially near the junctions of Lebuh Carnarvon and Jalan Pintal Tali, or seek out the excellent Tiger Char Kway Teow stall on the corner of Lebuh Bishop and Lebuh King. Alternatively, walk over to the Sri Weld Hawker Centre, on Lebuh Pantai (opposite the junction with Lebuh Bishop) for a wider choice of dishes, most for under five ringgit.
If you are going out of Georgetown for the day, Little India is a great place to pick up picnic lunch snacks such as samosa, bhaji, vadai and pakora for between 50 sen and one ringgit a piece. Or look out for the ubiquitous Penang curry puffs: a peculiar but delicious fusion of Chinese, Indian and British cuisine which consists of flaky pastry filled with potato, pumpkin and other vegetables (meat versions are also sometimes available) cooked together with curry and five spice. These are normally a ringgit a piece or, for between one and two ringgit, most Chinese cafes also serve steamed pao buns, stuffed with any manner of fillings including curried chicken, barbecued pork and sweet bean paste.
A decent lunch needn’t cost you much more than five ringgit, and to keep yourself hydrated during the day you can pick up cool litre bottles of water from the 7-eleven on the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane for two to three ringgit.
Having sorted out bed, breakfast and lunch, the chances are that you will also want to see something of Penang, and this is possible without spending very much at all -- if anything. Wandering the atmospheric streets of Georgetown, exploring the clan houses, temples, mosques and jetties, or soaking up the sights and sounds of Little India are enough to keep you occupied for at least a day.
If you fancy getting out of the city to enjoy trekking through the National Park to the island’s best beaches, or perhaps walking up Penang Hill, it will only cost you the price of the return bus ride and for most destinations on the island this will come to under five ringgit. There are plenty of things to do for free in Penang and you don’t need to miss out on any of the island’s highlights just because you’re on a budget.
Depending on how much you have spent on accommodation, lunch and buses, you should still have between 15 and 20 ringgit in your pocket. Our recommendation is to head to Red Garden Hawker Centre for a wide variety of Chinese and Malay dishes for under five ringgit. Or how about filling up on curry in Little India: Sri Ananda Bahwan at 55 and 66 Lebuh Penang (two branches, the latter of which is vegetarian) are the most popular Indian restaurants in Georgetown, where a banana leaf heaped with rice and three different vegetarian curries will cost you about six ringgit.
You may have discounted alcohol entirely, but don’t despair! Those final few ringgit are enough to buy you a can of lager -- with change left over -- at one of Georgetown’s most characterful establishments, Antarabangsa, just around the corner from Love Lane at 21 Lorong Stewart. Single cans of Skol or Tiger are four to five ringgit, or you can buy three for 10 ringgit, and while comfort is perhaps not high on the agenda here, you will meet a fascinating mix of patrons, both local and foreign. Budget beer it may be, but at these prices, you can’t really go wrong.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 5th January, 2014.