Malaysia’s Expat City Smackdown: KL vs Penang Part 2

The Expat Group’s editorial team officiates the KL vs Penang death match to determine which expat city reigns supreme. Will KL or Penang come out on top?

In one corner, Greater Kuala Lumpur, the capital city and economic powerhouse of the country. In the other corner, Penang, the island, the city, and the undisputed hub of northern Malaysia. Both cities are well-established with expats, and between the two, serve as the home away from home for nearly all of Malaysia’s expat community. But which place is the better choice for expats?

In Part 1, we compared KL and Penang on five fronts: culture, education, local food, international food, and community. So far, the score stands thus: KL has 22 points while Penang is close behind with 19 points.

To settle this once and for all, we take a look at five more categories in this second part: night life, setting & geography, shopping, tourism, and transportation. Let’s see which expat city reigns victorious!


1. Night Life

Kuala Lumpur


Definitely a city that never sleeps. Whether you’re after a quiet drink or a night on the town, this is the place to be. Boozy libations can be pricey in KL, but nevertheless, the sheer number of bars in the city area will leave you giddy with delight, so whether you feel like a sky-high drink (Marini’s on 57, Heli Lounge, SkyBar, or The View at G Tower), a relaxing cocktail in a speakeasy (Tate, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, Mr Brooks), a workout on the dance floor (Vertigo, Rootz), or a big night out in the hub of the city’s nightlife centre (Changkat Bukit Bintang), Kuala Lumpur’s bars and clubs cater to all tastes and budgets. Don’t expect things to shut early either, KL-ites have been known to boogie down until the wee hours of the morning, any day of the week. Best to get your stamina up beforehand! Score: 5



Hard Rock Penang

Having progressed from its sleepy beach town days, Penang has seen a revival of sorts in its nightlife scene. From the hip and happening George Town area (Slippery Señoritas, F.A.M.E, Soho pub), to the tourist-filled streets of Batu Feringghi (Bora Bora, Hard Rock Café), Penang is not one that suffers from a lack of after-dark spots. While the younger crowd tend to head to Precinct 10 for late night fun, Gurney Drive, traditionally associated with hawker centres and shopping, has seen a surge of trendy watering holes (G Spot, Three Sixty Sky Bar), while a budding wine bar scene has crept over the town. Although not as mature and well-developed as its KL counterpart, Penang’s nightlife puts up quite the competition. Score: 3


2. Setting and Geography

Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

The sprawling reaches of Greater KL and Klang Valley certainly don’t inspire many poetic thoughts, the impressive limestone cliffs of Batu Caves perhaps notwithstanding. But on a clear day, under blue skies, the city with its vast number of residential and commercial towers scattered around the valley, all surrounded by distant mountain ranges to the north and east, it really is a lovely place. Still, the otherwise nondescript valley, the muddy rivers for which the city was named, the regularly recurring haze, and the fact that even the nearest seafront (Klang) is nobody’s idea of beautiful means that KL can’t do quite even claim a solid “average” for its setting. Score: 2



View of Penang

Though Penang is an island and consequently has that certain appeal that only islands possess, decades of ill-regulated development and its runoff into the sea has rendered much of the surrounding waters quite unappealing, particularly on the heavily populated east coast of the island. However, forested hills and expansive tracts of jungle set aside in the island’s northwest quadrant help keep the development somewhat at bay. But we hear from plenty of dispirited expats in Penang who feel that despite the island’s “Cleaner Greener Penang” campaign, there are few green spaces left that developers haven’t bulldozed under or at least eyed greedily. Penang still has much appeal from its setting, but it seems clear it could have been so much better. Score: 3


3. Shopping

Kuala Lumpur

Pavilion KL

From bazaars and stalls at Central Market and a dizzying range of branded goods knock-offs (in qualities ranging from dubious to excellent) at Jalan Petaling to authentic luxury brands, with the price tags to match, and world-class shopping at some of the finest high-end boutiques to be found anywhere, the Malaysian capital is a regional heavyweight when it comes to sensational shopping. KL has scored impressively high in both Asian and worldwide shopping rankings. For a blizzard of electronics from second-hand mobile phones to the latest tablets, head to Low Yat Plaza. Score: 5



Design Village in Batu Kawan | Credit: Hilal Azmi /

There’s Queensbay Mall in Bayan Lepas and the relatively new First Avenue Mall in George Town for the general mix of local and mid-range international brands, and Gurney Plaza for a more high-end lifestyle shopping experience, with a smattering of luxury brands. Recently opened Gurney Paragon boasts some prestigious international brands and a sophisticated ambience. Local markets abound, and weekend shopping festivals crop up regularly in Penang. There are even a couple of “megamalls” over on the Penang mainland of Seberang Perai. For their bargain consumer electronics fix in Penang, locals head to the Bukit Jambul Complex. Score: 3


4. Tourism

Kuala Lumpur

KL Hop-On Hop-Off Bus

As the country’s economic, political, and cultural capital, KL offers much to the visiting tourist, but also offers loads of options for those who live there and wish to travel elsewhere. Plenty of connectivity ensures a world full of options, and of course nowhere in Malaysia offers more direct arriving and departing flights than KL. For visitors, there’s plenty to take in, from the Twin Towers and KLCC Park to lively Bukit Bintang, as well as parks, caves, waterfalls, and protected urban forests. The tourism infrastructure in KL isn’t as well-developed as that of many global cities, but visitors still have options such as a hop-on/hop-off bus tour, horse-drawn carriage rides, walking tours, world-class shopping, and the ever-popular Petaling Street in Chinatown.  The city’s monorail line hits most of the tourist high points, and plenty of accommodation from hostels to sumptuous 5-star suites combined with loads of restaurants to ensure a stay in KL is comfortable and enjoyable. Score: 4



George Town, Penang | Credit: Crystal Image /

It’s probably safe to say that overall, Penang rivals KL when it comes to appeal for visitors, it’s just a different sort of destination. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, George Town offers plenty of history and things for tourists to see and do. Outside of George Town, Penang Hill with its funicular railway and cool, Colonial charms and Batu Ferringhi, home to seaside resorts and Penang’s best beaches, are both justifiably popular with visitors, as is the well-known Kek Lok Si temple. If you’re looking for a place to sleep, the island’s offering of boutique heritage hotels is matched only by its supply of mid-range to high-end “traditional” hotel rooms. Penang doesn’t enjoy the breadth of international air connectivity that KL offers, of course, but its newly refurbished airport at Bayan Lepas offers plenty of flights around Malaysia and the region, and there are regular ferry runs to nearby places such as Langkawi and Koh Lipe. Suffice it say that Penang’s tourism appeal is just as strong as KL’s, it just offers something different. Score: 4


5. Transportation

Kuala Lumpur


Although Kuala Lumpur’s transportation system is modern and enhanced by a sometimes baffling web of highways, travelling on KL roads is somewhat of a challenge, especially during peak hours and during. Driving in KL is probably the top complaint of expats, who blast everything from the confusing signage to the curious driving habits of locals. Serious traffic congestion is a daily fixture throughout the city, and you’ll be lucky if you are not caught in a jam that can turn a short drive into an hours-long slog. However, the recent launch of the extended LRT lines and the new MRT network has eased traffic somewhat and increased connectivity in the outer areas of the Klang Valley. So that makes travelling via public transportation a lot easier now. For air travel, KLIA is a beauty and is considered a world-class airport while KLIA2 is basically a vast mall attached to a terminal. Score: 4




The island’s traffic congestion is locally famous but, like European weather, if it annoys you, just wait half an hour, and it will probably change as the flow sorts itself out. The recent one-way systems have taken quite a lot of stress out of the north-south driving experience, but there are still bottlenecks, often caused by inconsiderate parking rather than density of vehicles. Public transport, courtesy of Rapid Penang, is making headway in gaining customer loyalty. Taxis are still unmetered, so you have to rely on local knowledge to negotiate a fare. George Town’s narrow streets, though, are tough to drive in so it’s better to take a trishaw, hire a bicycle, or just walk within the heritage zone. Getting off the island can be notoriously difficult at peak times, though the recent opening of the much-anticipated Second Penang Bridge should alleviate the periodic crush of traffic heading to the mainland. Score: 3


And the winner is….

KUALA LUMPUR! With 42 points overall, Kuala Lumpur reigns victorious in this head-to-head Expat City Smackdown. Penang wasn’t far behind with 35 point the KL is the clear winner here.

If you liked this article and want to see more, let us know below! We’d love to compare more cities, perhaps even in other countries.